Dear president Obama:
I never voted for you.
I wasn’t allowed to; I was incarcerated during the 2008 and 2012 elections. Since I couldn’t support you on your way in, I’ll do it on your way out
I am grateful to you for all you have done for people like me, people who are involved with the criminal justice system, whether its people who are facing charges now, incarcerated Americans, or people just out of custody—your “returning citizens.” No matter what the incoming administration does, you’ve changed the lives of tens of millions of people.
Mercy tends to show up late in presidential plans. Former US president Bill Clinton granted a bunch of pardons on his way out the door, almost like he didn’t want to get caught doing it. President Bush signed the Second Chance Act just nine months before he left office. It surprised me to learn that, you, the commander-in-chief who has done the most for justice reform referenced it for the first time in your second to last State of the Union address in 2015. For the last two years, you made justice reform more than a caboose. Now it’s a coda.
You’ve granted over 1,300 clemency petitions, more than the last eleven presidents combined.
Somehow that photo of you walking past cell doors in El Reno Correctional Institution didn’t make it into CNN’s top 100 pictures from your tenure—but it should have. You walked the line, and those of us who have walked that same line will always remember.
We don’t know what the president-elect will do to your legacy. Donald Trump campaigned on a platform of “law and order,” a phrase prison reform advocates generally loathe. His administration will certainly have the power to do plenty of damage, from dismantling the school system your administration established within the Bureau of Prisons to banning Pell Grants for prisoners, to voiding your executive order that freed juvenile offenders from solitary confinement. Trump is the man, after all, who spent thousands of dollars in 1989 calling for a restoration of New York state’s death penalty.
But Trump won’t be able to undo the awareness that you have brought to inhumane and counterproductive practices in courtrooms and correctional facilities around the country. Donald J. Trump may promise to drain the swamp, but he can’t empty the “reservoir of goodness” you have presumed in everyone, even us.
By returning redemption to public discourse, you lanced the bubble of shame that tried to seal us off from society for so long. Americans made invisible by lack of political power now have reason to believe that they will matter in this economy, at least eventually, because you were our president.
As opposed to before your administration, we now have a total of three national organizations comprised of formerly incarcerated people, organizing ourselves not on the principle of our worst deeds but becoming our best selves.
Founded by people with criminal records, the two newest ones—the National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls and JustLeadership USA—have been marshaling the formerly incarcerated into large and powerful networks that will effect more change. Right before the election, the founders of those organizations, Andrea James and Glenn Martin (both of whom have felony records), won the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t more work to be done. Human rights abuses in prisons abound. It is still legal to deny someone with a criminal record a job solely on the basis of their past conviction. Especially recently, critics have emerged to say that you didn’t do enough, that you should have created a clemency commission or taken on the flawed forensic science used in criminal courtrooms.
I agree that you weren’t perfect, but who is? Mistakes are part of everyone’s legacy, no matter how much success they had. After your administration’s work, I think people are starting to accept that lapses in judgment don’t always have to be ruinous. But we have to keep trying. We have to keep looking for the right thing, the moral thing, the just thing.
No individual is perfect—our mistakes make us who we are, and no one can escape his or her past. But by the same token, our mistakes cannot and should not doom our futures.
Looking ahead, can we continue your work? Yes we can. Don’t worry about preserving your legacy; it can’t be stopped. Besides, when you write history using a lexicon of forgiveness, it’s inscribed not in books, but hearts—and it becomes indelible.
Thank you, president Obama. We won’t forget you.