Dear President Obama,

You said ‘change,’ not ‘short-change.’


Original Source: The Hill

Look, Chief, history has shown that the Oval Office can be a stepping-stone to more genuine service, so your low approval numbers, bipartisan blame-taking, and even fuzzy birthplace mattered little to a wait-and-see approach like mine. Today, though, and probably despite your best intentions, I’ve simply got to take offense.

See, back when I was locked up, I clerked for Chuck Hildebrand, a civilian employee teacher who led a six-week pre-release course in the facility education building. Black and Hispanic attendees dominated each roster. Mr. H. was sorta dorky, but he had a huge heart and dedicated 110% of himself to passing on the critical social tools the guys needed to effectively reintegrate into their communities.

Sometimes Mr. H. was shouted down with justifications or matters of race and equality. Often, free white dude or not, he’d challenge the guys right back, trying to demonstrate functional debating in the process. Occasionally, through the anger and illiteracy, he’d see an inmate’s point and simply shrug. Without co-signing the excuse, he’d agree that the parole and probation system – in principal – presupposed recidivism.

I mention my experience with Mr. Hildebrand so that I can share my discontent with merit earned. When it comes to who is being released from prison and being given or deprived of a second chance, I have some experience.

But you, Mr. President: you went and had some lace curtain at the White House get the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles on the phone so you could praise the franchise for signing Michael Vick, reportedly lamenting that too few former inmates get a fair second shake. Now to someone who’s been there, that was beyond tacky. Regardless of your intentions (and I’m still one to give you credit for good ones), you paved the way for your detractors to accuse you of being out-of-touch with the 1.7 million kids who have a parent in prison for the holidays. At least.

Michael Vick did the crime and the time, fine. But he hardly represents the ex-offenders for whom the Second Chance Act of 2009 (HR 623) was written. Vick is a millionaire product-endorser who runs touchdowns, not a man cycling through jails that custody has made harder to reach. Michael Vick is one ex-con who doesn’t need a leg up from the most successful offender reentry program ever created: a phone call from your desk.

So you see, this comes off kinda’ bad, Mr. President, as if you’re using the predicament of genuinely at-risk parolees as a basis for hat-tipping between one shielded, privileged media personality and another. In the face of so many states, tribes, territories, local governments, service providers, nonprofit organizations, and corrections agencies working to improve prisoner reentry, your phone call to the NFL seems even more thoughtless. Why? Because HR 623 was written to help fight crime at the county, community, and church levels, for one, but also because truly successful reintegration actually requires the building of character, self-respect, and a strong work ethic. I’m having trouble seeing either Vick or the NFL in any of these characteristics. And without those, you essentially gave a nation of low-income teens and juvenile offenders a front row seat to celebrity pardon via the media.

You could’ve telephoned a ‘nobody’ business owner to thank him or her for giving a former inmate a job. You could have sent a message of presidential gratitude to any number of non-profits out there working for improved prisoner reintegration. You wanna stick to Philly? No problem! Give the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office a call to thank Mike Nutter for his support of PREP, the Philadelphia Reentry Employment Program. There’s just no excuse for reaching out to a billionaire team owner rather than the head of a dry cleaning business or any other run-of-the-mill entrepreneur hiring those demonstrating a genuine desire to change.

Still need some PR play outta’ the deal? Fine. You can’t go wrong giving a little Oval Office shout out to Scott Silverman of San Diego, especially considering that his non-profit is actually named Second Chance and was forged out of Silverman’s own turnaround. Vet the guy first for sure, but at least know that CNN gave him that Hero Award thing it’s always pushing. Plus he’s got a memoir entitled, “Tell Me No, I Dare You,” and how can you of all people not love that title?

Mr. President, I voted for you at least in part because of Chuck Hildebrand’s fist-on-the-table belief that an African American would occupy the White House before the close of the ‘90s. He used every example he could think of to reach his students in asking them to imagine barriers being lifted – even for them. That’s the kind of person you should be reaching out to.

For me, the only way you can right this is to speak to garden-variety inmates – those sincere about changing their lives and those who still dream of someday being sincere. Send ‘em a message; tell them you know they are more than district voting issues. Pull a Chuck Hildebrand (or a Jim Brown) and go teach a prison pre-release class. Hell, you’re the first black president: be the first ever president to visit a U.S. prison! Go be Johnny Cash for a day…it’s legacy-making.

The world would marvel, and you would touch the spirit and future of a lot of American families. They might even turn around and support you for re-election.

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