Dean Christian Johnson’s Op-Ed

Justice: Healing for the Past; Opportunity in the Future

Dean Christian Johnson

In America, the promise of hope is profound enough to elect a president.  Yet, every morning, 2.4 million Americans wake up in prison, and for nearly two-million of these Americans, the most realistic hope they have for their future is that within five years of their release, they will be rearrested.  Daryl Atkinson, however, a speaker at Widener’s ninth annual Dean’s Diversity Forum on April 11th, beat those odds.

In 1996, Atkinson began serving a potentially ten year prison sentence with the Alabama Department of Corrections for drug trafficking.  Up to that point, Atkinson insists that he had “lived a completely selfish life” “doing whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, with whomever he wanted.”  Atkinson wanted to believe his selfish choices would ultimately fill a void in his life he couldn’t seem to escape, but, instead, they only led Atkinson to feeling “completely spiritually, mentally, and physically bankrupt.”

During the first year-and-a-half of Atkinson’s time in prison, he was, as Atkinson describes himself,  “incorrigible.”  Ultimately, his behavior and a fight with another inmate earned Atkinson forty-five days in solitary confinement.  It was in the midst of these days of complete isolation for twenty-three hours a day that Atkinson acknowledged to himself that his “life was a complete mess.”

At that time, however, there was little reason to believe Atkinson’s revelation would actually alter his life.  Even beyond the statistical likelihood that any man who leaves prison will come back, Atkinson was about to be reclassified to a maximum security prison where sixty percent of the inmate population had a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.  Atkinson described it as “a place of hopelessness and violence.”  In addition, for all Atkinson’s newfound desire to change his life, he acknowledges that he “did not know how to change it.”

Yet, armed with a new found faith he had discovered in the darkness of isolation and supported by family and friends and a small group of fellow inmates who shared his desire to change their lives, Atkinson earned his release after only forty months of incarceration.  Atkinson also discovered in this “place of hopelessness” a calling “to use the law to advocate for people formerly incarcerated.”  Upon his release, Atkinson began a seemingly impossible and miraculous journey during which he earned his associate’s degree, graduated from college summa cum laude, went on to law school where he graduated with an award “for excellence in Scholarly Engagement and Social Reform,” and,  then, passed two bar exams.  Atkinson took a job with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, where he used the law to help other ex-offenders start living a new life, and recently started work with the United States Department of Justice.  Former Attorney General Eric Holder described Atkinson as someone who “has worked to build a better future not only for himself – but for countless others who deserve a second chance,” and the White House recently identified Atkinson as a “Champion of Change.”

Because Daryl Atkinson’s life so deviates from the norm, it challenges our capacity for hope and our expectations for what justice can provide.  Social scientists insist that in many of our communities, schools are not a gateway to opportunity but a “pipeline to prison.”  They cite evidence that once an individual has been incarcerated, that individual will probably spend the rest of his life re-encountering the criminal justice system.  They paint a grim picture of communities raising children to spend their lives amidst the same hopelessness and violence that threatened to absorb Daryl Atkinson.  Confronted with such information, we are apt to accept that nothing more is possible.  That’s just the way it is.  But then we encounter a life like Daryl Atkinson’s, and everything we thought we understood about the potential of justice has to be rethought.

For this year’s Diversity Forum, my first, Widener has brought together a group of speakers who have dedicated their professional lives to proving that education and justice have the capacity to transform lives.  I am pleased and honored to announce that this year’s speakers include, in addition to Daryl Atkinson, Dean Blake Morant, outgoing president of the Association of American Law Schools and current dean of the George Washington University School of Law, Jayne Thompson, author of Letters to My Younger Self, a compilation of essays by inmates at SCI-Graterford Prison, and Georgia Justice Project Executive Director Doug Ammar and Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith-Ribner, both of whose legal careers have shown that justice’s call for responsibility and accountability is not inconsistent with mercy’s invitation to transformation and restoration, and.

We are rapidly moving toward a world of renewable energy.  We insist that bottles, cans, and paper can be recycled and restored to usefulness; yet, we are in danger of becoming complacent with the fiction that people cannot be restored: that people are only disposable.  It is my hope that this year’s Diversity Forum will help us to a day where we can no longer conceive of schools as a pipeline to prison; rather, we will achieve a day where we will know that our schools from kindergarten even up through law school, will only serve as an effective and welcoming pipeline to opportunity, and that justice must offer a path to healing