By Collin Bonnell
The scar cascaded down the man’s face, cutting through his left eye. The man had no control over his marble grey eye. He carried himself poorly, slouched over as if he had a humpback. The man was said to be an ex-con and he looked the part.
Many rumors surrounded his crime. Some said it had been committed in cold blood, others thought it was staged. The man himself claimed to have acted in self-defense. But one matter seemed to be settled: he had stabbed a man. He had been convicted, spent a year in jail, and then was released after the case was revisited and he was found to have acted in self-defense.
Regardless of the court ruling, the man had lost his property, been officially blacklisted, and left by the Massachusetts Court System to recover from the trauma of being unjustly incarcerated on his own. To both the state and society, the man’s actual guilt was irrelevant. Being accused of a crime sufficed to condemn him to a life of persecution.
The man’s right to due process was little more than a joke.
At first, I kept my distance from him, I had never met a criminal, but I was forced to work with him, and over time I grew to know him despite my efforts to avoid him. The man gradually opened up, telling me about his life before jail, his time in high school and his childhood. He told me about marrying his high school girlfriend, his adventures with the Navy, his experiences in the Gulf War, his time as a mechanic, the cars he rehabbed, his house, his wealth. He told me about his kids and the ideal life he once led.
He told me about the break-in, about the knife, the defensive impulse he acted upon. He told me about the blood and the arrest, his time in jail, his case being revisited. He told me about being ruled to have acted in self-defense after having spent a year behind bars.
He told me about his release from prison. His divorce. The loss of his house and garage, his probation officer’s failed attempts to find him a job, his time as an alcoholic, the illegal car he built himself when he ran out of money, his numerous failed attempts to become a mechanic again, his accidental hiring as a butcher. He told me about the hatred he faced at work once his record was discovered. He told me about his two nephews and how he worked hard to make sure they had a good childhood, how those two young boys were all he had left.
Hearing these stories first-hand allowed me to look past the man’s history, to see him as kind, even admirable. A man who had it all, lost everything, but still kept his composure. A man who never gave up.
I grew to appreciate his benevolent character. He looked out for me and the other young employee. He told us which of our boss’s orders to follow and which to ignore. He cursed our customers behind their backs when they disrespected us or implied we were beneath them. He jokingly referred to us as his “nephews.” He made life as a butcher bearable.
American society today is more inclusive than ever, yet we still forget men like him. In America today ex-convicts are disenfranchised, blacklisted, disrespected, and humiliated. They are dehumanized to the point where we openly question their humanity. We have made the collective decision to tolerate and even encourage this prejudice. “They’re criminals,” we tell ourselves, “they deserve it.”
I learned many things this summer, yet that man taught me the most. He proved to me that people like him are truly admirable, that they are humans. That they not only need but deserve our forgiveness and our love. But he also showed me that they face unthinkable prejudice. They are the ones we cast out into the street, the ones we spit on.
We dismiss people like the man and every good deed that they have ever done because of one poor decision they made long ago. Yet this should not be the case. America has much to learn but perhaps we can start here. Perhaps we can learn to treat ex-convicts as human beings, regardless of their past lives. Perhaps we can learn to forgive.