SPEECH: The Definition of Freedom

Ready, Willing & Able graduate Lawrence spent thirty-two years incarcerated in New York State.  In his stirring remarks at The Doe Fund’s 30th Anniversary Gala, he describes his journey home and the role Ready, Willing & Able played in it.

Not long ago, I was coming home late at night after my shift when I saw a figure walking towards me in the dark.

As he got closer, I could see he had a big bag— a black garbage bag— slung over his shoulder.

It was someone I knew from before I went to prison…from the streets, all those years ago. He didn’t see me at first; and I could barely recognize him.

He looked beaten down. Half dead. His clothes were dirty and his hair was matted.  When he realized who I was, he smiled.  “Good to see you, brother,” he said. “Wanna buy a smoke detector?”

That’s what he was doing at four in the morning on a Tuesday. He was going from store to store, any place that was open, trying to pawn off a bag of smoke detectors.  Who knows where they came from.  But it was obvious what he was doing: hustling anything he could get his hands on— for his next fix.

He wasn’t free.  

He had his liberty, sure.  He wasn’t sitting in a cell, like I did.  But he sure wasn’t free.  

There are two kinds of freedom a man needs: his physical freedom, and his mental, spiritual freedom.  I had lost one, a long time ago, but got it back. He had lost the other, about the same time, but never did.

Thirty five years ago, I made some terrible mistakes. I was a kid. A kid with a fistfull of drugs in one pocket; and a gun in the other.

One night, when I was 19 years old, I was walking through the park with a friend, late at night. A guy we knew came up and pulled out a knife, trying to take the money we had made hustling. I looked at the knife, and pulled out my gun.

Boom.

I spent the next 32 years locked up.

It’s hard to describe what those three decades behind bars was like. I was in prison before some of the people here were born.  I was in prison before most of you got married. I was in prison before The Doe Fund even existed.

Think about all that time in your life— then imagine spending it inside a box.  And in that box, all you hear is the second hand on a clock: ticking away. Calibrated.  Automatic.  Relentless. Just like the criminal justice system.

I was in Attica during two riots.  I was in Sing Sing when it earned its reputation as hell on earth.  The world just kept spinning around my cell, changing seasons, changing people.  And all that time, I stayed still.

You don’t make friends in prison…not many, at least. It’s too dangerous.  But what you CAN do, is listen.  So that’s what I did.

I heard the stories of the people who were NEVER getting out.  And they sounded like my story.  I heard the stories of men who came from other neighborhoods; who ran other streets.  And they sounded like my story.

The more I listened, the more I realized: men like me, we were never really free. Like the man selling smoke detectors, we were only half free on the streets. Physically, but not spiritually.

Because the system we were in, was always there.  It was just waiting for us to turn our desperation into death. I had done exactly what it wanted.  And I landed right where I was “supposed to.”

From the old school gangsters to the new school gang bangers, they all had some things in common. When you’re born poor, you look for money.  When you’re born powerless, you look for power. And when you’re born both— prison starts looking for you.

Some people I knew inside got close to that truth. But they turned away from the role they played in keeping the cycle going. They got mad at the guards.  They got mad at the food.  They got mad at everything, except themselves.

What I realized was:  Taking responsibility for what I did was what society demanded of ME.

But in order to have real freedom— I needed to decide what I was going to demand of MYSELF.

I had to make sure— ABSOLUTELY sure— that when it was my time to leave prison, I was going to leave— and stay—  absolutely free. Free in body. Free in mind.

I knew that in order to achieve that, I needed options— an opportunity to get up and out of that cycle. And in this world, unless you go and find it, and work for it, and hold onto it for dear life when you get it, you’ll never be free.

That opportunity is exactly what I got from The Doe Fund.  And once I got it, you couldn’t tear that opportunity away from me with both hands.

This program, “Ready, Willing & Able” was my off-ramp.  Not just from prison, back to the world.  But from all the desperation and mistakes that charted my course from the streets to a cell.

This program gave me the opportunity I needed to make my life, and my freedom, whole— to become a citizen. A taxpayer. A stepfather.  A grandfather. To be known in the world for who I am and what I do.  Not just who I was and what I did.

The Doe Fund…is a miraculous place. And now, I walk in the wake of that miracle: With a job where my work is respected.  With a wife I love, wonderful step-children, beautiful grandchildren, and—  as of October 12th— a perfect great-grandchild.

For me, becoming free didn’t just happen when they opened the gate.  It’s been a lifelong journey.  And it was at The Doe Fund where I got the chance— the opportunity—  to finish that journey. I will always be so grateful for that.

And I’m grateful to all of you for having me here. And especially to George and Harriet for their vision: for seeing past all the years in prison; for seeing into the void in my life, and in the lives of people like me. For recognizing the value within us. And for creating a program that brings that value out and into the world.

Before I left my old friend and his bag full of smoke detectors, I folded up the money I made that day at work and put it in his hand.  

He took it and said, “Thanks man.  Good luck out here.” I thanked him.  But I didn’t need the luck. Because of The Doe Fund, I was already free.

Thank you very much.  Good night.

 

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About Author: The Doe Fund

Founded in 1985, The Doe Fund provides life-transforming services for the homeless, the formerly incarcerated, disenfranchised youth, and people living with AIDS.

The organization’s flagship Ready, Willing & Able program has helped tens of thousands of individuals achieve permanent self sufficiency through paid work, transitional housing, and employment training.