And What If We Unchained Him?
Recent Washington Post editorials on #IRAA focus on applicants’ adolescent criminality, but those aren’t the men I know.
It’s 2 PM on a Friday and I’m standing at the back of room 218 at the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse in Washington DC, wedged between a wooden bench and the wall. The room is packed — a gentleman in joggers and a suit coat stands immediately to my left while another holds the door open behind me. A young child kneels before me, on the floor. A young clerk, visibly flustered, runs back and forth with stacks of plastic chairs.
My friend Halim Flowers, a “juvenile lifer” and DC native, takes a seat on a wooden bench up front.
I first met Halim over coffee at Tryst. I reached out to him on Instagram regarding an interview he’d done on food justice in prisons. He brought along Kristin Adair; the friendship and connection with both were instant. Halim shared more of his own story and I confided my anxiety upon learning B. — at that point a longtime friend — had gotten caught up in the local justice system.
“I know B.,” Halim reassured me. “He’s one of the good ones.”
I’ll admit, with hindsight, that I was nervous. It’s not every day you wake up and grab coffee with a man just released after 22 years in prison for accessory to murder. And while my writer-side would love to [insert dramatic Law & Order tension] here, coffee was just that.
With an entrepreneur, poet and activist who used to be a child.
It wouldn’t occur to me until after the fact that I knew that child’s face from an HBO Documentary, Thug Life in DC. On the TV screen, we see Halim as a 16-year-old boy, placing his palm against bullet proof glass to meet his mother’s.
The man I know now was released under the city’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act on March 21st of this year, and for good reason. In recent years, the Supreme Court has reconsidered the unusually cruel forms of punishment our society has placed on juveniles, from life without parole to solitary confinement (a practice that, while it has been discontinued federally, continues in state and county jails.) The rulings are based on neuroscience research that shows what seems fairly obvious to anyone who has ever been, lived with, or raised an adolescent youth: our brains, however f*cked up and miswired, continue to evolve well into our 20s, if not beyond.
To wit: it’s hard to square the Halim I know now — the one who poses shirtless in Wrangler-type jeans at a self-care retreat, writes love poems and speaks eloquently on panels and podcasts across the city, the one who attends my standup shows and shares a love of Indian takeout from Rasika — as one of the violent criminals the Washington Post Editorial Board casts him and other potential IRAA beneficiaries to be.
“What’s the hardest part about readjusting?” I asked him once.
“The constant need to stay connected,” he replied. I nodded as I scrolled down a timeline on my own phone. There we were: one ex-child raised on street life, guns and the scourge of crack cocaine, another on summer camp, bedtime stories and a Steinway grand piano. Now each respectively two grown 30-somethings, staring at our iPhones in Calabash Tea.
It’s thanks to Halim’s Instagram that I learn about Momolu’s hearing.
Momolu and I have never met, though I recall sitting next to him one Thursday at CTF shortly after Kim Kardashian made her appearance at the DC Jail.
“Are you two on the same block?” I’d asked B., at visit.
“No,” he said, “but we work out together in the mornings.” He tells me how, in an outside courtyard surrounded by barbed wire, B. leads a step class (i.e. “manly aerobics”) while Momolu does handstand pushups just adjacent.
“Your honor?“ his attorney asks. “One logistical note before we start. Seeing as this will be a long hearing, we were hoping we might free Mr. Stewart’s hands — ”
The judge hesitates, stutters and then denies the attorney’s request. “There are security concerns and — ”
“I understand, your honor.”*
Marc Howard, the Georgetown professor and founder of the university’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, proceeds to testify to Momolu’s curiosity — the kind of intellect and focus that’s now a rarity in college classrooms across the country. The executive director of a local nonprofit states unequivocally that he would hire him. A DOC employee familiar with the Young Men Emerging Unit, where Momolu serves as an around-the-clock mentor, testifies as to how Mr. Stewart now gives back to the same village that failed the kid he once was.
“I don’t know how to say it — “ he says. “You’re getting — you’re not just getting an ordinary man.”
I’m listening but my mind starts to drift. It’s still focused on what Momolu would do, exactly, if — that is, what the security risk would be if we released his hands, just briefly, from the chains that bind them. I picture Momolu in his orange jump suit, shackles still heavy around his waist, playfully showing off with handstand pushups against the wall.
An older woman who walked into the courthouse with Halim leans forward and listens intently. “They’re my babies,” she’d said to me in the hallway.
The government prosecutor grills each witness. What grounds do they have to comment on Mr. Stewart’s character? “Did you know him when…” he asks? “Or when…” Or or or…
But no one in the room knows that boy, anymore. Even those who did know him when.
That is, some might say, the point.