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Why #FelonCrushFriday Should Change the Way We Think About Incarceration

06/23/2014 02:11 pm ET | Updated Aug 23, 2014

This blog was originally posted on USA Today's Voices From College site.

As a student activist in prison reform, it's pretty rare for me to see other people supporting someone deemed a "criminal."

Last week, when the Stockton Police Department posted a mugshot of 30-year-old Jeremy Meeks on Facebook, no one expected that it would quickly go viral.

The photo of Meeks staring sultrily into the camera blew up the Internet with 59,000 Facebook likes and trending Twitter hashtags like #FreeJeremyMeeks and #FelonCrushFriday in an extraordinary outpouring of sympathy.

Yes, it's predominantly women swooning over his conventionally attractive features, but the Internet response has also triggered rounds of public inquiry into his personal life.

All of a sudden, despite his crimes, Meeks has been declared not a criminal, but a person, one who merits sympathy.

Pictures have surfaced of Meeks with his 3-year-old son, and public speculation over his family life and true character has unearthed the stunning revelation that despite his past crimes, Meeks is human. He's a person with a past and a story that encompasses more than the worst thing he has ever done.

As director of the Women and Men's Empowerment and Prison Education Program at Harvard University's House of Public Service, I've worked with currently and formerly incarcerated people. Many of the men I tutor at Boston Community Corrections Center have been arrested for drugs crimes, and some for assault or more serious crimes like murder.

Sometimes (not so shockingly) they have tattoos. Most often, the men come from unsafe neighborhoods, have experienced violence and instability in their lives, and would seize any chance at a better life, given the opportunity.

Call me a naïve 18-year-old, but I believe that Meeks isn't the exception. He is not the only incarcerated person worthy of our compassion.

As a volunteer, I've seen firsthand how affable, kind and just human people entangled with the criminal justice system can be. Walter, one of the men I worked with, cried all of one Tuesday morning because his wife of nine years was in the hospital, and he wasn't sure if she would make it through. Like Meeks, he had children and a family and an immense capacity to feel -- just like each one of us.

The American criminal justice system currently imprisons around 2.4 million people, including 71,000 juveniles. This doesn't mean that we are responsible for 25% of the world's evil, but rather than we've failed to give 2.4 million people a fair opportunity to succeed and then, once they've committed a crime, shoved them into a hostile criminal justice system that further alienates them from the rest of society.

Prison then becomes a revolving door, as people incarcerated once are then locked up again and again for technical violations of probation or parole terms. Yet despite these compounded failures of our social support systems, our public perception of incarcerated people is one of inherently dangerous, incorrigible criminals.

If you're a fan of Gregory McGuire's book (and its corresponding Broadway play) Wicked, you'll understand the concept that even the most archetypal villains have stories. In Wicked, we discover the true story of Elphaba, the renowned Wicked Witch of the West, and how she fell in love, experienced hardship, and possessed a balance of good and evil forces inside her -- just like each one of us. Yet as Elphaba reflects, "Evil is always more easily imagined than good." It's easier to believe the paper caricatures of good and evil, or the civilian and the criminal.

It's just not the truth.

As Michelle Alexander explains in her book the New Jim Crow, almost one in three African-American men between the ages of 20 and 29 are currently under the control of the criminal justice system -- and it's not because they're systematically criminals.

For the most part, men like Walter are imprisoned because they are part of a broader society that has cheated them of the same opportunities for success. Yet despite the variety of maladies our criminal justice system faces -- from the prison-industrial complex, to oversentencing of drug crimes, to racist policing tactics, the blame is always placed on the individual.

Perhaps the sudden popularity of Meeks can persuade the public that people charged with crimes should not be automatically dehumanized and marked as "other." Perhaps the flood of public interest in Meeks' personal life can help to contextualize crime and trigger a shift in how we think the people who commit it.

#FelonCrushFriday should be used to raise public awareness about the reforms needed in the criminal justice system and how each of us can extend a hand to those caught in its revolving doors. We can change the way we think about crime and incarceration.

There is no fundamental distinction between "good people" and "bad people" -- there are only people, all asking to be granted the same inalienable humanity.