On March 26, 2015, I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins as I took the stage to deliver the closing remarks at the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform.
In the midst of this historical moment -- a moment defined by the left and right agreeing to work together to reform a broken justice system -- I stood. On that chilly spring afternoon, I approached the podium as a symbol of what is possible, when we create space for transformation and redemption to take place. As optimistic as I am, no one could have told me 10 years ago that I would one day be sharing the stage with the likes of Van Jones and Newt Gingrich, or delivering the closing remarks right after President Obama's video on justice reform was shown.
In the five years since I have been home, I have accomplished many things, including speaking at TED's 30-year-anniversary conference, teaching a class at the University of Michigan and becoming an MIT Media Lab fellow. This moment, however, was different. It was different because, for the first time in my life, I felt like justice would truly be served.
Despite this, the gravity of the 19 years I had served in prison came pressing down on my shoulders. It was the second time in a little over a month that I had felt the heavy weight of the time I served in prison -- including seven years in solitary confinement.
One month prior, I had been invited to speak at a Black History Month program at Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan. When I walked inside the prison, everything about serving time came rushing back to me. The sound of gates crashing closed, officers barking orders and the painful laughter and jokes of incarcerated men, all reminded me of the years I spent inside. It reminded me of my darkest days, and how deeply I desired to have a second chance to prove that I could be an asset to society. It reminded me of the lonely days pacing my cell, dreaming of the day I could work a regular job, be a father and enjoy the small creature comforts that we so often take for granted. However, the most important reminder was my reason for being there.
I was there in fellowship with my incarcerated brothers. I was there to pour love, hope and inspiration into men who continue to inspire my work today. I was there because I wanted these men -- my brothers -- to know they weren't and will never be forgotten, at least not by me. I drove to the prison because I wanted to tell them face to face, man to man, brother to brother, that I carry them in my heart everywhere I go, and that every time I share my story, I am sharing their story, because we are forever connected by the misfortune of our circumstances. Most importantly, I drove the two hours to the prison to be searched and run through metal detectors several times because I want these men -- my brothers -- to know that they have a second chance to do something meaningful with their lives. Yes, that's why I was there.
Once inside the auditorium where I was scheduled to speak, thoughts of how the men would react to my presence bounced around in my head like a ping-pong ball. I wondered how many of them I had served time with. I wondered what old friends would look like. I wondered who would absorb the food for thought I had to share. Although I had thought about what I was going to say on my drive up to Ionia, when the first man walked in the room and came up and hugged me, all of that went out of the window. In that moment, I knew I had to let my soul speak and not my head.
As the men filed into the room dressed in drab prison blues, my heart began to break inside. Men I had grown up with, who were once vibrant and full of life despite their circumstances, were now showing the signs of being beat down and broken by the reality of incarceration. Their eyes no longer shined with the optimism of men who believed they would be given a second chance. Their faces were somber and heavy with the sadness and pain of being left to wither away in the cold and indifferent world of prison life.
In addition to the men whose spirits appeared to be broken was another reality that has always troubled me -- mental illness. Over a third of the 150 men who were present showed clear signs of being under the influence of heavy psychotropic drugs. But in the midst of this all, there were glimmers of light that manifested in the form of my former bunkie and a few other men whom I had served time with. Their smiles were bright and I could see and feel the love and pride in their eyes. It was that energy that fed my soul for the next hour and a half.
By the time I was done, that light had expanded across the auditorium and all of the men were now smiling and laughing as I joked with them and loved on them as a brother, friend and man of my word. Before I came home, I told them I would never forget them, and five years later my word remains intact. It remains intact largely because I believe in the redemptive and transformative nature of the human spirit. It remains intact because I believe that humans should be treated with dignity and respect -- even when they have run afoul of the law.
When I was done, they gave me a standing ovation. It wasn't as loud and thunderous as the applause I received at TED's 30-year anniversary, but it reverberated and resonated on a much deeper level. One by one, they came and gave me hugs and shook my hand. On that day, I heard "I am proud of you" more than 100 times! Those four words carried so much weight, because in my mind they really meant I gave them hope.
As we wrapped the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform, it was that hope that I felt in the room. The hope for justice reform to remain a permanent part of the public conversation until we have smartly and effectively cut the prison population in half, and ensured that those on the inside are treated with the same human touch as those on the outside.
This post is part of a Huffington Post What's Working series, in partnership with #cut50, co-sponsors of the recent Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform (Washington, D.C., March 26). The Summit was part of a movement to popularize support for criminal-justice reforms while also having comprehensive discussions about the policies, replicable models and data-driven solutions needed to achieve systemic changes. The series will focus on such solutions. For more information on #cut50, read here. And to read all the posts in the series, see our What's Working coverage here.