It seems that every day I read another heartwarming story about a person who served decades in prison for a very serious crime, but who is now doing wonderful things in the free world. People who had been sentenced to unfathomably long terms are now winning important awards and meeting important people and speaking at important events and teaching at important schools and excelling at important jobs. It’s all very impressive and almost enough to make a person think that change is afoot.
And it’s even more impressive when you consider that these are not innocence stories. These are not people who were exonerated many years after a wrongful conviction. Instead, these are redemption stories. They vary in the particulars, but generally the person says, in so many words, “Long ago I did a terrible thing. I was foolish and caused great pain. But I transformed myself in prison and now I am someone new, determined to be a force for good in the world.” And society says, in so many words, “Long ago you did a terrible thing. But you have paid a heavy price and now you act and sound like us and can be a force for good in the world. We forgive you and welcome you back.”
The stories are all basically the same. A recent article in the Washington Post, for instance, told the story of Renaldo Hudson, described simply as “a 56-year-old Black man” who received clemency from the Illinois governor in 2020 “after 37 years in which he learned to read, earned a bachelor’s degree in Christian studies and led religious services for inmates.” In prison, Hudson “became acutely aware of the pain he had caused and the road he had traveled before committing murder.” After his release, he became “an advocate for the Illinois Prison Project,” where he is “trying to help other prisoners get a second look at their sentences.”
Like most people, I love these stories and am thrilled for people like Mr. Hudson. Who doesn’t love a good redemption story with a happy ending? But something about them bothers me a great deal. Not the fact that a small number of people are achieving great and highly visible success despite decades in prison, but that there are so few who do—few enough that their jobs and awards and speeches and meetings still make national news. Not the fact that society forgives these few people who had been sentenced to so many years, but that it angrily refuses to forgive so many others in the same boat. And not the fact that the press celebrates these few people in a carefully choreographed dance between redeemed and redeemer, but that the happy coverage creates the comforting impression that as a society we are no longer so punitive, so vindictive, and so cruel, when in fact, we are—if anything—even worse.
I think I am troubled by these uniquely 21st-century celebrations because they smack of tokenism. Tokenism always operates the same way. It elevates a small, freakishly unrepresentative fraction of a group, grants them a seat at a table from which they had always been barred, and points to their presence as proof that the old discriminations have fallen by the board. Tokenism allows a closed society to create the illusion of openness. Then it trades on the illusion it has created to assuage guilt and distract attention.
Thus, the stories of the successful former prisoner imply that prison and long prison sentences can’t be so bad, and certainly not as bad as all those negative nabobs constantly natter. How hard can decades in prison be if they produce all these wonderful people like Mr. Hudson? Worse, the stories align criminal legal reform with the individualistic fantasies that comfortable people tell themselves to explain why they have so much while others have so little. It’s all about GRIT. Anyone who doesn’t make something of themselves in prison, and who can’t succeed when they get out, just doesn’t have the right stuff. They are not Renaldo Hudson. They deserve their failure, and it is emphatically not society’s job to rescue them from the consequences of their irresponsibility. Quite unintentionally, prison success tokenism relieves the pressure for prison reform or abolition and makes it easy to ignore everyone who is not Renaldo Hudson.
In polite circles, it is considered very bad form to criticize tokenism and draw attention to its duplicitous hypocrisy. One is accused of being ungrateful and for failing to appreciate that change takes time. Wise and well-intentioned people chide the critic and explain condescendingly the difference between a token and a vanguard. The former is allowed through a gate that immediately shuts behind her, while the latter holds the gate open for many more to follow. The change we see is only the beginning, the critic is told. Only the first step.
Arguments like this are meant to be unanswerable since they can always prove true in time. If they haven’t proven true yet, it just means we haven’t given them enough time. But if things were getting better, we’d expect to see some evidence of it during this era of criminal justice reform. We would not, for instance, expect the number of people serving life sentences without the possibility of parole to be on the rise, and to have increased 66% since 2003. We would not expect that between 2016 and 2021, the number of people serving life sentences would have gone up in 29 states.
But the real problem with the vanguard argument, and with the prison success story generally, is not in the numbers, but in the standard it sets. Tokenism does not merely set the bar impossibly high; it conditions freedom on acquiring a certain look and sound that makes a prisoner acceptable to mainstream America. The fact is that the great majority of people in prison will not get a bachelor’s degree. They will not become accomplished writers and polished public speakers. They will not create programs in prison that change the lives of countless other inmates. In short, they won’t look and sound like Renaldo Hudson. And that’s ok. They don’t need to be like him—or us—to deserve their freedom.
For the hundreds of thousands of men and women serving impossibly long terms—all those victims of our punitive age—all that matters is whether they have changed. And except in the very rarest case, the best evidence of that change is the mere fact that they have aged, because age changes all of us. It doesn’t matter if they learned to read. It doesn’t matter if they found Jesus. It doesn’t matter if they want to work with other prisoners upon their release. In fact, what matters most is not about them, but about us. Are we prepared to say, as the Sentencing Project does, that 20 years is enough? At that point, the person should be released not because they have become Renaldo Hudson, but because they have become 20 years older. Because they have paid an enormous price. Because they are and always were one of us, and now deserve to be with us again. This is the simple, morally urgent lesson that prison tokenism occludes.
There are people who understand this lesson, and ironically, those who understand it best are people like Mr. Hudson. Those we hold up as exceptional know that, in all the ways that matter, they are not. They know better than anyone that they walk free while countless others deserve their freedom but remain behind bars. “I daily think of them,” Mr. Hudson said of the great many who are left behind. So should we all.