Exploring the intersection of sports and criminal justice reform Maya Moore, Michael Rubin discuss how athletes are effecting change

WASHINGTON — The time for national criminal justice reform is now and the opportunity for athletes to effect that change has never been greater.

That was the primary takeaway from a discussion Tuesday centered on criminal justice reform and sports, held in Washington, D.C. The conversation, hosted by The Undefeated and The Marshall Project, featured WNBA superstar Maya Moore, Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin and The Undefeated columnist Clinton Yates.

During a two-hour discussion, the group covered an array of topics ranging from prosecutorial misconduct to the impact of athlete platforms.

Rubin was propelled into criminal justice reform after being present in the courtroom where his close friend, rapper Meek Mill, was sentenced to two to four years in prison when a judge ruled he had violated his probation. Rubin said the moment changed his life.

“I watched a probation officer recommend a reduced sentence. I watched a district attorney recommend a reduced sentence. Then I watched a judge send him to jail for two to four years for not committing a crime. I was shook to my core,” Rubin said.

In January, Rubin and Mill launched the Reform Alliance along with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Brooklyn Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai and rapper/entrepreneur Jay-Z. The initiative was started with a mission to overhaul the probation and parole system. The group has a goal of freeing at least 1 million people caught up in the system within the next five years.

During the discussion, Rubin said he believes that Mill would still be in prison today if it weren’t for so many athletes who were front and center pushing for his release. He is channeling that approach for the Reform Alliance, which will aim to leverage the likeness and following of athletes and celebrities to tell the “crazy” stories of everyday citizens.“What we’re going to do with the Reform Alliance is we’re going to have big celebrities, athletes and influencers tell everyday stories,” Rubin said. “We’re trying to find the person you’ve never heard of, find a crazy story and then have people tell the story on social media.”

Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael G. Rubin sits on a panel discussing the intersection of criminal justice and sports on Sept. 17 at The Google Space in Washington D.C. Rubin was propelled into criminal justice reform after his close friend, rapper Meek Mill, was sentenced to two to four years in prison when a judge ruled he had violated his probation.

Jeff DiNicola

Rubin’s Alliance Reform partner Jay-Z made waves last month when he signed a multiyear partnership with the NFL to produce its Super Bowl halftime show and amplify the league’s social justice initiatives. Rubin strongly defended Jay-Z’s motives for partnering with the NFL, which have been criticized by some as monetizing a movement largely propelled by Colin Kaepernick’s protests.

“This is a guy who does not care about money, he cares about doing right,” Rubin said about Jay-Z. “The reason he got involved with the NFL is because he felt from the inside he could make a real difference. Anybody who is questioning Jay-Z, they don’t know what he’s about.”

Moore, an example of an athlete attempting to use her platform to enact change in the criminal justice system, shook up basketball when she announced in February that she would sit out the WNBA season. Moore has only spoken publicly on a handful of occasions since her announcement, focusing her year away from basketball on her family and her ministry work. She’s also dedicated much of her time to the criminal case of Jonathan Irons, who has been incarcerated since 1997 after being found guilty of burglary and assault with a deadly weapon and given a 50-year sentence. Moore, who met Irons through her family when she was 18, believes Irons was wrongly convicted.

Moore said the deeper she got into Irons’ case, the more she learned about the infrastructure of the criminal justice system and how it operates, giving her added motivation to educate communities about the problems pertaining to social justice occurring in their neighborhoods.

“Through getting to know Jonathan and his story, the world of criminal justice reform, mass incarceration and racial equality have become so real to me. Part of what I want to do when I tell people about Jonathan’s story is not just look at this story but look at the stories in your community.”

Four-time WNBA champion Maya Moore speaks on a panel discussing the intersection of criminal justice and sports on Sept. 17 at The Google Space in Washington D.C. Moore shook up the basketball world when she announced in February that she would sit out the 2019 WNBA season.

Jeff DiNicola

When asked by a member of the audience to detail why she didn’t play in the WNBA this year, Moore said a large part of her decision was to ensure that she would be available to see Irons’ legal proceedings through. Irons’ evidentiary hearing to potentially reopen his case — which Moore plans to attend, according to a report by The Associated Press — is on Oct. 9 in Missouri. For context, the WNBA playoffs, which began last week, could run as late as Oct. 10.

“It’s extremely hard to be engaged in these issues and be at the top of your craft,” Moore said. “I couldn’t imagine what this year would look like for me if I was fully invested in my team and trying to bring Jonathan home and raise awareness for some of these causes.”

Moore emphasized that Irons’ story is just one of many that require attention and education.

“This is a real-life story. There are more Jonathans out there.”

With ‘Brian Banks’ and ‘Clemency,’ actor Aldis Hodge finds the humanity in men society wants to discard ‘Banks’ tells the story of a football star falsely accused of rape

Aldis Hodge has the kind of face that makes you squint and try to place where you’ve seen him before.

Because you’ve seen him before. A lot.

But now, you’re about to see him.

“He told me, ‘I don’t want to just act out this thing. I want to become you.’ And I really respect that.”— Brian Banks on actor Aldis Hodge

At 32, Hodge has a long list of acting credits under his belt. He started off as a kid, along with his brother, Edwin, playing small unnamed roles like “Masked teen” and “Basketball teen #2” and “Graduate #1.” He’s had brief roles on NYPD Blue, ER and Cold Case, and he’s also been in cult favorites like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Things began to shift in 2006 when he earned a role in the critically acclaimed high school football drama Friday Night Lights. Portraying Ray “Voodoo” Tatum, the quarterback who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina, he got the chance to show the emotional complexity he could bring to a character on a large stage. That led to a role on TNT’s Leverage, which ran for five seasons and had him working alongside Timothy Hutton.

And now — finally! — he has a leading role in a film.

In the film, Aldis Hodge taps into the emotional roller coasters that make up Brian Banks’ life.

Everett Collection

Opening on Aug. 9 is Brian Banks, the true tale of a former high school football star whose dreams of playing in the NFL were derailed by a false rape accusation.

This role is yet another indication that Hodge is on the brink of being the next big thing. Just please don’t call him that. Not to his face, at least.

“People have been telling me for years the thing that I could not stand. They’re like, ‘Yo, man, you next!’ I’m like, ‘Y’all have been telling me that for 10 years!’ ” he says before breaking into a quick laugh. “They’re well-meaning, absolutely well-meaning, but they don’t understand. For an artist who continually sees next, next, next, but you see all these other people come up in that time that they tell you, ‘Next.’ There’s a whole wave of cats coming up, but you’re like, ‘How long am I going to be next?’ ”


Coming later this year is more excellent work from Hodge in Clemency, a film that is already making critics’ short lists for award competitions.

In Clemency, Hodge plays a black man on death row who is hoping that the governor — the exact state is unidentified — will grant him clemency. The story was inspired by the 2011 execution of Troy Davis, who was convicted of and executed for the Aug. 19, 1989, murder of police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. The case attracted widespread attention, including pleas for clemency from former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former FBI director William Sessions.

In Clemency, Hodge plays a black man on death row who is hoping that the governor will grant him clemency.

Eric Branco

Although we’ve seen Hodge toiling on the small screen and in films for nearly 25 years, this moment and these two films mean Hodge is a name to be remembered.

In other words, Hodge acts his behind off. In Clemency, Hodge impresses alongside veteran Alfre Woodard, who plays the prison warden, and Juilliard-trained Danielle Brooks as the condemned man’s estranged partner — both of whom could hear their names nominated for top honors early next year.

Both Clemency and Brian Banks are films that you want to talk about and, in some cases, may make you want to get active after you see them. The real connective tissue, at least as of late, is stories where Hodge gets to find the humanity in characters who might normally be seen as inhumane.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 2 years old,” Hodge says. “Back when I was 14, I [said] that I want to stop taking particular types of roles. The stereotypical tropes or this or that didn’t represent the totality of black people, and I wanted it to show the other side of us because we grew up seeing a completely different side and wanted to represent that truth.”

“I want to stop taking particular types of roles, the stereotypical tropes or this or that didn’t represent the totality of black people by culture is, right? And I wanted it to show the other side of us because we grew up seeing a completely different side and wanted to represent that truth.” — Aldis Hodge

Hodge says he finally assembled the right team to help him find such stories. Not all of the roles he brings to life affect social change, but simply portraying a diverse representation of black men, he says, ultimately helps move the needle for how black men are treated in real life.

“Like my role on Leverage. It was a fun action show. It was cool, but I played a very intelligent hacker, and to me that spoke to truth because they saw the black man playing the hacker,” Hodge says. “My father used to take apart and build computers. That’s normal in the black community, but we don’t see it represented all the time. So for me, that was truth that hadn’t been exposed in that way.

“I’m an actor. I’m not a type of actor, not a dramatic actor, not a comedic actor. I can do whatever, whenever, however. … If we’re going to be funny, how can we make it better? How can we give the audience a better experience? If we’re going to do drama, how can I engage the idea of being with it all? Emotional impact in a completely new way that the audience hasn’t really seen yet?”


Hodge has been in films before: Hidden Figures (the husband of aerospace engineer Mary Jackson), Straight Outta Compton (as MC Ren) and most recently What Men Want (as the love interest to Taraji P. Henson’s sports agent). He laughs pretty hard when I remind him he once starred alongside LeBron James in a 2011 State Farm commercial. (“Back in the day!”)

But carrying the title character in Brian Banks? That’s major.

The real Brian Banks, who is now 34, knew he had found the man to play him in the movie almost immediately.

“Aldis was the first actor that was presented to me as one who would play me in this film. And I remember him most from Underground. And what he did with Underground was very powerful. I’ve seen him in Big Momma’s House, back when he was young, playing basketball, Straight Outta Compton and Leverage,” Banks said.

“And then, after meeting him, the first thing he told me was, ‘I don’t want to just act out this thing. I want to become you.’ And I really respect that. Hearing that from him, it really said a lot about him. It said a lot about his methods as far as how he was going to tap into the story.”

Banks’ story is well-known. He was wrongfully convicted of rape at age 16 and spent nearly six years imprisoned and five years on parole, during which he had to wear a GPS tracking device and register as a sex offender. His conviction was overturned in 2012 after the classmate who had accused him confessed that she made up the incident.

Before he was accused, Banks had verbally committed to USC during his junior year at Long Beach’s Polytechnic High School. His teammates there were future NFL players DeSean Jackson, Darnell Bing, Winston Justice and Marcedes Lewis.

Brian Banks attends a special screening of Bleecker Street’s Brian Banks on July 31 in Long Beach, California.

Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images

After Banks was exonerated, he once again began to pursue the professional football career he’d dreamed of as a kid. After several tryouts with NFL teams, Banks began playing for the Las Vegas team in the UFL in 2012, but the league suspended the season because of “mounting debt” after he had played in only two games. The following year, Banks was signed by the Atlanta Falcons, for whom he played in four preseason games at linebacker before being released. In 2014, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asked him to speak to league rookies, and he then joined the NFL as a manager in the Football Operations Department and assisted the Officiating Department on game days.

In the film, Hodge taps into the emotional roller coasters that make up Banks’ life.

“He’s phenomenal at giving you layers to a character and creating a three-dimensional character,” says Sherri Shepherd, who acts alongside Hodge as Banks’ mother. “There were scenes where every time you see him talk to his parole officer … and I just … I was in awe of the range that was displayed. It was this tenderness that he had … a searching, ‘Please help me, protect me,’ that he had.”

“Those stories gravitate towards me,” Hodge says. “I played basketball, terribly, on a league from 14 years old on up. But my real sport, growing up, was fighting.”

“I still train in martial arts to this day. But I used to compete with southern Shaolin kung fu, and then I moved up to wushu and jeet kune do, taking it to the traditionalist Chinese styles. I do a little bit of capoeira. And then … Philippine knife and stick fighting. And then also Muay Thai, which I love. … I absolutely love fighting. I love the physicality, the capability of what we can do with our bodies.”


Given the critical response to Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series When They See Us, Hodge’s two new films and an Emmett Till series coming to ABC, it feels like a moment.

“He’s phenomenal at giving you layers to a character and creating a three dimensional character. I was in awe of the range that was displayed. It was this tenderness that he had. … a searching, ‘please help me, protect me’ that he had.” — Sherri Shepard, who acts alongside Hodge as Banks’ mother

“I think that people are starting to finally understand just how serious this space of wrongful conviction really is,” Banks says. “We have a judicial system that ideally we like to protect the innocent and keep our citizens safe. But often, it happens where the wrong person is locked up, the wrong person is prosecuted. And to just imagine losing life, losing time that you will never get back for something that you didn’t do. Being placed in a cage like an animal for a crime you didn’t commit, watching the dismantling of your family and connection and bond that you have to friends and so forth, and your community. I think that people are starting to really see and understand that this is a very serious subject, just like any other serious subject that we give so much time, attention and money to.

“There are so many people in this world that are uninformed about these types of traumatic experiences and things that go on. So I think that we have to be creative and innovative in a way to where we turn these real-life stories into works of art and some pieces of film so that people that are uninformed, that choose not to be informed, they will be informed by way of being entertained, going to see a movie and then learning something about their city, their community, their society, and hopefully be provoked to want to see change.”

And that’s the work that inspires an actor like Hodge.

“When it comes to digging into these roles, the harder it gets for the characters, and the more honest we get about the situations, the more excited I get,” Hodge says. “I get excited about those because people can see the truth. And what excites me most about these is that we are dignifying and honoring the characters that we play from a point of respect and deference.”

“And then, when I see people are affected, the thing that triggers in my mind is, ‘Oh, now we’ve hit them in the heart space!’ And, hopefully, in the mental space. Hopefully, these people can go out and leave here affected enough to help improve the situation that they just came from watching. Right?”

HBO film ‘True Justice’ recounts Bryan Stevenson’s crusade for the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned The nation’s most important civil rights lawyer since Thurgood Marshall still believes in equal justice under law

Bryan Stevenson may well be the nation’s most consequential civil rights lawyer since Thurgood Marshall.

While Marshall stared down unrepentant racists in Southern courtrooms at a time when inequality was enforced by law, Stevenson’s work is being done decades after the most important legal battles over civil rights supposedly were won. If Marshall and his legal colleagues from the NAACP helped dismantle Jim Crow, the task Stevenson has carved out may be even more difficult: working to eliminate Jim Crow’s legacy.

“I believe we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” — Bryan Stevenson

He is the subject of a new documentary, True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality, which premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. EDT on HBO. Stevenson, 59, is the founder and executive director of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, and he has dedicated his career to helping some of the most scorned people among us: the poor, the incarcerated, the condemned, and even the guilty.

“I believe we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” Stevenson says.

Since EJI was launched in 1989, Stevenson and his staff have won release, reversals or relief for more than 125 death row prisoners. Stevenson has prevailed in several cases he argued before the Supreme Court, including a victory in a case outlawing mandatory sentences of life without parole for children 17 or younger.

In the documentary, Bryan Stevenson makes clear that the problem with the criminal justice system starts at the top with the Supreme Court.

Courtesy of HBO

He has spearheaded the creation in Montgomery of The Legacy Museum and its National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors more than 4,000 lynching victims. He has earned dozens of honorary degrees and won numerous awards, including the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant. By any measure, he has done outstanding work.

Yet, Stevenson’s achievements make up a relatively small part of the film. Instead of shouting out his many successes, directors Peter Kunhardt, George Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt home in on Stevenson’s ideas connecting the plight of his clients to the nation’s racial history.

Stevenson illuminates the line connecting the racial disparities evident in so many parts of our society to a criminal justice system that nurtured and rationalized white supremacy, making it both legal and acceptable. In the documentary, he makes clear that the problem starts at the top with the Supreme Court.

While the high court eventually became an ally of civil rights, for many years it was just the opposite. The 1857 Dred Scott decision called black people an inferior race who had no constitutional rights. The 1875 Cruikshank case reversed the convictions of members of a white mob whom federal prosecutors had tried for their part in killing 150 black people protesting for political representation in Colfax, Louisiana. The high court said the convictions impinged on states’ rights, helping to form the legal underpinning for legal segregation and Jim Crow.

Even in the years following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the seminal ruling striking down state-sanctioned segregation in public schools, the court sometimes looked the other way in the face of evidence of obvious racial disparities, Stevenson argues.

In the film, he talks about his advocacy for Warren McCleskey, a black man convicted of killing a white police officer in Georgia during a 1978 furniture store holdup. McCleskey was the only one of four defendants sentenced to death in the case, and by the time his case made its way to the Supreme Court, his defense team had produced a study showing that in Georgia, defendants who killed whites were more than four times as likely as those who killed blacks to be sentenced to death. The court shrugged off that study in its majority opinion, saying disparity does not prove deliberate bias. Moreover, the court ruled, such disparities are “an inevitable part of our criminal justice system.” McCleskey was put to death in Georgia’s electric chair in 1991.

The HBO documentary focuses on Bryan Stevenson’s ideas connecting the plight of his clients to the nation’s racial history.

Courtesy of HBO

The film makes clear that Stevenson loses in court regularly, and when he does the consequences are often fatal for his clients. Even when he represents clients who are innocent and he is able to win, the injustices wrought by the system cannot be fully rectified because of the trauma of being imprisoned. “For me, the innocence cases are the hardest cases,” Stevenson says in the film. “I think people think of that the other way. They think, ‘Oh, it must be great to work on a case where there is clear evidence of innocence.’ ”

Much of the documentary is narrated by Stevenson, who talks about the need to eradicate “the narrative of racial difference” that infects the country and runs through its history. That is why he has poured energy into creating memorials to help Americans confront this history of racial horrors that he says often manifests itself in the criminal justice system.

“You can’t disconnect the death penalty from the legacy of lynching, and you can’t disconnect the legacy of lynching from the era of enslavement,” he says in the film. “I think that this line is a very real one.”

Yet, Stevenson has an unshakable belief in the power of the law to help make things right. “I’ve argued a bunch of cases before the United States Supreme Court, and each time I go, I stand there in front of the court, I read what it says about equal justice under law,” Stevenson says in the film. “I have to believe that to make sense out of what I do.”

In Nia DaCosta’s ‘Little Woods,’ a tale of quiet desperation, with little hope of transcendence Tessa Thompson and Lily James star as desperate women in a town caught in a time warp

There is a widespread and poorly considered tendency to romanticize modern rural America, from Carhartt commercials to the new comedy series Bless This Mess, which features Lake Bell and Dax Shepard as naive city slickers inventing a new life in Nebraska.

But in her feature film debut, Little Woods, writer-director Nia DaCosta dispenses Waldenesque illusion in favor of a look at the quiet desperation that comes with being poor and a woman in middle of nowhere. The result is a snapshot of two sisters caught in the gritty binds of Little Woods, North Dakota, a miserable natural gas boomtown with little more to offer besides too many men and not enough well-paying jobs.

Tessa Thompson plays Ollie (short for Oleander), an industrious hustler nearing the end of her parole looking to start a new life if she gets a promising job in Spokane, Washington. Ollie used to make a living running opioids across the Canadian border before she was caught. She lives in a foreclosed house that belonged to her mother, who died of a terminal illness.

Her sister, Deb (Lily James) is a waitress who lives with her small son Johnny in a trailer parked in a lot with a bunch of other trailers belonging to people who can’t afford anything else.

The two women find themselves calling on desperate measures. Ollie can’t bring herself to leave until she knows her sister and nephew are safe, and so she plunges back into the opioid business once more, just long enough to make a haul that will pay off half the $5,800 needed to keep the bank from seizing the family home. Deb is pregnant, and in need of an abortion. The nearest American clinic is hundreds of miles away, a back alley arrangement has fallen through. Without health insurance, it costs anywhere between $8,000-$12,000 just to give birth in a hospital.

Lily James (left) and Tessa Thompson (right) star in Little Woods.

Neon

DaCosta, who is slated to direct the coming remake of Candyman, constructs the shots in Little Woods in a way that amplifies the town’s suffocating limitations. This is not the rural America of Terrence Malick, full of open spaces and ripe with possibility. Instead, it’s desolate and depressed, and danger lurks everywhere in the form of men who don’t respect boundaries. When Ollie goes lurking about a truck stop in the middle of the night to serve new customers, it’s absolutely harrowing. Thompson plays Ollie with taut, barely contained fear, curled up like a spring, keeping the audience waiting for the moment her little life, and the possibility of a better one, collapses into nothing.

DaCosta’s vision of the American West has more in common with the one playwright and actress Heidi Schreck brings to light in What the Constitution Means to Me (currently running on Broadway) as she speaks about her great-grandmother, a Scandinavian mail-order bride her great-grandfather ordered from a catalog. It’s a vision where women are scarce and their rights and safety are scarcer. Schreck’s ancestors lived in Washington, where they earned a living as loggers clearing the state’s untamed natural resource. Schreck uses What the Constitution Means to Me to reflect on the ways the women in her family were barely people in the eyes of the U.S. Constitution, but regarded as children or property under the purview of men.

In the generations since, not much has changed, depending on where you go. In Little Woods, the natural resource is natural gas instead of wood, but the threats to female bodies are just as common, the violence against them just as casual and routine. Ollie gets roughed up by the local opioid magnate when she briefly starts selling again. Deb faces danger the night she tries to procure a fake Canadian health card that will allow her to get an abortion in Winnipeg, Manitoba, covered by the country’s national health insurance.

DaCosta draws her audience in by daring them to hope for better, and closes with a peaceful shot of the wilderness that bridges Canada with the United States. But she never romanticizes the wildness of the West. Too many women are still falling victim to its ills.

A visit to Louisiana State Penitentiary, and a lesson in forgiveness NFL wide receiver Torrey Smith shares his ministry experience at the prison

Editor’s note: Louisiana State Penitentiary is the largest maximum security prison in the United States. Also known as “Angola” because it was built on a former plantation that held many slaves from the African country, the prison has a long and notorious history, including convict leasing in the 1800s. It was also once dubbed “the bloodiest prison in America.”


A few months ago, I received a text from my former teammate Steve Smith Sr., a man who is like a brother to me:

“For the last few years I’ve been asked to do a prison visit by a friend named Lenny. He is the team chaplain for the Buffalo Bills. Last year, I finally went and it was a remarkable and unforgettable experience for me. I know everyone has their own things going on, but I told myself I wouldn’t be silent and keep it to myself. So I’m just doing what was placed on my heart. Pray about it. If what you read interests you hit me back. If it doesn’t I completely understand.”

After I read Steve’s text message, I thought about the many times I’ve visited prisons during my career, including San Quentin in California, so I knew what to expect. I responded and let Steve know that I was interested in joining the trip. I would later find out I was wrong. The visit to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola State Prison, turned out to be a transformative experience for me — an emotional journey that challenged my assumptions about rehabilitation and forgiveness.

Buffalo Bills Chaplain Len Vanden Bos leads a prayer on the field after a game against the Miami Dolphins at New Era Field. Buffalo beats Miami 24 to 16.

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Steve’s friend Lenny turned out to be Len Vanden Bos, my chaplain at Pro Athletes Outreach, an organization that builds community among pro athletes and couples to grow spiritually and have a positive impact around them. Through his Higher Ground Ministry, he takes current and former NFL players, along with Christian leaders, to prisons to spread the gospel and encourage people who are incarcerated.

I knew that Angola was a maximum security prison filled with people who were facing lengthy sentences, some convicted of violent crimes like murder or rape but others convicted under the state’s harsh habitual offender laws for which Louisiana is famous. I also assumed from everything I had heard that people would be locked in small cages with little interaction with each other outside of the prison yard. As we toured the former plantation, built on more than 18,000 acres, however, I was shocked to see men walking around, cleaning up and washing cars as if they weren’t incarcerated at all. Some were dressed in plainclothes; no one wore chains. The men slept in a big room with bunk beds, which reminded me of the 1999 movie Life, where Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence play two Harlem bootleggers sentenced to life in prison for a phony murder charge. The reality of what I saw was a lot to take in, and as we walked around, I wondered how could the most violent men in Louisiana live together in what appears to be a very peaceful environment.

I don’t mean to glorify this prison. It is a prison, after all, and people are held in cells and often forced to work in sweltering heat with little money. And as we continued to walk through the prison grounds, I saw men working, some for as little as 2 cents an hour, making T-shirts for the government and license plates for every driver in Louisiana, or raising cattle to be sold on the market.

A prisoner walks thru a fenced section toward a guard tower at Angola Prison in 2013.

Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Three things struck me as we toured the grounds.

First, I feel strongly that this was modern-day slavery, and it was wrong. Then I remembered slavery is still legal as defined by the 13th Amendment, which says, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, EXCEPT as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Angola, like other prisons, benefits from this exemption. And I realized, yes, this is America.

Second, I witnessed how people accused of even the most serious crimes and living in extremely difficult conditions could work, live together peacefully and change. I wondered if those people working so well together were really still even a danger to anyone. This experience drove home the importance of second chances, because people change, even those who have caused terrible harm.

As we passed a church on the property that was built by the men, for example, I was struck by what they had accomplished — and what it demonstrated. I saw two incarcerated men working on a building with all of the tools they needed: hammers, nails, screwdrivers, screws, it was all there. It was a striking visual that remains stamped in my memory. Although I strongly believed that it was wrong that they were working for pennies on the dollar, their ability to do so conveyed a sense of collaboration and responsibility that led me to also believe they had hope.

The system is complicated.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, and nicknamed the “Alcatraz of the South” and “The Farm” is a maximum-security prison farm in Louisiana operated by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections.

Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Throughout my visit at Angola, I saw men working and trying to better themselves through a variety of impactful programs offered there. Yes, some will, in fact, die in prison, while others will earn the second chance they deserve.

Unfortunately for the men awaiting their second chance in America, their fate rests with the political, and not with what is right. In several states, freedom is not just determined by one’s actions while incarcerated or even by the parole or pardon board. In some cases, situations like pardons require the signature of the governor of that particular state, whose contact with the person who is incarcerated is limited to a manila file folder even if the state-approved board has deemed the person worthy of a second chance.

Legislators have the power to change that, and in some cases, states have created a “no action” law that allows for pardons to go through with the recommendation of the board if it is not signed before the governor has left his term. This takes the burden of a final decision off the back of the governor, who may or may not have political concerns, while offering the offender a second chance based on the approval of the experienced members of the pardon board.

Many men and women who deserve second chances remain in prison because of politics or because they are considered a high-profile case in their state. It’s not fair to the incarcerated men and women or the bodies that govern them.

And then a third thing occurred to me.

Overall, spending time with the people at Angola led me to question my own views of forgiveness. As a follower of Christ, I believe that we are forgiven. But I had to ask myself, “Am I really forgiving others? If my forgiveness is conditional, is it real?” I’ve spent many years holding grudges against people who’ve wronged me in some way, and I imagined the grace summoned by victims of crime when they forgive those who have harmed them. I seek the peace and freedom that the forgiven men feel.

Wide receiver Steve Smith #89 of the Baltimore Ravens prays with teammates and player from the Philadelphia Eagles after the Baltimore Ravens defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 27-26 at M&T Bank Stadium on December 18, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Many of the men at Angola had already found peace through Christ, which allowed them to feel forgiven. As I prayed with them at the end of our visit, worshipping alongside men who had committed violent crimes and were now paying their debt to society, I witnessed the power of real forgiveness. It was a lesson that I carried with me when I left, and it is a lesson that I will share with the hope that others can accept and give forgiveness too.

Alice Marie Johnson’s family appreciates Kim Kardashian’s efforts to bring her home Her son and daughter-in-law share her compelling story of mercy and hope

Alice Marie Johnson was sentenced to life in prison in 1997 after a conviction on eight criminal counts for a first-time, non-violent drug offense. Her son, Charles Johnson, remembers that time like it was yesterday.

“I was coming home from college and the court date was postponed to the next day,” Charles Johnson said. “On that day, they didn’t want the family to go, so she and her boyfriend at the time just went. A couple of hours passed and he just came home and told us that they kept her. And they found her guilty, and it was the day before my birthday, my 20th birthday.”

The guilty verdict from a jury trial changed the course of life for Johnson, the mother of four, grandmother and great-grandmother. She has spent more than two decades in prison, with several failed attempts to be granted clemency.

In December 2016, President Barack Obama granted clemency to 231 prisoners, but Johnson was not on the list.

“I think that was more of an up-and-down,” Charles Johnson said. “Every time you’d see another list come out, you’d look at it just to see if her name’s on it, and it’s not. To me, I think I was more worried about her, because it was such an up-and-down thing for her to get really happy and really depressed every time a list came out.”

Johnson’s story caught the attention of Kim Kardashian West, who went to the White House on Wednesday, Johnson’s 63rd birthday, to meet with President Donald Trump about prison reform and a pardon for the minister, writer and mentor.

Kardashian West reportedly heard of the story when a video of Johnson was posted on Mic’s Twitter account. “Life offered me no opportunity for parole because there is not parole in the prison system,” Johnson said in the video.

In a letter obtained by TMZ, Johnson thanked Kardashian West for her support.

“There are no words strong enough to express my deep and heartfelt gratitude,” Johnson wrote. “Ms. Kardashian, you are quite literally helping to save my life and restore me to my family. I was drowning and you have thrown me a life jacket, and given me hope that this life jacket I’m serving may one day be taken off.”

“It’s amazing that Kim Kardashian even looked at this and decided that this is something that she wanted to take hold of. It’s crazy,” said Shontoria Johnson, Charles Johnson’ wife. “This is all a part, I guess, of the war on drugs, epidemics that have hurt our communities for a while.”

For Charles and Shontoria Johnson, memories aren’t enough. The newlyweds, who’d known each other for a little more than 18 years, are waiting for the day when Johnson can come home to her family and pursue her dream of helping others in her shoes.

“I think it’s so scary to think that she might die in jail and never be able to really be with her grandkids,” Charles Johnson said. “They’d never get to see how super or great she is in person, just over Skype or over a phone call. When she left, Justin was maybe a year-and-a-half. She really loved having Justin around and keeping him. I may have changed his diaper twice when he was a little kid. She wouldn’t ever let me. She was like, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing.’ She’s very giving, so she’s always been a very giving person. Always was the life-of-the-party kind of thing, dancing and embarrassing me in front of everybody. She didn’t care. She just liked having fun.”

According to Shontoria Johnson, Johnson is anxious, nervous and hopeful.

“She feels like this the furthest that we’ve ever got, and she’s just very excited at this point. We’ve gone through a lot of this together, this family, and it was very difficult going through the ups and downs and highs and lows of hoping for the best and being let down at some points, but we’re very hopeful at this point.”

Johnson’s daughter Tretessa Johnson started a petition for clemency on Change.org that has more than 260,000 signatures to date.

“My family’s life changed forever when my she was sentenced to life in federal prison,” Tretessa Johnson wrote. “She was one of thousands of first time, nonviolent offenders who were given long mandatory prison terms. She had lost her job and became a telephone mule passing messages between her coconspirators.”

In December 2016, Johnson explained how she got involved with a Memphis, Tennessee-based cocaine trafficking operation in a piece for CNN.com. She said she needed a way to make ends meet during a difficult time in her life. According to Mic, she couldn’t secure employment after losing her job at FedEx, where she had worked for 10 years, due to a gambling addiction; she got divorced, and had just recently lost her youngest son to a motorcycle accident.

“No mother should have to bury her child,” Johnson wrote. “This weight was unbelievable, and it was a burden I couldn’t sustain. I made some very poor decisions out of desperation … I acknowledge that I have done wrong. I made the biggest mistake of my life to make ends meet and got involved with people selling drugs. This was a road I never dreamed of venturing down. I became what is called a telephone mule, passing messages between the distributors and sellers. I participated in a drug conspiracy, and I was wrong.”

Charles Johnson wasn’t aware of any of his mother’s illegal activity.

“I had no idea at all, to be honest,” he said. “Even after the court stuff, I don’t even think I even learned exactly what she was convicted of for a few years, because I just didn’t want to know. It didn’t matter if she wasn’t around. I think most of the time when we even talk, we don’t even talk about the court case. We talk about other stuff, family or kids or whatever.

“When she was arrested, I just figured she’ll get an appeal and be out in a week. I just keep thinking that over and over until we lost the house. Then it was OK a year. OK next year. Then I thought, ‘Why isn’t she out yet?’ I was in shock and didn’t want to face it. Then when they moved her to California, it was real. She isn’t coming back. Anger and depression is probably the best way to say it. She was so hopeful that I had to be as well.”

The hardest part for Charles Johnson is not being able to see his mother interact with her grandchildren.

“Even my youngest son, Chris, I think he’s anxious to see her,” he said. “He’s done the Skyping, so he really wants to meet her. Just having her around, being a grandmother to everybody. I think that’s the biggest thing. Also just catching up and taking her out and actually being able to do something for her birthday for a change except just singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ ”

“We’re a blended family,” Shontoria Johnson said. “We need the opportunity to be able to connect with her. He’s met her via Skype and talked to her about school and things of that nature. She’s definitely welcomed him, and he’s taken to her too. She’s a person that you fall in love with immediately.

“I watched Charles go through all those emotions, and I had to support Charles through those emotions and also with speaking with Mama Alice on Skype, I could see her emotions as well, and at some point, it seemed like she had pushed back from everything. It was an interesting time. It was disheartening,” she said.

“I think right now, I guess I can say I’m more ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ kind of thing,” Charles Johnson said. “It’s like I’m hopeful, but until she’s actually in the car driving here, I don’t know how I really feel. At this point, at least we know the president actually knows who she is and what’s going on with her, so this is the closest I can say she’s ever really came to it.”

While in prison, Johnson has been writing and performing plays on most of the holidays. She’s also a minister.

“She’s really trying to help and mentor a lot of people in there be better when they come out, if they get out, or just while they’re in there, just become better people as a whole,” Charles Johnson said.

“I think she uses that as an outlet to connect with people that she wouldn’t normally connect with, to help them be a better person, to mentor them, and to be, like I said, the great personal mother that she is,” Shontoria Johnson said.

 ‘Atlanta’ recap: season 2, episode 1: The family scars that bind Beware of ‘Florida Man’ — it’s not as crazy as it sounds

 

Season 2, episode 1 | “Alligator Man” | March 1

“Robbin’ season. Christmas approaches and everybody gotta eat.”

— Darius

It didn’t take long for Atlanta’s season two to live up to its theme: robbin’ season. Off the rip, you just knew the two young boys were ’bout to hit a lick. The way they were talking in the apartment, from the special order they gave at the drive-thru. But really, the most dead giveaway is Tay-K’s “The Race” lyrics, Pop a n—– then I go out my way, being played as they completed their order.

Darius is right, though. Everybody gotta eat. Hence the guy in the fast-food spot running a holiday hustle and the two young men sticking up the place. The distraught young lady in the back seat is presumably a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The only unbelievable thing from the opening scene is that no one got hit with a bullet (that we know of).

Elsewhere, even Earn gets robbed: An employee at the storage unit he sleeps in — remember he’s homeless — tells him he has to vacate and then proceeds to take a handful of Earn’s personal belongings. That isn’t much of a shock to Earn. Sleeping in a storage unit doesn’t lend itself to a long shelf life. But what is a shock is seeing that his cousin Paper Boi (who is on house arrest) and Darius aren’t on speaking terms. Never mind that he has the most awkward exchange of the entire episode when he calls Paper Boi’s girl “Regina” when her name is Tara. Earn is more concerned about why the two friends “don’t wanna talk” than about why they’re, in fact, not talking.

“What I’m scared of is being you. Someone everybody knew was smart. But ended up being a knew-it-all, f— up that just let s— happen to him.”

Nevertheless, leave it to Earn and Darius to produce a classic car scene. Darius is taking Earn to meet with his parole officer; this stems from when he was caught with marijuana after Paper Boi shot the guy at the end of last season’s first episode (“The Big Bang”) and him spending all of episode two in jail (“Streets On Lock”). Their first classic conversation occurred in last season’s “The Streisand Effect” when Darius told Earn how AIDS was invented to keep Wilt Chamberlain from breaking the all-time sex record. And that black people didn’t know who (the white) Steve McQueen is. This time around, however, Darius ignores Earn, saying his parents are going to visit his dying uncle in Florida. Instead, the exchange about “Florida Man” being the “alt-right Johnny Appleseed” who shoots unarmed black teens, kills flamingos, eats people’s faces and beats up people in hospitals is an instant classic exchange in a series with plenty. “Florida Man” is, in Darius’ world, a ploy by the government to keep black people from moving to Florida and/or registering to vote in the state. But “Florida Man” is a representation of outrageous yet very real stories that have arisen out of the Sunshine State this decade. It’s such an Atlanta conversation that you’re forced to say, “Well, you know, he might be on to something.”

The episode takes a dark turn, but at the same time becomes more illuminating, when Earn promises Alfred he’s going to visit Willie, played by Katt Williams. Judging from context clues, Willie is Paper Boi’s dad and Earn’s uncle. His girlfriend/live-in-rival, Yvonne, claims to have been kidnapped by Willie and is actually locked in a bedroom. Willie claims Yvonne stole $50 from him while he was asleep. She claims she didn’t, saying that Willie must have drunk it (he’s later seen sniffing coke in the kitchen). It’s also here we learn why the episode is titled “Alligator Man” — because Willie keeps a pet alligator, Coach, in his house. Yes, you read that right.

The cops eventually arrive. Both Yvonne and Willie try to downplay the situation, although Willie (as we can already tell) takes it too far. Earn’s attempts to make peace are unsuccessful. Willie says Earn’ll soon learn that “family is business.” Earn’s clap back is the most sobering revelation of the entire episode. But Earn and his uncle’s eventual heart-to-heart reveals two men struggling to get a grasp on life. Pride weighs down both men. “What I’m scared of is being you,” Earn says. “Someone everybody knew was smart. But ended up being a know-it-all, f— up that just let s— happen to him.”

A subplot to this episode is the reality of the unknown. We don’t know (yet) why Darius and Paper Boi aren’t talking. We know Paper Boi’s mother died — but we don’t know how Willie may have played a role in that. And we don’t fully know why Earn is holding an emotional grudge toward his Uncle Willie with regard to his mother. It’s part of the larger arc of this season. We know these characters. We know their hopes and dreams. We know their fears. We even know Darius’ deep-rooted conspiracy theories. But we still don’t know their entire story.

Maybe those answers will arise over the course of season two, but Willie gives Earn a gold-plated handgun (is it Chekhov’s?) that looks straight out of Nintendo 64’s Goldeneye and a piece of advice: “If you don’t wanna end up like me, get rid of that ‘chip on your shoulder’ s—. It’s not worth the time.” It’s an OG comedian/actor who had the world in his palms, but self-inflicted mistakes ruptured the potential he had in his hands — giving a current comedian/actor with nothing but green pastures ahead of him game he needs to survive not just the game but his own pitfalls. Earn also takes a framed picture of his Uncle Willie and mother before he leaves. Williams absolutely shines in this episode, adding to a very impressive 2018 for the controversial comedian that also includes a standout comedy special in Great America.

The episode ends on three separate notes: hilarious, comforting and similar. Hilarious because eventually Coach the Alligator makes his appearance. This allows Uncle Willie to peel out the back door with the fastest speed known to man. Not Usain-Bolt-in-the-Olympics speed, but run-from-the-police speed. Comforting because Paper Boi and Darius move toward peace. And similar because Earn leaves Paper Boi’s house still homeless. It’s darker in Atlanta, just as many predicted.

New year and new kidney a miracle for Atlanta tot Mother said hospital gambled with son’s life by postponing transplant surgery after dad’s arrest

For one Atlanta-area toddler and his family, “Happy New Year” is an understatement.

Two-year-old A.J. Burgess spent a quiet, but spirited, Christmas Day with his mother, Carmellia Burgess, and sisters Zi’Yonna, 7, Za’Karreah, 5, and Kimora, 1, at their home in Snellville, Georgia. In the midst of opening presents and enjoying a holiday dinner, they reflected on his Thanksgiving miracle turned Christmas gift of life.

“It [was] his first Christmas with a kidney,” said Burgess of her son, who maintained his wide smile and sunny disposition even amid the worst of his health challenges. “We’ve wanted that so long, there really isn’t anything else to ask for.”

“Baby A.J.” was born prematurely without working kidneys, kicking off a prolonged medical crisis that would include countless hospital stays and, eventually, nightly dialysis treatments to survive. His father, Anthony Dickerson, was found to be a perfect match and volunteered to donate his left kidney. But Emory University Hospital canceled the transplant surgery, which had been scheduled for Oct. 3, after Dickerson was arrested for allegedly violating his parole by possessing a firearm while fleeing police.

Family attorney Mawuli Davis said Emory Hospital officials had written jail officials asking that Dickerson be released on bond. But he said they stopped proceeding on the day of the surgery, “stating that they delayed the transplant to January 2018, because they would require proof from [Dickerson’s] parole officer that he had complied with parole for three months.”

Hospital officials later said in a statement that they needed to be sure Dickerson would adhere to the strict aftercare requirements for living donors. But Burgess said A.J. might not have made it that long.

“I don’t understand what his dad getting arrested had to do with giving my son the kidney he needed to live,” she said. “There was a kidney right there, and [the hospital was] giving us the runaround. I felt like they were just gambling with my son’s life.”

Members of the community, religious and civic leaders and some Emory University theology students responded to the hospital’s decision by picketing and hosting prayer vigils.

“Emory’s denial of Baby A.J.’s kidney transplant was not only cruel and inhumane, but it was unethical and [contrary] to the very reason the hospital exists: You do no harm and render aid to the sick. This baby’s life hung in the balance while this institution marched in place,” said Derrick Boazman, an Atlanta talk radio host and community activist who led protests and joined in meetings with hospital administrators on Baby A.J.’s behalf.

As the outcry for Baby A.J.’s surgery to move forward mounted, Davis, fellow family attorney Harold Spence and community activists met with hospital administrators, hoping to inspire a change of heart.

Their prayers were answered the Tuesday before Thanksgiving — but not how they expected. Burgess said Emory Healthcare called around 8:30 p.m. to say that a deceased organ donor was a match for little A.J. The family rushed to the hospital to complete blood work and to get him prepped for surgery.

“I was in shock about this unbelievable blessing,” recalled Burgess. “I was so excited I could not think straight. I was putting dirty clothes in my bag. I didn’t put any outfits together. My mom ended up packing his bag for me. It was just crazy.”

The successful nearly three-hour surgery took place on Thanksgiving Eve, and the next day the family celebrated the holiday, and his new kidney, together at the hospital.

Davis said A.J.’s victory was also a win for the community.

“To know that Baby A.J. has been given the gift of life gives us hope as a community as 2017 comes to an end,” said Davis. “So many people stood up for him and his family, so many prayers were answered. It renews your faith in humanity.”

Burgess said A.J. has been doing great overall and the kidney has been functioning well. He has been battling some bladder pain that they hope won’t have to be addressed with surgery. She said that hasn’t stopped A.J. from smiling and being the fun-loving kid he’s always been. He’s also been enjoying “potty training” for the first time.

“All of Atlanta can be grateful that A.J. was the successful recipient of a kidney transplant,” Emory University Hospital spokeswoman Holly Korschun said in a statement. “Over the past few weeks, many in our community have rallied to A.J.’s cause. His parents were passionate and courageous advocates, and they showed all of us the true meaning of unconditional love.”

Burgess said she’s all out of wishes for a while, especially since filmmaker Tyler Perry heard that the vehicle she’d used to transport her children had been totaled in a crash and he replaced it with a new Honda Pilot SUV. She’d picked it up from the dealership just hours before the kidney donor call came in.

A.J. and his family have a lot to look forward to in 2018, including a meet-and-greet to “thank the community” planned for next month, which will also double as a third birthday celebration for A.J.

Burgess said she’s still processing her son’s whirlwind experience. “Somebody died so my son could live,” she said. “There’s no other way to describe how I feel — just blessed.”

Daily Dose: 11/14/17 Ibtihaj Muhammad gets her own Barbie doll

Tuesday’s a TV day, so be sure to tune in to Around The Horn at 5 p.m. on ESPN. Otherwise, I’ll have some updates for you soon on what the radio schedule will be for the holiday season.

A year ago Tuesday we lost Gwen Ifill. It feels like so much longer, considering what this country has endured in the past year and how important journalism has been to the entire landscape. She was a legend, an incredible professional and a beacon in the business. Now, on the anniversary of her passing, Simmons College will name one of its schools after Ifill, who graduated from the Boston school in 1977. Frankly, a whole lot more institutions, not just academic ones, should follow their lead.

Meek Mill officially has the whole ‘hood behind him. After it was ruled that he’d be going to state prison for at least two years as a result of yet another parole violation, people from all walks of life came out to support him. Fans and Eagles players showed up at a rally for the Philadelphia native rapper Monday night. The owner of the 76ers wrote a letter to the judge on behalf of Meek. His label head, Rick Ross, was in the building as well, but most interestingly that rumor about the judge involved has gone even further, which is weird. Kap has his back as well.

Remember Rachel Dolezal? The lady who said that she’s transracial and went on that whole media tour to sell books about the matter? She claimed she “identified” as black and therefore should be respected as such? That nonsense? Yeah, well, now she’s got a follower. Some dude in Florida is claiming that he is, in fact, a Filipino man at heart, which he claims to be true because he really enjoys the food. In case this needs to be clarified, all of this is laughably absurd.

Ibtihaj Muhammad is an Olympic fencer. She also happens to be a Muslim woman, and the first woman to compete for the United States while wearing a hijab. I had the fortunate pleasure of meeting her once for a panel discussion, and she was one of the smartest, nicest people I’ve ever met. Now, the trailblazer has been named as part of Barbie’s new “Shero” line. In other words, she’s getting her own Barbie doll, which is amazing. So, if you’re looking for something for a child this holiday season, get after it.

Free Food

Coffee Break: Speaking of hijab, do not ever remove another person’s for any reason. It is, No. 1, a personal space violation, secondarily an assault and arguably a hate crime. They are religious headscarves, period. One teacher decided to join her students in removing one girl’s in class. Unbelievably infuriating.

Snack Time: If you don’t know who Anita Hemmings is, she’s the first black woman to graduate from Vassar College. She also passed as white to do so. Thanks to Zendaya, her story is coming to the big screen.

Dessert: When you make the World Cup, do this.