Prisoners Mother: You Never Know When It Could Be Your Family Member – Oklahoma Watch

A Mile In Someone Elses Shoes: Justice Reform Activist Emily Barnes

Emily Barnes is a criminal justice reform advocate and founder of Ignite Justice, a nonprofit group that works to improve prison and jail conditions in Oklahoma. Her 20-year-old son Kody is serving a 25-year sentence for armed robbery at the Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville.

In a new Oklahoma Watch feature A Mile In Anothers Shoes, an initiative to give voice to the voiceless or call attention to the plight of those affected by public policy, Barnes describes fighting for prison reform and what its like to have a family member incarcerated. Her comments were edited for length and clarity:

Im originally from Philadelphia, born and raised. I moved here about 15 years ago and have been here ever since. I was a single mom with two kids and picked a state that was cheap for me to live in where I could survive and raise kids and not struggle.

My first job here was in telemarketing and then I worked at Walmart. Then I actually worked for the Department of Rehabilitation Services where we helped inmates find jobs. I realized when I was working with them how hard it is for a felon to get a job. Every 20 applications they send, they might get one interview. To me, people deserve a second chance, and thats what made me want to get involved.

Incarceration hasnt always been a part of my life. I met a homeless man in Oklahoma City who was released from prison, had no money, no ID, no nothing, and was living on the streets. I said I need to do something. Its because of that homeless man that I decided to get involved with criminal justice reform. That was 15 years ago.

A couple of years after we moved my son started getting in trouble. The first time he got locked up, he was 12 years old. October 31 will be three years inside prison for him. Hes set to be released in 2027, but then he will be on paper for 15 years.

Its like I buried my son but hes still alive. Thats the only way I can describe it to people. Its a horrible feeling. Then, every day you have to worry, is he going to get stabbed? Am I going to get a phone call telling me my son committed suicide because he cant handle it no more? Thats my biggest fear. I fear that every day of my life. This is the worst nightmare, and I just want to wake up from it and for it to be over.

Holidays are hard. Mothers Day is definitely hard. Not even being able to go into a park and hang out with your family, like, its hard. And whats even harder is, you know, your own family judges you because your loved ones are locked up. I have my good days, and I have my days where I just cry about it.

I really started getting involved with Facebook groups about four years ago when Kody was still sitting in county jail. I was like Im going to start my own nonprofit, I need to make a change and fight for them. My son doesnt deserve to live in those types of living conditions.

Their human rights are being violated. That to me is one of the main issues. Just because someone is in jail or prison doesnt mean that they deserve to be treated like an animal. They shouldnt have to lay on a cot and have bed bugs crawl on them, or flush the toilet and its overflowing in their cell. Even the food; they shouldnt be given green bologna. Theyre sent to prison to do their sentence, not to be treated inhumanely.

Ignite Justice is a voice. A lot of families are scared of retaliation. They dont want to speak up because theyre scared of what would happen to their loved one inside. I feel like I get to speak for them. Then you have a lot of inmates who dont have any family support, they dont have nobody to fight for them.

Every day Im writing emails to the governors office and to legislators. Im emailing wardens trying to solve issues inside the prisons. Its a 24-hour-per-day day job advocating.

A lot of times you dont get a response back, but then I just send another email and widen it to the next person.

The one place I see something actually being done is the Oklahoma County Jail. With us being out there every month, doing news reports, and going to the media nonstop, people are responding. Now we have legislators wanting to get involved and are speaking out now about the deaths and the conditions and fighting to get the federal government involved. Thats a big step.

Eventually, my goal is to open a resource room where former inmates can come and we can teach them how to work with a computer, help them do resumes and even have a clothing closet so they can pick out an outfit to wear to an interview. I want Ignite Justice to be a support system for inmates. You might not have family anymore, you might not have loved ones here, but you will always have us to help you any way we can. Thats the legacy I want.

When my son gets out at 27 years old, he has no job experience. Hes on a ninth-grade reading level. What does the future actually hold for him? I worry about that. Making my son do classes while hes locked up, it shouldnt be an option. It should be mandatory. They should be helping them to prepare for society, not just letting them do whatever they want. And then they get out and they wonder why they re-offend. Theyre not giving them the tools to survive in the real world.

One thing Ive learned about and have tried to explain to people: You never know when it could be one of your family members. Unfortunately, until it happens, someone wont look at inmates differently. Theyre always going to be judged.

Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org.Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss

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Prisoners Mother: You Never Know When It Could Be Your Family Member - Oklahoma Watch

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