A Federal Prisoner Sees Hope in Government's New Direction

"I can now say I am truly proud to be an American," said federal inmate Ricky Bryant of Barack Obama's election to the presidency. (Courtesy Of Ricky Bryant)
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By Robert Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

People from across the country are arriving for the inauguration of America's first black president. Who are these people? In their stories is a portrait of a nation. One in a series.

Ricky Bryant will watch the inauguration from a prison cell. On the day a black man becomes leader of the free world, Bryant and almost 900,000 other African Americans will mark the event behind bars.

Locked up for 30 years for his part in a robbery and homicide in the District, Bryant is among the more than 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States. Prison populations have risen steadily since the 1970s, hitting the 1 million mark in 1990 and breaking the 2 million barrier 12 years later.

For African Americans, the numbers are even more bleak. Almost one in four young black men in America is incarcerated or on parole or probation. Social scientists say one in three black men will spend time behind bars in his lifetime.

Bryant, 49, does not expect a drastic shift in policy when Barack Obama becomes president but hopes that at least there will be a discussion of the racial disparities in sentencing.

"I don't know if he has hands-on policies toward it, but I hope it can be brought to his Cabinet's attention," Bryant said. "If you want to save money, you have to let people become productive citizens again."

Until two weeks ago, Bryant had been held with 1,500 men at the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. He has since been transferred to the Allenwood medium-security facility nearby. All District felons are sent to federal prisons and can be scattered across the country, depending on where space is available.

The federal government, Bryant said, could save money by reducing the sentences of inmates with clean records while in prison. He said his record is exemplary except for a 1995 incident in which he burned a sheet in a cell to protest being unfairly locked down. The U.S. Parole Commission, he said, unfairly added time to his sentence years later.

"I'm feeling like they're giving us unnecessary hits to keep their jobs," Bryant said.

His own case aside, however, Bryant said there is optimism inside prison walls, where Obama's inauguration is being followed with as much interest as there is on the outside.

"It a historical event," he said. "I have to watch it. For more people I run across, people are really proud that America has opened its eyes and accepted people for who they are."

He considers Obama's election the realization of dreams born long before either one of them. "I can now say I am truly proud to be an American," he said. "I look at it as Martin's dream come true. I think it's Malcolm's dream come true. I look at it as Marcus Garvey's dream come true. It's bigger than Obama."

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