washingtonpost.com
Hard time and testimonials

By Courtland Milloy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 23, 2010; 7:37 PM

I've been hearing testimonials from celebrated black ex-offenders lately about how going to prison may have been the best thing that ever happened to them. And, frankly, it makes me queasy.

"It only takes for them to slam the doors on you one time for you to know that, 'Look, this is serious,' " Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick told NBC sportscaster Bob Costas on Sunday.

Just the slam of a cellblock door - and when it opens again 23 months later, Vick emerges not only a better man, we are told, but a better football player as a result of the experience.

As far as I'm concerned, Vick could have kept that to himself. So what if he is on the road to "redemption" after serving time for operating a dog-fighting ring? The last thing we need is a black pitchman for prisons.

All you have to do is read Michelle Alexander's new book, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," to know there is nothing redemptive about a criminal justice system in which 44 percent of prison inmates are black in a country where blacks make up only 13 percent of the population.

"Once swept into the system, one's chances of being truly free are slim, often to the vanishing point," Alexander writes. "The fact that more than half of the young black men in any large American city are currently under the control of the criminal justice system [or saddled with criminal records] is not - as many argue - just a symptom of poverty or poor choices, but rather evidence of a new racial caste system at work."

Alexander argues that "nothing short of a major social movement" can dismantle such a demonizing system. But too many black athletes and entertainers seem to be working overtime to keep the system shored up.

Dwayne Michael Carter Jr., the 28-year-old rapper known as Lil Wayne, was released Nov. 10 from Rikers Island prison in New York after serving eight months on a weapons violation. He could have spoken out about being caged up with so many black men, at least wondered aloud how it is that in some states blacks make up more than 80 percent of those jailed on drug charges, as Alexander points out, when blacks are no more likely to use drugs than whites.

Instead, Lil Wayne comes out boasting about being rested and ready to party. He also thanked his millions of fans for making him the first rapper in history to release a top-selling album while in prison.

Life behind bars is but a breeze. What a lie.

Jamal Michael Barrow, the gangsta rapper known as Shyne, told Aron Heller of the Associated Press last week that it took eight years at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Upstate New York to find the faith that had eluded him as a free man.

The 32-year-old rapper, a protege of music mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs, converted to Judaism while serving time for attempted murder, changed his name to Moses Michael Levi and now performs as an American Orthodox Jew.

Nothing wrong with having one less rapper doing vulgar, misogynistic lyrics. But for every religious conversion by an inmate that you hear about, there are thousands of others who descend without notice into the depths of prison hell.

During the interview with Costas, Vick made an important observation about his time at the Leavenworth work camp, which may have gotten lost in all the talk about his comeback.

"After four or five months, I started to get comfortable in that environment, and I had to pinch myself and say I'm not supposed to be here," Vick said. Not even a year and he's already starting to get comfortable in his cage, as if he naturally belongs there.

No doubt Vick, who is 30, pinched himself to stay reminded of what freedom means. But he also had a lot of support from former Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy, who visited him in prison, along with family and friends.

Not every inmate gets released into the arms of loved ones, to say nothing of being embraced by the NFL.

"Upon release, ex-offenders are discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, and most will eventually return to prison," Alexander writes.

If Vick and others want to talk about prison life, let them talk about that.

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