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33 Years of Imprisonment Prepared Me for This

33 Years of Imprisonment Prepared Me for This

Date: August 18, 2021

By: Bill Underwood, Senior Fellow at The Sentencing Project’s Campaign to End Life Imprisonment

It’s June 17, 2021. It’s the 50th anniversary of President Nixon’s declaration of the War on Drugs — and it’s the day I get to testify before members of the House Judiciary Committee about the legacy and harms of the punitive criminal justice policies that came out of this war.

It’s also my 148th day back in society: just five months ago, I was still in federal prison serving a life-without-parole sentence. But today, I am a Senior Fellow at the Sentencing Project’s Campaign to End Life Imprisonment. 

As I straighten my tie and practice my testimony, I’m anxious and nervous, yet grateful for the opportunity to speak on behalf of so many who are still in prison — the faceless, the voiceless, those known only by a number, those rarely given the opportunity to speak for themselves. 

Kara Gostch, Deputy Director of The Sentencing Project, advised me to take my time when I speak and “not to worry, you’re going to do great.” My daughter Ebony and her videographer are also with us, documenting this journey I’m on. After clearing security, we proceed to a waiting room with congressional staffers and the other advocates who will give testimony. 

Soon enough, the moment is upon us, and we are escorted to the hearing room. We all sit in our assigned areas, and the Members of Congress file in to sit in theirs. Chairwoman Sheila Jackson Lee brings the hearing to order and reads the rules. This is it, I think to myself: Breath and remain calm, you gotta do this for all the men and women you left behind.  

I look around the room and realize I’m the only person on the panel with lived experience of serving time behind bars, the only one with over three decades in prison who can speak to the harms of the War on Drugs from a personal sense. I also realize that this moment will change the trajectory of my existence as a formerly incarcerated person: it represents the beginning of my work using my voice and lived experience to bring about policy change. 

When it’s my turn to testify, I use that lived experience to tell Congress that, in order to begin repairing the harms of the War on Drugs, we must end the mandatory minimums and needlessly harsh sentences that have led this country down the rabbit hole of mass incarceration. 

I leave the hearing room feeling forever grateful for the opportunity to do this work. Forever grateful that I can lift up the names and stories of those still behind bars to urge this country’s leaders to support legislation that can create a fairer, more compassionate justice system. Forever grateful to exhibit what a Second Chance looks like.

Every single one of us can help push this country in the right direction. Please consider writing to your senators to urge them to support the First Step Implementation Act and COVID-19 Safer Detention Act — both of which would reduce needlessly lengthy prison sentences and allow more people behind bars a second chance.