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The Labor of Love

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

Written by: Rodert 'Nadir' Johnson

My wife's experience in advocating for incarcerated people and being made aware of the conditions of the penal system started with our relationship. I'm currently serving time for murder for which I plead guilty to a 35 year sentence. I have served a little over 25 years. My wife, Lulu, made a conscious decision to build a life with me through my incarceration. We have known each other since our teenage years and we reconnected via mail after not knowing each other's whereabouts for over 20 years. Lulu eventually found out about me being locked up in South Carolina after talking to an old childhood friend of ours. She couldn't believe I had been incarcerated for so long, far away from my family and friends. She was excited about reaching out to me and letting me know that I had been on her mind. So she looked me up on SCDC inmate search, found my location, and wrote me a letter. When I wrote her back, she was elated to receive my letter in a week's time and to read how I expressed myself with such uplifting and positive spirits. The growth and depth of our correspondence was inspiring. We continued corresponding through letters and talking over the phone and, eventually, she was approved for visitation. Our relationship grew, leading to us making arrangements to get married. I was confident about what we were building. I looked forward to having a future with this amazing woman. I loved her since we were teenagers and envisioned being with her for the duration of my life. Although I would still have many years left to serve in prison we were committed to make it work being each other's #1 supporter.

Everything seemed to be going good our first year of marriage while incarcerated. Within that year we chronicled our budding union on a podcast she started, called “Married to An Inmate.” We talked about topics that were of curiosity to many who were in relationships with incarcerated loved ones and looked to be encouraged and supported. It came to our surprise that many of the viewers were not connected to anyone incarcerated, but had an interest in the relationship dynamics.

COVID-19 hit and visitation was suspended. The impact was devastating and life altering for those in society and, we would come to find out, even more so for those incarcerated. There was initially very little accommodations and safety measures taken to ensure the health of those inside. As cases continued to climb, my institution experienced the most cases, with over half the population testing positive. My unit was 80% positive. The agency scrambled to save face for lack of preparation in what was turning out to be a deadly pandemic. In lieu of my wife and others not being able to visit their loved ones, they sought support in social media spaces. They discussed how their loved ones had been treated inside, what they could do to bring attention to the negligence of the department and how to get some answers. Some people had loved ones who died, due to lack of medical care, shortage of staff to assist people in immediate need, and just the exposure of those at high risk due to old age or pre-existing conditions. After learning about the lost lives of elderly people inside who had been in for decades and had been routinely denied parole Lulu's conscience couldn't rest knowing that her husband, although relatively young and healthy, was locked away in a place that was run by people who could care less whether we lived or died.

While frequenting the social media group for loved ones of the incarcerated she learned about a rally being held in Columbia SC to raise awareness about the COVID-19 crisis in SCDC. She attended that rally in June 2020 and was given the opportunity to speak on my behalf. She was my voice and the voice of so many silenced by the system and rendered helpless to carceral conditions that controlled our lives. She was forced to grapple with the questions: "Is this what justice is supposed to look like? To incarcerate people and suffocate their will to live and change for the better by shutting out the light of hope?" I must admit, she became enraged with what was the obvious reply from the blatant disregard of the system for human life and well-being. That rally empowered her to take steps in the direction of change that we believe this system, this state, this country is worthy of and has been long overdue for. So, she challenged all of those in attendance to take the proactive steps to email senators, agency heads and local representatives and inform them of the changes we want to see and to speak up.

Lulu and I wanted to see justice for the lives of those impacted by crime and incarceration. After looking into the different approaches to this end we chose to adopt the restorative justice. It is aligned with our faith centered views and belief in redemption and restoration through forgiveness. Hence we founded SC4 RESTORATIVE Justice, which focuses on healing criminal trauma by means of reconciliation between victims, offenders and the broader community. Through our research and networking with different advocacy organizations, the restorative justice approach has yielded beneficial results in regards to the healing of victims, holding incarcerated people accountable for their remorse driven transformation, and their responsibility to victims and the community. Being a victim of a violent sexual assault herself, my wife knows first hand how important it is to have the victims experience validated and to have some level of confidence that if her victimizer is released he has taken steps to change and not reoffend. As for the price he should pay for his crime, if he doesn't change from the ordeal what does it matter? If the survivor is healed in the belief and understanding that their offender is not the same person who committed the crime then justice is achieved in a complete and restorative way. If survivors can see remorse and redemption, then the community and society will see it.

The following year in April 2021 we SC4 RESTORATIVE JUSTICE launched our first Community summit featuring some of South Carolina's leading Criminal Justice Reform advocates and organizations. All in attendance were amazed to see all of SC's leading advocates at the same venue and congratulated Lulu on her organizing efforts. What was most inspiring to her was that most of those advocates were formerly incarcerated and were being example contributors to their communities. In that same year my wife spoke at an open legislative hearing that afforded advocates the opportunity to present pressing issues in the community surrounding criminal justice reforms in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. She and other advocates addressed the issue of South Carolina's worsening stability of its correctional institutions which culminated into the most deadly prison riot in America's history. There were several issues presented along with the solutions, which have yet to be implemented. In the meantime, we felt that it will be an integral part of our organization's mission not only to advocate for changes in criminal justice policy but also to change the narrative of those incarcerated by humanizing the stories behind their worst deeds. We wanted to highlight the various stories of redemption as a campaign to invoke empathy in lawmakers, governors, prison officials and the community at large. She would call this campaign Second Chances, instilling in our community and to policymakers across the aisle that people can and have changed and that progressive educational and therapeutic rehabilitation models can work in the efforts to reduce mass incarceration.

Through her advocating for justice impacted people, victims and offenders alike, Lulu has encountered many stories of wrongfully convicted people who have been victims of miscarriages of justice. Some have since been released and some remain inside. One such person by the name of Carmen Rice, currently serving life for a crime she did not commit. She is now in court pleading her case to be released, due to withheld exculpatory evidence (i.e., evidence proving her innocence), and witness admission to falsifying statements against her. She has been locked away from her family for over 20 years, while innocent and denied her freedom due to the prosecutor's failure to execute due diligence and fairness. Stories like Doug O'Neal, who was recently released after being wrongfully convicted and serving 24 years in prison. The prosecutor in his case was proactive and forthcoming in proving his innocence and vindication of his case. Stories like these and others have shown that those who advocate for criminal justice reform are on the right side of justice where our institutions have failed to secure and protect the rights of its citizens and work towards a just society. This is why we've partnered with Dream Corps Justice in presenting The Day of Empathy to South Carolina's leaders of criminal justice policy in hopes that the aspirations of creating a fair and just society are realized as in the words Fyodor Dostoyevsky:

"A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals."

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