A Very Little Key Can Open a Very Heavy Door

Last Friday, my Leadership Los Angeles class brought me to jail. Literally. We toured the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown L.A. My entire privileged existence was a dramatic contrast to these surroundings. I want to share with you what I discovered in three areas- not that I might change your minds on notions you have – but that you challenge yourself on this topic that impacts all of us.

1. Police brutality is real. The racial divide in this country is significant. These are issues that need to be addressed. But focusing only on the bad significantly brings down the morale of the good, of which, I dare say, are the majority. The sheriffs we encountered were compassionate and kind to many individuals whom, I would imagine, are most challenging to be kind to daily. What I witnessed as I toured the jail, I would never want to see again. And yet, these sheriffs not only come back every day, they feel privileged to do their jobs.

2. We are a country whose prison system leads with punishment. We need to be a country whose prison system leads with healing. That said, we couldn’t have a healing system without a nation that fully embraces mental illness as a disease that should be treated like any other disease we encounter. Lose the stereotypes. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 45 percent of the population have a mental illness in one form or another, either as a state or a trait, at some point in their life. Many of these prisoners coming in are battling mental illness. Many of you know someone, love someone or are someone with a mental illness. While you may have the ability to access a doctor, someone else may only have the ability to access a gun.

3. The day ended with a panel discussion led by Scott Budnick, founder & president of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, ARC. ARC’s work to support the lives of men and women formerly incarcerated is truly humbling. Members, in turn, commit to live crime-free, gang-free, drug-free, in school or working, and in service to their community. Sounds simple. It’s not. It is hard, hard, hard work. But guess what? It is working. On this panel sat four men who benefited from ARC’s work.  All four men had some items in common – former gang members, no father (or no stable father figure) or an abusive father and limited life choices.  Some committed murder. Some committed multiple murders. Their lives had been centered on survival, which meant violence in their communities. Ironically, their way to live was to kill. In jail, ARC entered their lives. Education entered their lives. Consistency, mental health help, people who believed in them, books, school, and choices that did not include violence entered their lives.  And they rose up. They were released from prison. They are productive members of our society.

I sat in that room fighting back tears. I sat there knowing that if I took a real hard look at myself, I would not like it. If before this day and before meeting these four, courageous men, someone told me an individual in front of me had been a former gang member and murderer, I would be ok locking him or her up and throwing away the key.

Today, I say to you, that key I wanted to use to imprison, I now want to use to open doors that serve, support and advocate on behalf of those in the system who want to turn their lives around and contribute to society. I encourage you to tour a jail. I encourage you to do your research on prisons, mental health and different approaches to address recidivism. I encourage you to learn more about ARC. I encourage you to think about the key you hold and recall “a very little key can open a very heavy door.”

Claudine Battisti (Senior Manager, Marketing & Communications, Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, LLA ’15)