Don Ike Jones, an ex-lifer, grabs the microphone in a Dickson Hall conference room, leans into it, and breathes. After gathering his thoughts, Jones responds to a question posed by Associate Professor of Psychology, Dr. Tina Zottoli.
“We’re not our worst mistakes,” Jones said. “We don’t want to be defined by what we did 20 or 30 years ago. We are individuals and we want to be treated as such.
Former life-sentenced minors visited Dickson Hall on April 13 to speak with Associate Professor of Justice Studies Dr. Tarika Daftary Kapur and Zottoli to discuss the issues surrounding long prison sentences For the young.
The panel, “Don’t Throw Away the Key: Changing Perspectives on Juvenile Life Without Parole,” featured both Jones and Donnell Drinks, who both now work with the district attorney’s office in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Drinks works as a mentor and re-entry specialist for Gaining Respect Over Our Worst Nights (GROWN) and Jones works as a criminal intervention specialist for the district attorney’s office.
Preston Shipp, senior policy adviser at Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, was also on hand alongside Drinks and Jones to discuss how he guides states seeking to eliminate youth life without parole.
Shipp wants audiences to change their perspective on what punishment actually does to an individual and the social problems these extreme punishments create.
“We can’t punish every problem and I think that’s what we’re trying to do,” Shipp said. “Juvenile life without parole is an extreme example. When you have someone on parole for life, it’s institutional control forever. It is permanent political deprivation forever; legal discrimination forever.
Jones and Drinks shared their experiences of being sentenced to life without parole and what the opportunity for a second chance meant to them both.
Drinks, who was released in 2018 and served 27 years in prison, wanted a chance at redemption.
“It gave me the opportunity to show the development of who I was as a person,” Drinks said. “Until then I was just a convicted murderer and I know I’m so much more than that. Now I’m not just working for myself, but for my victims. So that was a redemption opportunity.
Jones, who was released in 2019, saw his cancellation as an opportunity to finally be with his family, despite many deaths while incarcerated. He also saw it as an opportunity to show how he has changed over the years.
“Coming in at 17, we weren’t fully developed,” Jones said. “We weren’t what we were going to be now. It gave me the opportunity to show who I am now.
Drinks and Jones participated in organizational work while incarcerated and worked hard to positively impact inmates and wherever they could volunteer. It was in prison that Drinks found his passion for organizational work.
“We had no voice,” Drinks said. “A lot of us held on and tried to do the right thing, but we didn’t have a seat at the table. I wanted a seat at the table, so I decided to take over an organization. I needed to be heard. »
Although they knew they wanted to reintegrate into society early on after getting involved in organizational work, both Drinks and Jones had difficult reintegration processes after their release, especially since they were granted parole for the rest of their lives.
Drinks struggled to find work after his release and struggled to admit his truth and the backstory that came with it. Jones struggled to navigate relationships and had to mature romantically very quickly.
“Coming into prison so young, I missed a lot of the skills that people had,” Jones said. “Coming home and navigating relationships was difficult. I didn’t know how to be with a woman in the outside world. I was 44, but relationship-wise, I was still 17.
Because reintegration was intense for Jones and Drinks, they offered advice for those who want to ethically help people in their reintegration process after release.
“To vouch for people, to give clothes for job interviews [and] help find housing,” Drinks said. “The smallest things in an authentic way help the process of reintegration, [so] be receptive to them.
The panel was held following the research of Kapur and Zottoli, which was conducted on juvenile lifers in 2019 in conjunction with District Attorney Larry Krasner. Kapur and Zottoli met Jones and Drinks while collecting their research on released juvenile lifers and the reintegration process.