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I recently had a conversation with a correctional officer. She asked me why I was in prison. I told her for a homicide, a robbery that went wrong and how I did plan to rob the man but didn’t plan on killing him.
Once the guy found out that a robbery was taking place, he rushed me.
I was 17. He was 32, a grown man and a bodybuilder. If he would have taken my gun or got a hold of me, I would have been dead.
Before he made it to me, I squeezed the trigger once. To stop him, not kill him. Yet that shot was final.
It was fatal.
Instead of calling the police, or an ambulance, I left the man there to die. I left him there to choke on his own blood, the most egregious thing I have ever done.
I told the correctional officer that I didn’t value life then. Mine or anybody else’s.
The streets make people callous in that way. A form of nihilism. And also a form of fatalism.
I went on to tell her, at 17, my decision-making wasn’t the best. You know the science that says our brains aren’t developed until our mid-20s? I told her that, and it is credible.
Science and reality are a little different though.
I know grown men who act as silly and reckless as I did as a teen.
I had a gun, which some would argue meant killing was a possibility, and I was aware of that possibility. That gun for me was a way to intimidate the guy. I never planned on taking his life.
The correctional officer went on to tell me that if somebody did that to one of her relatives, she would want them to have life in prison. Then she asked me: Do I think I received enough time?
I said hell yeah. I received 25 years, in at the age of 17, plus 20 years’ probation. I went on to say I should have gotten time, but 25 years is too much.
After my first 10 years, I should have been evaluated based on my achievements while incarcerated: My adjustment; my behavior; my thought process; and whether or not I could contribute to society.
I said I know some people think that the victim in my case can’t be there for his family; he can’t contribute to society. So why should I have the freedom to do so?
At least I still get to talk to my mother, laugh with my siblings, be involved in the lives of my nieces and nephews while behind bars.
I took that away from a person and his family.
In my own family, I know people who have the same point of view toward the guys who killed my nephew.
They are real sentiments that good, decent and loving people have. It’s not a political argument for the survivors of the dead. They want to make sure that the person who killed their loved one is captured and put away.
They feel that the person who killed their loved one isn’t fit for society and don’t deserve to be free while their loved one is dead.
I told the officer I understood those sentiments. But things aren’t that black and white.
My DA, my judge, the bailiff were all white and dealt with people like me and the victim in my case only in the courts.
Outside the court, if they would have seen my victim in society, they would have rolled up their windows and locked their doors.
It might sound ironic, but I would have been more likely to have a positive human interaction with my victim in society than the people who presided over my case.
I also told her that both his family and my family are the only innocent victims. And that the younger people in my life needed me free to guide them.
I could be mentoring troubled youths. But instead, I am here. How does that benefit anybody?
In America — and it might be the human condition —revenge is tied to the healing of the victim’s family’s and finding them closure.
It has more to do with emotions than with justice.
Emotionalism is understood by the victim’s family but shouldn’t be put into policy during sentencing.
I said that our judicial system is based on revenge when it should be about redemption and rehabilitation.
All of the groups for inmates, provided by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, stress forgiveness, compassion, giving others second chances and not judging people based on the worst mistake they made.
Yet when it comes to prisoners, those same standards of value are not applied to us. They teach these beliefs to us but they don’t practice them.
The correctional officer listened to me with the same sincerity and honesty that I gave her when I listened.
She didn’t change my mind, though.
I don’t know if I changed hers. Come to think of it, we were talking for understanding more than to persuade the other.
Joseph Cook, a former Milwaukee resident, is incarcerated in the medium-security New Lisbon Correctional Institution.