By David Rocchio
Locked up at age 16 and sentenced to five years, he had already served three when we met. He was a convicted armed robber, the first prisoner that I met in Georgia. In the car on the way to the prison, I learned of the particulars regarding his case: after finishing work he had gotten drunk and robbed a woman walking down the street. He didn’t know her. It was a random act of violence. His mother contacted Georgia Justice Project (GJP) soon after he was arrested. We agreed to represent him believing that our holistic approach could make a difference in his life. He failed three lie detector tests before breaking down and admitting that he committed the crime. As is our practice, we continued the relationship with him, regardless of the outcome of the case. This would be a standard visit—one of about 25 that I would perform that year. My stomach was churning.
Bonner eased the churning. My hesitancy and reluctance slowly disappeared as we began our conversation. Bonner surprised and impressed me. The stereotype of a withdrawn and violent individual evaporated quickly in the face of Bonner’s youth, sense of humor, and curiosity. Bonner seemed starved for companionship and craved conversation. He was intelligent and asked engaging questions about GJP, Atlanta, and his family. In a subsequent visit, Bonner asked that I help him make a birthday card for his mom. Over the next few years I visited him several times—listening, talking, and confronting. At each visit, I found out a little more about his case, learned of his adjusting to prison, and watched personal walls being erected that would incarcerate Bonner far longer than the Department of Corrections ever would. My last visit was on August 20.
Bonner was released a week later. He began work with New Horizon Landscaping, GJP’s jobs program, on August 31. I see Bonner daily. Bonner is learning how to cut grass, blow leaves, and plant Foster Hollies. More importantly, Bonner is learning the difference between a supervisor and a guard, how to deal with conflict, and how to build a small business. In May, we began posting NHL’s profit and loss performance daily so employees can learn the financial aspects of business operation. For years NHL has operated “in the red” with the understanding that jobs and job training were of a higher priority than profits. On Monday, Bonner came in asking to see the numbers from last week— where did we make money? Where did we lose money? How can I help make NHL and GJP stronger? Bonner’s investment in the success of the business mirrors his investment in his own success.
The vast majority of people currently in prison will be released. Bonner’s tenure in prison, though perhaps deserved, did not prepare him for reintegration into society. But because GJP represented Bonner, maintained a relationship with Bonner, and then employed Bonner upon his release from prison, his reintegration has been less arduous and more promising. Lock him up and throw away the key, and he becomes a stranger, an outsider, a “habitual offender.” Lock Bonner up, nurture Bonner, challenge Bonner, accept Bonner and Bonner has the space and tools to transform his life—then the Bonners of our community re-enter society as productive participants, and our community is changed.