Human Rights

No Redemption for Ex-Offender by Tulane's Law School Students

Bruce Reilly's struggles demonstrate how hard it is to re-enter society as a productive citizen

Bruce Reilly is a first-year law student who received a scholarship from Tulane University and the NAACP to achieve his dream of becoming an attorney. Bruce's love of the law blossomed after working in his community as an activist helping those that were marginalized. Before this he served 12 years in prison for committing the biggest mistake in his life when he took someone's life. For the crime he committed a life-time ago, he is now going through the ringer because of the stigma brought on by carrying the "scarlet letter" of being an ex-offender. It made me think if someone could ever move on from their past and was there a crime you could commit that you cannot be forgiven for?

Bruce, a nice guy and well-know activist in the field of criminal justice reform, had been dealing with the whispers of his past, but the shit hit the fan when an editor at a popular legal web site called Above the Law wrote a piece on him and tilted it "New Tulane 1L Is an Advocate, A Writer, and A Murderer." The writer asked readers which of the nouns in the title had caught their attention. This question prompted a multitude of negative comments by fellow law students, some unbelievably hateful and downright wrong. One astute student said "Are the students correct in being worried that, when placed in one of the most stress-inducing environments in the United States, Mr. Reilly will reach his tipping point and live up to his violent past, pulling a Virginia Tech-esque move and harming fellow students?" I could not believe that statements like these were written by law students. To my disbelief, many of them will go on to become attorneys to serve their communities.

I'd like to point out to these misguided future lawyers that there is a lawyer's code of professional responsibility that points out that the rule of law is grounded in respect for the dignity of the individual and the capacity of the individual through reason for enlightened self-government. Law so grounded it makes justice possible, for only through such law does the dignity of the individual attain respect and protection. So for those hateful lawyer wannbes they need to understand what the word respect means before pursuing a distinguished career as an attorney.

But I want to make clear that the bashing that Bruce has gotten from Tulane law students is fairly typical for an ex-offender. The type of behavior displayed by them demonstrates how hard it is to re-enter society as a productive citizen. The road following imprisonment is not an easy one.

Thanks to long-sought sentencing reforms, a growing number of people now under confinement are being released into the community before completing their prison terms. Each year 700,000 prisoners are released, which is quadruple the number 20 years ago. Sadly, two-thirds of those released will return to prison because of a new crime or parole violation within 3 years. Formerly incarcerated people reentering society will face a daunting array of problems preventing them from successfully reintegrating. These include not being able to find employment or secure housing, dealing with substance abuse and mental health problems, and difficulties in reestablishing and developing relationships. On top of this, they also must face counterproductive and debilitating legal and practical barriers, including state and federal laws that hinder their ability to qualify for a job or get a higher education. As a result, communities have been struggling to handle the extraordinary increase in the flow of people from prison cells into society.

So when I hear a story like Bruce's where he has strived to better himself as a human being and to become a productive citizen in society, I am sickened by the actions of his fellow law students at Tulane. When I was released 14 years ago from the living nightmare of imprisonment, I found that returning to the real world was both frightening and unbelievably difficult. Freedom smacked me in the face swiftly, and it was quite overpowering. As the gate of the prison opened and I walked out a free man, I should have been the happiest person alive. But I wasn't. My first steps out of prison were full of cautiousness. I was very scared. My main concern was the question that every prisoner facing release thinks about: "Will I be able to survive life on the outside?"

Now, unbelievably, Bruce Reilly is asking the very same question as a law student on the campus of Tulane University Law School.

Anthony Papa, author of 15 To Life: How I Painted My Way To Freedom, is a communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance.
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