The Daily Outrage

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Abolish Death By Incarceration: What I Planned to Say at the U.N. Permanent Forum on People of African Descent

Two weeks ago, I returned to the city of my adolescent years, revved up to join the Center for Constitutional Rights team in taking our cause to the world stage. The United Nations Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, which held a session in New York City from May 30th to June 2nd, was as proper a platform as any, or so we initially thought. After all, Death By Incarceration (DBI) disproportionately afflicts communities of African descent. But the day ended with me being one of a very long list of people who did not get a chance to speak. Many had traveled much farther than I had, even from other countries, in hopes of speaking for a meager two minutes. What we experienced was not a mismanagement of time, but a very typical disregard for regular people’s sacrifices, grievances, and lives. We watched in frustration as governmental talking heads burned up the majority of the people’s time. Many people went home unheard. We realize, however, that it’s important to see value in the anticlimactic outcomes in our struggle. Romanticizing our efforts won’t help us accomplish our mission. So, we take the bitter with the sweet. And the sweet of it all for me was getting to work with comrades. Salutes to the Center for Constitutional Rights and to our DBI International Advocacy Team.

Here’s the statement i was prepared to give at the UN: 

I come before this distinguished body of global citizens today to call on you to abolish the sentence of life without parole, or what a growing number of us more aptly refer to as Death By Incarceration. I come before you as someone who was condemned to DBI at the age of 15 and served over 30 years in prison before I received a second chance that went against the designs of my sentence. I speak not as an expert but as a witness.

DBI is legal condemnation where a person is sentenced to die in prison. But, the sentence affects more than the people it condemns. The sentence has devastating impacts on the health and well-being of communities of African descent in America It further destabilizes and cripples Black families and communities for generations. Fifteen percent of this country’s prison population are serving DBI sentences. Two thirds of those condemned are of African descent. Half are 50 or older. The sentence disappears sources of wisdom from Black families and communities forever. Consequently, millions of children who have a condemned parent are now seven times more likely to be imprisoned themselves. Those children are more prone to depression, anxiety, school phobias, and other emotional disorders that contribute to violence and self-destructive behaviors that consume their lives and the lives of everyone around them. This is helping to make our communities ever-more unlivable. A huge percentage of people sentenced to DBI have mental illnesses. The sentence serves to exacerbate mental issues and compound our community’s struggle to create peace and safety. Our complaint to the United Nations that “Death by Incarceration is Torture” presents these and many more unconscionable facts for the global community to see about the sentence and the havoc it disproportionately wreaks on communities of African descent.

Some might argue that this sentence is necessary for people who’ve caused irreparable harm. But, one of things all the nations of the world should honor is the human capacity for atonement and redemption after causing harm. Five years after my release from prison, I am a husband, a father, a homeowner, a servant of my community, and now standing before you, a global citizen. Countless others still languishing behind prison walls and succumbing to DBI sentences deserve an opportunity to show the same capacity for redemption. Our communities need healing justice over hanging justice. Please abolish DBI. The health and well-being of our communities would benefit greatly for generations to come.

After decades in prison, Kempis Songster, also known as Ghani, has reemerged in the free society as an outspoken human rights advocate. He is a founding member of Right to Redemption, one of the four groups that make up the Coalition to Abolish to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI). For 3 1/2 year's Ghani was Amistad Law Project's Healing Justice Organizer, and continues to be a member of the Abolitionist Law Center's Advisory Board. Ghani currently works with the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project (YASP) as Program Manager of their restorative justice diversion program called Healing Futures. He also co-authored the visionary legal article “Redeeming Justice,” along with Rachel Lopez and Terrell Carter, which has inspired the filing of a complaint against DBI in International Court.

Last modified 

June 15, 2023