By Tad DiBiase
Recently I received a letter from a prisoner forwarded to me from an old address. My two children, ages 10 and 13, were a little freaked out that a “criminal” had somehow found our (old) address and sent us a letter.
What if he finds out where we really live and comes after us? How did he find our old address anyway and why is he writing to you? As a former prosecutor and now an attorney for a police department, my children think of “prisoners” as bad people who have hurt others.
I suppose I’m partially to blame for that with my talk over the last 15 years of the various misdeeds (including horrific murders) committed by the people I’ve prosecuted or encountered over my years in law enforcement. The letter was from someone who supposedly had information about a “no body” murder case, my area of so-called expertise.
I explained to my children that simply because he was a prisoner didn’t mean he was a bad person, someone out simply to harm others. This is the same sort of lecture I tell them about people who smoke: they’re not bad people but simply have a bad habit. I reminded them that sometimes people in jail are innocent and maybe this person was reaching out because he was wrongly convicted or knew of someone who was.While I tend not to believe most prisoner’s claims of innocence (because they’re not true) I hardly discount the actuality that there are innocent people who are in prison.
Years ago I was part of a school tutoring program with fellow colleagues from the US Attorney’s Office. We taught a class about criminal law to elementary school students and one day one of the students asked my colleague if he prosecuted “bad people.” My colleague adroitly answered that he didn’t prosecute bad people, but people who did bad things.
I’ve often thought of his response over the years and this conversation with my own children got me thinking about how we label people and how those labels can become defining: prisoner, defendant, criminal, victim. Often we label someone and believe that we’re done. “That person is a prisoner and therefore can’t be trusted.” “That person is a victim so everything they do is acceptable.” But we all know that’s not the case. Sometimes prisoners do tell the truth, are worthy of redemption and, gasp, may be innocent. Not all victims are flawless angels wronged by someone else’s criminality.
Labeling is often lazy and can prevent us from seeing the full picture of a person. Beyond the label “human” it’s often useless to try to label someone as anything more. We need to work to look behind the labels we use and see the true person inside.