“The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.” —James A. Baldwin


I only see him twice a year if I’m lucky, but my brother is one of my best and closest friends. Sometimes he sends me text messages with no context and no explanation. “Agatha Christie is a BEAST!!!”

He’s a strange bird.

A few years ago we got cheap tickets to an improv show at Second City. In one scene, a couple returns from a night of debauchery in Wrigley Field. The wife complains that they’re too old to be kicked out of clubs because of their behavior. The husband throws up his hands in complete exasperation and despair, “but…I’m not better than this!”

We laughed until we couldn’t breathe. We laughed so loudly and for so long that we missed the next joke.

As most good big sisters do, I worry about him constantly. I worry about him driving on old Texas roads in the wee hours of the night. I worry about him being mistaken for a criminal.

I am my brother’s keeper.

I started teaching at the Women’s Correctional Facility because it seemed cool, and it appealed to my sense of adventure. I couldn’t bring books, soft drinks or cell phones. Civilians were sorted into lines. Four metal detectors on the way in. Three on the way out. When asked where I worked, I’d just say 26th & California and watch as people’s eyes would raise. I felt so brave!

  • Tish was in for prostitution and identity theft. She’d been sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend while in grade school and ran away from home. She’d wanted to be a doctor.
  • Karen was 58, in for assault and a series of alcohol-related convictions. Her husband died unexpectedly in a car crash when she was 56. She’d started drinking to help cope, became addicted, and lost herself. She’d never been arrested before. Her wealthy suburban family was ashamed.
  • Jaden was in for possession but her sentence was almost complete. Days before her release she asked if I could recommend any shelters or half-way homes because she’d lost her house since her stay and would now be homeless.
  • I met Mike in a GED-tutoring program a few months later. He was a former track star and aspiring educator. He’d always competed fiercely with his brother– and had always won. One night while he was sleeping, his brother shot him twice in the head. Mike was left with brain damage, cognitive delay, a speech impediment, and a spotty criminal record for substance abuse.
  • Thomas was 36 and just released from a 20-year sentence for pre-meditated murder. He’d been tried as an adult. In high school he was bullied severely, jumped and beaten to the point of unconsciousness. Left to bleed and die in the street, found by strangers, and hospitalized with a coma. The only thing that kept him alive was his lust for vengeance. He vowed that if he lived, he would kill the people who had done that to him. So he did.

I’ve never considered myself a very empathetic person. For me, rules and their associated consequences have always been black and white. If you don’t want the consequences, don’t break the rules. If you don’t want to be treated like a criminal, don’t commit crime. I respect both the spirit and the letter of the law, but I’ve been a strong proponent of legalism. There’s always a choice to make and we should be held accountable for our choices.

I’m not better than this.

The water is muddy now. The lines are blurred. I believe in accountability, but “choice” is a complicated word. Some are unfairly targeted, arrested and prosecuted. Consequences are disproportionate. I feel that I have very little to offer, so I try to learn more and more.

I try not to believe, as I once did, that people are what they do and are incapable of transformation and change. I try to understand the struggle.