For Khalil Cumberbatch, it was never a question of whether he would go to prison, but when.
Cumberbatch grew up in South Jamaica, Queens, during the 1980s; in the latter part of the decade, the neighborhood was decimated by the crack epidemic and the drug trade that came with it. There were “systems of oppression” everywhere he turned, from underfunded schools to draconian policing.
In this environment, “where everything you do can easily be criminalized,” discussions about incarceration were as common as those about sports and girls, Cumberbatch said.
“Prison culture shaped my experience—my friends and I talked about it in the sense that it was inevitable,” he told the crowd gathered at the Theresa Lang Community and Student Center in April. “I expected to be arrested.”
And, in 2003, he was: Cumberbatch, then young and impressionable, landed behind bars. Not one to let time go to waste, he spent the next seven years working on behalf of the prison reentry community and, in 2010, was granted clemency by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Today he serves as manager of training and communications at JustLeadershipUSA, a national organization that advocates for reforms to reduce incarceration.