Hope Is for Now
The first time I met Lawrence Bartley was at the Suffolk County House of Corrections in Boston on a cold, wet Tuesday night in February. I was there for my weekly “Inside-Out” class that brings college students and incarcerated students together to discuss the most important issues facing the criminal justice system. Lawrence was there as a guest to speak to our class about his publication, News Inside, a free newspaper disseminated in jails and prisons that provides credible and up-to-date information about the criminal justice system and other relevant news.
Lawrence was born and raised in the city of hopes and dreams — New York City. After his parents divorced when he was 14 years-old, Lawrence moved to Jamaica, Queens, where he was exposed to gangs, drugs and violence on a daily basis. By the age of 17, Lawrence had been shot four times and had a daughter on the way.
Lawrence knew he had to escape “the hustle” of Queens. He saw college as his key to a better future. He took night classes and attended summer school in order to graduate high school a semester early. But on Christmas Day 1990, less than a month before he was to graduate, Lawrence’s life changed forever.
That day, Lawrence went to the movies with his friends to see the highly anticipated premiere of The Godfather Part III. During the film, Lawrence’s friends got into a heated argument with another group of teenage boys. As the altercation escalated, shots were fired. Lawrence, who armed himself with a gun he had only recently purchased for protection, aimlessly fired his weapon one time into the dark theater. It was an impulsive decision in a high-pressure situation.
After 25 bullets were recovered from the scene, investigators concluded that the single bullet that came from Lawrence’s gun was the one that took the life of innocent bystander, 15-year-old Tremain Hall. Any hope of a better future Lawrence once had was completely shattered by the 27 years-to-life prison sentence he was handed for the murder of young Tremain.
Initially, Lawrence felt guilt stricken, angry and “destroyed.” It was “the most depressed I’ve ever been,” he remembers. He knew he had to “snap out of it to survive,” but “fear was still ever-present.” Correctional facilities in America generally lack the resources and support inmates need to navigate feelings of grief, guilt, anger, fear and depression. In fact, prisons are designed to create a harsh environment that contributes to the difficult emotional process of incarceration.
Despite the dehumanization he felt, Lawrence says “having a family who still cared about me helped me realize I still possessed value as a person.” Lawrence desperately wanted to go home to his family, so he spent every spare moment studying the law to strengthen his argument for an appeal. But, after years of appealing his case, Lawrence ultimately lost his plea to overturn his conviction.
Instead of slipping back into depression, Lawrence decided “this isn’t the end game.” He still had the hope of parole. He knew he had to build up a strong portfolio with good behavior reports and program certifications in order to qualify for parole, so he committed to becoming the best student he could.
Lawrence “wouldn’t settle for anything less than an A, even an A minus wasn’t good enough.” But A’s can be hard to come by in prison, as inmates often lack access to basic educational resources and adequate academic support. Lawrence often stayed awake until the early morning hours in his cell just to read in quiet. He scavenged through trash cans to read left over newspapers and begged his teachers to print out materials, since library access was extremely limited and Internet access was nonexistent. Despite these obstacles, Lawrence earned an undergraduate degree in behavioral science and a master’s in professional studies. Lawrence also became an advocate against gun violence through a program called Voices From Within during his time at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, New York’s infamous maximum security prison.
Over 27 years, Lawrence moved between 10 different prisons. “Most people in prison don’t have families who can afford to visit, especially if we were upstate. You know, they have to take time off of work, pay for travel and a hotel, all just for a few hours. Even phone calls are expensive,” says Lawrence. However, Lawrence’s wife and father made frequent trips to visit him as he was transferred from prison to prison throughout New York. The hope of seeing his family gave him the strength to overcome his “share of struggles” behind bars, including time in solitary confinement.
While in prison, he also fathered two more children, which gave him “a new sense of hope.” The light at the end of the tunnel was no longer to be free, it was to be the source of light for his children.
As the 27 year mark approached, the freedom Lawrence had hoped for more than half of his life was in the hands of three strangers who had to determine whether or not his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, program certificates, employment records, community service acknowledgments and letters of recommendation, outweighed the fact that an innocent 15-year-old was still dead.
After the board’s review, Lawrence was denied parole.
Feeling “totally defeated,” Lawrence tried to remember why he remained hopeful all these years. He credits this steadfast sense of hope to the unconditional love and support his family showed him; love and support that reminded him of his dignity. “I knew the odds were against me,” says Lawrence, “but I went back [to the parole board] because I wanted to provide love and support for my wife and kids. How was I going to do that in prison?” After sitting in front of the parole board a total of five times in seven months, Lawrence was finally granted parole and released from prison on May 3, 2018.
Roughly two months later, Lawrence landed a job with The Marshall Project, where he launched News Inside. As a victim of information suppression himself, Lawrence hopes that News Inside will help inmates “take value in themselves.” Lawrence says, “I want them to think, ‘if I come out and don’t have any family, no place to stay, I can still make it. And I am not just going to make it, to tread water, I’m going to be great because I have value and I’m going to work on my craft while I’m inside.’”
As I sat in a dark, dull classroom inside the House of Corrections on that cold, rainy night in February, I watched Lawrence Bartley shine as a beacon of hope. When people talk about hope, they talk about the future, not the present. They talk about children and education, not adults and incarceration. They talk about the light at end of the tunnel, not the darkness that surrounds them in the tunnel. Yet Lawrence offers a unique perspective to the narrative of hope; a perspective he developed as an adult experiencing incarceration that teaches us that hope is not just aspiring to reach the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s doing what you can to shine your light through the darkness of tunnel. Hope is for now.
This essay was featured in the Midweek edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper publishes News and Views that Rise Above the Noise and Inspires Hearts and Minds. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.