I went from cornerback for the LA Rams to a long prison sentence. Here's what I've learned about reform

Some people become experts in the criminal justice system by going to law school, getting a job as a police officer, or studying criminology in college. I became an expert involuntarily in 1995 when I went from being a highly paid starting cornerback for the Los Angeles Rams to become a federal prison inmate. And I remain a prisoner today.

I was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison on drug trafficking charges and later an additional 21 years for solicitation of murder. Entering prison as a young man, I won’t be eligible for release until I’m 61, after spending over half my life behind bars.

In the nearly 23 years I’ve spent as a prisoner I’ve learned a lot about prison reform from the inside. I know firsthand that true reform must address both public policy and personal identity.

And I’ve learned that far too many people in prison today don’t belong there, or belong there for fewer years. You might think that only convicts or far-left Democrats hold this view, but in fact a lot of Republicans do. And right now they’re trying to get the U.S. Senate to give final passage to prison reform legislation that has already passed the House. I’d like to add my voice of support to this important legislation.

In the nearly 23 years I’ve spent as a prisoner I’ve learned a lot about prison reform from the inside. I know firsthand that true reform must address both public policy and personal identity.

The bill is called the First Step Act, which includes provisions from the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, sponsored by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa – hardly anyone’s idea of a leftist radical.

As Grassley wrote in a Fox News op-ed in April, his bill “focuses law enforcement resources on violent career criminals and drug kingpins instead of non-violent, lower level offenders.”

By eliminating mandatory minimum penalties for low-level nonviolent criminals the legislation gives judges more discretion in sentencing.

As Grassley wrote in his op-ed: “Judges would still be free to impose stiff criminal penalties, but they could also take into account individual circumstances to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. This approach would prevent prisons from being overcrowded with lower-level, nonviolent criminals serving unnecessarily long sentences.”

Recently, family members of my fellow inmates met with over half of the members of the U.S. Senate to urge senators to support the bipartisan First Step Act. The legislation has been called the best opportunity in decades to improve the outdated prison policies that contribute to a high level of recidivism and an epidemic of prolonged family separation.

As a man who has been separated from my daughter for almost 23 years, I am heartened by these efforts. Coupled with the continuing initiatives led by White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner – who contributes his own peerless understanding and maintains an open door to inner city faith leaders – there has arisen much hope that comprehensive bipartisan-backed reform is on the horizon.

Through decades of service as a prison educator, I have witnessed firsthand the harmful effects of current prison policy: limited educational and vocational opportunities; extensive family separation and estrangement; and a mass incarceration epidemic that has resulted from harsh sentencing guidelines and the detrimental application of the RICO statute that was created to go after organized crime figures.

In my experience, at least 90 percent of the men incarcerated in federal prisons receive limited or no visitors, and have infrequent or non-existent contact with family and friends on the outside.

Together with all other challenges, the effects of this isolation have created an additional epidemic that can be addressed and conquered while we wait for legislative reform: the epidemic of personal identity. In order for any prison reform to take hold in a meaningful way, inmates need to address the biggest lie that has infiltrated these walls: the lie of worthlessness.

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to receive visit from two members of the clergy. The Rev. Johnnie Moore – spiritual adviser to the White House – and Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center came to see me at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles.

For almost two precious hours, these men listened to me share about my hopes and fears, my failures and regrets, and my setbacks and growth. We then spoke of the importance of faith and the messages of truth that so greatly impact men in the solitude of their lives.

Rev. Moore and Rabbi Cooper provided me one of the greatest gifts that day – one of the most effective tools for endurance and hope. They confirmed to me that I have worth and that there is a God who sees me, cares and doesn’t hold me in a prison of eternal condemnation.

If that were not enough, several days later former Washington Redskins cornerback the Rev. Darrell Green spent time on the phone with me, offering me hope through the word of God and reminding me that I am a man of great value whose past does not define me and whose future is in the powerful hand of God.

Words fail to express the impact of these men on my life, and the lives of those around me, as I repeat this message to fellow inmates who are crushed by a sense of hopelessness and despair.

One of these inmates was just released after serving his 10-year drug sentence and has been employed by the Miami Dolphins, thanks to the broader business response to the White House initiative to loosen hiring practices and benefit qualified people with criminal records. The encouragement he received from clergy, coupled with the broad, bipartisan response in society, has paved the solid ground towards the fruitful, crime-free life he is determined to live.

While the nation’s urgent need for prison reform ebbs and flows in public discourse, I appeal to all clergy members and people of faith. You offer reform that does not need to wait for legislative approval – a transformation of identity.

Your acts of kindness through visitations, letters, radio messages, chaplaincy volunteerism and dedicated prayer offer an individualized reform that is greatly needed as a compliment to legislative reform. 

Blaise Pascal – a 17th century French scientist, mathematician and theologian – once wrote: “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

One can say that most of an incarcerated man’s problems stem from his inability to sit quietly in his cell alone and believe he has worth. Let’s keep the faith in prison reform, by keeping people of faith involved in prison reform.

Darryl Henley is a former starting cornerback for the LA Rams. He is currently incarcerated.