How does that old piece of advice go? Never judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes? How comfortable would you feel if that “mile” was spending 15 years in prison for a crime you didn’t commit? That’s exactly what happened to Richard Miles, founder of the nonprofit Miles of Freedom, which helps the formerly incarcerated find employment and housing, and also does youth outreach in Dallas, Texas. For Miles, though, it’s not a person’s guilt or innocence that makes them worthy of having someone to walk beside them and help them get on their feet: it’s their humanity. The goal of Miles of Freedom is not just to reduce recidivism, or get or keep people out of the prison population; it’s to make sure that everyone can strive for the same quality of life that we are all entitled to.
“I Became a Number”
“For 15 years, my life as I had known it ceased to exist. I felt kidnapped by a system that stripped me of my sense of individuality. It was a system that took my clothes, my name, my decision making, and gave me a uniform, a number, and endless commands. It took my identity and my authority as a human being.” These are the words of Richard Miles, on his experience of the prison system, which he entered one fateful night in May of 1994 when he was just 19 years old, but his experience is not unique, unfortunately: there are more than 2 million adults imprisoned or jailed in the United States.
What is unique, though, is the story of how each of those incarcerated people end up where they do. For Miles, his story is one of a miscarriage of justice. He was walking home from his girlfriend’s house late at night, and the next thing he knew, he was being handcuffed, charged with murder and attempted murder, and put on trial. And, despite a court case riddled with inconsistencies (and his complete innocence), he was sentenced to 60 years behind bars.
It goes without saying that Miles would never be the same. He went from being a typical teenage boy, from a religious background (“We grew up in a very spiritual home. We were at church ten days a week!”), with typical drive and ambition – he had graduated from high school and was working in a fast food restaurant to save up money so he could study engineering at college – to being what the state described as simply an “inmate.” As Miles told CNN, “I oftentimes say, ‘May 15, 1994 is the day that Richard Ray Miles, Jr. died.’ I became a number – 728716.”
“I Started Looking Up”
Remarkably, the crushing weight of being locked up for a crime he didn’t commit, and the lack of humanity forced on him by the prison system, did not end up destroying Miles. He found “peace in being innocent,” as well as hope: during his time in Coffield Unit in Texas, which houses nearly 5,000 men, he met Benjamin Spencer, an inmate working in the prison barber shop cutting hair. Benjamin had also been accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and was working with Centurion Ministries, an organization dedicated to getting the wrongly convicted out of prison; he encouraged Richard to write to Centurion about getting assistance with re-opening his case. He did so, but the polite letter he received back said that they wouldn’t be able to get to his case for more than a decade.
All Miles could do was wait, hope, and absorb prison life, tucking away his observations and thinking about how he could use those experiences to make changes in what he saw around him. He started with his own perspective: “My mom would always tell me, ‘When you look out the window, don’t look at the bars, look at the sky.’ It’s all about perception, you know. You might be in a situation that can’t change, but can you change in the situation? So, when they were gone and my situation didn’t change, I could change my perception within the place of incarceration. And that changed my whole life. I started looking up.”
“Coming Home Is Possible ”
While Richard Miles told CNN that he lost faith in the system (“I felt the system let me down, the system is supposed to protect, it’s supposed to do justice”), he never lost his faith in his religion, or in his family, who fought tirelessly for him. In his first phone call to his mother after his arrest, she had said “I know that you’re innocent and your father and I are going to walk by your side every step of the way. We will do whatever it takes to prove your innocence. We are going to fight for you.” That phone call with his mother gave him the necessary hope to make it through the most difficult moment of his life, and the strength to use his experiences to help others once his family and Centurion finally won the battle and got him home, 15 years after his arrest.
Re-entering the world after 15 years behind bars, though, is never easy, and wasn’t even for Miles, who was innocent, and eventually exonerated three years after his release. He faced a tremendous uphill battle when he was released from prison; first of all, the world had completely changed: “I was overwhelmed. I was 34 years old in age, but I was 19 from society standpoints. I had not dealt with the world, and I was literally scared,” he told CNN. “I didn’t know about taxes and employment. The world was totally different.” Smartphones had replaced beepers, paper job applications had been replaced by online job searches, and Miles didn’t know where to begin or what to think.
Second of all, the moment he walked out of prison, Miles was branded a “felon,” and, as such, had difficulties finding employment and an apartment. He was lucky, though: again, he had his family, and was eventually also awarded a $1 million settlement for his wrongful conviction. But what about the people who don’t have someone to “walk by [their] side every step of the way”, as Miles did? Unfortunately, according to the National Institute of Justice, almost 44% of released inmates end up returning to prison before the end of their first year on the outside. There simply isn’t any support for them as they struggle to re-enter society, and the obstacles they face can be too much to overcome.
And that’s what led Miles to use 15% of his settlement money to start Miles of Freedom, which provides holistic re-entry services for people returning home from prison. Miles told dallasdoinggood.com: “I founded Miles of Freedom, not because I was innocent, but because I had been in prison. I resonate with the countless men and women who desperately need the assistance I found myself needing when I returned home from prison. We created an organization that approaches re-entry from a holistic standpoint. Providing services for the person who was directly impacted, the family structure that was fragmented, and the community that lays dormant because of incarceration.”
The organization does this by providing help finding housing, getting an ID, and enrolling in college, as well as offering a three-month job readiness workshop that includes classes on résumés, interview skills, personal finance, and relationships – they even set up interviews at job sites during the last two weeks of the program. The participants can work for the organization’s lawn care service in the interim, which gives them an opportunity to make money and get on their feet. In addition to these services for the formerly incarcerated, Miles of Freedom also provides a shuttle service that takes loved ones to see their incarcerated family members, and has a youth outreach program and a program that offers encouragement to people who are currently in prison. This one is near to Miles’ heart; as he told CNN:
“Going back to prison to me is probably one of the best things that I’m doing right now because I feel like the people in prison are the ones that really, really need to know that it’s possible. Coming home is possible. Being successful is possible. So, when I’m able to go back in the prison and they hear that I’ve been there, that’s one thing that gives them encouragement.”
While all of these powerful programs have been very successful – since 2012, Miles of Freedom has helped more than 1,500 men and women who are returning home from prison, or are working to regain their life after a felony conviction, and they’ve seen only a 7% recidivism rate – Miles wants people to know that focusing on recidivism rates is not the only goal of his organization.
“Our challenge as an organization is fighting the belief that reducing recidivism is the goal. We are not comfortable with hanging our hat there,” Miles told dallasdoinggood.com. “The mission of Miles of Freedom goes beyond just to keeping former inmates from returning to prison—we also address their quality of life. They may stay out of prison but some may live their lives homeless in Downtown Dallas. Instead, the question we ask ourselves is, can we sustain their lives in a way where homelessness or going back to prison isn’t the only option for them.”
“He Opened the Door”
As Richard Miles points out, statistics about recidivism are one thing, but making an impact on human lives is quite another. The Dallas News spoke to Stanley Moore, a Dallas resident who was released from prison and was having a bumpy reentry into society. He’d been in prison four times, spending around 20 years altogether – or almost half his life – behind bars, and he had been having trouble, well, staying out of trouble.
After Moore’s last release, he wanted to make a change for the better: “When I got out, I changed my environment. I changed my friends. I changed my setting. I didn’t want to be that person anymore. I got tired of being that guy,” he said, but he was struggling to find support and a job: he applied at retail stores and fast food restaurants, and none of them would hire him.But he was determined. “If you shut the door on me, you know what I’m going to do? I’ll knock on another door,” Moore said. “Richard Miles, I knocked on his door. You see what he did? He opened the door.” At the time of the Dallas News story, Moore was enrolled in Miles of Freedom’s job readiness workshop, and was working for their lawn care service, getting on his feet so he could support his newborn daughter. “This is a second chance,” he said. “Everybody deserves one. Don’t you think?”
For Richard Miles and Miles of Freedom, that’s what it’s all about. Miles, who is now married with two kids points out that, “At the age of 19, all I had was 60 years and a bunk. And God has given me so much at the age of 44.” His organization is working hard to give others the hope he has: “Regardless of what you go through in your life, if you hold true to faith, your story will not be wasted. It will turn out to be good. The conditions of your story have nothing to do with your life being good.”
If you would like to learn more about Miles of Freedom, or get involved, visit their website. To donate, click here.