Recorded Aug. 24, 2020; broadcast on Sept. 10, 2020.
Jabar is an inmate at Jefferson City Correctional Center. He’s been in prison for 25 years, after being sentenced to death row at 17. He is one of the youngest Missourians ever to be put on death row. Then after a retrial at age 19, he was sentenced to life without parole.
Jabar maintains his innocence, has written numerous books for children, as well as adults, based on his life growing up in St. Louis and his time in prison, and because of a law passed back in 2016, he has the chance to apply for parole as soon as this month.
This law allows people sentenced to life without parole prior to August 2016, for a crime they committed before they turned 18, to apply for a parole hearing after serving 25 years.
He spoke with me about how being in prison from such a young age has changed him, and about what keeps him going.
As a note, Jabar is a nickname.
Region: Jefferson City
Health Reporter, Missouri Health Talks and KBIA
Jabar: Because of my unique situation, I had to grow up quick, you know? I didn't have around and play basketball or play handball because I was the youngest person on Missouri Death Row. So, I came to prison and went straight to the library. You know, it forces you to grow up.
Rebecca Smith: What was it like as a 17-year-old to hear those words, you know, “death row?”
Jabar: It was traumatic, in one sense, but in another sense – I was young and it really didn’t dawn on me what was being said. I really didn’t realize the severity of it until I got to death row, and that’s when it pretty much set in – was sitting around and watching people get executed. It was like, “Wow. Okay.”
Jabar: And it makes you come to terms with life and death, something most people don't like to deal with. Like, “ Okay. This could happen, but I’m gonna fight.”
But to be honest with you, and many people probably would not understand this, but it's easier to be on death row that to have life without parole – especially for something you didn’t do.
Having life without parole is just a never-ending process, you know it’s kind of like Groundhog Day – a hellish form of Groundhog Day, and you realize that your situation is not going to change, if you’re innocent or guilty, you know, unless there's divine intervention.
Because the reality is when you’re sentenced to life without parole, you have a death sentence. You’re not gonna leave prison alive. That’s the reality of it.
I don't take it for granted, I look at it as a divine blessing, but I'm still trying to prove my innocence, you know, and it's still an uphill battle, but it's an opportunity nonetheless. I have faith that God’s gonna move some mountains.
I just have faith and what has kept me strong, and I think a lot of people don't realize this, is – forgiveness. I believe that it is very important to do forgive, you know, forgive yourself, if you’ve done something wrong or forgive someone who has wronged you.
Because if you don’t forgive, unforgiveness burns your soul like ether, and gradually you just die inside, you know? So, I just chose to forgive and have hope and just walk in faith that it’s gonna happen.
Rebecca: Well, Jabar – anything else you want to add today?
Jabar: I just want people to understand everybody in prison are not monsters, they're not guilty. Some people are worthy of taking a chance on, you know? There’s a lot of people in prison, and even the worst one in prison, you can learn a lot from them.
So, I think that people should use that as a teaching opportunity rather than shunning you don't necessarily understand.
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