By Athena Talmadge and Stephen Burns
Below is a post co-written by a graduate, Stephen Burns, and his partner Athena. The words below do not capture the beautiful energy displayed at his graduation in the Fall of 2023. It is an incredible story of how collaborative court programs impact the individual and their family.
The following words I spoke to a courtroom full of people on the day Stephen graduated the CAP (Conviction Alternatives Program) program. My gratitude for every person involved in making this program come to life is so deep. Our experience has been nothing short of amazing. I say “OUR” experience because I think somehow “we” the family fall through the cracks.
When a person commits a crime and gets sentenced, there’s a whole slew of people that are imprisoned with that person. Mothers, Fathers, daughters and sons get locked up with them and face similar and different torment during that time.
I believe people aren’t inherently bad, and statistically most people who commit crimes have been through some sort of trauma. The CAP program has done a great job at recognizing that and walking people through that trauma to find new sustainable ways of life.
In November 2021, Stephen and I stood in a courtroom hallway waiting for court to begin and Stephen to get sentenced in San Mateo county. His name was called, he walked through the courtroom doors and moments later he was being escorted out by federal officers. In that moment, our entire world was shaken, it felt as if the walls were caving in, the air was leaving the room and we had no way out.
I had believed that this was going to be the beginning of the end, that Stephen would be sent off to federal prison for the rest of his adult life, and I would be left raising a fatherless child. I had no idea that God had plans, plans to restore what was broken and for our family to find healing. Stephen becoming a part of the federal system was one of the most terrifying experiences, and one of the biggest blessings, not only for him but for us.
The CAP program is doing something monumental. It's a beautiful collaboration of second chances and restoring trust in a system that has felt broken for years. This program has not just given Stephen a second chance, it has given a father back to his children, a son back to his parents, a brother back to his sister and my best friend back to me. There are not enough words to express how much gratitude we have for the opportunity to be a part of something so special.
It was not so long ago that I thought I would be at a different podium sharing my fondest memories of Stephen as we laid him to rest. Today, I have the opportunity to share my joy and gratitude with you all and celebrate Stephen finally finding his true identity. All of this was made possible because the CAP believed in him. Someone saw past paperwork and saw the human behind it all and for that I am forever grateful.
I am so proud of Stephen for pushing through the hard, the messy, and the uncomfortable. For continuing even when he got complacent. I am blessed that now he is able to give us security where there used to be fear and that he can be the father that our boys so desperately needed. Today, I know humble yet confident man. A man of integrity, a man who fiercely loves his family, and a man who will do absolutely anything to make his family laugh.
Over the course of this program I have watched his metamorphosis. I've watched him build his cocoon, seen the struggle as he emerged from the chrysalis and have gotten to witness the most beautiful wings spread and take flight.
I can only hope Stephen is as proud of himself as I am today.
Entering into the Conviction Alternative Program, I truly didn’t know what to expect. My experience with the criminal justice system in the past has been a source of frustration, hurt, fear, anger, and distrust. With that being said, I entered the program a bit guarded and pessimistic about the intentions of the courts. After settling in to get to know the CAP team, I quickly learned the true intentions of the program.
I saw peers struggle but receive a compassionate space provided by the federal Judges, social workers, lawyers, probation officers and therapists, to take personal accountability. Participants receive the proper help and resources to get through their hardships with success. I witnessed authentic concern and help being offered to the individuals that I had never seen before. Experiences like this allowed me to participate in the healing process of my peers and gain trust in a system that ultimately gave me the opportunity to do the necessary work for me to regain the life I live now.
Through peer advocacy, one on one sessions, and courage to change groups, I learned core principles like honesty, integrity, and personal accountability. I learned tools to help me with peer relationships, family ties, and relapse prevention. These principles are the foundational building blocks that encouraged growth and direction for me to become a successful, productive member of society.
In CAP, we are asked to show up, try, and be honest. To graduate from phase to phase, we are given assignments, usually question’s that can be answered through essays, poetry, art, or other forms of expression as long as it applies to the question asked. One of my phase up question’s was to answer, “How has my drug use affected the significant others in my life or the community? I chose to express my truth through the spoken word below:
From my Dad to Me,
I wake up…
every morning …long before my 6am alarm clock rings.
I’ve already consumed two large cups of coffee no sugar no cream 4 cigarettes and two shots of Jim Bean
I can’t seem to escape these nightmares like mirrors that reflect my true fears
I stare out of my window at these…Street walking things
these…night stalking sidewalk sleeping creepy looking shells of human beings…
Suddenly my hurt and shame my guilt and pain overwhelm my existence….
and…start to take aim.
Anger fills my heart where my dreams used to dwell…
This life was once heaven…
but it quickly turned to Hell….
I remember so vividly the day he fell off the slide and broke his arm...
I rushed over to him …picked him up… and carried him to the ER...
I was a good father.
I protected my son.
nurtured and cared for him …I helped ease his pain…
and as he grew ...I knew ….I had my work cut out for me.
I stopped working so casually … doubled my hours to maintain a top salary.
and as I worked away…my son tragically slipped away
from the safety of my supervision to the low bottom of street addiction
and my heart bled and hardened every time I went past the tent my son chose to reside in.
I walked right beside him hoping he’d find that little boy who still lives inside him
until the day came that the telephone rang…
now I bare the weight of his lifetime of pain
Father forgive him for he knows not what hes done…
From my Son to Me,
Pain is the cornerstone that drives his weary eyes to shadows
Hunger no longer haunts his empty stomach for his soul no longer eats
Weeps that once graced his face with salt filled tear drops turn to dust and cease to exist
Part host… part parasite… that cold white ghost still haunts his every thought… every touch… every move…
WHEN WILL YOU LEARN…
No longer capable of memories of love
No mother… No father… No sister….No child
No house…No job… No clothes…No cars
The scars of the streets streak tracks down his arms…
No charms… No churches can save him now
he sits on his perch he prays and he prowls
His scowl scorned face replaced the hope from his past
That cold white ghost grabbed ahold of him fast
WHEN WILL YOU LEARN
At what point did you give up on you?
at what point did your lies turn to truth?
Truth is … Through my young eyes I saw promise and hope
where are you my father I need you now most…
my mom searched the earth from coast to coast then said you were taken by a cold white ghost….
WHY WONT YOU LEARN…. FOR ME…
These are the Nightmares… from your child…
To Me from Me,
Forgiveness is an endless battle with self
Morals to me appear to be balanced between calloused values and wealth
Powerless lies define my life that were despised by the devil himself
HOW DO YOU DEFINE FORGIVENESS
Is it something you search for within your spirit
or is it that every hundred pennies you pick up and pocket ultimately place you near it
Is it a lyric in a love song
Is it the malleable fiber inside her that hold you accountable for your wrongs
HOW DO YOU DEFINE FORGIVENESS
Is it swallowing lies with watery eyes hollowing lives of the giving-tree selfishly until her Autumn leaves no longer fall?
Robbing Peters heart to pay Pauls hurt?
Or concealing the dirt like a Jezebels skirt hides bruised knees shes been conditioned to wear like trophies?
HOW DO YOU DEFINE FORGIVENESS
Refine your business design your interests into divine simplistic’s
Forgiveness is realistic don’t be a critic and judge
Drop the gavel and the guns
stop straddling the battlefield
battling between hate and love!
HOW CAN I FIND FORGIVENESS…FOR SELF