“It feels like the world has given up on you. That you are just some throwaway, someone who is irredeemable.” That’s how Robert Shipp describes being sentenced to life in prison for a drug crime in 1994.
Growing up in Englewood on the Southside of Chicago, Robert was an honor roll student who helped his dad with odd jobs and was beloved by his family and neighbors, in spite of the violence and danger that surrounded his home. But when his 19-year-old big brother was stabbed to death at a bus stop, Robert, then 16, started to get into trouble and hanging out with the wrong crowd. It came to a head when a friend of his late brother’s encouraged Robert to get involved in selling crack cocaine. Five months later, he was arrested, and shortly after, Robert was facing life without the possibility of parole—despite the judge’s objections to the mandatory sentence.
Twenty-five years later, the young man who acted out in grief and anger is nearly unrecognizable. Robert’s imprisonment has been marked by his deep commitment to rehabilitation and growth, and he’s now respected as a peacemaker and a leader by both prisoners and staff. He is involved heavily in several of the prison’s more substantive support programs, such as the Reentry Committee, the Life Connections Program, and the Mentor Program. Here Robert describes an especially meaningful experience:
I’d have to say that something that has saved me here in prison is the Mentor Program. That means working with the younger inmates who are having disciplinary problems, dropping out of classes, and not continuing their educations. I just feel a certain affinity for them because once upon a time, when I first came in here, that was me. And I really had no one to guide or help me learn how to best do my time.
I remember this particular mentee of mine quite clearly. We became close, so much so that he was comfortable talking to me about his life, his family, and his beautiful daughter. One day he came to find me and said he needed to talk. When I saw him, I instantly knew something was wrong. I could see it in his eyes. He told me that his grandmother had died and he no longer wanted to be around anyone anymore. So, in his mind he had decided to get into some trouble so that he would be placed in the SHU (Special Housing Unit)—in prison terms, the HOLE!
I told him to take a walk with me. We went to the recreation yard and we walked that track for an entire hour. I let him talk and I listened. He told me how his grandmother raised him and how she was all he had. And that he wanted to grieve in peace—he did not want to be around anyone but himself. That’s why he’d come up with the plan.
I nodded, and then I asked him to tell me all the great things about his grandmother. He told me how his mom abandoned him, but his grandmom took him in and showed him nothing but love and affection. He called her “G-ma.” I told him that I wanted him to meet me on the track everyday so we could walk and talk more about this great woman. He agreed.
Slowly but surely I began to see the light coming back into his eyes. A few days later he started talking about G-ma and again about his plans to get sent to the Hole. I asked him how she would feel knowing that he wanted to get in trouble and hurt himself all because she was no longer with him physically? He looked me in the eyes and said he never thought about it in that way and that he knew that it would break her heart. I told him that it was time to honor her and her memory by doing all the things he promised her that he would do. He agreed! Then out of the blue, he reached out and hugged me and told me that no one had ever taken the time to listen to him and counsel him outside of his G-ma. I hugged him back and let him know that it was what I was there for, and that he is never alone. I let him know that he will forever have his G-Ma in heart and spirit, and he has me to help him along the way.
After that, you couldn’t stop this kid. He excelled in all his classes and he got his G.E.D. like he promised his grandmother he would before he left prison. Before, everyone always considered him as a problem child with a bad attitude. He proved them wrong. All he needed was for someone to believe in him as his G-ma did. And for him, that was me.
I never felt more humbled and grateful in all my life when I watched him graduate and then heard him thank me in front of the whole audience. To help someone else change their life for the better and be acknowledged for it is the greatest honor to have. It’s an indescribable feeling.
The man who graduated that day is not the only one who’s proved everyone wrong. Robert Shipp has served his time for the crime—and then some. The thoughtful person he is today bears little resemblance to the criminal who was locked up decades ago. His life is testimony to the fact that we cannot afford to make “throwaways” of anyone.
In 2015, because of the Drugs Minus 2 amendment, Robert’s sentence was reduced to 360 months—30 years. His expected release date is 2019.