Tonight, The Fortune Society will throw a gala at the Trump Soho. One of the performers will be John Forte, known for his production of the Fugees and a fall from grace that ended with a 14-year prison sentence. He served seven years until George W. Bush, on his last day in office, commuted his sentence. John served time in Fort Dix Federal Correctional Facility, a sad place. I spent time in Schuylkill, another sad place. I made the most of it and came out a better person. I used my time to learn to write (a little), design a little, and prepare myself for a productive life. If not for friends, family, and business partners who believed in me, my return to society would not have been as easy. It wasn’t easy and life as you know it isn’t available to me. The simple things – like opening a bank account or renting an apartment – became huge obstacles to normalcy. There is the sentence you get from the judge and then there is the sentence society continually exacts beyond the time and fines. A person without a support system can find help with The Fortune Society.
Before his arrest and conviction, John Forte was VIP at my joint LIFE and every place everywhere. He was a brilliant success and a great guy with a zillion-dollar smile. I haven’t seen him since we both took our hits. Here’s an e-mail chat with John.
I haven’t seen you in a while, since we last hung out which, I believe, was at Life. We both have spent some time inside. This experience has had a profound effect on both of us. We have some talents and support systems and are now doing our thing but, for most, they reenter society without much help or chance to prosper. Tell me about your reentry and your dedication to changing a very flawed system.
I felt like the invisible man when I came home (in a post 9/11 era, no less!). Walking into a building in New York City without identification and having to explain to the security guards that I’d just returned from prison and was going through the process of getting a driver’s license, passport, etc. was demoralizing and a bit humiliating. But I had/have, as you mentioned, an incredible support system of friends and family who refused to let me get down on myself when I felt alienated and unsure of my footing in the world after being gone for more than seven years. My sentence was commuted – not pardoned, as it is widely reported. I was also fortunate enough to have a probation officer who was thorough, albeit supportive. In prison, I witnessed egregious abuses of power. I have heard about similar abuses of power within the probation system after convicted felons reenter society. I was truly blessed not to have suffered from that.
As a public figure, I knew I didn’t have the luxury of pretending that what happened did not. Instead of telling people (young people, in particular) how they should live their lives, I felt duty-bound to tell my story. Perhaps by conveying the mistakes I made that led me to receiving a 14-year prison term, the audience might think twice before they do anything that would risk their freedom. I was and remain determined to produce qualitative and substantive art that encourages the listeners to question everything, to speak truth to power, and to take nothing for granted.
None of us are perfect and neither are our systems – our criminal justice system included. There is a great deal of work that needs to happen in order to make our criminal justice system fairer and less discriminatory. The task can seem daunting, but that is no excuse not to try to make a difference. Every little dent makes an impact. While some dents might be larger than others, they all contribute to a reformation of the initial structure; therein lies the art and the beauty of collective dissidence.