The Free Virginia Movement Presents:
Live From Behind Enemy Lines:
An Interview with Jadon Artis
By Uhuru B. Rowe
April 18, 2018
This is interview is with Jadon Artis, also known as Kokomo, a young brother I met one day while walking to a program here at Sussex 2 State Prison. After a brief conversation about the struggle, we instantly cliqued. He describes himself as a black man in Amerika fighting for freedom, justice, and equality and is striving to educate himself so that he can be self-sufficient in a society that’s designed to fail him. When he told me about his traumatic childhood experiences and how he overcame them, it blew my mind. And I am sure it will blow yours, too.
Uhuru: This interview is long overdue. Out of all the brothers I wanted to interview, you are the one I wanted to interview the most. First, because it’s a delight to be in your presence, and second, the reader will not only empathize with you, but will be cheering for you by the end of this interview. That’s because you’ve survived the kind of traumatic childhood experiences that a lot of people wouldn’t survive and overcome. Can you talk about some of those childhood experiences?
Kokomo: Sure. First and foremost, I was born in the city of Franklin in Southampton County, Virginia. I never knew my father and my mother was a drug addict at the time she was pregnant with me so I was born addicted to crack. When I was small she was in and out of prison so I was raised by my grandmother (who was also into using drugs) until I was about 12 years old. There was this one instance where the police kicked in the front door and arrested my grandmother for possession of drugs with the intent to distribute them. So while my grandmother was in prison my Aunt became my temporary legal guardian until she gave me up to the Department of Social Services (DSS) where I would become a ward of the state.
Uhuru: So basically your Aunt gave up on you. How did that make you feel?
Kokomo: I felt she had sold me out and betrayed me because at the time I didn’t know how to read or write or nothing and so I realized she didn’t have my best interest at heart from the very beginning.
Uhuru: So now you’re in DSS. Talk about the various group homes you were housed in?
Kokomo: I felt like I was on a leash, like I wasn’t free, because I was forced to be around a bunch of people I didn’t want to be around. I was forced to abide by a rigid system of rules and regulations and so I started to rebel.
Uhuru: The way you describe it, a group home sounds just like a prison.
Kokomo: It’s exactly like a prison! You have staff members that are like correctional officers. They can put you on restriction and isolation if you break the rules. There’s a point system where you have to earn points in order to earn levels. These levels will determine if you’ll stay at a group home or go to a foster home.
Uhuru: So it’s like the prison model where if you exhibit good behavior you can earn points that’ll allow you to qualify for a transfer to a lower security prison.
Kokomo: Yes it is.
Uhuru: So because you started rebelling you were placed in a behavior center which is likened to a maximum security version of the group home. What was that like?
Kokomo: The center is surrounded by barbed-wire fences. The staff wore uniforms. They could put you on timeouts or in an isolation room which is the equivalent of “the hole” in prison. If they felt like you couldn’t be controlled, they’d tie you to the bed and inject you with all kinds of sedatives without your consent. So it got to the point where I got smart enough to work the system. I started participating in all of the programs, worked my points down, and eventually was placed in a foster home in Chesapeake, Virginia.
Uhuru: So this is your first foster family. What were they like?
Kokomo: They were Christians who tried to force me to go to Church. So there was an instant conflict of interest. So we had a falling out and after just one week I was placed with another foster family who let me do what I wanted. But I took advantage of their niceness and after a while, I was shipped to the group home in Virginia Beach called the Salem House. This was in 2003. In between 2003 and 2006 I was bounced around between seven group homes and three behavior centers.
Uhuru: Man, listening to you talk about your childhood, I feel tears building up in my eyes because you experienced so much trauma in your youth, especially you being born addicted to crack. You were being treated like you were the problem rather than someone with a problem. Basically they criminalize you, the person, rather than treating your underlying condition. And so, kids in the system are routinely put in the pipeline to prison. Talk about 2006. What happened that year?
Kokomo: I went AWOL from the group home and decided to sell drugs in order to make ends meet. After only two days I got locked up and found myself being shipped off to Beaumont Juvenile Detention Center. I was released to my Aunt after serving 22 months. Four months later I was arrested for a robbery and several other felonies. I was released again after all of these charges were dismissed. Two months later, I was indicted again on the same charges. This time I was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 15 active years in prison. This was in 2010.
Uhuru: When people hear an incarcerated person say they’re innocent they frown upon such a claim because they think the so-called criminal justice system is fair and just and functions like a well-oiled machine. But what they fail to realize is that this system is fundamentally unfair and unjust, especially in regards to poor people of color. We’re viewed as inherently criminal, so when we get arrested, that means we must have done “something” wrong even when there’s no evidence against us. And this implicit bias and stereotyping carries over into every facet of the so-called criminal justice system: The police plant evidence at crime scenes in order to frame us for crimes we didn’t commit or manufacture police reports to make minor crimes seem more serious than they are. The prosecutors file the most serious charges as a tactic to persuade us into pleading guilty to reduced charges or withhold potentially exculpatory evidence which could prove a person’s innocence. The juries are manipulated so that the people who serve on them are more likely to convict us than exonerate us. We are appointed overworked and underpaid public defenders — many of whom are fresh out of law school with little to no experience with handling complex cases or resources to put forth a decent defense. And many of the judges in this country are just straight up racist and indifferent to the suffering and plight of the poor black and brown people who pass through their courtrooms on any given day. And so we lose the game the minute the police decides to put us in handcuffs — whether we’re guilty or not. But, anyway, brother Kokomo, you were able to transform yourself amidst all of this madness that you were born into?
Kokomo: Everything I’ve been through shaped and molded me into the person I am today. I’ve greatly improved my reading, writing, and communication skills. My whole thought process has changed. And I’m dedicated to self-improvement because by improving myself I am in a better position to improve the condition of our people.
Uhuru: Well said, young brother. I have made it clear that I created this Live From Behind Enemy Lines platform as a way to neutralize the misinformation propagated to the public by media, law enforcement, and prison officials that people in prison are all just a bunch of animals, predators and sociopaths. Now, that might be true of some of these people in prison, but it’s certainly not true of you as is reflected in the things you’ve shared with the audience today. I just hope that this interview with you (and those that will appear later) will achieve its intended purpose — and that is to show the citizens of this country that if given the time to reflect and put politics in command, then our testimonies and our service and contributions to our respective communities can be a powerful motivator and inspiration for the untold numbers of at-risk you who are in the ever-expanding pipeline to prison who see no other options and no other way out. Peace!