John Fountain: What I told inmates at Cook County Jail

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Students switch classrooms at Consuella B. York Alternative High School within the Cook County Jail. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Today’s column is an excerpt from a speech I gave this summer in a commencement address at Consuella B. York Alternative High School at Cook County Jail where nearly four dozen inmates, most of them young black men, received high school diplomas.

“Before I formed you in your mother’s womb I chose you. Before you were born I set you apart…” Jeremiah 1:5

I am not a number…

I wondered what I should say to you. I really didn’t want to give a “speech.” For I reasoned that this was not the typical high school graduating class. Not the usual place. Not open to the public per se. Not widely advertised. And instead occurring here, in Division 4 of the Cook County Jail.

…I thought about all that you — York Class of 2016 — are up against. About how much you have already seen and experienced. About the scars you already bear. About how society views us as black people — you as young people of color with a criminal record.


I imagined the disappointment so many of you have already faced. The mistakes you have made. I thought about the dangers beyond these walls. Of the dangers within them.

And to be honest, my heart was overwhelmed with compassion. With hurt for you. But mostly with hope for you and also admittedly with fear for what awaits behind some corner or alley, like an inescapable wind, in a city where thousands are shot each year and hundreds murdered, mostly in neighborhoods like those to which many of you will return.

What could I — a middle class, middle-aged black man — say to a young generation that has witnessed far more bloodshed, human carnage and urban hopelessness than I ever have. Finally, it came to me. Tell them who they are. Tell them whose they are. Tell them that no matter what has happened in the past — that no matter where they now find themselves — that they can make it. And finally, tell them: “You are not a number.”

Who are you? You are the descendants of Kings and Queens. Of a mighty people who survived the transatlantic slave trade — from African slave castles across the Atlantic Ocean to American slavery and blazing hot southern plantations…

Whose are you? You are sons and daughters of the Creator made in the very image of God. And as one former ghetto child to another, I want to assure you this morning: You can make it.

No matter what circumstances that brought you here. No matter the choices that brought you here. No matter how much time you have here. You have the power — right here, right now — to redeem the time. The power to transform your life from the inside out, by the power of choice, and educating yourself…

Hope is not lost. Redeem the time. It’s not where you’ve been. It’s not where you are right now. It’s where you’re going.

I once heard it said that a man or woman’s reputation is who people think they are. But your character is who God knows you are.

You are not a number.

So let no one and nothing steal your thunder. You are not a mistake. Not destined for ill fate. You are more than flesh and blood. You are heart and spirit and soul. A bright future stands before you, if you’ll only choose to grab hold.

You are not a slave to your past. Your troubles won’t always last. Incarceration is not your destination. For you are a divine unique creation. And on this day, still you rise from under. Because you are not a number.


I pray they heard me.


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