Years ago a friend was in prison. He was due to be released after nearly fourteen years of incarceration. We reconnected after over a decade when I crossed paths with his brother one day on the street in Harlem. After which we talked and wrote each other regularly in anticipation of his release. One of the main topics of discussion were his plans once he was free.
He had an idea to produce a movie on his life. When he was three years old, he had been the subject of a pamphlet printed by a community activist in Harlem where he was born and raised. The woman was impressed by him. One winter day his school was about to close for the day. The school released him to walk alone through the beginning snowfall to his mother’s job. After he reached their office unharmed the woman was so moved she decided to write the pamphlet contemplating the future for such an obviously intelligent young man.
As we coached him in writing and preparing to self publish the book, we both learned a lot. One thing stood out to us. A number of people had successfully left prison to go on to a life that did not even vaguely resemble their life before prison.
Many of them wrote their way into a new life.
Suffice it to say we did not complete that project. My friend did not finish his book. No movie has been produced on his life as of yet. He went into his new life of freedom apparently uninspired to complete the plans we talked about while he was incarcerated.
A few years later, I met someone who had a similar experience. He, too, went through a period of incarceration at a young age. He was violent. Had been caught robbing a drug store. While in prison he had opportunity to speak with people who shared a different vision of life with him. He first got one degree, then another. His period of incarceration ended with a job waiting for him. He got married. They bought a house. He became a pastor.
We met when he was attending a production class for the local public access channel, DCTV. Each group in that class had an assigned editor and/or field technician. We were assigned to his group as field technician.
We discussed their project, then shot the footage they wanted and they completed their assignment. As we worked on the project he reminded us of our friend who did not complete his book while in prison or out. We discussed the similarity between the two of them. He talked about producing a documentary on his life. We met with another friend of his who also concluded a period of incarceration and grew to higher levels.
One day while meeting to discuss the project, we entered his car. A book on the back seat of the car called out for me to pick it up.
Just the day before we had seen Reginald Dwayne Betts on The Tavis Smiley Show. Having instinctively grabbed the book from the car as we headed to our planned meeting place there was nothing that could have prepared us for what was about to happen next.
From the moment we realized there were people who had successfully left a period of incarceration to transition to a higher standard of living, we felt a kind of limbo. We came to know a truth. Yet it seemed the truth was being ignored. No one acknowledged its existence. Furthermore, no one wanted to take credit for naming it or defining it, unlike with recidivism which originated with Arnould Bonneville de Marsangy. His book De la récidive gave a definition to the idea of a repeat offender. With our new friend the urgency increased for a means to recognize the existence of the phenomenon of the “non-repeat” offender. Betts’ book “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison” almost named the phenomenon by itself.
As we sat down with our new friend who we’ll call Rev and opened the book, we flipped to page 234. There Betts mentions, “fighting to be defined by something other than prison.” In one fell swoop the urgency for a word to define those who have successfully returned to a life “other than prison” made itself more desperately known.
And so the term was born. Ascendivism, as we define it is:
the act of a person creating desirable behavior after they have experienced negative consequences of undesirable behavior or have been treated, trained or Neuro-linguisticly programmed to replace the undesirable behavior with behavior which produces desired results. It is also quantified as the percentage of former prisoners who became benefits to society or the percentage of former substance abusers who continue abstinence or the percentage of former welfare recipients who became taxpayers or the number of books former illiterates learned to read over a three year period.
At this time a “turning point” in the life of an ascendivist is still yet to be fully understood.