Child Watch® Column:
Redlined for Failure and the Prison Pipeline

Release Date: July 10, 2015

Marian Wright Edelman

Ndume Olatushani is an artist, organizer, and a passionate advocate for justice who works with the Children’s Defense Fund’s Nashville organizing team. He helps us fight to keep children and people of color, especially Black boys, out of the Cradle to Prison Pipeline and mass incarceration system which will trap 1 in 3 Black boys born in 2001 sometime during their lifetime. He also combats zero tolerance school discipline policies that push Black children, especially Black boys, out of school and criminalize children of color. I met Ndume soon after he was freed as an inmate wrongly convicted of murder who served almost 28 years in prison, 20 on death row, before his release June 1, 2012. He’s a gentle, forgiving man. Long before that, Ndume was a small Black boy trying—and failing—to survive the violence, poverty, and low expectations that surrounded him.

Not long after his release from prison, he wrote his story:   

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“My name is Ndume Olatushani. I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. I currently reside in the Nashville, Tennessee area. I spent my early years in the notorious Pruitt- Igoe Projects where the best and worst of human behavior were always on display. Because the Pruitt-Igoe Projects had become so lawless they were the first to be torn down by the federal government in the 1970's.

“At a young age I was exposed to all kind of things that no child should ever be exposed to. At the age of five I witnessed my first murder, which was of a young black man. At the time, I did not realize how this tragic event would help shape me but, like any child exposed to violence over a sustained period of time, I gradually became desensitized to violence. In some ways I became the people who stood around at the site of the playground murder, laughing and joking, as the young man took his last breaths.

“Though I officially dropped out of school in the eleventh grade, I had checked out of school mentally years earlier. In the newly integrated schools I attended, I experienced hostility from my white peers and discouragement from my teachers. My fourth grade teacher who was white asked my class what we wanted to be when we grew up. When I told her I wanted to be a veterinarian, her response was that I should instead aspire to do something with my hands, like construction.

“Years later, when I was sitting in a prison cell assessing my life, I understood the significance of her statement. As a child I did not understand the effect her statement had on me psychologically, and I did not understand the pathology of racism. Of course I do not lay the misguided decisions I made on her doorstep, but she was a part of the thread that weaved the quilt of my life. It was her and so many small but significant events that I was exposed to as a child that contributed to the trajectory of my life's decisions.

“As a young man, I began making some bad decisions that landed me in jail and prison on a range of felony charges. I have seen the inside of jails and prisons in four states. While I was making the decisions that landed me in all those jail and prison cells, I had no idea that the criminal record I was developing would lead to me being falsely accused and wrongly convicted of a robbery murder. I was 26 years old when, in 1985, I was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for a murder  that took place in Memphis, Tennessee, a state  I  had never even stepped foot in before standing trial there.

“It took 28 years — 20 of which I spent on death row—for me to finally prove that I was innocent. In December of 2011, a court overturned my conviction in the face of overwhelming proof that the prosecutors in my case had buried a mountain of evidence demonstrating my innocence. The bulk of the buried evidence showed that an entirely different group of suspects were the real perpetrators of the crime…

“I was red-lined for failure, although I do not absolve myself from the decisions that I made that helped make it possible. But those decisions were not without some guidance and direction from a system [whose] only use for some people is for them to be sitting in a jail or prison cell. We have to ensure that we are fully aware of this system and we have to continue to work hard at disrupting and dismantling this system to save our children.

“I feel strongly about not forgetting all the men I left behind in prison. I am deeply committed to working for criminal justice reform. The work [I and my coworkers are] doing to challenge polices resulting in the mass incarceration of people of color and especially the zero tolerance policies leading to the criminalization of our children is incredibly important to me and it should be to all of us. I witnessed what the policies of mass incarceration have done to generations and we don’t have to wonder about its effects on our future.”

Ndume taught himself to become a fine artist in prison and has not a bitter or mean bone in his body. He works tirelessly today with poor children, especially boys of color living in Nashville housing projects, encouraging alternatives to the street through art.

Ndume’s art along with his mentees’ creations grace our offices in Washington, D.C. and Tennessee to remind us of the gifts children have if we enable them to come forth and blossom and not discourage them. Every parent and educator ought to be very mindful about the power their words and attitudes convey to the children we raise and teach. They will live up or down to our expectations. Let’s make sure we lift them all up and give them something to strive toward.

Click here to share your comments and find out what others are saying.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by oli gadol at: August 24, 2015
You are so right. The U.S. "just us" system targets poor people especially poor black people and other poor people of color. Now, they are targeting poor whites as well so you know we are in trouble. The american plantation has never stopped. The snake just sheds his skin but keeps in tact his motive, to rid america of her colors especially BLACK!

Submitted by Pault at: July 17, 2015
Thank you, Ms. Edelman for your words. They soften my anger at this country's injustices. Thank you for all you do for children in this country. Blessings on you and all your associates.

Submitted by purpletavon at: July 14, 2015
Thanking this Young Man for Using His Pen to Liberate himself and Free The Children *** SALUTES ***

Submitted by VERAC at: July 12, 2015

Submitted by AmyJJ at: July 11, 2015
Such a courageous life and message thank you. Truth changes the future

Submitted by So All Have Hope at: July 11, 2015
I read with great anticipation Ms. Edelman's columns every Friday. Each one is so important, enlightening and helpful to understating the complex issues of poverty and racism. This particular article and Ndume's story moved me to my core. I, too, grew up in a lawless and forgotten neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio where I witnessed the cradle to prison phenomenon firstand. Today, I have dedicated my whole life and career as an attorney to lifting up these same kids living on the margins and giving them something to strive for. For most of the high school youth we serve through our organization, we are the first person to ever believe in them. Consistently lifting them up and being their light in the darkness has such a powerful and practical impact on their lives! Thank you Ms. Edelman and Ndume's for all you do. I will keep your words and story in my heart as extra fuel to the fire to our work at ending injustice.

Submitted by MM at: July 11, 2015
Thank you for sharing this article with us and for all you do for our children. I am working with a group called "Pastors for Texas Children" who are trying to support our public school children for much the same reasons.

Submitted by ABCLC at: July 11, 2015
This story is so powerful we need to share with all our scholars attending Freedom School this summer. I certainly will be sharing with our all male site on Monday morning!

Submitted by Ela at: July 10, 2015
I volunteer in the prison system as a creative writing teacher. I see repeatedly how the system works against men of color, but also how poverty and broken families and addiction create that redline. Working with these intelligent and insightful men, I wonder how different there lives might have turned out had they had better educations and environments for growing up. The system needs to change for us to factually call ourselves a democracy that allows opportunities for all.

Submitted by stanifer at: July 10, 2015
What a remarkable man, Ndume. If only his teacher had encouraged him in his ambition to become a vet. That small thing might have made a huge difference in showing him a path. Still, he has become an admirable and inspiring person in spite of all the slights and stumbling blocks in his way. Bravo.

Submitted by Sally Fairman at: July 10, 2015
Thank you for this beautiful essay. I was so lucky to meet Ndume in Knoxville. He's wonderful.