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Birmingham Ex-Offender Works to Redeem Himself and Others

Ronald McKeithen is the Re-entry Coordinator and Advocate for Alabama Appleseed. He mentors ex-offenders, advocates for them, and travels the country speaking about his experience. (City of Birmingham)

By Marie Sutton | City of Birmingham

Living on welfare and with little else, 11-year-old Ronald  McKeithen only really wanted one thing: for his mother to stay home.

A single parent raising four kids in Birmingham’s Titusville community, the woman had long since stopped cooking warm meals. She ceased the thumb wrestling contests and her eyes no longer lit up at the sight of her babies. Instead, she remained in a drunken stupor with eyes turned toward bottles and beer.

Ronald had to quickly learn the domestic art of washing clothing in the bathtub and braiding his baby sister’s hair. Because of home duties he missed a lot of school though he loved being in the classroom.

Not even his begging could move his mother, who would rather be in the neighborhood shot houses drinking her fill. When Ronald tried to physically block her from leaving out of the door, the woman would do anything to get past him, even whip out a knife.

“She stabbed me twice,” he remembered.

A young Ronald couldn’t control anything in his life, it seemed. Not his mother. Not the school being unwilling to give him grace for missed days. Not his circumstances.

He was kicked out of high school and “then the streets started calling.” He sank into drugs and perpetual crime, racking up felonies. At age 19, because of Alabama’s Habitual Offenders Act, he found himself facing a judge and being sentenced to life without parole.

Prison was hard, he said. “After so many decades of the same thing every single day, I saw guys fade away; losing their minds.”

For a brief moment, Ronald considered suicide. But then, something clicked.

“I am not about to do this,” he told himself. “I did not want to give up. I took classes and got involved in everything.”

Ronald got his GED, became a barber, a leather craftsman, an artist, a poet, and a teacher. He even helped to launch a newsletter and a prison podcast called “Corrections” on Spotify.

Because of all of his work, he got the attention of the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and journalist Beth Shelburne. With their advocacy work and news stories, Ronald’s life without parole sentence was overturned; deemed excessive and unconstitutional.

“I feel so fortunate to know him as a person,” said Carla Crowder, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “If all I do with my law degree is having freed Ronald McKeithen, then I have done what I need to do. My soul is rested.”

On Friday, December 18, 2020, after being imprisoned for 37 birthdays, 37 Christmases, and 37 New Years, Ronald became a free man. He left to the roarous applause of the inmates — those he helped to teach, mentor, and encourage. He vowed not to forget them.

Today, he is the Re-entry Coordinator and Advocate for Alabama Appleseed. He mentors ex-offenders, advocates for them, and travels the country speaking about his experience.

Recently, he stood alongside Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin for an announcement about a one-year pilot program led by The City of Birmingham and local organizations to support the needs of those reentering the community after incarceration. The Birmingham Re-entry Alliance will be a coordinated, holistic approach to transform how the city serves people released from state prisons with a focus on ensuring that justice-impacted families in Birmingham thrive.

“To have all these organizations at one table, each specializing in different things, that is beautiful to me,” he said.

Recently, Ronald McKeithen stood alongside Mayor Randall Woodfin for an announcement about a program to support those reentering the community after incarceration. (City of Birmingham)

Ronald believes the alliance is critical for those who come out of prison with no assistance. He has worked with ex-offenders who have never had a social security card and even one who had a birth certificate with no name on it. Those roadblocks stall their proper re-entry but Ronald’s motto is “We figure it out and find a way.”

Ronald said he is grateful for his freedom and works to be an example for fellow ex-offenders and those who advocate for them. “I am trying to be an example because I need Alabama to see that. I am showing them that I can do it.”

It is weighty, he said. He feels responsible for not messing up and perhaps giving others what he did not get.

Just one more embrace,
Drunk as a skunk,
Or glowing like an angel.
God please grant me
This one last

He wrote about his mother, in the poem named “Jessie.” Unfortunately, she died while he was in prison. Six months after the news of her death, he learned she had been murdered.

“It was like she had died twice,” he said.

Ronald often thinks about the 11-year-old boy who needed his mom. He often thinks of the broken woman who was his mother and who needed grace. Perhaps, in part, they are his motivation for walking alongside the newly released prisoners. He is committed to being there, to offer grace, to mentor, to support, and to allow his eyes to light up for them.