Life takes a new track after prison, law school

Alumnus rises from the depths of drug abuse and incarceration to advocate for others’ rights as a College of Law grad

By Nick Ducassi

Just beyond the shadows of downtown Miami’s skyscrapers, Desmond Meade JD ’14 stared at empty railroad tracks, planning to jump when the next train came around. How would those last seconds of his life go down, he wondered. Would wheels crush his head? Would he die instantly? Or would the life slip out of him slowly, adding more agony to the three painful decades that had brought him here in the first place?

Call it fate, God or a delay, but no wheels barreled down the tracks that afternoon. Drug use, jail sentences and chronic homelessness had driven him to the brink of suicide, but his end was not to be. At that low point, he had no inkling of the kind of turnaround of which he was capable, one that within 10 years would see him earn a law degree at the FIU College of Law.

Raised in Miami, Meade joined the Army after high school. He was kicked out of the Army though, when he was caught stealing liquor while stationed in Hawaii. After returning to Miami, he started working as a celebrity bodyguard, and the late nights led to hard drinking, drugs, and, eventually, felony drug charges.

The storm clouds were only beginning to roll in. In 1995, his mother passed away. Soon after, the bank foreclosed on his family home. Depression set in. Drugs and alcohol eased his pain but quickened his fall. In 2001 Meade was sentenced to 15 years in prison for possession of a firearm.

Good behavior earned him an early release, but life didn’t become much easier. Landing a job was nearly impossible, and Miami’s sidewalks became his mattress. That’s when, in 2005, Meade approached the railroad tracks in a daze and waited to end his life. But in a last minute moment of clarity, he came to his senses and walked across them instead.

Meade checked into the Chapman Partnership in downtown Miami, where he was given shelter, substance abuse counseling and medical services. While there, he befriended Frank Hernandez, who spoke about his own struggles with addiction at Meade’s group counseling sessions and inspired Meade to tell his own story.

Meade started speaking about his own journey at treatment centers three to four times a week. “The joy that came over me when I connected with my community, and spoke about my experience…it was a joy that I had never felt before. I had no idea that I’d been longing for that feeling my entire life.”

Not only did his words help those who heard him – they also kept him straight. “I talked the talk, and I had to walk the walk,” Meade says. Moreover, they gave him a sense of purpose and reason to live. “I discovered that true satisfaction comes in giving back to this planet – to society. It’s in that that we find our true purpose. I realized my calling was to help people less fortunate than myself.”

Back on his feet and living at the Recovery House, he decided to spend the rest of his life helping those less fortunate than himself – and that his work would involve the law. “It’s intertwined in every aspect of our lives. I knew that if I had a greater understanding of the law, I would be of greater use to the people I was trying to help – the disenfranchised.”

He enrolled in the paralegal studies program at Miami Dade College and flourished academically. While at MDC, he started working with the Formerly Homeless Forum, a group that advocates for policies to end homelessness and is a member of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. He went on to complete a bachelor’s degree at MDC in public safety management with a concentration in criminal justice and eventually worked his way up to becoming the president of the FRRC.

desmond-meade-2000x1386His professors encouraged him to continue his education, and he was accepted into FIU’s law school, but a cloud of uncertainty hung over his acceptance. Florida is one of the only states in the country that doesn’t automatically restore felon’s rights once they’re released. Moreover, the Florida Bar Association prohibits felons who haven’t had their rights restored – a process which, on average, takes more than a decade – from even taking the bar exam. There was a chance he could never practice law in Florida.

Nonetheless, if death couldn’t stop him, neither could ambiguity. He balanced his law school studies with speaking engagements and advocacy work. Eventually, the NAACP, which has been working for rights restoration causes at the statewide level for decades, caught wind of him. “He was so gifted, so clear in his understanding of the law,” says Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau and its senior vice president for Advocacy and Policy. “He was so committed. It was almost as if he was obsessed to right this democratic wrong in our society.”

This past March, the NAACP flew him to Geneva, Switzerland to testify before the Human Rights Committee at the United Nations about his experience as a felon stripped of his civil rights. “To watch Desmond testify very openly and engage one on one with these incredible leaders from all over the world was just incredible,” continues Shelton.

Associate Professor of Legal Skills and Values Ila Klion says it’s not hard to see why he’s been so effective. More than his smarts, she said, Meade “has this amazing ability to reach people. When he speaks and he smiles – people get very endeared to him. He really swoops people in.”

At the end of the day, Meade himself has skin in the game, although that’s only part of the reason he’s currently leading a charge to launch a ballot initiative in 2016 that would automatically restore the rights of 2 million formerly incarcerated Floridians. Not only would it give them the right to vote – it would allow Meade to take the bar exam.

Until his rights are restored though, Meade has plenty to keep him busy. In September, he made his third visit to the White House on behalf of the Live Free Campaign to make policy requests related to felon disenfranchisement. Meade is the state director of the campaign, which – is part of PICO, a network of faith-based organizations addressing the causes of violence and crime and encouraging congregations of different faiths to be more civically engaged.

“Personally, I think he could do more good in this world by NOT being a lawyer than by being one,” Kion said.“Whether that means felons’ rights, inner city rights, or racial oppression, he’ll always be involved with making things better.”

Ultimately, for Meade, it’s about strengthening communities from the bottom up: “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and the same goes for our community. To make our community strong, we must empower those among us who are the weakest,” says Meade. “You can’t just walk past the homeless guy or drug addict and say he’ll never amount to anything, because I was once that homeless guy. I was once that drug addict. As a society, we have the ability to transform.”