A Mile In Another’s Shoes: Justice Reform Activist Emily Barnes

Emily Barnes is a criminal justice reform advocate and founder of Ignite Justice, a nonprofit group that works to improve prison and jail conditions in Oklahoma. Her 20-year-old son Kody is serving a 25-year sentence for armed robbery at the Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville. 

In a new Oklahoma Watch feature “A Mile In Another’s Shoes,” an initiative to give voice to the voiceless or call attention to the plight of those affected by public policy, Barnes describes fighting for prison reform and what it’s like to have a family member incarcerated. Her comments were edited for length and clarity: 


I’m originally from Philadelphia, born and raised. I moved here about 15 years ago and have been here ever since. I was a single mom with two kids and picked a state that was cheap for me to live in where I could survive and raise kids and not struggle. 

My first job here was in telemarketing and then I worked at Walmart. Then I actually worked for the Department of Rehabilitation Services where we helped inmates find jobs. I realized when I was working with them how hard it is for a felon to get a job. Every 20 applications they send, they might get one interview. To me, people deserve a second chance, and that’s what made me want to get involved. 

Incarceration hasn’t always been a part of my life. I met a homeless man in Oklahoma City who was released from prison, had no money, no ID, no nothing, and was living on the streets. I said “I need to do something.” It’s because of that homeless man that I decided to get involved with criminal justice reform. That was 15 years ago. 

A couple of years after we moved my son started getting in trouble. The first time he got locked up, he was 12 years old. October 31 will be three years inside prison for him. He’s set to be released in 2027, but then he will be on paper for 15 years. 

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It’s like I buried my son but he’s still alive. That’s the only way I can describe it to people. It’s a horrible feeling. Then, every day you have to worry, is he going to get stabbed? Am I going to get a phone call telling me my son committed suicide because he can’t handle it no more? That’s my biggest fear. I fear that every day of my life. This is the worst nightmare, and I just want to wake up from it and for it to be over. 

Holidays are hard. Mother’s Day is definitely hard. Not even being able to go into a park and hang out with your family, like, it’s hard. And what’s even harder is, you know, your own family judges you because your loved ones are locked up. I have my good days, and I have my days where I just cry about it. 

I really started getting involved with Facebook groups about four years ago when Kody was still sitting in county jail. I was like “I’m going to start my own nonprofit, I need to make a change and fight for them.” My son doesn’t deserve to live in those types of living conditions. 

Their human rights are being violated. That to me is one of the main issues. Just because someone is in jail or prison doesn’t mean that they deserve to be treated like an animal. They shouldn’t have to lay on a cot and have bed bugs crawl on them, or flush the toilet and it’s overflowing in their cell. Even the food; they shouldn’t be given green bologna. They’re sent to prison to do their sentence, not to be treated inhumanely. 

Ignite Justice is a voice. A lot of families are scared of retaliation. They don’t want to speak up because they’re scared of what would happen to their loved one inside. I feel like I get to speak for them. Then you have a lot of inmates who don’t have any family support, they don’t have nobody to fight for them. 

Every day I’m writing emails to the governor’s office and to legislators. I’m emailing wardens trying to solve issues inside the prisons. It’s a 24-hour-per-day day job advocating. 

A lot of times you don’t get a response back, but then I just send another email and widen it to the next person. 

The one place I see something actually being done is the Oklahoma County Jail. With us being out there every month, doing news reports, and going to the media nonstop, people are responding. Now we have legislators wanting to get involved and are speaking out now about the deaths and the conditions and fighting to get the federal government involved. That’s a big step. 

Eventually, my goal is to open a resource room where former inmates can come and we can teach them how to work with a computer, help them do resumes and even have a clothing closet so they can pick out an outfit to wear to an interview. I want Ignite Justice to be a support system for inmates. You might not have family anymore, you might not have loved ones here, but you will always have us to help you any way we can. That’s the legacy I want. 

When my son gets out at 27 years old, he has no job experience. He’s on a ninth-grade reading level. What does the future actually hold for him? I worry about that. Making my son do classes while he’s locked up, it shouldn’t be an option. It should be mandatory. They should be helping them to prepare for society, not just letting them do whatever they want. And then they get out and they wonder why they re-offend. They’re not giving them the tools to survive in the real world. 

One thing I’ve learned about and have tried to explain to people: You never know when it could be one of your family members. Unfortunately, until it happens, someone won’t look at inmates differently. They’re always going to be judged. 

Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss

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