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The Justice Project and What He’s Doing Now
In 1997, Washington D.C. native Momolu Stewart was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the shooting death of Mark Rosebure. Then just sixteen years old and still legally a minor, Stewart was tried for his crimes as an adult and locked away for life—or so it seemed at the time.
When the Washington D.C. Council passed the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act in 2017, Stewart and his lawyers petitioned for a reduced sentence. The new law allows inmates who committed their crimes under the age of eighteen and spent at least fifteen years in prison to appeal for a reduced sentence, provided that they show evidence of rehabilitation. As part of Stewart’s petition, over forty individuals wrote into the judge on Stewart’s behalf—including one Kim Kardashian West, who learned about Stewart when she received a written plea for help from him.
When she traveled to D.C. to tour prisons, Kardashian West reached out to Stewart for a one-on-one sitdown. What followed in their hour of conversation was a wrenching account of Stewart’s difficult childhood, as well as the societal forces that led him to criminal activity. Stewart described how, when he was six years old, his mother was imprisoned for murdering his abusive father; Stewart was then sent to live with relatives, whose abuse drove him to run away at age fourteen. Stewart also spoke about his efforts to pay his hard-earned wisdom forward in prison, where he served as a mentor to troubled younger inmates. Through the Georgetown Prison Scholars Program, Stewart earned his GED, while also racking up over 1,400 hours of coursework in subjects including political science, anger management, and African studies.
That far-reaching conversation made its way into Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project, Kardashian West’s new Oxygen documentary about her prison reform advocacy efforts. Kardashian West has put her time as an apprentice lawyer to good use, traveling the country to meet with incarcerated individuals whose crimes don’t fit the outsize punishments—and lend whatever star power she can to their bids for clemency. In the moving documentary, Kardashian West sits down with these inmates to listen with her whole heart to their stories, while also meeting with lawyers, prosecutors, and elected officials in her crusade to see these harsh sentences commuted.
Forty letters and a number of hearings later, Stewart was granted an early release with five years of supervised probation. As of October 2019, Stewart was one of nineteen former inmates released from life sentences under the new law. Now 39, Stewart has been out of prison for almost six months after serving 23 years. Esquire spoke with Stewart about life on the inside, youth advocacy, and criminal justice reform.
Esquire: Tell me about your day to day life ever since your release.
Momolu Stewart: I’m living in DC. Going through the coronavirus has impacted a lot of activities, like work and travel, so I’ve had to put a pause on some of my aspirations, but I’ve been writing—writing proposals and writing music. Every day that I’m staying in the house, I’ve got to be aggressive with everything that I aspire to do, like being a youth activist and making music.
ESQ: What were some of the first things on your to-do list after your release from prison?
MS: I wanted to spend a lot of time with mom, my sister, my niece, and my nephews. One of my nephews was born when I was inside; he’s a grown man now, so I was always a little sad about that, because I wasn’t able to be around him and partake in a lot of his development by physically being there. Of course I wrote letters and I did take part in that, but I’m talking about exercising together, going out to eat, and just having fun with him. I’ve got another nephew who’s eight years old, and I always thought, “I wasn’t able to do it with my first nephew, but I’ll be able to do it with him.” I also want to do a lot of youth activism—going around, speaking to young people, trying to help them change their lives. I want to do a lot of traveling. There are so many things I wanted to do while I was inside. I definitely wanted to have the companionship of a woman. I wanted to impact the world with a positive perspective, and to be with my family.
ESQ: Speaking of your youth activism, you mentioned in your letter to Kim Kardashian West that you were a mentor to the younger men incarcerated with you. You said that you worked to save their lives. What did that mentor and mentee relationship look like? In what ways did you help them, and in what ways were their lives at risk?
MS: Here in D.C., it’s pretty much the same way that it was when I was younger, though gentrification has changed a lot of things. But in my opinion, some of the culture is still the same, so I feel a camaraderie with the younger people. I’m a living example of that they could wind up having to endure if they make a bad decision. What I’ve tried to do with them is tell them this: there are two types of freedom. There’s the physical freedom and the mental freedom. Once we start to make certain choices, we can lose our physical freedom. I try to let them know that they always have a choice, and they don’t have to make the same choices that I’ve made. They can be trend-setters rather than followers, because a lot of times when we wind up in those circumstances, it’s hard to escape. You’ve got a young man losing his life every day, being murdered or being incarcerated. That atrocity, that crisis–it’s something that I will never fully be able to explain. Being away from your family and being locked away in a cell and being shackled, being told to go this way or go that way, going through the most dehumanizing circumstances. I’ve tried to explain this to them: you have a chance, you have the opportunity to make a powerful decision that can change the trajectory of your whole life. You don’t have to go down the road I went down. You can be whatever you want to be.
ESQ: Do you still have relationships with the young men that you mentored now that you’re on the outside? How do you keep in touch?
MS: I do. It starts with phone calls; that call will elevate to me picking them up, taking them out to go eat, and just having a powerful conversation with them. I try to find out what’s going on in their lives and give them some type of wisdom that can change the way they’re thinking. A lot of them get out and it’s back to the same circumstances and struggles that landed them there in the first place, which is a financial disadvantage. Being disadvantaged financially gets them thinking, “I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do in order to provide for my family, for my children, for myself.” That’s what I’ve been working on–just trying to better my conditions and my circumstances, because I understand that elevating myself financially, economically, and socially better enables me to help these young men.
ESQ: Many of the people featured in this documentary describe feeling “thrown away” in prison. You described it as feeling “buried alive.” What does that do to your sense of self?
MS: For a long time while I was incarcerated, we had a saying: “We paint the windows black.” What that means is that there might be only two people I call. It might be my mama and my sister, but you’ve got a world full of billions of people, so at some point you paint the windows black–you’re not socializing, and you’re not talking to people who will keep you updated on what’s going on outside. Being buried alive happens when you’re no longer able to romance a woman. You’re no longer able to have companionship. You’re no longer able to reach the outside world; there’s no deep love, no loyalty or friendship or compassion from others, because you’re totally forgotten about. You’re isolated. It’s almost like you’re not living–you’re only existing behind a wall. But once a person understands that the world outside of him is only the world within him, that’s when we become conscious of the fact that the creator is more concerned with changing who I am than changing where I am. Once I change the conditions of my heart, then the creator will change the conditions I have met. That’s when I felt resuscitated. That’s when I felt resurrected within myself. I thought, “No matter where I am, I can be better in this environment. I can be better for myself. I can change this place into a college, and I can change my circumstances. I know I can because I believe in me, the same way greater people or those that have done greater things have believed in themselves.”
ESQ: Tell me about the letter you wrote to Kim Kardashian West. How did you hear about her advocacy for prison reform, and what inspired you to reach out to her?
MS: I really can’t remember when I first heard that she was doing this great, great work. But I go off vibes and energy; I can sense something in the way people talk or the way they talk about it. When I heard her speak about what she was doing, there was such a passion within her. Women are the most powerful beings on this earth. I had this thought to myself: “If anybody helps me in this situation, I know it’s going to be a woman.” So I went out on a limb and wrote her a letter. I felt that if she was as genuine as she seemed to be and if I spoke from my heart, then it would touch her heart.
Courtesy of Oxygen
ESQ: When you sat down with Kim in person, did that confirm the vibe you felt about her?
MS: A lot of people out there in the world are superficial, and because they’re superficial, they look for other people to be superficial. People say she’s faking it, but that’s so untrue. Kim is one of the most authentic women I’ve ever met in my life. Just hearing her words, it felt like she was screaming in my soul. She was actually more than what I thought she would be, because I already had her on a pedestal, but she’s phenomenal because she’s humble. She wants to help you because she wants to help you help yourself. It wasn’t just her letter that pushed the momentum of getting my freedom; it touched my spirit to know that Kim believes in me because she sees something in me. When I had the opportunity to speak to the judge, I already believed in myself, but she helped me believe in myself even more. I want to be bigger and better in a lot of ways, and a lot of that, I owe to her.
ESQ: Four days after your release, you attended Kanye West’s Sunday Service at Howard University with Kim and performed there. What was that experience like for you?
MS: Here’s the backstory. My dad was a counselor at Howard University, and the last time I was on university property was when my mother murdered my father in 1986. I lost my father and my mother that night. When my mom came home from prison nine and a half years later, it wasn’t long before I went in. There’s a song I used to always sing on the juvenile block: “Let All Praises Be to the King of Kings.” When I attended the service with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West, that was the first song they sang. I turned around and looked at Kanye, and he looked at me and he shook his head, and there was an understanding that life is deeper than just the physical. So much mercy was bestowed upon me to be released.
My aunt who raised me when my mom went to prison, she died that day. That day when I was there at the Sunday Service, she died. This was my favorite aunt; she was like a mother to me. She battled with cancer for maybe a year or so, and she was on her death bed for six or seven months before I made it home. So many feelings were going through me. To meet Kanye West was a huge honor, because I’m a fan of his music. I’ve never gone to parties, never gone to concerts–I’ve never been anywhere with so many positive people. As for my performance, I wrote that rap when I was sixteen years old. The audience understood it and applauded it, so ever since I’ve just been writing music, hoping that other opportunities will continue to come my way.
I’ve never gone to parties, never gone to concerts–I’ve never been anywhere with so many positive people.
ESQ: You studied at length in the Georgetown Prison Scholars Program. What classes did you take, and what were your favorite subjects?
MS: I took political science, philosophy, African American philosophy, writing and literature… but the classes I really, really enjoyed were political science. It was so informative on how we should all be civically engaged. I studied our story and understood a lot of what my ancestors have been through in this country, what they fought for, what they risked their lives for–ultimately what they died for, which was democracy. They died because they believed in democracy. They understood that their voice was so powerful when it was united. My father was a doctor of political science himself, so I read his thesis about political science and how he felt about certain things. I ended up reading his first book, which actually gave me a better perspective; it allowed me to read the voice in which he spoke more clearly. I would say that the political science classes helped me understand how people from my background are at the bottom because we’re not the rulers of this country. We don’t make the laws, but we have a voice, and even though it looks as if we’re at the bottom, we’re actually at the top if we could come together, unite our voice, and live out what we want and what we need as people.
ESQ: Seeing what you’ve seen, experiencing what you’ve experienced, studying all the things you’ve studied, how do you think the criminal justice system should change?
MS: I understand that change is inevitable. Nothing stands still–life is either moving forward or backward. I’ve met thousands of people that made bad decisions when they were young, then went on later, while they were still incarcerated, to become educated, to become teachers and leaders. They ultimately don’t deserve the harshness of the sentences they received, because these people are put there to die. On their release sheet, it says, “death.” Love and compassion should be administered in these rulings. Love has to be involved in it, because if not, the system will continue sending people to their deaths. Nowhere else in the world are so many people locked up in prison. The United States has more people locked up than anywhere in the world combined, and a lot of these laws came about through slavery. In other countries, they don’t lock people up for life because the people look like them, so there’s a love toward them. They don’t want to put them away for life; they don’t want to kill them.
But here, it’s about race and class, because even the European brothers locked up for life have problems. Maybe it’s a drug habit, maybe it’s family trauma, but whatever the case may be, they are not unsavable. These people can find salvation and they can be rehabilitated. Those with the power to make these rulings need to operate from a place of love and compassion instead of just becoming desensitized to what a person can go through that would allow them to commit a crime. Crime is a ripple effect. It’s like throwing a rock in an ocean. So many people are impacted by it, and I just pray that it can somehow change for the better.
These people can find salvation and they can be rehabilitated.
ESQ: What can the average person do to help folks in prison and be an advocate for criminal justice reform?
MS: The average person can do so much just by being involved and speaking out. Speak to a friend about it, a family member, and then become civically engaged. Realize that your voice comes with a vote. You’ve got to start holding these politicians accountable. A lot of people are way more comfortable just sitting in their armchair and talking about what should be done, but they’re not willing to put effort into changing things. That’s a lazy personality and a lazy character, and nothing gets done that way. Don’t be lazy. The change can happen–we just have to go after it.
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.