PHILADELPHIA -- It has been three weeks since Kempis Songster was released from Graterford Prison after serving 30 years for murder, and he is still adjusting to a world that is nothing like the one he left. There was no internet or cell phones when he went away in the late 1980s at the age of 15. Now 45, he's "trying to find a rhythm in this fast, free world again."
Jenkins received two Super Bowl tickets for being nominated for the 2017 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. He decided to give them to Songster, whom he connected with during a visit to a maximum-security correctional facility in suburban Philadelphia this spring.
"I wanted to do something special for him," Jenkins said in a conversation with ESPN. "I wanted to make sure that we celebrate those who have made that transition, who have come back home. I thought he'd be somebody who's deserving because it's not something that you always hear about -- we always give them to children and people who may be sick, who are well-deserving, but a lot of the times we just forget about those people who are trying to change their lives around or trying to give back and are looking for platforms. And I figure, what bigger stage than the Super Bowl?"
The co-founder of the Players Coalition, Jenkins decided this offseason that if he was going to be tackling all these criminal justice issues, he needed to educate himself. So he entered Cell Block B without security to talk with six inmates who had been gathered.
"Everything I've seen or heard tells me I should be a little worried," Jenkins said, "but that wasn't the case."
Of the men Jenkins and teammate Steven Means met with, Songster stood out.
A Brooklyn, New York, native, Songster and two friends ran away from home at the age of 15 in search of adventure and street cred. They knew of a distant relative who was part of a Jamaican gang in West Philadelphia, so they boarded a train bound for Philly. Per Songster's account, one friend promptly returned home after they spent their first night in a crack house, but he and Dameon Brome stayed, selling drugs through the mail slot of fortified houses they seldom were able to leave. In September 1987, an altercation with another gang member, 17-year-old Anjo Pryce, broke out, and Pryce was killed. Songster and Brome turned themselves in and were charged with first-degree murder.
Songster was sentenced to life without parole. A series of Supreme Court rulings in recent years found such mandatory sentences for juveniles unconstitutional, which led to a resentencing that paved the way for Songster's release.
Beyond time served, Songster has convicted himself to what he calls a "life of sacrifice and service," knowing he can never give back what he has taken. He worked toward a bachelor's degree from Villanova University while in prison, co-founded a program that works to reconnect incarcerated fathers with their children, collaborated with politicians on issues of criminal justice reform and started an event held outside the walls that brings together the families of people who were murdered with the families of people who have committed murder in the name of trying to "come to an understanding about their shared pains, and different pains, for the purposes of healing," he said.
Through their talks, Jenkins was struck by how closely he and Songster's interests and outlooks aligned despite their different circumstances.
"The way his life took him at the age of 15 and the direction it took him is totally different than [it took me], yet here we are at the same points in our lives, fighting for the same things," Jenkins said. "And I think it's a great way to demonstrate the commonalities that people have together and how we can work together to push for the same goals."
Jenkins invited Songster to a documentary screening about police and community relations at Temple University shortly after his release. It was there that he offered the Super Bowl tickets.
"How could I ever expect to come out to something like that after 30 years?" Songster asked. "And my journey, it’s not something to be proud of. It’s something that I’m always trying to live down, but I’ll never be able to live down, and so to come out to this incredible honor, being invited to the Super Bowl by somebody like Malcolm Jenkins, it’s just amazing.”
Jenkins is taking care of Songster's airfare and accommodations for his trip to Minneapolis as well. He's not sure if the team's schedule will allow them to interact much.
"If all else fails, I hope he enjoys the game and gets to celebrate this Eagles Super Bowl win," Jenkins said.
Songster is a football fan but hasn't been able to follow as closely as most. Not only has he been in prison for the past 30 years, but also he has been busy behind those walls. He fully intends to enjoy the game, but it is the gesture that's of greater significance to him.
“I know that I’ll never be able to shake this burden of guilt, and I know that no matter how good I do, how much I serve, how much I try to contribute -- and it’s probably not supposed to be enough, that’s why I’m supposed to do it for the rest of my life, I understand that -- but for some people, they may feel as though I shouldn’t be given this opportunity to be in the wide-open world," Songster said. "I recognize that I’ll always be a murderer in that sense in a lot of people’s eyes.
"But when someone like Malcolm reaches out ... when he extends himself that way and he advocates for someone like me, I interpret it as him saying to me that I am more than my worst act, that I am more than this decision and that I can be more. And that to me is a profound lesson for society because ultimately it’s about what kind of society do we want to leave behind for our children? A society that believes in the human capacity for transformation, that we can be better and we can rise above the vilest thing we’ve ever done? Or a society that heaps hopelessness on itself by heaping hopelessness on people that have done wrong? So I think that is just so magnanimous and just so forward-thinking from Malcolm. … It’s almost like he’s setting an example of what it would take to imagine a different kind of justice where we can invest in the best of people.”