International author, activist for criminal justice keeps audience spellbound

International author, activist for criminal justice keeps audience spellbound
Khalil Osiris, second from left, with Stetson Kennedy Foundation advocates Bess Turk, Scott McLucas and Jenny Guth

The third annual National Day of Empathy was jointly hosted March 5 at the University of North Florida by Operation New Hope and #cut50, both organizations intent upon healing the nation’s broken criminal justice system. 

The dramatic keynote address of the evening by international speaker Khalil Osiris followed stirring presentations by Kevin Gay, Founder/CEO of Operation New Hope; Bill Dyer, Bridges to Life; Laura Lothman Lambert, Juvenile Division Director of the State Attorney’s Office, and Dr. Michael Hallett, UNF Criminal Justice Professor. Osiris spent 20 years in prison, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Boston University while incarcerated, and has since authored two books, “The Psychology of Incarceration,” and “A Freedom That Comes from Within.”  

Now a resident of San Marco, Osiris is partnering with Operation New Hope and Reflecting Freedom, LLC, a social enterprise organization he founded with the support of Ortega residents Michael and Pam Oates, with the goal of reducing recidivism, promoting restorative justice and inspiring transformational leadership.  

At the National Day of Empathy event, more than 200 sets of eyes were riveted on Osiris as he vividly described his long, difficult journey of transformation. At age 17, while in prison for a brief foray into criminal activity, he was nearly stabbed to death by fellow inmates. He learned, in the most difficult of circumstances, how to survive, and by the time he was released at age 21, he had become a bitter, hardened criminal. Within three years, he was again sent to prison, this time facing a sentence of 15 to 75 years. 

It was early in his second incarceration, after a sad, pleading phone call from his son, that Osiris experienced an epiphany. “I realized I had been in a prison of my own making long before I was put behind bars,” he said. “I knew then that I had the power to get out of my prison well before I was actually released.” That was when he began using his time productively, reading, studying, praying for enlightenment, and eventually graduating from Boston University. “I changed my cell into a classroom and the prison into a university,” he said. 

It was also during those years that he adopted the name Khalil Osiris.  

“My mother loved the philosopher, Khalil Gibran,” he explained, “and our family had always talked of having an Egyptian heritage, so I chose the surname of Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god of the afterlife and rebirth, because I was definitely in the process of being reborn.” 

During his years of study, Osiris was inspired by many authors and activists including Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said, “The ancestor of all action is thought,” and Victor Frankl, author of “Man’s Search for Meaning,” who said, “Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted wrongly the first time.”  

He was also inspired by the heroic courage of South African President Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years behind bars, never wavering in his determination to defeat apartheid. While still in prison, Osiris became pen pals with Dr. Makaziwe Mandela, the eldest daughter of Nelson Mandela. He made a commitment to her and her father that he would one day visit South Africa and work in schools and prisons to honor the life-changing impact Mandela had on him.  

In 2011, Osiris moved to South Africa and fulfilled his commitment, hosting an award-winning South African TV Show, “Each One Teach One,” founding a re-entry program called Get Out and Stay Out (GOSO Africa), and an initiative called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS Africa), designed to improve behavioral outcomes for students in every grade of school. Osiris continues to divide his time between South Africa and Jacksonville.

The emphasis of Osiris’ keynote address on the National Day of Empathy was that incarceration is the result of choices, not “mistakes.” In line with that philosophy, Osiris invited several men (former inmates working with Operation New Hope) to join him on stage and recite the Formerly Incarcerated Citizen Pledge: “I take responsibility for my choices and incarceration. I am accountable for my education, employment and successful reentry. As a formerly incarcerated citizen, I pledge to break the cycle of crime, violence and incarceration in my family and community.”  

“Kevin Gay’s Operation New Hope and Ready4Work Program have contributed powerfully to making Jacksonville a ‘City of Second Chances,’” said Osiris, noting Reflecting Freedom has partnered with Operation New Hope to help promote criminal justice reform and corporate social responsibility throughout the community and the nation. 

As the National Day of Empathy event came to an end, Osiris made an exciting announcement and introduced Dr. Makaziwe Mandela, via video, as she talked of coming to Jacksonville July 18 to celebrate her father’s legacy at Jacksonville’s first annual Nelson Mandela International Day. 

Osiris met with Gay during the week following the National Day of Empathy and the two discussed many productive plans, including a possible trip to South Africa in conjunction with the Nelson Mandela International Day. In the meantime, Osiris has a busy schedule in April which includes a Lenten Series at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, a Speaker Series at St. Mark’s Episcopal Day School on April 5 at 6 p.m. and a speaking engagement at the Arizona State University (ASU) and Global Silicon Valley (GSV) Summit in San Diego, California April 8-10. 

A powerful advocate for bringing about positive change both locally and globally, Osiris touts one central message that has come to him through years of prayer, meditation and experience. “Freedom is always possible,” he said, “and it comes from looking inward.”

Susan D. Brandenburg
Resident Community News

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