Story by Caroline Bauman and Jacob Steimer // Photos by Danielle Smith
Justice Locke still remembers the fall day she first stepped inside a prison, more than six years ago. Then a high school student, she remembers the men hurling inappropriate words at her, the quietness of death row, and the sight of the electric chair.
Above all, Locke remembers being shocked by the face of one of the prisoners — not because it was frightening, but because it belonged to someone she knew from her neighborhood.
“It was a person that wasn’t known as a criminal,” she said. “At that moment, I started to see criminals as humans.”
Locke, now 23, served as Downtown Church’s youth ministry intern in 2017 and is now an active volunteer. She is also a recent graduate of the Downline Emerging Leader program and is planning to attend law school in the near future. She credits that day in the prison for propelling her toward a life of caring for at-risk populations and seeking justice for all.
In the short-term, though, that high school field trip to the prison stirred a passion in her for learning the law. This led Locke, who grew up in Columbia, Tennessee, to majoring in criminal justice at the University of Memphis.
While attending the university, Locke interned with the juvenile court as an auxiliary probation officer, encouraging young lawbreakers “to do more in the right direction.”
The job fulfilled her passion initially, but she realized by the intership’s end that she wouldn’t be able to best serve those youth under the strict confines of a government job. To best point them in the right direction, she knew she’d need to use her faith and the Lord’s word.
“It was really a challenge because I couldn’t point them to the Lord,” she said.
While continuing to pursue a legal education, Locke decided to devote her time outside the classroom to faith-based efforts aimed at helping at-risk kids avoid the criminal justice system in the first place.
Around this same time, God brought an old friend, Ashley Gray, back into Locke’s life. She asked Gray to disciple her and the timing couldn’t have been better, as Terence Gray was looking for a youth ministries intern for Downtown. Locke had never attended the church, but she gladly took on the role.
Locke now works with kids from North Memphis, South Memphis, Binghampton and elsewhere — places where children are expected to end up in the justice system when they’re grown, she said.
The kids come to youth group at Downtown, and she meets up with some of them throughout the week. The goal, she said, is to love on them enough that they don’t end up heading down the expected path.
“They know people think they’re not going to make anything out of their lives,” she said. “The Lord put me up in front of them as an example they can live by.”
Along with helping with youth, Locke views it as her mission to inform the masses about the brokenness of the criminal justice system.
“Some people don’t know [about] mass incarceration. … Some people don’t know there’s people out here searching for jobs who want to get their life back on the right path but can’t because of their criminal record,” Locke said.
She views it as everyone’s responsibility to care about these issues.
“God says to be in the world,” she said. “To be in the world, you have to know what’s going on. Not just … in your neighborhood, but [also] in the neighborhoods down the street.”