Is it Government or Democracy?

 

In the first years of finding my way in my prison classroom, I had to teach a class called Government, always at 9:30 in the morning, making knots in my stomach as my students filed in. They were very eager to articulate the many ways they hated the government. They labeled it corrupt, evil, and racist. Given their long sentences for non-violent drug offenses, I understood. Given the fact that many of them were earning 11 cents/hour in the prison factory (going up to $1.25/hour), they felt used. Many called it slave labor. One of my first lessons was not to discuss the 13th Amendment:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Seeing that the Constitution permitted slave labor in prisons only fanned their anger. Some men sent their meager wages home.

Seeing so many people of color in prison for drug offenses made it easy to see why my students labeled the system racist. It was and it is. Michelle Alexander says in the The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness:

“People of all races use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than people of color.” 1

She goes on to say:

“Nevertheless, black men have been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is more than thirteen times higher than white men.” 2

All of these realities led to a profound sense of powerlessness. I could see it, hear it, feel it as I struggled along with the standard high school government textbook. We had few really good days. However, when I began to slip in other subjects like the Civil Rights Movement and non-violence, my students perked up, started listening and having lively discussions in class. As I watched them treat each other and me with courtesy and kindness, I created a short unit on civility. As they wrestled with what they valued and what is right, we talked about integrity. Discussions were lively with both of these subjects. Finally, with the help of Mr. C, my classroom assistant or “tutor,” we re-did the whole course and called it Civics.

Talking about and becoming good citizens proved successful as we wrestled with how to do the right thing, and they discussed how to live in together peacefully in prison, how to deal with the staff and rules. But, it took a while for us to figure out how my students could become empowered behind bars where so much power is taken away. Eating lunch one day with an assistant warden, he said, “One of our goals is to take responsibility away from them.” I thought about that a lot, realizing that being in school made them as responsible every day.

We decided together that the first duty—or level—of a citizen is to stay informed about how the system works and about the issues with as much unbiased, accurate information as possible. Citizens need to talk together about the issues important to them. Using a student’s idea to have students read and respond to a news article every week, the men then formed a circle to discuss everyone’s article. I’ve written about the success of this Round Table idea before. Nothing we ever did was as valued or successful as this was. The students loved the circle discussions, but it was being able to articulate their own reactions to the news they loved most. Finally, in a place that essentially silenced them, they had a voice—and it gave them a vital sense of their own power. People want and need to be heard.

The second level was to make their voices heard over the fence to the outside. I wrote about their correspondence with Dick Cheney in my January 25th blog called “Power to the People!” My students wrote to people in the state government and welcomed a state representative, himself an adult education graduate, to class one day. We were all evolving from the dreaded idea of a class in government to a class in democracy. Civics is a study in the ways we become good citizens. In a healthy democracy, the people vote for and create the government—on local, county, state and federal levels. We the people hold the power. If we simply call it government, we fail to take responsibility for allowing that particular government to be there—and nothing changes. Being good citizens means we are the current government’s watchdogs, holding elected officials accountable. Competent, responsible officials want and need to hear from their constituents.

Even people behind bars can make a difference. Mr. Glenning, incarcerated for a drug offense for many years, spent every day writing letters about the injustice of the drug wars. He learned who was interested in reform in his state legislature and in Congress and wrote them letters. Occasionally, they wrote back to him. He wrote letters to the editor. He was an active member of FAMM, Families Against Mandatory Minimums.  If I had a question, he was in the library every day, and I went to him. He worked tirelessly every day for years.

Mr. Walls, also incarcerated with a long sentence, was a tireless advocate for the abolition of capital punishment. He too did research, talked to any group that would listen and wrote letter after letter.

A third level was to engage each other. The point of a democracy is to disagree, but my students were thoughtful and courteous when they argued. They listened carefully and respectfully to people from different cultural and religious backgrounds. They laughed together.

I cannot remember a time in this country when our fractures have been so painful and our divisions so deep and misunderstood. I want to engage people who don’t hold the same views and values as I do. I want to learn to listen carefully, ask questions and stay calm. I want to remember that that a lot of anger springs from people’s anxieties and fears about changes in the country’s demographics and growing wealth divides. I want to hear and understand the alarms about the future. I would like to find common ground. Within the radical changes we are experiencing, I need to remember my remarkable students. In spite of their anger, frustration and feelings of powerlessness, they managed to be exemplary citizens. I need them as role models of courage and wisdom.

  1. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, The New Press, New York, 2012, p. 99.
  2. Ibid., p. 100.

Stories about Island Prisons

Stories about Island Prisons

Abuse continues on Rikers Island, the notorious prison sitting in the East River of New York City. Reading about the sordid record at Rikers prompts me to investigate other island prisons. Turns out, island prisons dot the waters all over the world in places like Venezuela, Italy, France and Panama. Alcatraz, America’s other infamous island, stands with its high imposing fortress rising up from San Fransisco Bay. Alcatraz was a maximum security federal prison from 1934-1963, It now functions as a tourist attraction as part of the U.S. National Park Service. Island prisons create a fitting metaphor for the way we regard and treat people who are incarcerated. Islands not only make it difficult to escape, but they create a natural barrier for the rest of us so that we are completely cut off and immune from the realties of lives inside. A prison on an island creates a more powerful sense of exile. more “Stories about Island Prisons”

What’s Alive in our Hearts?

This past year has been a terrible one for African-Americans—and for the country. It is hard to feel like we’ve made progress in bridging and mending our racial divisions—sometimes it feels as if we are falling backward when we see continuing deaths by police and see the violence and sense of hopelessness in impoverished inner cities. I see profound segregation in neighborhoods, in towns and cities, in states where white people live in different areas from people of color, and it feels like our landscape is made up of people living in separate circles who rarely interact, preventing us from the kind of dialogue that would yeild new understandings.

I’ve just read Kent Nerburn’s Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder, a story of listening carefully to Dan, the Native American elder, and writing down what Dan has to tell him. Five lessons within the book are relevant and could help as we face the challenges of our racial divides.  

First, as the old man talks about the history of what has happened to native peoples, he says, “Look at what your way did to our people. When you came among us, you didn’t care what was alive in our hearts. You wanted to know facts.” [1]

Exactly. We have a multitude of facts and figures: the numbers of people killed and by whom, statistics around gun violence and suicide, and all kinds of polling data, especially since Ferguson in 2014. I don’t hear very much at all about what is in people’s hearts. Specifically, I don’t hear about people’s fears, among them the fears white people have about young black men and people of color in general, fears of violence or loss of jobs. White people need to hear how much people of color everywhere fear the police, fear that they cannot secure good jobs, fear that their children do not have enough opportunity in education or employment, fear that they cannot find adequate, affordable housing, fear that their children are hungry.

The second is in the story of how the land was taken and the vast differences between white people and native people regarding the land itself. Dan tells Nerburn that to natives, the land was the place where ancestors were buried, where sacred stories and ceremonies took place, and that the land gave his people life and life for the spirits. He says, ”The worst thing is that you never listened to us. You came into our land and took it away and didn’t even listen to us when we tried to explain. You made promises and you broke every one.” [2]

As I heard the stories of being African-American, Native-American and Hispanic-American from my prison students, I heard the vast differences between being a person of color and being a white person in the United States. Learning to listen well to differences and caring enough to ask the right questions is hard and necessary work—but such a helpful first step.

The third lesson comes from Nerburn’s foreword where he talks about letting go of our own understanding of other people’s historical realities, their lives and the situations they find themselves in today. Nerburn writes about his time with Dan, Dan’s friends and family and says, “They literally and figuratively kidnapped me, and would not let me go until I paid the ransom of giving up my own understanding. They wanted me to realize that I had walked through Alice’s keyhole, and the world I had entered was not mine to reduce to the size and shape of my own understanding.” [3]

It is hard to give up our own perceptions and ideas of what we think is the truth. I love Aniais Nin’s quote that says, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” My students and I were so lucky to have inmates who were not in our high school program visit and talk to us. Mr. Terrence was from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota and came in to tell us about the values his people held and how wide the gap was between people on reservations and the general American culture. He said,

“Our young people have a very hard time when they are growing up. They must keep their feet in two places—one foot in your world and one foot inside the house with the dirt floor on the rez. If they leave the rez, they risk losing who they are and lose being Indian. That is a very bad thing. One of the problems with this is that white people think a dirt floor is a bad thing. They don’t understand that hundreds of years of culture are in that family and in that house.”

The fourth lesson is about guilt. We also need to recognize that many of us still harbor a sense of guilt about what was done to people of color in the past. Nerburn says in his foreword,

“I have never met an Indian person who didn’t somewhere deep inside struggle with anger and sadness at what has happened to their people, and I have never met an honest and aware non-Indian person in America who didn’t somewhere deep inside struggle with guilt about what we as a culture have done to the people who inhabited our continent before us. We can like each other, hate each other, feel pity for each other, love each other. But always, somewhere beneath the surface of our personal encounters, this cultural memory is rumbling. A tragedy has taken place on our watch, we are its inheritors, and the earth remembers.” [4]

In my prison classes, the issue of slavery brewed beneath the surface all the time. My students saw their incarceration as a form of modern-day slavery, and the cultural memories of slavery and Jim Crow came out in discussions of their family stories. One day, after an emotional discussion of slavery, Mr. Loving, an older white man, stayed back after class to tell me, “Mrs. Wenzel, it is hard to live in this place with so many young black men, and this is the first time I’ve recognized how guilty I feel about what happened to black people during slavery. I can sure see why black guys make this connection.”

I’m not sure that feeling guilty about things that happened in the past is useful. We weren’t there and we didn’t perpetrate the horror and damage done to so many people. I think it would be far more helpful to face the horrors of the past and learn how they are still alive and powerful today. It would also help to recognize how we as white people today still benefit from racial hierarchies and the institutional structures of racism. I wish there were forums in which white people and people of color could discuss their common anger and sadness about what has happened in the past. We would need a trusting space in which to do that.

Last, I am uncomfortable with the idea of enemy, because our politics of fear and anger put us in opposing camps all the time. I loved elder Dan’s idea of re-framing the idea of enemy after he sings a song in Lakota and explains it to Nerburn,

“I wrote it when I knew I wanted to speak. I went to my hill and spoke to my grandfathers. They gave me that song. They gave it to me in the wind. They said I had too much anger to speak. They told me that anger is only for the one who speaks. It never opens the heart of one who listens. There are good white people, they told me. They want to do right. They are not the enemy anymore. The enemy is blindness to each other’s ways. Put away your anger now, they said.” [5]

I refuse to believe that huge numbers of Americans are bigots, incapable of learning and respecting people who look different and have different experiences of being Americans. Recognizing and discussing our hopes and fears, in trusting and safe places, would be a huge step forward in the healing process. Reading books and aritcles by people of color would help too. I think we are capable of summoning our best selves: our courage to feel pain—the pain of others and our own, our openness to truth we hadn’t considered before, and our desires to make our relationships better. In the process, we could discover our common humanity.  We need to know what is alive in our hearts—and in the hearts of our fellow Americans.

more “What’s Alive in our Hearts?”

Guest Blog: Wake Up White America

My friend Jan Brimacombe, concerned citizen and social activist, volunteers in a prison facility to help inmates read books to their children. These books and recordings are then sent home, providing much-needed connections between incarcerated children and their fathers. She participates in a group that reads, learns and discusses the complicated issues of racism every month. She works on environmental issues, in particular with the dwindling populations of Monarch butterflies as she helps people to save their habitat by planting milkweed. I am honored to post her piece (written before the tragedies in Charleston) about our responsibility as white people to be aware of how our complicated and painful racial history and current tragedies impact black communities—and she urges us to get involved in the piece below.

–Judy Patterson Wenzel

Wake Up White America

by Jan Brimacombe

I am a 72 year old white woman; wife, mother, grandmother and retired teacher. On a recent Sunday afternoon while volunteering at the Milan Federal Prison Detention Center, I counted 25 African American children visiting their fathers. Ranging in age from infants to teenagers, the children were very engaged: lively conversations, hugs and laughter, seemingly normal father/child interactions except all of these children’s fathers are incarcerated. (The negative effects on the children, families and communities of the incarcerated warrants an entire new editorial.) And this is just one small visiting room for one unit in one section of a federal prison. My informal surveys of this visiting room have nearly always revealed the majority of inmates to be men of color. This microcosm of incarcerated men seems to mirror what some in this country are beginning to acknowledge and question: the mass incarceration of black men in America.

The recent series of deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers revives an obscure genre of plays dating to the early 1900s. Anti-lynching plays were written and performed to show how lynching devastated African American families. Readings of these plays has begun at JACK, a Brooklyn Community Arts Center. After performing Blue Eyed Black Boy the troupe read Safe in May. An Ohio State University professor who has studied the history of anti-lynching plays states that being able to tell the truth about why communities are under siege is an important counterpart to being told you deserve what you get. By performing these plays today one of the actors concludes that the audience might think, Oh, my that looks like what’s happening right now.

Eric Garner dies while in the choke hold of a white police officer in Staten Island as he pleads, I can’t breathe; I can’t breathe. Unarmed Michael Brown dies amid a volley of gunshots from a white police officer’s gun in Ferguson, Missouri. Grand juries conclude non-indictment in both cases. Violence erupts in Ferguson. Protests staged in New York City. Demonstrations take place around the country. Walter Scott is shot and killed by a white police officer in Charleston, South Carolina after being stopped for a faulty car taillight. In Inkster, Michigan Floyd Dent is stopped by white police officers; video captures him being dragged from his car and then punched in the head until his injures require medical care. Violence and rioting erupt in Baltimore after Freddy Gray dies from injuries suffered while in police custody after his arrest. Like Eric Garner, Gray’s calls for medical help go unheeded by the police. At Gray’s funeral his brother remarks, Most of us are not here because we know Freddy Gray, but because we know many Freddy Grays. The perennial black/white racial divide surfaces in reaction to all these incidents.

Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly and Martha MacCallum of Fox News discuss the Michael Brown case. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are sensationalizing these events for their purposes. You can’t take an isolated case and say racial profiling occurs. Profiling happens to everyone. NBC News pays Al Sharpton to deliver garbage. He has the nerve to insult the American police community. How audacious of these Fox “newscasters” to claim that profiling happens to everyone, choosing to overlook the meaning of profiling in the case of Michael Brown. This interpretation of the tragedy in Ferguson fuels racism in white audiences.   

Bryan Stevenson, director of The Equal Justice Initiative of Montgomery, Alabama shares these statistics in his TED Talk: one third of black men in the United States between the ages of 18 and 30 are in jail, prison, on probation or on parole. In many of our urban areas 50-60% of young men of color are in jail. 34% of black men in Alabama have permanently lost their right to vote. Milwaukee Public Radio devotes a year to reporting on black male incarceration in Wisconsin, which has the highest incarceration rate of all fifty states. The state spends more on prisons than education. By age 34, only 38% of men living in the 53206 zip code area of Milwaukee (95% black) will NOT have spent time in a state correctional facility. Why is it that law enforcement targets predominantly black neighborhoods?

Parents of black boys in the United States must teach their sons the rules of engagement during encounters with the police. Don’t forget you are black. Do not get into a power struggle. Keep your hands visible; DON’T reach for your cell phone. Make the officer feel he is in charge. Don’t move suddenly. Use sir when addressing the officer. Portland lawyers create an app titled Driving While Black to teach people of color how to stay safe during traffic stops. As a white parent of a white son I worried about him being involved in an accident as a new driver, but NEVER feared he was in danger of being targeted or mistreated by police officers. I felt secure in knowing that if my son had car trouble or was in an accident the police would be there to assist him. The contrast between my reassurance and black parents’ fears in regard to policing is stark.

After George Zimmerman’s innocent verdict in the shooting death of Travon Martin, Alicia Garza posts her outrage on Facebook. Patrisse Cullors responds and culls Black Lives Matter from Alicia’s posting. A movement is born. Garza writes in an article for the feministwire: Black Lives Matter is an intervention in a world where Black Lives are systemically and intentionally targeted for demise. Black Lives Matter is an affirmation of Black Folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression. I think back to the sixties and the Black Power Movement and the coinage: Black is Beautiful. Fifty years later African Americans continue to struggle and plead for dignity and justice in our society.

I feel compelled to ask white America to Wake Up. We must dig deeper into our souls and recognize that the oppression of our African American citizens continues to this day, as is highlighted currently by the deaths and beatings of unarmed black men at the hands of majority white police officers. Since the abolition of slavery, mechanisms have emerged that ensure the continued subjugation of African Americans: the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, Jim Crow, share cropping, segregation, the war on drugs and now mass incarceration of black men (as well as an increasing number of black women). Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is an excellent springboard for studying our country’s enduring practices of racial oppression. White America must shed its cloak of indifference and join the movement: BLACK LIVES MATTER.

A Father’s Restorative Justice

When I first read my friend Ron Simpson-Bey’s article, My Son’s 14-year-old Killer Deserved a Second Chance, it took my breath away. It is one thing to work for and advocate restorative justice for strangers, but it is quite another to want to give your son’s killer another chance. I was moved by several ideas put forth in his  article: the power of forgiveness and the good that comes when “victims,” are brought into the justice process; where he says we don’t make out communities safer by artificial lines between “victims” and “offenders;” and his emphasis on teenagers as children, not adults. The article makes me think about how white privilege makes many of us unaware of how so many families and communities of color are unheard and unconsidered every day. I am privileged to share Ron’s thoughts—as yet another Father’s Day approaches. I have included the full text of the article as it was published in The Root, below.


My Son’s 14-Year Old Killer Deserved a Second Chance

We don’t make our communities safer by creating artificial lines between “victims” and “offenders.” That’s why I advocated for fair treatment for the teen who killed my son, and why we must insist on it for all children of color in the criminal-justice system.

By: Ronald D. Simpson-Bey | Published June 11, 2014

My only son, Ronald D. Simpson III, was murdered on Father’s Day 13 years ago. Ronald was 21. His killer was a 14-year old boy.

We were devastated, as any parents would have been. Despite this, my son’s mother and I did not want our son’s killer to spend the rest of his life in prison. We don’t believe in the concept of an eye for an eye. We also did not want to compound an already bad situation by taking another child away from his family and community forever.

We recognize that even though he committed a horrible crime, the boy who killed our son was still a child. We wanted him to be processed in the juvenile system, which was set up specifically for children. We wanted him tried there and held there after his conviction to prepare him for release. The judge granted our wishes. The young teen was sentenced in juvenile court and told that he would be released at age 21 if he met the requirements of the court and demonstrated his rehabilitation. He succeeded and was released.

We were fortunate that we dealt with a prosecutor and judge who were willing to consider our wishes. As evidenced by the growing national support for restorative-justice programs, my family’s perspective is certainly not unique. The residents of the communities that are most impacted by both violence committed by young people and extreme sentences often recognize that we don’t make our communities safe by creating artificial lines between “victims” and “offenders.” We know that many of the children accused of crime have themselves been victims of violence, neglect, poverty, inadequate schools and failing social services. In addition, many of our families are suffering after having lost some members to violent crime and others to jail.

But too often, the voices of poor people and people of color are silenced on these issues. Prosecutors and others in the criminal and criminal-justice systems are far more likely to prioritize the perspectives of individuals from wealthier, whiter communities. The only victims who are considered legitimate are those who are in lockstep with prosecutors looking to implement the harshest penalties possible. Victim services, financial resources and other types of support are often meted out accordingly.

Research had proved what parents already know: Children are still developing and possess tremendous capacity for change. We also know that they do not have the same capacity as adults to resist pressure from peers and adults, think through the long-term consequences of their actions or remove themselves from dangerous situations.

As we approach Father’s Day, I call on parents and other interested people from these communities to insist on having our voices heard. We must insist that police engage our communities fairly and stop targeting children of color. We must insist on accountability from juries who determine the fate of our young people.

And as states throughout the country reconsider their juvenile sentencing policies, we must insist not only that they eliminate life without parole but also that they replace it with reasonable alternatives that provide young people with a chance to pay for their mistakes and then later have fruitful, fulfilling lives.

Everyone makes mistakes, and all of us—especially children—possess the capacity to change. We are all deserving of forgiveness and a chance to begin anew. This is a basic tenet of virtually every faith tradition, and one of the founding principles of our great democracy.

The child who killed my son is now a young man. I am not in direct contact with him, but we are forever bonded. My son and his sister had a child together, so my grandson is his nephew.

He has grown into a productive man because he had a second chance, which is all that any of us could want. Together, we can be sure that more young people get the chance they need and deserve.


Ronald D. Simpson-Bey is a program associate for the American Friends Service Committee in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is a co-founder and board member of the organization Chance for Life.

This article was first published in the The Root, which aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by editorial staff.

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behavior. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders.
Practices and programs reflecting restorative purposes will respond to crime by:
  1. identifying and taking steps to repair harm,
  2. involving all  stakeholders, and
  3. transforming the traditional relationship between communities and their governments in responding to crime.

Russian writer and philosopher Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” If he could examine our prisons today, I think we would be judged very harshly. If he could see the millions of people in them and see how we are criminalizing poverty and childhood damage, we would be judged inhumane. If he could learn of the draconian sentences for non-violent crimes, we would be judged unjust. If he could see what damage mass incarceration is doing to families and communities and how difficult we make it for people getting out to put their lives back together, we would be judged foolish and shortsighted. If he could see the number of children we condemn to adult, violent environments and lifelong sentences, contemplate the tens of thousands of people in solitary confinement and understand the way most incarcerated people are treated, we would be judged ruthless and brutal. If he could understand its racist elements, I think he might point out our core value of equality and label us hypocritical.

Criminal behavior is complex, and some of its root problems like poverty, mental health issues and poor—or no—educational opportunities seem intractable, but there are better ways of dealing with criminal justice if we care enough about our identity as a people. We need a sharp 180 degree turn toward restorative justice. The ways is which we carry out “justice” is tragically broken and sick, and the damage being done is affecting us all. It—and we–need to be healed.

Across the Line

Making big changes and seeing the world very differently require courage. Maya Angelou said, “Courage is the most important of all virtues, because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” Individual people can so easily put blinders on about big, painful problems, but we are also capable of moving from a place of safety and security over into an unknown space where we feel insecure and often frightened. Making courageous decisions needs moral muscle and a desire to feel honor and self-respect. It is how we grow. Instead of focusing on these national faults lines in our criminal justice system, we could focus on our strengths, our capability for great compassion and our deep concern for the common good. If individuals are capable, then so are we as a nation capable. I’ve found people’s courage and capabilities amazing—especially among my students in prison.

Dropping out of school has serious consequences, especially to people’s self-respect. People who drop out often feel like failures and losers. None of my prison students had graduated from high school before I knew them. I think about the first days back in school for these men—how vulnerable they looked with their wooden faces and wary, anxious eyes. But, they had already crossed the first difficult line, the doorway into the office to sign up. They had to swallow their pride about their grave mistakes. I found it so interesting when asked about the decision they most regretted, that they said it was not the crime they committed, but dropping out of school. “If I hadn’t dropped out, I wouldn’t be here,” they answered.

They had to look in the mirror and face themselves as people with very rusty basic skills in reading, writing and math and as adults who knew very little about what was in their textbooks. In the macho world of prison, it took great courage to be doing the right thing for their lives, to face the unknown world of being back in school. They had to face their fears about failing again, open their books and begin. They had to decide that their lives were worth something, that they just might be capable of succeeding after all. One young man wrote me a note about three weeks into the semester, saying that he wasn’t sure he could do the work, but he wanted me to know how hard he was trying. He said it took him a whole year to “not be too scared” and sign up for school. I watched and was awed by his courage. I watched their courage every day.

I see a connection between being courageous—and the development of personal dignity. I wrote about South Africa in my last post, and how its people still give us shining examples of what it means when we put ourselves in vulnerable positions and do amazing, out-of-the-ordinary things.

Nelson Mandela gave the world so many shining examples of both courage and humility. There were many ways he could have reacted to his twenty-seven years of political imprisonment. If he had meted out punishment, many people would have understood a sense of anger and revenge. He could have punished the people who took away so many precious years. He could have called for the same kind of humiliating damage he himself had experienced. Instead, he invited one of his white jailors to his inauguration and gave him an honored place, showing his country and the world a new level of human stature, a new humanizing dignity and a new kind of courage.

The United States has our own shining examples of astonishing courage and dignity in the face of tragedy. The Christian Science Monitor Weekly magazine on April 13, 2015 has a cover photograph of Ricky Jackson, who served 39 years in prison, making him the person serving the longest sentence in America’s history for a crime he did not commit. The article called Innocence Found: The Ricky Jackson Story follows the intricacies of Jackson’s case and his efforts to free himself. It follows the Ohio Innocence Project, whose members started working on the case in 2006.

Eddie Vernon, a witness in the case, was only thirteen-years-old when the police and prosecutors coerced him into lying about what happened. His testimony sealed Jackson’s conviction—and that of two other young men, who were also innocent and spent decades in prison. After trial, Jackson was sentenced to die in the electric chair, and he spent two years on Death Row until the federal Supreme Court ruled Ohio’s capital punishment unconstitutional. The next thirty-seven years found him in a succession of prisons. When he went before five parole boards, they looked for a change in him and some kind of remorse. When he couldn’t demonstrate that because he was innocent, they extended his sentence each time. Eddie Vernon, after decades of his own remorse and guilt, finally came forward—terrified of being convicted of perjury. He too demonstrated great courage. Finally, the state withdrew and Ricky Jackson was freed.

What makes this story so compelling to me is that Jackson isn’t angry or bitter. He managed to live in prison with grace and humility, and he exhibits those same qualities as he struggles to put his life back together while dealing with the challenges of being out in the world. He has met with Vernon, and doesn’t harbor any resentment or anger toward him, knowing how much Vernon has also suffered.

Innocence Projects and organizations like Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative are finding innocent people on death row and serving years and years all over the country, creating tragedy for victims and their families and dishonor for us as a nation. I wonder how Ricky Jackson’s fate would have changed if restorative practices had been in place. As most programs involve the community, it might have been far harder, if not impossible, to coerce and believe the testimony of a thirteen-year-old boy. We have to drastically change course if we want to be move toward being more civilized, to use Dostoyevsky’s language.

When my students ventured across the scary line to sign up for school, they were being accountable to themselves, signing up to be their best, not their worst. They were moving beyond the labels of drop-out and felon and becoming students, then graduates. When graduation day came and they could finally wear the red cap and gown, they all walked and stood taller, their dignity and self-respect in place. Education is a part of restorative justice as it helps students discover their competence–and their goodness as human beings.

Maya Angelou also says, “I think the courage to confront evil and turn it by dint of will into something applicable to the development of our evolution, individually and collectively, is exciting, honorable.” All of the parts of restorative justice try to enhance the best in us: our ability to be responsible, our talent for creativity, our capacity to make moral choices, our power to be compassionate and our courage to be forgiving. With courage, we can all move across the line and begin to see our system and all of its victims differently. We need a change for the rest of us, because it would give us a much-needed new identity. It would honor us. We need to look no further for exemplary role models than those people who’ve spent years and years behind bars.

Unlearning Long Divisions: I Am Because You Are

Introduction:

The prison fence is an obvious structure that divides us, but we are separated in other more subtle structural ways, by how we build wealth—or are not able to, by huge opportunity gaps, by our own judgements, assumptions and inabilities to listen and know each other, by our geography, by neighborhoods, lifestyles, and cultural misunderstandings. America has always had its separations, during slavery and then under Jim Crow, of class, race, cultural groups and religions, but it seems that the rancorous voices of political campaigns, talk radio, online comments, and the addition of big money have all turned up the volume and deepened the divisions between us. Much of it is fear-driven, no more evident than how we perceive people who are behind bars. The ideas in the following posts come from my interactions with my inmate students, who taught me how to unlearn many of my own assumptions—and to see them and my country in new ways.


One fall, another teacher brought Mr. C down to my classroom a week or so after the semester had begun. He had quickly passed the basic skills test, and his teacher told me he needed far more challenges. He was a new inmate who had arrived the previous summer and was eager to learn, but a  dark cloud seemed to hover around him for several months. When I asked after a few weeks if he was okay, he told me he was out of energy and often depressed.

There were lots of questions I learned not to ask my students: their crimes, the length of their sentences or the number of their children. I did not think any of that was my business, and the one time I did look up a student’s crime, the information did nothing to improve a rather strained relationship between us. Knowing how long they had to serve and how many children were left fatherless in the world depressed me. News got around, however, and my teaching staff learned that Mr. C had a 33-year sentence for a drug offense. With good behavior, he would have served 27 of those years.

Once he regained some balance, Mr. C was one of the most outstanding students I had ever taught. He took every class our high school program offered and graduated after several years with a long list of “A’s” on his transcript. Jobs were available to inmates as classroom aides or “tutors” in our program, so when I talked to him about helping me in my classroom, he eagerly agreed. He was a part of the program for over 20 years with his sense of calm, his sound advice and his creative ideas about course material. In day-to-day interactions with my students, he kept a sharp, but discreet, eye on them and would flag problems or talk to men on the side. We made few important decisions in the program without his wise counsel.

I soon learned that Nelson Mandela was his hero and guide about how to do time in prison well. We both noticed that Mandela’s sentence was also 27 years, and I could not take in enough books, articles or videos about him. Mr. C sparked my interest in South Africa too, and we watched as Mandela was released from prison, as Apartheid ended, and as he was elected president. My students, Mr. C, and I learned about and followed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as it was established with Desmond Tutu, human rights activist and retired Anglican archbishop, as its leader. Talking about how the victims of Apartheid were given a voice and about the whole concept of amnesty created many rich discussions in my Civics classes. I’ve been interested in other countries that have successfully used truth and reconciliation programs like Kenya, Namibia, Chile and Canada.

We learned about the African concept of ubuntu, the philosophy that we are all bound together and cannot be fully human without caring about each other. Ubuntu knits the bonds of kindness and sharing that connect all of us on the planet. Tutu says, “A person is a person because he recognizes others as persons.” Ubuntu says, “I can’t do well unless you do well.”

I was pulled into South Africa too, and in 2006 I went to Cape Town to volunteer in a center for  children who had been orphaned by AIDS, rescued from abusive situations or abandoned. South Africa is a powerful place, and my experience was life-changing. In addition to the many beautiful children who still haunt my heart, I had two other unforgettable experiences.

I took a ferry to and then a bus around Robben Island. When we got to the prison, our guides were former inmates, making it even more poignant as we stood in the corridor and gazed at Nelson Mandela’s small cell and saw the garden he had tended so carefully. We heard stories of how the inmates developed communication to continue their political work while incarcerated, and then we gathered for questions. One came from a woman who asked, “How did you possibly keep your spirits up for all of those years?”

The guide smiled at her and said, “You’re an American, aren’t you? I’m surprised you would ask that question, because we knew about the American Anti-Apartheid support and it made a huge difference to us.”

As volunteers, we were driven back and forth from Cape Town to Khayelitsha, the township where we worked. Moss, a high school teacher, was one of our drivers. He and I became friends, and he wanted to take me on a tour of Gugulethu, his township. As he drove me around, he told me how much South Africans admire and try to model their struggles after our Civil Rights Movement. I met some of his friends and neighbors in the township, and then he was eager to take me to the place where Amy Biehl was killed. Amy was a young American college student who was in Cape Town to study and work on voter registration as an Anti-Apartheid activist. She was murdered by four young men when she gave a friend a ride home. Moss went on to tell me how her parents came from America to be present when the young men applied for amnesty in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after serving prison terms. He wanted me to know that her parents not only extended their forgiveness, but they also created the Amy Biehl Foundation. He seemed proud to tell me that two of the boys involved in Amy’s death worked in its after-school programs.

All of the pieces of Amy’s story are compelling and inspiring. (See theforgivenessproject.com and the Amy Biehl Foundation on YouTube and Facebook.)

Mass incarceration is a kind of apartheid in the United States, as millions of people are banished to our jails and prisons, apart and exiled from the rest of us. We could do so much better. We could see drug use as a health issue and not a criminal one. We could create our own Truth and Reconciliation programs. We could move forward as a country and figure out our own ways of doing restorative justice. We could understand ubuntu and how it could make us a better people and a better country. I see hope on the horizon as people are beginning to understand the healing power of restorative justice for victims, perpetrators and the community as a whole. I will be writing more about this.

When Congress passed new legislation addressing inmates with very long sentences, Mr. C was released after “only” 22 years. He is back home in Kingston, Jamaica and is equipping and programming a community center in his old neighborhood. After securing enough grant money, he  has been able to employ many people and supervise its construction. He also works with a group of at-risk young men and tells me, “I’m doing all this for me.” Many of my students talked about wanting to work with vulnerable young people when they returned home. Like Mr. C, they also understand ubuntu.

 

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow, Cover

Once in a while an author comes along, uses new language and exposes truths we hadn’t seen right in front of us. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander tells of spending several years as a civil rights lawyer before she began to see the nation’s prison system morphing into a new kind of racial control. Her well-researched facts and staggering statistics are not easy to absorb. Among them are these: no other country locks up such an overwhelming number of its racial minorities than the United States; more African-Americans are under correctional control than were enslaved in 1850, and 1 in 3 young black men will spend some time behind bars. She points out that though the majority of drug users and dealers are white, 75% of the people targeted in the War on Drugs have been poor and vulnerable blacks and Latinos.

She points to discrimination that is legal in housing, employment, and public assistance as people are released from prison–only to face overwhelming barriers when trying to put their lives back together. The denial of civil rights after incarceration, such as voting and serving on juries, gives people the message that they will never be full citizens nor will they ever be able to pay for the crimes they committed. She helps us understand how having a black president in the White House camouflages a permanent American racial caste system, not with outright racial hostility, but because it creates our racial indifference.

This is not an easy book to read, nor are these realities easy to acknowledge, but it is a necessary book if we are to dismantle the American tragedy of mass incarceration and understand how it devastates people’s lives and communities. It has cost us trillions of dollars and failed to solve our seemingly intractable problems of poverty, drug use, education, and mental health issues. The New Jim Crow shows us how our American ideals of freedom and justice are gravely imperiled and how our national moral character is profoundly weakened.

 

Published by The New Press

ISBN: 879-1-59558-643-8