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.

Notes on a Wonderful Conversation: Who We Want to Become Beyond the New Jim Crow

 

Krista Tippet’s interview on NPR’s OnBeing with Michelle Alexander, who wrote The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, is full of insight and wisdom for us all. Alexander has an ability to transform our thinking with new perceptions and knowledge that is harder to see from a white perspective. These two women have taught me so much, and I continue to look to them for understanding and guidance about the country I live in. Among the many good points made about our criminal justice system and who we want to become were these:

      1. When jobs disappeared 30 and 40 years ago, the people in inner cities were experiencing grief and trauma. Instead of going to them with care and concern, we waged a war on them.
      2. Civil rights are meaningless unless people have basic human rights: enough food and adequate housing, a safe and secure place to live, a decent education and sustainable employment.
      3. Given the way we lock up so many people and then make it so difficult for people to put their lives together after they leave prison, we have become a “nation of stone-throwers,” unwilling to forgive people even after they’ve served their sentences.
      4. We need to be in touch with the “criminality in each of us.” We have all broken laws, but those of us who experience privilege rarely do time in prison. We also need to be in touch with our culpability and complicity about mass incarceration, because we’ve let this purely punitive system develop and flourish.
      5. Alexander makes the point that white people have also been swept up by the War of Drugs, and they and their families and communities are suffering too.
      6. Asked by Krista Tippett where she found hope, Alexander pointed to the work being done by formerly-incarcerated people as they find and add their voices and experience to the hard work of criminal justice reform.
      7. Democracy is about our own humanity, and unless we understand that all people matter and need to be cared for, our democracy may not succeed.

Both an unedited and edited version for broadcast are available as podcasts.

http://www.onbeing.org/program/michelle-alexander-who-we-want-to-become-beyond-the-new-jim-crow/8603

I had the privilege of proximity as I taught my students in prison, learning from them and about their backgrounds and experience. I never would have known them otherwise. The majority of my students came from the inner cities in the Midwest, from schools that were not adequately funded, from neighborhoods that weren’t safe and from families who were struggling to make ends meet. Many of the men I knew had relatives in prison, and many had grown up without their fathers. I saw men shut down, put their heads in the crook of their arms and zone out. I saw that some of them were dealing with traumas in their backgrounds, and some were simply overwhelmed by being in school. Dropping out does not lead to confidence, and people needed time to find their strengths as students. Many reported experiences of homelessness as children. The majority of them had been sentenced for drug crimes, occasionally for as many as thirty-three years. More than one person reported, “No one cares about us.”

Going out the door of a prison is a risky experience. The world has grown and changed. Technology feels overwhelming. It is tricky, often painful and confusing, to re-connect to families, especially to children who have grown up without their dads around. In addition, we make it really difficult to find housing, and many barriers to re-integrating are legal. President Clinton made sure that formerly-incarcerated people would be denied Section 8 housing. Public assistance and help for food are difficult to secure. Professional licenses are denied. It broke my heart to hear men talk about wanting to be teachers and nurses or return to being barbers and know it would be difficult if not impossible to get or renew a license. Many states deny people the right to vote. The recent backlash against Virginia’s governor for giving formerly-incarcerated people the right to vote is an example of how difficult it is for some people to forgive returning citizens who have already served their sentences.

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2016/05/felons-virginia/480834/

I am intrigued with Alexander’s language that we all need to be in touch with “our own criminality.” She says in The New Jim Crow:

“The notion that a vast gulf exists between “criminals” and those of us who have never served time in prison is a fiction created by the racial ideology that birthed mass incarceration, namely that there is something fundamentally wrong and morally inferior about “them.” The reality though, is that all of us have done wrong. As noted earlier, studies suggest that most Americans violate drug laws in their lifetime. Indeed, most of us break the law not once but repeatedly throughout our lives.” 1

We all need hope to address the tragedies inherent in mass incarceration. I am familiar with the work of JustLeadershipUSA from my friend Ron Simpson-Bey, who works in this organization as an alumni associate. He joins a group of people who have all served time and now believe that “the people closest to the problem are closest to the solution.” He has recently written,

“Adjusting language in no way means condoning criminal or delinquent behavior. Those who commit crimes must be held accountable. But accountability requires making amends, an objective that is much harder to achieve when a person is denied the chance to move forward. The people who leave our correctional facilities every year have paid their debts to society and they all deserve a chance to rebuild their lives.”

JustLeadershipUSA builds leadership skills for community building, advocacy and policy-making, organizational management and communication. They are committed to reducing the prison population by half by 2030. Michelle Alexander serves on their board and says this:

“I believe that the launching of JustLeadershipUSA will be viewed, one day, by historians and advocates alike as a true game changer: the moment in the emerging movement when formerly-incarcerated people finally had a chance to be heard, to organize, and to influence policy in many ways—even though many of them still lack the right to vote.”

Informed and active citizens can help change the perceptions about who lives in our prisons and what can be done for them—and for us. It is about who we want to become. Our very democracy is at stake.

1. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (The New Press, New York, 2010, 2012), 216.

 

 

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