This weekend I was in a public discussion about Movement Building, held at the Launchpad gallery in Brooklyn. A man asked a classic question within the world of activism, experts, and nonprofit organizations: “What do you say to the organizations who would rather not work with you [formerly incarcerated], who will say ‘you get too emotional’ or ‘we’ve got this just fine.'”
The man went on to name some names, and we all know various people or organizations who behave as such. Whether those people are being foolish or ignorant, we should at least give them credit as not being malicious. They are possibly not even aware they have met someone, previously locked up in a cage, who can analyze the Prison Industrial Complex in the manner of an economist or sociologist. If they have a certain assumption about the “clients” they are working for, it would not occur to them that there are some advocates and activists who are publicly effective without wearing their Beat Downs on their sleeve. They can make websites, cite statistics, and make shiny reports as well.
Daryl Atkinson, an attorney, grassroots activist, and formerly incarcerated man once told me, “We understand the issues 3-Dimensionally. 1: We understand them through a legal and economic analysis; 2: We understand the issues on the ground, doing day to day work with the community out here; 3: We understand from our personal experience. Most working on criminal justice reform only have one dimension, some are lucky to have two. Very few of us have all three.”
What I tell those advocates, be they ignorant or “uppity,” and that is how we are not all irrationally blinded by some sort of moral revenge. We take reasoned positions all the time. Perhaps the corner office activist does not realize that the imprisoned activists are constantly marking strategic lines in the sand, as are DOC officials, about what can be crossed; when (and in what form) to take action. The Jailhouse Lawyer has very limited resources, and must choose wisely when moving an issue forward. As the Georgia Prison Strikers knew: collective action must be worth taking a beating for.
For the never-incarcerated full-citizen advocate, there are questions that should be on your wall:
1. Who is my constituency?
2. Am I advocating for an issue that prisoners would otherwise take a beating for?
3. Has this been vetted by the people I’m talking about?
If there is no identifiable support for a particular issue or angle on an issue, one should wonder what the hell they they are doing. Attorneys familiar with prison conditions, or anyone subscribing to Prison Legal News (edited by two former jailhouse lawyers, with an attorney on staff), could tell you the pressing issues in nearly every jurisdiction… as could the average formerly incarcerated individual.
Those willfully working in ivory towers are easily disconnected from the community they are attempting to assist. They may be lulled into fighting easy battles, believing that it is a gradual path towards justice. Yet imagine fighting on behalf of Light-Skinned Negroes, Educated Women, or Non-Flamboyant Homosexuals? When we choose to be a fighter in the Civil Rights Movement, we have to give credence to the value of our time; and for those of us who are paid, we need to recognize the need to honor the community’s investment in us.
Every week I have personal contact with people I know Inside. Every day I have contact with people who were Inside, and I can’t walk down the street without running into someone who knew me from the Inside. In an average week, I have contact with over 50 different people entangled in the web of our Prison Industrial Complex. Most of whom are kicking like crazy just to keep their heads above water- like a duck on the pond, you won’t see it from the outside, but I see it, I know it, because I am of the same species.
I told that man in Brooklyn to remind such insular advocates of the study on Education and Incarceration done by John Jay College (and many esteemed contributors). The study had one large puzzle they could not decipher: Why Men of Color had higher literacy rates on the Inside than the free world, which goes against White data and popular perception. This is a pretty big question, and perhaps they already received $100,000 in funding to answer this, but they never asked someone who played chess, scrabble, and pinochle in a cell block.
People of Color are born (obviously) in concentrated communities that are managed by the government like police states or Bantustans. This is no fault of the newborn, nor the teenager being frisked somewhere as I write this. “Those who can, Do,” which in the ‘hood means: Those with a chance of getting out of the situation are gonna go for it. Systemic poverty, especially when it appears to be intentionally imposed and enforced, does not sit well with the average thinking person. Combine that with youthful arrogance, impulsiveness, and impatience, and the intellectual resident of American Bantustans will formulate a plot- usually selling a product (not very original of an idea, proven to be successful for some).
A considerable portion of America’s Best and Brightest youth, born into certain impoverished and militarized communities, are filtering through the prisons. It is shameful that this knowledge needs to be dropped on educators, as this should be well known to them instead. Apparently many have been lulled into believing that their 10% enrollment of Black and Latino students reflects the college-ready segment of that 30% of America. So where is the post-incarceration embrace of that demographic?
About two weeks ago I called on Ruth Simmons, President of Brown University and a Black woman addressing a conference on Brown’s Slavery and Justice activities. I explained to her this phenomenon of the Modern Slavery System skimming these kids out of the formal educational pool, and called on her to make a commitment to getting them back in, to offer a single scholarship each year to someone coming out of the Adult Correctional Institutions just 10 miles from campus. She dodged the question quite noticeably to all 150 people in attendance.
They can’t connect all the dots without us. They act less efficiently and lose step with the Movement. The sad thing is, it is not only their loss, it is all of ours- particularly when those who exclude affected people are given big microphones to speak on their behalf.
I have yet to speak on behalf of a labor union, marriage equality, or Afghani civilians… but I do speak up in support of them, use their data, and try to amplify their messages. The exclusionary advocates will heed the same concepts in the unprisoning of America, or they will render themselves irrelevant over time.
- Day 23- Activism Surrounding the Prison System (feministactivism.wordpress.com)
Thank you so much for this thought-provoking, and I feel very important post. I am a fairly recently released prisoner, who was very active in prison organizing fellow prisoners and advocating for improved conditions of confinement and programming. I therefore looked forward to continue to work as an activist in prisoner and reentry work, only now on the outside. I have tried constantly to take part; however, it’s been very hard. I have met a lot of resistance from supposedly progressive advocates who have resisted including me as a former prisoner. Finally, I just started working on my own, and recently organized a community event to discuss incarceration policies and their impact. I do believe that such activism, that isolates former prisoners, can potentially have a harmful disempowering effect on the population these advocates are trying to help, and as you say renders their work far less effective. Thank you for bringing this out in the open.
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