Prison is Not Only a Place

December 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Prison is also a spiritual condition.  And, I am concerned that all the well-meaning movements to change legislation and expose conditions don’t emphasize this nearly enough.

It is easy to communicate what we can “see.”  The walls, the bars, the frisk, the food, the bedding, the garb, the CO’s, the laws.  It is not nearly as easy to translate the everlasting feelings one is left with after having their freedom and identity severed.

I’m thankful there are people who care and want to change the prison industrial complex.  But, these things still focus so squarely on lengthy articles/essays and qualitative/quantitative research to inform.  Not only does this continue the disspatialized understanding society already has on so may crucial subjects, but it disregards the individual spirit that has been incarcerated and left to wonder if they ever really existed.

I have to do a lot of reading in my research for this project, and the element I see most frequently in my readings are numbers and quotes supporting or countering one methodology, theory or whatnot.  The individuals providing the information are lost in the data sets as are the readers.   Those inside are quoted and their voices edited to fit the purpose of the essay, the book, or the point being made.

Prisoners are not data.  The internal prison condition cannot be understood when edited or categorized.

What is lacking horribly, probably because it takes more time than most want to invest, is turning up the volume of that inner voice.  We talk about education, re-entry, recidivism and living conditions, but we rarely acknowledge the one thing that affects all of these others.  The spirit of the people they apply to.

With that said, my project has taken a formidable turn.  The name will change and my goal will change.   The blog will change.  It’s all taking shape now, with help from some very experienced individuals.

I introduce the first of many first-hand voices of value:

  • From Corrections to College: The Value of a Convict’s Voice by Leyva, Martin and Christopher Bickel (2010); Western Criminology Review 11(1):50-60.
  • Abstract: The rise in mass incarceration has been accompanied by an abandonment of first-hand, in-depth accounts of crime and incarceration. Too few criminologists have stepped foot inside a prison, let alone served time within its walls. Situated within a growing movement of convict criminology, this article provides a first-hand account of the abuse convicts often experience in the home, the streets, and later in prison. Breaking from the traditional scholarly format, this autobiographical article not only highlights the importance of a convict’s voice, but also calls on criminologists to move beyond official data sources and crime reports to a more in-depth exploration of complex lives of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated.

“M” – Message from the Inside #2

December 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Hi,

You will find that the plight of many, such as me, are not looked upon with great empathy.  You remeber me telling you about my brother-in-law—he is very connected in the Washington arena—and he has been very frank—“Joe six-pack” does not give a damn about us—and he will not give  a damn until he realizes that this is costing him—out of pocket–long-term, as most leave prison broke and without any resources—one reason what I wrote you about is such an important deal–as it can be used to bring forth to the public—the needs and what can be accomplished.
I should be medically cleared to go back to a level 2 within a week or so—then I am hoping to get back to the camp soon.  Let me know when you get the letter—please be
careful as to responses–as I do not want anyone to get the wrong idea.

Let me know–love, M

Prisoners of Identity

December 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

When people are content with their roles, self-defined or other-defined, they live in illusion.  “Who am I?” remains a question never asked, thus tightening the trap of a singular identity.  The idea that they can be more, can achieve more and can influence many, sadly, never crosses their mind.

What if we were able to open people up, en mass, to the idea that in a lifetime they can have more than one identity.  These identities can exist together, and should exist together, because they create a comprehensive human being.  In essence, we tell them that they do not have to forget who they were or leave it behind.  The “old” identity can be brought into the new identity as a guide, a source of wisdom and personal power.

In the case of My Prison Journal Project, we are speaking of the incarcerated population of the United States.  Many of them have lived a life with one identity.  One mental outlook guided them before incarceration, during incarceration and after.   The Journal will provide a platform for all of the honest reflections, inspiring stories, heart wrenching defeats to make a vast impression – inside and outside of the walls.

There are so many efforts organized at intercepting and destroying the “criminal” mindset before incarceration. NPJP is focused squarely on this type of internal change, marrying the mind and the heart AFTER people go behind the walls.  Incarceration is a prime opportunity for unlearning, re-learning and new comprehension.

  • Exposure to stories from people who have “been there, done that” and transformed there lives through the creation of a new identity, that paid homage to the knowledge of the older identity, can be inspire hope.
  • Reading or listening to submissions from people who cannot identify with the experience of incarceration, but still care enough to share articles with them, begins to add color to the invisible.
  • Victims that identify themselves by the crimes against them, can begin to lessen their loads by speaking out and making an entire population think of their victims as human too.  Do unto…

This is a good time to point out that the final Journal will not use the words prisoner, inmate, etc. in its narratives.  The 2 million incarcerated are reminded everyday that they share one name,  one identity and are not individually seen.  This is an intentional identity theft – a stripping of power.  In all NPJP content, except letters and works from the incarcerated themselves, the use of “you” will be required.  The Journal will speak to the readers, aiming at the personal connection.

This journal will be a beautiful collaboration, introducing fresh ways of thinking and new opportunities to regularly connect with millions of people at once.  Again, this is not only for those behind the walls.  Readership among the “free” will be necessary for holistic transformation and for stirring the winds of change.

 

Writing with Photography

December 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Illiteracy.

If there is one demon that will hamper the accessibility of  my NPJP to the entire US prison population,  is the inability of many on the inside to read or write.

But, I believe I have found the answer to this dilemma, which had not previously crossed my mind, until I read Pete Brook’s blog entitled Photography School: Rehabilitating Prisoners through Self-Representation. The blog was not about illiteracy, but as I’ve mentioned before, I look at all information I find through the lens of making the National Prison Journal Project successful.

Because conceptualization and the ability to read are not tied into one another, transformative information can be provided in forms other than the written word.  We see this everyday.  People are empowered to make personal changes in eating habits, sometimes to extremes, because of an image they interact with on TV or an old photograph.  More people have the confidence to travel to new places because of the images provided them on a map or via GPS.  These may be simple examples, but they prove that the information communicated through the image can cause people to expand and transform.  It gives them a level of hope and desire.  Both primary goals of NPJP.

Many publications targeting inmates feature drawings, paintings and poetry as art, but I’ve seen little photography.  In a situation where personal identity is so crucial, for a host of reasons, a photographic image could be a crucial rehabilitative step for many, not only those that cannot read or write.  With this new insight, it is clear that a good portion of the final National Prison Journal will incorporate extensive imagery.

Pete’s article helped me to identify and solve a weakness in my plan, but also opened me to another way to create the conversational tone I want for the journal via the “crowd-sourced” blog model being used by Livebooks.  He is utilizing this model as a framework for the Race, Diversity, Photography project he revealed in his interview with POSI+TIVE MAGAZINE.  The “crowd-source” model will allow a level of input and collaboration on journal contents that has never before been applied to a prison publication.

I’m thankful to Pete for publicizing this information and helping me make a great idea more accessible and achievable – even though he doesn’t know it.

Why take on a project as big as NPJP?

December 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve forgotten to tell you WHY I am pursuing this project!  There are many reasons, but here is one to much on.

On Monday, November 22, 2010, I had the honor of dropping off a very special person in my life to serve her federal prison sentence.  Thankfully,she is an incarcerated mother pretty her close to home (she has two young children).  She asked me a question that was tremendous, once you really think about the question…

“If those planes had hit a prison full of people on 9/11, do you think there would have been the same reaction?  Would those families get compensation for their loss?”

I know the questions was hypothetical, but at the same time, it really wasn’t.  She wanted me to say that people would still care about this wholly forgotten portion of our society.  And it tore me up inside that I could not give her more than “their friends and family would have cared, but with the way prisons and prisoners are portrayed on the whole, I’m really not sure.”

She was also acknowledging a decrease in her self-esteem, her self-worth and her value to society.  Where and how did she (and the majority of people not intimately associated with a loved one in the prison system) get this acute idea that once convicted they are worth less?  It’s obvious she felt these feelings of stigma and mental incarceration long before she ever physically started her prison term.

Then the question is, how much deeper does this feeling go once the convicted get inside of those walls?

This experience is only one piece, but reflects many very powerful intangible issues associated with conviction, sentencing and incarceration.  Issues that, if not addressed, lead to nothing good.

Addressing these internal issues is the goal of NPJP.

Doing Time on the Outside by Donald Braman

December 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

For the Family section of the journal I have contacted Prof. Donald Braman of George Washington University Law School.  His book Doing Time on the Outside: Incarceration and Family Life in Urban America will hopefully be a starting point for the type of stories for the Family section.  (I’m trying to think of another name.)

As with Prof. Henry Jenkins, I have asked for permission to reprint/excerpt his book and other writings.  These requests surround the draft copy I am pulling together along with the first edition, after which a tremendous response is expected and an equally tremendous amount of material. I anticipate the “outside” audience to be a little slower in coming to the fold, which is why these ubiquitous accounts, already in print, are so valuable.

From Amazon.com: 

In the tradition of the best-selling ethnographies No Shame in My Game by Katherine Newman and Sidewalk by Mitchell Duneier, Doing Time on the Outside tells the other side of the incarceration saga: the little-told story of the effects of imprisonment on the families of the prisoners.
Since 1970 the incarceration rate in the U.S. has more than tripled, and in many cities — urban centers such as Washington, D.C. — it has increased over five-fold. Today, one out of every ten adult black men in the District is in prison. This has caused a deep rupture in the lives of the prisoners and their families.
Author Donald Braman shows that doing time on the inside has a ripple effect on the outside — one that reaches far beyond the individual prisoner and deep into the family itself. Braman offers wrenching personal stories of the ordeals families face when one of their members is imprisoned. Citing major examples such as lost income and delayed parenting opportunities, he also uncovers seemingly innocuous details that nevertheless have a cumulatively adverse effect; for example, the onerously large phone bills that often result when a family member goes to prison.
This ground-breaking ethnography of modern urban America reveals a genuinely new argument: how misguided the commonly accepted ideas about supposed pride in prison time really are. Moreover, Braman brings to light the darker side of a system that is failing not only its criminals, but their families, too. Finally, the author argues that prisoners themselves must take more responsibility for their lives, as well as for their families.

“M” – Message from the Inside #1

December 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

I received this message today from a dear friend of mine.  We will be working on project for the women who leave our prison system to have employment.  Although the National Prison Journal Project is for all prisoners, we cannot underestimate the need of more specific initiatives respecting the different needs of men and women behind bars.

My dear, 

I am here due to a medical issue—I have been at the Camp in Lexington—you will have a good laugh when I tell you why I left Danbury.  Ms. R nearly lost her baby—as we were exposed to truly lethal doses of toxic mold—I was taken to NY, then here.   I have about 36 months until I am out—I want to have much in place before that—so I will advise you as to the persons working on the project and what can be done.  You will not mind if I were to “pimp” you out—we can truly do some real good for these women—trust me it is worse than you can believe.

I will try to write you soon–and will e-mail—-I am weak –had surgery – got a horrible infection, re-operated on two weeks later—left with open wound from my belly-button to my crotch–.  Been on antibiotic drips—etc. and lots of medicine–am healing and truly being given good care.  Okay–lots more to tell you—take care.
Love,  M

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