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.

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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.

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.

Restorative Justice

December 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Restorative Justice contains some of the ideas NPJP embraces.  RJ is also something that is ripe to be introduced after punitive justice has been employed – since punitive justice is not going anywhere anytime soon.   A brief breakdown  of RJ to be discussed later.

Punitive Justice asks the questions:

1) Who did it?

2) What laws were broken?

3) What punishment should be given?

 

Restorative justice, on the other hand, asks:

1) Who was affected?

2) What needs to be done to make things right?

3) What do we need to set up so that this doesn’t happen again?

Section: Reconciliation

December 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

A section where victims could have a voice was always part of the vision.  This section will be call Reconciliation and it will feature letters, poems, essay and other writings from victims.

The opportunity to name the offender will be explored.  I’m sure there are legalities.  Maybe equally as important is that offenders HEAR stories from victims.   Accountability is a great soil for responsibility and change to grow in.

Shall the section have a static byline or a changing one?  Both?  One can be ever present, always explaining the value of the reconciliation section and another can be featured and changed per issue to be pondered and applied by readers.  I like the latter. You?

When reading over the information on VORP (Victim Offender Reconciliation Program), my main thoughts surround how these ideas can be converted into print and maybe even better served in some ways.  BTW, save the religious aspect, this program is a phenomenal idea.

Topic for another post:  the rampant presence of religious assistance in the penal system – narcissistic or beneficial.

The RECONCILIATION Section – Some Brainstorming

RECONCILIATION  in print form provides the opportunity to:

  • The participatory acts of reading and writing are completely consensual and voluntary expressions that can be revisited and completed in whatever time necessary.
  • Ask questions which may have arisen out of the offense AND receive a response from a wide variety of offenders involved in the same or similar activity.
  • Express feelings and opinions about the offense directly to the offender AND many other offenders – providing them with constructive, restorative information.
  • Take responsibility for actions and involvement in the offense AND express sentiments that were not fully disclosed during judicial process or that have come about during incarceration.
  • Move on to a better emotional state after the offense by restoring both victim and offender dignity.

THANK YOU – insidetime newspaper!

December 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

I have been lax in thanking Mr. John Roberts – Operations Director at InsideTime the National Newspaper for Prisoners in the United Kingdom.

The existence of InsideTime made me believe that this project could really happen and Mr. Roberts has been a great support.  Honestly, I was surprised when he answered that first email to him – it was so long and disjointed.  Excitement can do that to a message.  But…he listened and pledged his support with guidance and information. I cannot ask for anything more!

They recently celebrated their 20th anniversary of providing invaluable information to the prison community and to others.  I can’t wait for NPJP to be in the same position.

A foreshadow of what’s to come….

InsideTime November 2010

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