One of the biggest challenges that we face on the inside is establishing a relationship between us and the powers that be. I think that there is a lot of reluctance when it comes to that. I have seen a shift in the prison system in the last 20 years. I have seen it shift from being more rehabilitative to punitive to now back to rehabilitative, and that is only because of financial strains. What I find to be the most effective is when there is a collaboration of outside supporters and the prisoners. It creates a sense of value and worth amongst the men. I will relate to you my inside-out experience so that you will have a better idea as to what i mean by that.
As a participant of a program called Inside-Out, where 15 inmates spent a semester together and discussed the Criminal Justice System, I can say that lives where transformed. What was ironic and hard to believe was that the 15 men that were involved came from all types of backgrounds, as well as the students. This place is located in rural northeast PA. and many of these students had never had any direct interaction with African Americans and Hispanics and they couldn’t really relate to the White guys in the class because of class differences. So it was a unique bunch. No one had faith that the inmates would really excel and as a result they set the bar low for us. Well I can say that not only did the inmates exceed those expectation they created a culture that opened the door for other programs to develop. This was the first time ever that this program was done in a Federal Institution so it was a trial run.
The way that the classes were set up it allowed other staff members and guards to see the guys in a different light, as intelligent and enlightened human beings. We shattered many myths that are associated with being an inmate. Everyone of us, with the exception of 2 guys, finished ahead of the outside students and that was not what was expected.
We, the inmates, gathered twice a week and discussed issues such as race, religion and politics and were able to come up with rational ideas and solutions to some of the problems that surround these issues. Now this may seem like something that students do on a normal basis. This is not something that you find in prison. This was a very diverse group of inmates. There were Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, Atheists, and even guys that have some very strong racial views. Yet education was able to bring them together. Now this is the tripped out part. We used the book by Michelle Alexander “The New Jim Crow” as the course book.
It was interesting to see that all the guys were more concerned about education and trying to really take all that they could from that experience. In that class there were guys that had sentences that ranged from natural life to a year, one guy has 213 years. It was the idea of being educated that allowed them/us to escape the reality of being incarcerated, it allowed us to actually feel that we were part of the greater society. I believe that education is the equalizer and that if many of the guys, with that knowledge and understanding, could do it over again that is the area that they would focus more on.
As we discuss ways to fill in the gaps to see this goal and vision through, I would say that there has to be a way to make the outcome which we desire visible to others. Incarceration is one of those ” I believe it when I see it” deals. Because the society has been made to feel threatened and afraid of those that have fallen to the penal system, the only way to combat that is to change that view. One of the hardest things to do, as most think, is complete a college education. This is something that most people are intimated by, yet something that most inmates want. I hate to use these terms but you have to involve those that have been here and have made it so that they can become more involved and active in addressing these needs.
In regards to networking and infrastructure i suggest that something is established that will allow inmates to obtain a higher education upon release if they are committed to change and advocating the need for better communications and resources. This is one way that outside organizations, philanthropist, and policy makers can get involved. Sure there are going to be risks, which is why this would have to be a well thought out process and something would have to be in place to accept these participants. I am sure that there are a number of methods that can be used to determine who fits the criteria.
One of the sad things about this idea is that some universities don’t allow ex felons to attend their schools. So this can be a thing that dampers and hinders ex felons from furthering their education and actually feeling as if they are part of “the system.” If I have been made to feel as an outcast for the most of my life and come to a point where I want an education but I am told no because I am an ex felon what do you think will happen to this person’s self esteem? They no longer will feel as if they are part of “the system” and society aside from a penal number.
These are some of the challenges that one face from this side, myself included. This is a big concern of mine. How am I going to be able to get a college education so that I can further my career and life without the stuff that comes with being an ex felon as I do so. How can this be addressed? So there has to be something in place that will allow for those who have proven themselves dedicated to the cause, for a lack of better words.
I think that a discussion on this topic is a good and a big step in the right direction. The discussion must involve people (felons, and I hate that word, so I will say incarcerated people) who can articulate and share the vision as it concerns them and the greater society.
This is something that I have dedicated and committed myself to and I want to be the best example possible to show that with a little faith and trust the very things that you envision can come to pass.