Over the last several decades, California’s prison population has exploded by 500% and prison spending ballooned to more than $10 billion every year. Meanwhile, too few inmates were being rehabilitated and most re‐offended after release. The more inmates are rehabilitated, the less likely they are to offend. Proposition 57 allows parole consideration for people with non‐violent convictions who complete the full prison term for their primary offense. It authorizes a system of credits that can be earned for rehabilitation, good behavior and education milestones. For some of the men I met, this means another chance at life, an opportunity to reunite with their kids and family, and a way to become productive citizens and in many cases, leaders in their (our) communities.
But what about those serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole? Overcrowded prisons and unconstitutional conditions led to the U.S. Supreme Court ordering California to reduce its prison population. In 2012 Miller vs. Alabama ruled that life without the possibility of parole for juveniles is unconstitutional. This is a significant ruling. For several of the men I met, this would mean they could potentially be able to make the case for a chance at a second hearing.
These men live in the shadows of the criminal justice system. Once they cross the prison gates, the world forgets about them and they become ghosts, even to their families. Transferred to prisons hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles away, they are separated from everything that once made them human – their family, friends, food, traditions, in essence, their sense of self. Some men haven’t seen or touched a single person they love in more than 30 years. During one of the activities, the men wrote a prose, “Where I’m from.” They were asked to recall sounds, sights, tastes, among other things, from their life outside of prison. When it came to describing tastes, all the men spoke of the home cooked meals, the Sunday dinners, and the summer leisure barbecues. They spoke of pork chops with apple sauce, corned beef, hot links, greens, Sunday morning pozole, mole enchiladas, carne asada. It dawned on me as they were sharing, that for some of the men, it has been two or three decades since they have had a taste of this food; meals cooked by their mothers or fathers, perhaps their wives; meals passed down from generation to generation; soul food that held the history and legacy of where they came from.
During the workshops, when it is time for the men to share their thoughts, they dig down into memories of their childhood, memories of a place they once knew as home. Memories are too painful inside of prison – the beautiful ones evoke nostalgia, heartache, and desperate longing for a time when innocence was a shield from the crude world; and the dreadful memories evoke shame, guilt, and deep, unescapable regret. However, as painful as it is to remember, they know that in order to heal they must remember.
The men I met had an incredible willingness to be vulnerable, to peal the layers of wounds back despite the pain, and to speak their truth with all the ugliness and darkness that accompanied it.
There is Tender T., a lively man with a positive and energetic disposition, who sings R&B songs in falsetto register, and has a gift for facilitating intense conversations and opening folks to dig deeper. He is a leader who uses vulnerability and puts himself as an example to inspire others. Many of the men who attended the non-violent conflict resolution workshops were there because he had invited them to participate.
Easy E., is a big man with a tender, quiet disposition, and an energy that puts everyone at ease. He spoke only when his words were more beautiful than the silence, as Rumi once said. He is genuine in his approach with each participant and each facilitator. And he is able to be provocative and probing without riling anyone up.
Then there is J. from Mississippi, most call him Sippi, or Sip. A man as big in stature, 6’6”, as he is big in the heart. He talked proudly about his son who is 6’7” and plays college basketball and about his own years in the military. Whenever he talks to his son, he reminds him that though he is a part of him, he doesn’t have to be part of his mistakes. He has the disposition of a nurturing father, a protector, an honorable provider. Sippi talked about his father being a hard-working man who walked with dignity, never putting his head down, even though they lived in the rural parts of Mississippi. His mother was strong, yet gentle and assertive, yet kind. They both always wanted the best for him.
Positive P. has smooth, flawless skin, corn rows, and long, slender fingers like a pianist’s hands. He has a loving smile and his energy is that of a younger brother who constantly looks out for you. He is positive and playful in a jovial way.
Talented T. is from the Cherokee Nation. His eyes have the gentleness and innocence that one only finds in children. He showed me pictures of beautiful native crafts he had created. A gourd stick, tobacco bags and medicine bags, and earings among other things. He told me he had inspired his sister to create art and now she was part of the tribe’s artist guild and was being trained by elders. He showed me pictures of the river and the trees in his reservation and talked about childhood memories on the land. There was also a deep nostalgia and sadness in his eyes when he spoke of home. He is light with healing blue eyes and talked about the aggressions he had to endure on the reservation because some of his brothers questions his authenticity as a native. We talked about the healing, powerful medicine happening at Standing Rock and how he wished he could be there; his sister was headed there soon. On the last day of the 3-day workshop this is what he wrote to me:
May the creator and the spirits always guide and protect you . . . May the medicine always heal you. . . May the winds always keep you happy. . . May you always follow the Seventh Direction (Your Heart).
Jovial J. is a deep thinker, a soul searcher, a man in search of healing and forgiveness. In those aspects, he reminds me of me. He spoke of his close relationships with his grandparents, especially his grandpa. There was always a profound sense of sorrow and regret as he spoke of those whom he had hurt and caused suffering for. Both of his grandparents have died while he’s been in prison. Before he was imprisoned, his grandfather told him, “This is the life you chose. You preferred your friends instead of your family. I pleaded with you to change. Now you get to be with your friends forever.” Jovial J. said he wished his grandfather had lived to see the man he has become now. He regretted that his grandpa died “before he could show him that he was more than the monster that lived inside at the time.” At some point I told him his grandpa was watching over him and it was his grandpa guiding him through his transformation, like my grandmother has been guiding me since the day she died.
Justice J. is a young man with a great sense of community and respect for other human beings; even in prison he lives by these principals. As he shared about some of the conflicts and corruption he has to deal with in prison, he spoke of the importance of taking the higher road and facilitating conflict resolution, “after all that place is [his] community for now.” He spoke of missing his mom who now lives in Mexico City, and whom he hasn’t seen in three years. He never appreciated how hard she worked (two, three jobs at a time) to feed them and pay the rent, “holding it up” for them. He regrets how much he made her worry and suffer while he hustled in the streets. He remembers, with great shame, her pleading advice and prayerful sobs.
On the first day of the workshop, the men began by sharing less intimate and threatening aspects about themselves. Watching each other to gauge the level of acceptable vulnerability in the circle, one by one, each man shared a speck of themselves. In a place where being too vulnerable or honest can get you killed, a seemingly inoffensive sharing activity requires a lot of courage. By the second and third day, men began telling stories of abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, incarcerated or absent fathers, sometimes mothers, gang and drug infested neighborhoods, disengaged schools, unemployment, and homelessness.
For the inmates, the story is subversive: school systems that failed them, families ripped apart by violence, and a society that criminalized them for being poor, many found the love, acceptance and friendship they were looking for in the world of gangs and drugs. While at the time, they were doing what they thought was right, they would take back the choices they made if they could. They are serving their sentences in prison now, some without the possibility of parole, and others, with the hope they’ll one day leave and have a chance at redemption.
To be continued in Part III