Bridging the Gap: The light at the end of the tunnel

Bridging the Gap is a biweekly column in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.

I remember how, when this journey began, people would talk about seeing “the light at the end of the tunnel,” but I had so much time to do I couldn’t even see the tunnel let alone the light at the end of it. I’ve grown old in a place that doesn’t allow people like me, independent thinkers, to come out of here intact.

To be in prison when you have committed a crime is life-altering. To spend almost 19 years and counting in such a place when you never committed the crimes you were convicted of is enough to drive you insane.

This happens not for the reasons most people might think, such as evidence being suppressed, prosecution placing untruthful witnesses on the stand, or a court’s failure to honor its own laws, rules, statutes, regulations and policies. Mainly it happens because the place they claim is supposed to help rehabilitate us seems to do nothing but destroy men and women at 100 times the rate.

Just a few examples are the many men and women returning to the outside who are unable to care for themselves at the most basic levels. They are unable to deal with day-to-day life issues emotionally, mentally and psychologically. This is why they have to be moved into special homes to be cared for straight out of prison.

I have been here for almost two decades, and the top pay given to prisoners is about $2. The cost of canteen items has increased over 300 percent while the pay hasn’t increased at all over 20 years. Yet I have been informed by prisoners who were incarcerated in the eighties that the top pay then was around $8 and they couldn’t fill the positions.

One last thing I must mention concerns lifers convicted before August of 1996 who have been sentenced for 30 years maximum. The Department of Corrections (DOC) is attempting to extend their sentences by reevaluating them. If they don’t allow the reevaluation, then DOC is attempting to extend their sentences.

If they do allow reevaluation, it will result in a need for treatment. Not simply AOD (alcohol and other drugs) treatment, but criminal thinking treatment. DOC assumes that by taking the reevaluation they have consented to extending their sentence under the new statute by silence without full disclosure of the new sentence.

In my 20 years’ experience, the prison system has clearly demonstrated that it has no intention of promoting self-sufficiency, independent thinking, or financial independence. Anyone trying to attain any of these attributes will have a rough and hard time while incarcerated.

I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel and it is shining bright. I will never forget the depths of darkness that myself and others have gone through to see the light. More importantly, I will never forget the depths of darkness that remains for so many others that will never get to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Lovell Oates is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership with the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. Reader responses are welcome to info@voicesforracialjustice.org.

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