Last fall, I was honored to be a guest on Lissa Jones’ KMOJ program Urban Agenda, talking about a piece on racism I had written for the Star Tribune, and the connection between disparities and structural racism in Minnesota. These are the issues we work on every day at OAP.
What I did not know was that just outside the Twin Cities, a 27-year-old man named Kevin Reese was listening. He was listening from Lino Lakes Correctional Facility where he is currently incarcerated, in the tenth year of a 14 year sentence. A week later, I received a letter in the mail from Kevin. He shared his desire and struggle to learn everything he could during these “very important developmental years” in his life. In his effort to be prepared for life outside prison, he had “tapped into every resource the prison had to offer but those resources are limited.”
He thanked me for raising criminal and prison justice issues: “You speaking about that was just oxygen to my lungs. It reminded me that yes there are people who still care. Thanks, that meant a lot.”
Finally, he asked for a connection: “…this letter is just my attempt to help build some type of bridge between us in here and the community our there. I figure if you all are doing work out there then I figure so should we.”
So I wrote back. Since then, Kevin and I have corresponded by mail and our work together has evolved. We have had three in-person meetings. We are now, with the partnership of the Lino Lakes Program Director LCie Stevenson, planning a one-day workshop we are calling “Bridging the Gap.” The workshop will take place on October 1 at Lino Lakes Correctional Facility. We are working with the staff there to make it possible for inmates to spend the day with community leaders, learning about the opportunities and challenges related to employment, education, housing, and other transitions.
But I believe the centerpiece of the day will be a panel of inmates sharing their vision for justice in Minnesota, focusing on their experiences in the state corrections system. This panel will offer a rare opportunity for us working in the community to hear directly from men who are thinking deeply about what it will take for their transition to life outside prison to be successful. They are aware of the multiple barriers to opportunity they will face upon their release, and want to do everything they can to be ready to rejoin society as productive, contributing members.
Right now, Kevin and I are planning the agenda for the day, working around the complication of two required inmate counts. We are looking forward to creating a video narrative coming from several inmates at Lino Lakes. Soon I will be taking my colleagues from Line Break Media with me to conduct interviews with five inmates, who have 142 years in sentences between them. On a recent phone call, Kevin described one as an aspiring writer, another who wants to make videos. “Me,” he said, “I just want to be a student.”
On October 1, we will come together – inmates, Lino Lakes staff, and community leaders – to develop a shared vision and agenda for the corrections system and for the systems that affect individuals with a criminal record. We are asking the Department of Corrections Commissioner and other DOC leaders, as well as legislators, to join us that day. I hope that those attending will take the opportunity to listen carefully to Kevin and his colleagues. Hopefully, we will leave that day with the stories, information, and inspiration to move the work for justice forward.
Stay tuned – we will be sharing the video narrative we create, as well as the call to action that comes out of that day. Already I know that Kevin, Lovell, Mario, and Joseph are thinking about improvements to the youth offender program to include mentoring and ideas for making the transition experience of long-term offenders more successful.
Kevin calls me weekly right now as we work to plan the event. Every time I tell him, please let me pay for these calls, knowing that the cost of phone calls from prisons is high. But Kevin always refuses, promising me that I can buy him a cup of coffee someday. I am looking forward to many cups of coffee together.