Bridging The Gap: Why Language Matters

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

Using derogatory terms for incarcerated persons only makes matters worse

We are all human beings but are often not all viewed as such. If you are a “criminal,” an “inmate,” an “offender” or a “convict,” your identity has been stripped of all of its humanity.

You are now viewed as less than — less than deserving of respect, dignity, compassion and opportunities. Compacted with the intersections of race and or sex, we have created a caste system in America where those Black or Brown and incarcerated are extremely restricted in their ability to fully participate in society.

There is a movement happening across the country to remove the use of the words criminal, inmate, offender and convict from our language. By no means am I saying that the removal of these terms from our everyday life is the only solution to reshaping incarceration in America. However, there is importance in reframing language in tandem with social movements.

Many Americans have relied on the narrative that hard work is the backbone of our society. America is not only the “land of the free” but the “home of the brave” where anyone can bring themselves up by their bootstraps. If we are to accept this narrative as being the landscape of America, then how do we leave space for incarcerated individuals to transcend their “transgressions”?

While the Department of Corrections (DOC) believes that it is operating with the goal of incarceration as rehabilitation, the reality of this goal seems at odds with our language of those currently and formerly incarcerated. If rehabilitation is truly the goal, then we need to remove barriers to employment and housing that continue to punish those who we have deemed unworthy of compassion, dignity, and opportunities.

Re-entry needs to be something that is incorporated into how the DOC treats those currently incarcerated while they are serving their time, and not just weeks before persons are released. That starts with resisting the need to demonize those who are incarcerated.

Octavia Smith is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to info@voicesforracialjustice.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.

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Bridging the Gap: Nothing less than treason should restrict a U.S. citizen’s right to vote

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.

The word “free” is defined in the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary as “having the legal and political rights of a citizen; enjoying civil and political liberty; not obstructed, restricted, or impeded.”

With this understanding of freedom, the United States is not the land of the free when the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments didn’t abolish slavery or simply expand citizenship. These two amendments actually made it constitutional to restrict citizens’ right to vote and even enslave them if they’re convicted of anything the government defines as criminal. Did you know Minnesota Statute 609.34 criminalizes fornication? Consider the ramifications.

Some say that the U.S. possesses the best criminal justice system in the world. This says little about the greatness of our system and much about the flawed criminal justice systems of the world. A justice system designed and operated by imperfect human beings is naturally a biased and broken system. A citizen’s right to vote is too fundamental to citizenship status to be obstructed, restricted or impeded by a criminal conviction resulting from such an imperfect justice system.

The greatness of our country is rooted in its citizenship, which has always been synonymous with the power of the vote. To be a citizen is to be a voter and nothing less.

The Declaration of Independence reads that “the right of representation is inestimable to the people and formidable to tyrants only.” A citizen’s power to vote should never be subjected to forfeiture for anything less than treason or total loss of citizenship status.

As United States citizens, we are expected to love and respect our country despite its many flaws, faults and destructive past actions. We are expected to see, acknowledge and appreciate the country’s growth and potential.

So I ask, when will this country love and respect all of its citizens, despite their past acts and failures? When will this country honor the potential of its convicted citizens?

I once read that the great enemy of community is exclusivity. Groups that exclude others are not communities; they are cliques — defensive bastions against community. How can the United States of America be “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” a community of citizens, if the country excludes millions of its citizens from voting because of their criminal records?

Until this country is all-inclusive in citizenship-based voting, we fail to live up to our national anthem, our constitution, our Declaration of Independence, and our Pledge of Allegiance. We fail to be the United States of America.

During U.S. slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, some people stood on the sidelines, some fought to keep slavery, and others fought to make America great. During the U.S. 20th century women’s suffrage movement, some stood on the sidelines, some fought to continue oppressing women, and some fought to make America great.

What will history say about where you stood in the 21st century voting rights struggle to make America great?

Jeffery Young is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to info@voicesforracialjustice.org.

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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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