Our Voices

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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‘Not For Human Consumption’ – What are they feeding the inmates in our prisons?

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

While conducting interviews with formerly incarcerated men for a community-based research project about health equity during incarceration, I have heard many examples of how these men have had their humanity undermined during the time that they served their sentence.

One of the examples given to me by a few of the interviewees is so clear and basic that the inhumanity of this practice cannot be denied — serving inmates food marked “Not For Human Consumption.” The message rings loud and clear: the Department of Corrections does not view inmates as human beings. If they did, how could such a practice ever be considered an option, let alone be carried out over and over again?

No, this is an intentional and continuous practice that is happening at multiple (if not all) prisons. At some point the idea of feeding this “food” to inmates was brought to the table where decision-makers in the Department of Corrections gave their approval, green-lighting the on-going purchase of food stuffs from vendors whose products state implicitly that they are not to be eaten by humans.

In our nation of abundance, are we really to believe that feeding real food for those incarcerated is too much to ask? It is despicable to force this vile diet on the incarcerated population while knowing that those who approved its use would never be willing to eat it themselves.

One of the men I spoke with told me that the majority of the meat is delivered in boxes marked “Not For Human Consumption.” Another man who is currently incarcerated validated this by saying, “[When locked up] don’t eat no spaghetti, no chili, no burritos, no types of sausage or the sausage gravy, no meatloaf or no Salisbury steak. It’s all bad! It’s all made from that meat marked ‘Not For Human Consumption!’”

Another nutritional detriment for the incarcerated population is the use of expired foods. A couple of examples that were shared with me were puddings with expiration dates greater than one year and spoiled meat.

For those fortunate enough to have money on their books, they have the option not to eat food from the chow hall when these items are served. They can opt to purchase food items from the canteen instead, although those items consist of processed foods — not much of a healthy alternative. If they don’t have the funds, then they are forced to make the decision between eating the “food” served or going hungry until the next meal is served.

From what I’ve been told, constipation has become normal for inmates. While this must surely be an uncomfortable part of daily living, what effects does this have on the body over time, especially for those serving years of a long or life sentence?

We should all be worried about the psychological effects on inmates of being given “food” that is meant to drive home the message that they are not worthy of being nourished as human beings, as well as the physical health effects that this will cause long-term.

Although there are periods of time where our incarcerated brothers and sisters are not in the community, they are still of the community. They are from the community, and many will return to us. If we, the community, do not speak up on their behalf about the crimes of inhumanity enacted upon them, what does that say about us?

Bridget Moore 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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Two voices: Our liberation is bound together

Originally published in the Minnesota Spokesman Recorder 

By Vina Kay and Kevin Reese

Vina: Kevin’s warm laugh reached me through our phone connection. “You’re reading my mind again!” he said. “How does that happen?”

It was one of our many exchanges over the phone, that line of communication that has kept us whole and alive in our partnership over the last four years. My friend and colleague Kevin Reese first reached out to me from prison after hearing me talk about prison phone justice on KMOJ’s show Urban Agenda.

These words come naturally to us: friend, colleague, partner. They are the language of building together. Kevin has helped me formulate a vision that we share of working to build prison justice and end mass incarceration. Kevin reminds me all the time that this is a language new to him, yet one that gives him purpose and a way to build towards his eventual release from prison after 14 years.

Kevin: I had a desire to contribute to my generation, and the fact that I am in prison didn’t stop me from believing that I could. In the spirit of that desire, I leaned on some of the most important lessons I had learned over the years.
In prison, one of the first things you learn is the importance of relationships. Oftentimes this lesson is learned and forged with fire. Just ask a lonely prisoner who checks their mailbox to find it empty yet again. In some cases this comes after it’s been empty for years at a time. Ask them how important relationships with family and friends who care about them is.

When I reached out to Vina, I was looking for more than just how our work could benefit us. I was looking for a relationship with my community. A way to allow my talents and energy to be used to benefit the community that I come from. A fact of life is that resources come and go, but beautiful relationships are worth more than gold.

Vina: Kevin has taught me about organizing. Although he had not had any formal training when we first connected, he naturally practiced a relational, organic kind of organizing that I have come to value at Voices for Racial Justice. Our work is grounded in relationships, and we hold that human connection sacred, above any campaign or policy win.

Kevin: Because of this work that we have done together, I have been welcomed back to the human family. I have been introduced to hundreds of other community members and I’ve spoken via phone at countless community events.

I often ask myself the same question that Vina referred to earlier: “How is it that two people with such different life experiences can work together and so many times come to the same conclusion to a problem?” After long consideration, I believe I know at least part of the answer.

Vina and I joined Lissa Jones on Urban Agenda on January 7, 2016 to discuss some of our work and to tell our story. I remember the entire correctional facility being tuned in and listening to their incarcerated brother on the radio. Upon its conclusion, Vina closed the show with these remarks that served as a paradigm shift in my life and in our work.

It has been the spirit of our work from day one and is still our guiding light to this day. Vina so eloquently stated this quote from an aboriginal activist: “If you have come to save me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then come… Let us work together.”

Vina: Lately, our team at Voices for Racial Justice has been reading the book Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. This book describes a way of change-making that we have found inspiring in our work, focused on how complex systems are made up of many simple parts, aligning and changing and aligning again. Among the elements of emergent strategy are fractals — never-ending, repeating small acts that relate to the large scale.

I think of the way Kevin and I connect and build as emergent strategy. We had no idea what our initial connection would mean, but we knew it mattered — to us. Our small acts, including the phone calls and writing, the checking in and imagining together, relate to something larger.

Through each other we have connected to others, and that relational practice has impacted how they organize and move through the world, too.

Kevin: So although we come from different backgrounds, we are both in this work because we see the humanity in each other. We understand that neither of us can be free if the other is bound, and on this road to freedom our paths often cross.

That has transferred to the development of our theory of change, which is to never forget that while we fight for systematic change, that we always stop to invest in the people who are directly impacted by those systems.

This is my reflection on our work as of today. We may not have been able to change the entire system, but we have been able to change lives. I speak from personal experience from incarcerated, to disconnected, to connected to my community, respected for my talents, and valued for my humanity from inmate to colleague.

 

Vina Kay and Kevin Reese are participants 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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