In Spite of the Prison
I always appreciate the conversations I have with people who have seen the "College Behind Bars" documentary. Produced by our good friends Lynn Novick and Sara Botstein, it features the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) where incarcerated men and women like myself have earned, with considerable effort, liberal arts college degrees in either social science, mathematics or literature. It artfully offers people who are personally disconnected from mass incarceration an opportunity to see what is possible inside of places that were not designed to allow the development of human potential.
Unfortunately, I get the sense that some of these people confuse BPI as being contiguous with the prisons themselves. Their well-intentioned imaginations suggest it is what these prisons represent. Consequently, I feel obliged to dissuade them of this delusion as nothing could be further from the truth.
Experiences like BPI, NYTS (New York Theological Seminary), the Osborne Association, PACE (Prisoners for AIDS Counseling and Education), prisoner-led organizations like the CAU (Caribbean African Unity), among other programs, do not represent what prison is, neither are they extensions of the prison as an institution. They are best thought of as entities that exist in spite of the prison. They extend from what we might call humanizing philosophies that are directly opposed to those philosophies that engender the criminalizing apparatus of which prisons are a central element.
To be clear, the nation's prisons are about the control of minoritized groups.
This is the stuff of which prisons are made...
How do we know this? We know this by examining the statistical evidence which demonstrates that incarceration rates, from the time that African slaves were freed from the plantations, have been increasing regardless of crime rates or the severity or the types of crimes committed. We know this by examining who is targeted for arrest, by reviewing disparities in convictions and sentencing for any given crime. We know this by examining the myths and stereotypes of dehumanization directed toward Black people, pretexts which serve to harden our response toward the accused. Think of the popular descriptions of Black youth as "wilding" teens, "super predators" or "crack babies" that paved the way for the targeting of Black people living in segregated neighborhoods. Remember the stiffening of sentences that resulted from the nightmares of white people afraid of coming face to face with the animals living in the nation's ghettos. This is the stuff of which prisons are made; iron bars symbolizing the cages where animals are contained and concrete walls representing the segregation and division extant in the society at large.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, experiences like the prisoner-led organizations like the CAU, to the extent that they are supported by prison administrators, offered the opportunity for self-development. Grounded in the belief that human beings harbor the capacity to change for the better, these programs offered a way to liberate and carefully cultivate potential. It was there in the CAU that I learned how to work alongside others to provide benefits for our members and the general population. Through the CAU, we developed programs like the "Effective Communication" workshop; its lessons afforded participants the tools necessary to build better interpersonal interactions and resolve conflicts.
For me, this was an invaluable opportunity to explore my own shortcomings. As a young man I was never good at communicating or expressing frustration in a healthy way. Violence, and no small amount of indifference, grew to be the comfortable and acceptable way of dealing with conflict. A little more than 25 years ago, my failings in this regard led not only to the death of a young man, who much like myself was still in the process of becoming, but also to a 25 to life sentence. I could not undo what I had done or how I thought in the past, but in the future I could address the thinking and the behavior that made aggressive outcomes all the more probable. I could develop the use of this new tool to build trust and connect with people rather than allowing my silence to create barriers and a toxic environment that one could not navigate unscathed.
In the PACE program, I was able to further develop the communication skills that I knew would be critical to my own development. As a facilitator, I had to learn everything I could about HIV/AIDS. How was it transmitted? What was its life cycle? How did the medications work? After educating myself, I had to disseminate the information in a way that was accessible to our participants. It occurred to me that if I could take such care in communicating these complicated topics, then I should be equally determined to communicate who I was to those around me. It should be far more important to me to be able to reveal my own vulnerabilities and humanity in the face of conflict, an unexpected side effect of expressing what one truly feels, who one truly is.
In this regard, BPI represented a special experience where my weaknesses continued to be exposed in relative safety. It was a place where the liberation of my own latent potential had many an occasion to be nurtured. In the debate program, for example, I spent more time developing arguments for positions I thoroughly disagreed with than in any other time in my life. If I could do this then certainly I could show more empathy for people who believed that racism no longer existed in the United States. In my science classes, if I could decipher how polymerase chain reaction tests worked then certainly I could put some more effort into figuring out people who believed that wearing masks violated their constitutional rights. If in my Spanish classes I could eventually learn to stop saying "Me llamo es" (apparently a common novice mistake), en lugar de decir (instead of saying) "Me llamo Patricio," or if I could spend hours trying to understand the first page of "One Hundred Years of Solitude," then surely I could have patience with every Trump supporter I know.
Connecting with people as an important principle, even as we learn more about who we are, is the essence of what these programs offer. Unfortunately, their current presence within the prison is no guarantee that they will remain in the future. A change in leadership, budget constraints or even growing hostility toward these experiences can mean a return to prison as usual, for those few prisons that even allow their existence.
In that world, communicating, empathizing or connecting with other human beings is discouraged. It is where a premium is placed on division and isolation. It is where the techniques of arbitrary discipline reach the height of their powers to control Black bodies. The prison, as it has been since its inception, is the culmination of societal fear, intolerance, failure and neglect through indifference. In no uncertain terms should it be confused with the varied attempts to humanize a place that, at its foundation, is to be unearthed the philosophy of dehumanization.