Talking Justice Behind Prison Walls
“If you are elected, are you going to remember us?” said the inmate, leaning forward in his chair ten feet in front of me.
“Yes, Mr. Smith.” I said.
“And if you are elected, will you come back to see us?” His eyes radiated intensely.
I paused, weighing how I could respond.
“I know that it is easy for a candidate to come here during a campaign and to promise a lot of different things,” I said, “You have every reason to be skeptical. So I am sitting here, looking straight at you; and everyone is looking at us. So I want to make you a promise. If I am elected, I promise not to forget you. And, if I am elected, I promise to come back to see you.”
The dozens of African-American and Latino men sitting in a large circle in Norfolk MCI’s prison auditorium murmured their agreement.
Last night I spent nearly two hours talking – and listening – to the members of the African American Coalition Committee, a self-organized inmate organization inside the 1,300 person prison. They had asked me to visit them to talk about the election, about my background, and about their concerns.
After I had been passed through the walls and gates, I walked to their activities building. The prison guard who was escorting told me that the medium security prison was a relatively relaxed place, with the inmates taking responsibility for many of the events and activities. He walked me to the auditorium and handed me on to my hosts from the AACC. They clustered around me, handed me a good cup of coffee, and escorted me to my seat in the front row.
When I was called to the front, I shared stories about my background, my commitment to racial and economic justice, and my desire to ensure that the recent criminal justice reform not only got signed but was implemented correctly – and that new reforms were put in the pipeline to go even further.
Then we broke into one of their smaller “Struggle Sessions,” which they organize to share concerns with each other and to connect with members of the community. “The people’s refuge is to build, organize, and mobilize towards solution centered methods,” said the flyer they gave me, “in order to address the struggle in our communities and through the criminal justice system.” These sessions are held not only in the prison, but every other week in communities around the state.
The inmates were extremely well informed, having studied pending legislation, watched political interviews, and studied reforms in other states that could be brought to Massachusetts. “I have seen you a lot on TV,” said one of the men who greeted me, “and I thought you would be a bit taller.”
“Now you know what the real me looks like,” I laughed.
The evening was powerful. I have been talking about the criminal justice system and its failings – the school to prison pipeline, the dark legacy of mass incarceration, the cutting of education and other programs, the backlogged cases for parole and commutation, the abolition of voting rights – for more than a year – but never in a setting like this. For the dozens of men gathered in their chairs around me these policies directly affected their daily lives. And I immediately realized that when they asked me about something that I didn’t know enough about, I needed to admit and request that they share their views.
In the Struggle Session, the moderator limited everyone to two minutes, into which they had to fit their comment, their question, and my answer. We were quickly able to establish a tone of openness, honesty, and respect . The comments and questions flowed steadily, continuously, urgently. I told them that I was there as much to listen as to talk, and I wanted to hear what they thought. They did not disappoint!
Almost every inmate initially introduced himself by his first name, and I always asked for their last name as well. I didn’t want the whole discussion to be based on the age-old racist pattern in which they addressed me as a white man as “Mr. Massie,” and I addressed them by their first names. I asked them to go past their questions and to offer me their ideas and suggestions – and I wrote them down, as I do everywhere on the campaign, in my thin reporter notebook.
Some were upset that those who had studied for the GED had been denied the opportunity to take it when the Department of Corrections stopped offering it. They asked whether I favored restoring their right to vote. Yes, I said. In prison? I might, I replied, though I had not thought that through. Did I believe in commutations and parole? In principle yes, but I couldn’t comment on any specific cases. Did I believe that there should be more opportunities for inmates to remain in better contact with their families? Yes.
We are forgotten about, they said. No one sees us. No one thinks about us. “Some folks have committed heinous crimes,” said one young man, “and they shouldn’t be getting out. But there are a lot of different stories here. And everyone just assumes that we are animals.”
“And you said you would come back,” said another man, “and bring others. Will you bring your whole administration?”
“No,” I said, “but I will bring some of the top people. They should hear you.”
“And would you be willing to consult some of us when legislation or changes were being considered.”
“Yes,” I said, “perhaps not me personally on every occasion. But it’s clear that you have many ideas about how things could be improved. I would welcome your thoughts. In fact, I was wondering whether I could ask you to put together a list of your top ten improvements you would like to see.” I turned to the leader, “could you do that?”
“We were already planning to do that,” he replied.
After 90 minutes we wrapped up. At least a dozen of the participants lined up to talk to me individually. As I was leaving, Mr. Smith came up and stood directly in front of me, less than a foot away.
“You will not forget us,” he said.
“I will not forget you,” I repeated.
And I won’t.