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San Quentin News Piece: Disrupting Disconnection

I serve on the board of directors for Words Beyond Bars, a local nonprofit working to support rehabilitation and restorative justice through literacy programs in Colorado Department of Corrections’ facilities. (It’s a phenomenal organization; please consider donating here.) In this capacity, I recently submitted a piece to San Quentin News—a publication created by people incarcerated in San Quentin prison. I cannot say with absolute certainty that it is the only newspaper created by people who are incarcerated, but I am confident in saying it has the largest reach of any such publication. I am honored and privileged to have them include me and my words.

Here is a link to the article.

And, here is the piece, in full, that I submitted:

[I]t’s not difficult to identify with somebody like yourself, somebody next door who looks like you. What’s more difficult is to identify with someone you don’t see, who’s very far away, who’s a different color, who eats a different kind of food. When you begin to do that, then literature is really performing its wonders.

– Chinua Achebe

Injustice thrives in the space where humanity and dignity are absent; we can only recognize one another’s humanity and dignity through connection—to ourselves, to others, and to the wider world. Too often, the criminal justice system disrupts those connections in the hollow pursuit of punishment for punishment’s sake.

In retrospect, it is easy to point to crimes committed as the initial points of disconnection. But criminal offenses do not happen in a vacuum: What disconnect—of self, from other, from community—existed before someone would feel compelled to compromise humanity and dignity and commit an act of injustice?

This hindsight informs the question we must ask of our criminal justice system: What must the individuals who have created disconnect through crime do to reestablish connection? This is restorative justice; this is justice through rehabilitation.

Our criminal justice system reflects our social values. We are increasingly willing to recognize that the crime, though its own injustice and an act of disconnecting, is often a symptom of metastasizing indignities and disconnections—through, for example, economic injustice or disproportionate enforcement and punishment based on race, gender, or ability. We must ask of our criminal justice system: How can we compensate for any role society has played in manifesting criminal disconnect? This is prioritizing humanity and dignity in the face of the temptation of injustice.

In the criminal justice system, punishment and isolation have taken primacy over the values of restorative justice and rehabilitation. Our injustice system is too often corrupted by vengefulness at best and financial and political gain at worst. From the initial stripping of humanity and dignity (by which, I mean the discarding of a name only to retitle a person as a number or as “Offender”) to the use of indeterminate administrative segregation (also known as “solitary confinement”) as punishment for children who literally cannot understand the consequences of their actions, our system has forsaken humanity and dignity. We all share in the shame and responsibility of fostering, supporting, or condoning a system that severs connection.

But, as Leonard Cohen reflected: “There’s a crack in everything--that’s how the light gets in.

We are seeing the error in our ways on a scale like never before; we are more willing than ever to recognize the uniform disconnections that have brought about further injustice instead of laying the foundations to rectify. Through shifting views on mental health, human development, and community-based justice, new programs have emerged that work to reconnect—to forge the bonds that true justice needs to thrive.

San Quentin has been a true leader and pioneer within this sphere by implementing programs that reestablish these connections and promote safety, education, and, ultimately, justice through connection. For example, this very paper provides people on the inside with the opportunity to reflect (connect with themselves), research or interview (connect with others), and publish to a global distribution (connect with a wider world). The sharing of truths and opinions is a prioritization of humanity and dignity. This is justice in black-and-white.

Or, “Ear Hustle”—a podcast initially meant to facilitate reflection and conversations amongst people incarcerated at San Quentin that now has such a wide audience that it inspires royalty to wear a shirt with the podcast’s logo. This is the deep study and dialogue that reestablishes the connections between those on the outside and those on the inside. This is justice available for streaming and download.

Similarly, Words Beyond Bars is a literacy education group in Colorado that sponsors volunteers from the outside in facilitating book groups for people on the inside. With input from people in the groups, volunteers select books that promote literacy and inspire rehabilitative introspection—connection with self. Every other week, volunteers then meet with groups inside Colorado Department of Corrections facilities to engage in dialogue and exchange ideas—connection with others. Once every other month, Words Beyond Bars organizes an event to share writing by people on the inside. Community members on the outside write responses and feedback for the writers on the inside to review and integrate—connections for both people inside and outside to a wider world.  Whether promoting the internal liberation and growth that comes with discovering a page-turning novel seemingly written for the audience of one or shifting how a stay-at-home mom living in the suburbs of Denver views a father inside who is struggling with the responsibility of his actions and the distance from his children who are becoming young men and women without him, WBB builds connections that our current injustice system endeavors to disrupt.

Just like the innovative programs at SQ that do not sacrifice connection for the sake of incarceration, WBB reaffirms the humanity and dignity of everyone grappling with some of our harshest realities through education and art. As a member of the board of directors of WBB, I speak for our organization in expressing profound gratitude to our partners and allies:

Gratitude to SQ News for giving us space to share and encourage reflection;

Gratitude to the men and women at SQ, in CDOC, and elsewhere who recognize the importance of prioritizing humanity and dignity through connection so as to achieve true justice in the criminal and prison systems;

Gratitude to the volunteers and advocates on the outside who foster spaces and opportunities for connection;

Gratitude to the artists and creators who connect us to ourselves, one another, and to the wider world;

And Gratitude to the men and women inside who are willing to do the hard work essential to retaining and restoring humanity, dignity, and justice to an otherwise fractured society when society is not always willing to meet you halfway.

You all inspire wonder in me.

Peace and love.