“For folks on the inside, we call the world that place that exists beyond the prison walls. We talk about the world as being outside, beyond the prison gates. The whole world is out there. And we are not a part of that world.”
These are the words of my dear friend Yohance, a formerly incarcerated entrepreneur. He shared them as part of the WriteNow: Your Words Matter event, which centered on letter-writing relationships during incarceration and stories of impact. As the program director for McCormick Theological Seminary’s Solidarity Building Initiative for Liberative Carceral Education at Cook County Jail (the SBI), I collaborated with Rebecca Bretz, a local community organizer with Solidarity Letters to co-create and co-host this public education conversation. In alignment with McCormick’s commitments to students at Cook County Jail who are part of the SBI, we launched a solidarity letter-writing community in response to the impact of COVID-19 on incarcerated students. In the absence of educational programs, visitations and increased isolation at Cook County Jail—once the nation’s hotspot for COVID-19—we invited the seminary community to offer letters of hope, encouragement and prayer to individuals incarcerated at the jail. This was one of several opportunities included in our COVID-19 Solidarity Initiative with Incarcerated Learners at Cook County Jail.
During the WriteNow: Your Words Matter Conversation, the panelists spoke of the mutually supportive and transformational experience pen pal relationships provided for them while incarcerated. Yaacov Delany, a member of the formerly incarcerated population and policy coordinator for IL Justice, Equity and Opportunity Initiative, spoke about the connection between building intentional community with individuals who are incarcerated and the transformative impact of those relationships. He goes on to state that those relationships offer opportunities for shifting perspectives, mitigating the disconnect between the world behind bars and the world on the other side of those bars, making way for bridge building, criminal justice reform, restorative justice and successful reentry. One panelist shared the view point of a letter-writer on the outside. She spoke of her relationship as being encouraging, edifying, and inspiring. These writing relationships served as a bridge for community-building and shifting the narrative and stigmas around incarceration and criminality, creating a revolving, pathway from the inside to the outside.
With this in mind, on April 9th a federal judge denied a motion to immediately release individuals incarcerated at the jail. Instead the judge imposed increased safety measures such as more testing, enforced social distancing practices, and adequate distribution of masks and hand sanitizer. In response to the public health crisis unfolding within prisons, jails, and detention centers, a coalition of organizations from across Chicago mobilized a solidarity car caravan calling for the mass release of incarcerated people in the name of public health. As I read articles and watched video footage of the demonstration, I heard the voices of those incarcerated at Cook County Jail through images of signs from behind the jail windows that read “Help We Matter 2” and “Save US”.
At the same time, I was swarming in my own cauldron of colliding emotions and thoughts. I was spiritually barren, emotionally disconnected, physically drained, and relationally over-extended. The relationship that was most disrupted by this series of realities was the relationship I have to myself. In the midst of the solidarity-building and justice-making work, I was responding to a loved-one on bail bond who was spiraling out of control with chemical dependency and mental illness. I feared that my loved one would be criminalized, and locked in a cage or shot at the hands of the cops rather than given the care and mental health treatment they desperately needed.
In my attempts to respond to the very urgent needs unfolding around me both professionally and within my own family dynamics, I was left with little energy, desire, or drive to care for myself. While in the thick of this strange place, I was empty inside. I was dwelling in a place of nothingness. There was no amount of effort that I could exert to turn myself around. Even though I was experiencing an existential crisis, I remained full of passion, clarity, direction, and focus directed at responding to the very pressing needs exposed by COVID-19. To say that I was productive in professional and personal life would be an understatement, but it came with a cost—my own spiritual, emotional, and physical wellbeing.
And then, there was the murder of Ahmaud Abery, Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed, and anti-Black sentiments from Amy Cooper and now George Floyd, which ushered in wide-spread civil unrest as a result of deep-seated interpersonal and systemic racism and state-sanctioned violence, brutality and harassment of black bodies that has plagued America since 1619. At the same time the black community was, and is, reeling from the devastating impact of COVID-19 on black bodies—black lives. The black community makes up 52% of COVID-19 cases and 58% of COVID-19 deaths while only representing 13% of the population. Structural inequity at the intersection of racial capitalism and class contribute to black people being overrepresented as essential workers, making them frontline workers, while also living in neighborhoods plagued by food insecurity, lack of access to health care, hyper-policing and incarceration, which all contribute to the preexisting health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity that make black people vulnerable to COVID-19.
I have been struggling to find the words to express what I am feeling. I cannot find any words because I am struggling to connect emotionally. I am struggling to find words to express the grief, the lament, and the rage in response to the entrenched systemic and interpersonal racism that has sought to dehumanize and subjugate black and brown bodies for centuries. Recently, a wise black woman, Nannette Banks, who is also my boss, reminded me to sit in this place of unknowing. She encouraged me by saying, “the words will come, give yourself time to process. Be kind to yourself. Be gentle with yourself.” As I was struggling to find my words, I drew near to the words of Audre Lorde in the poem “The Black Unicorn”.
The black unicorn is greedy.
The black unicorn is impatient.
‘The black unicorn was mistaken
for a shadow or symbol
through a cold country
where mist painted mockeries
of my fury.
It is not on her lap where the horn rests
but deep in her moonpit
The black unicorn is restless
the black unicorn is unrelenting
the black unicorn is not
While leaning into this place of unknowing and unexpressed grief, on several occasions this week, I was invited to speak on my commitments to prison abolition, social activism, and institutional organizing. I had the honor of offering a grounding exercise as the opening for a conversation with one of the mothers of the prison abolitionist movement Angela Davis and Eboni Nash, an organizer and prison abolitionist with Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign. With our collective breath we prepared our minds, bodies and spirits to be present for the conversation. With our breath we activated our collective imagination, our desires for others to be seen and heard and called the wisdom of our life-giving ancestors into the movement for prison abolition. Angela Davis and Eboni engaged in a transformative conversation that made my heart full. My spirit was ignited and my cup refilled.
As Davis commented on how the institution of policing does not offer safety and security but rather violence and fear, she asserted that “it will be important for us [organizers and activists] to develop more imaginative ways of thinking about safety and security. Safety and security are not really provided by police departments. I was thinking during the grounding exercise that this was a way to feel connected—to feel safe in each other’s presence. I want to say thank you for that.”
On today, Juneteenth, as I am reflecting, I am thinking of the ancestors who are part of the great cloud of witnesses in the fight for freedom, and those ancestors who are part of my family lineage. I am thinking of those ancestors who breathe life where there is death; those ancestors who breathe love where there is hate; those ancestors who breathe light where there is darkness; those life-giving ancestors in the long and hard–fought struggle for racial justice in this America. I am thinking of the ways that they put their bodies on the line so that this America could become a safe and equitable place for black people. In their struggles and in their victories, they were not only making America a safe and equitable place for black people but for all people.
I am celebrating my ancestors! I am celebrating the collective legacy of black resilience, collective determination and resistance. I am celebrating how far we have come. I am celebrating the work and commitments of prison abolitionists. I am celebrating the ways in which the current uprising has ushered into the public arena serious conversations and consideration of the policy agenda that prison abolition have long been advocating. I am celebrating the ways some academic institutions are pressing into this movement to transform the institutional racism that exist with their own institutions. I am celebrating my own institutional affiliation with McCormick Theological Seminary as they forge a collaborative partnership with The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference in forming the Center for Reparative Justice, Transformation, and Remediation (the “Center”).
I say to Black folks and co-conspirators of all races, our collective imagination, our desires for others to be seen and heard, and the power of the wisdom of our ancestors are a reminder that WE WILL RISE!! Let us protest with our bodies, our voices, our finances, and our vote. As Angela Davis said in the conversation on prison abolition:
Vote for the candidate who will allow for a more open arena. Which candidate will create greater space for organizing? Which candidate would want to shut down organizing, which we know who that is…we know that the person [in the White House] will not help enlarge the space for activist, for radial organizing…So I ask myself who am I voting for? I have concluded that I want to vote for ourselves. I want to vote for my capacity to continue to do work that will radicalize people. I want to vote for the capacity of young people, who have done an incredible job over the last year to lay the ground for an uprising such as the one we are experiencing now. That is who I want to vote for. And when I go to the poles, even though I may have to tick the box that says JB, I am not voting for him as an individual. I am voting for the future. It is important to see electoral politics in relation to a larger political arena…we have to vote for the future.
With Davis’ words in mind, I am thinking on all the recent events that have unfolded within marginalized and racialized communities and within my own life in this season of global pandemic and uprising. I am imagining an existence where worlds are not divided by the jail and prison bars. I am imaging a world where there are no people on the inside or the outside of the prison and jail walls. I am imaging a world where the words of my dear friend Yohance no longer characterize anyone’s lived experience.
(If you’re looking for resources to grow as an ally and eventually an accomplice for anti-racist work, check out the Scaffolded Anti-Racist Resources guide. )