Written by Jennifer Weakland, OEP Prison Justice Organizer Intern
There is currently one week remaining in the 8-week, first-ever Prison Justice Learning Action Community Engagement Program! It has been a wonderful affirmation of individuals coming together to make a community that wants to learn about and put energy towards addressing the injustice plaguing the US prison system. We have read through and discussed in-depth Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, watched and discussed videos featuring Jeff Rosen, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Kamau Walton, and Andrea Ritchie on restorative justice systems,and have learned the 6 principles of Kingian Nonviolence. Most recently, the group had an action-focused meeting to brainstorm opportunities to become active participants in prison justice advocacy in our own communities.
To fully achieve the program goals of community engagement, issue education, and action empowerment, we have participated in a variety of activities. Integral in these activities is the earnest discussion of program material. These discussions allowed us the time to explore ideas, vent our own feelings and share inspiration surrounding prison justice, while also appreciating and supporting each other’s involvement. They also allowed us to learn much more about current, systemic issues facing the prison system, such as racially discriminatory mass incarceration through the War on Drugs, the injustice of biased plea bargain trials, the harms and dehumanization of imprisonment in general, and much more. During some meetings, the group split into breakout rooms for one-t0-one discussions of the material, which made for increased personal connection and in-depth discussion between group members. On one such occasion, group members participated in a casual mock debate, taking turns arguing for and against some of the principles of Kingian Nonviolence in order to prepare for disagreement with those who do not agree with the practice of nonviolence and the goal of prison reform.
The group completed an activity involving a lightning round of discovery: They dug up as much information as possible about their local prison practices and history in 10 minutes, then brought their findings back to the group for discussion. Just in case you’re curious about your own local prison, here are the activity guidelines for you to complete on your own:
- Find a prison/jail nearest you - do they have a website?
- Do they offer any rehabilitation/counseling/job training programs for incarcerated people?
- Search the name of your prison and “scandal” or “abuse” or “maltreatment.” Does anything come up?
- Are there recent articles about coronavirus deaths and your prison?
- Share your findings with someone!
- Did anything surprise you?
- What is your biggest takeaway from what you found?
After completing this activity, some group members were inspired to reach out to their local representatives or prison staff with inquiries or notices of their support for prison reform. OEP’s Director of Organizing Matt Guynn wrote a letter to the director of his local prison inquiring about the measures they are taking to protect staff and incarcerated people from the threat of COVID-19.
Another participant, Carolyn L., was inspired to take the knowledge we gained in reading The New Jim Crow and spread it further in her community! She plans to organize a Sunday book study with members of her church.
Rachel Gross, Director of the Death Row Support Project and participant in this program, has contributed much to the community engagement portion of the program, frequently sharing informative resources on prison justice issues with the OEP-Prison Justice Facebook Group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/oep.prisonjustice). If you are interested in becoming a pen pal to someone currently incarcerated, join the Death Row Support Project!
Every single person who participated in this program played a vital role in breathing life into our discussions, creating a supportive community in the sometimes lonely world of seeking justice, giving personal energy and time towards an issue that desperately needs more community attention, and showing willingness to learn and take the journey of turning passion into action. Many thanks to the time and efforts of all participants! I would love to see this community continue to grow as the months go on.