Thanksgiving in Prison

I posted this first in 2012, but I’m posting it again this year, in part because I need to think about people in prison on Thanksgiving. In part because it’s now 2.3 million behind bars. And in part because Boston protestors, in sympathy Ferguson and furious about racial inequality in our punishment system,  marched to the South Bay House of Correction chanting “We See You.”

I’ve been thinking about all the 2.2 million people in this country who will spend this Thanksgiving behind bars.  Yes, some of them have done pretty horrible things.  And some of them have been away from their family for years for very good reasons.  But many prisoners, the people we sentence to our darkest places — in fact, over one quarter of them according to The National Review  online — are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. And many of them will be saying their thanks for what they are grateful for; most of it has to do with love.

I have written much and often about how prisoners are not merely their crimes, and that their humanity is what often allows them to transform themselves behind bars whether it be through reading, programs, art, deep epiphanies about themselves and/or remorse.  While on the day of Thanksgiving, no prisoner gets the benefit of home, even the dysfunctional home, many prisons provide a turkey dinner with the usual trimmings.  Maybe not mom’s home-made pumpkin pie, but nonetheless, pie.

Thanksgiving is rough on the families who are visiting their loved ones behind bars. Mary Gautier, Louisiana born and Nashville now, kicking around with over five albums, has a song that really hits me when I think of how hard it is for everyone in this constellation, the families and the prisoners.  It’s called “Thanksgiving.”  You can listen to it here.

“We stood in a long line waiting for the doors to be unlocked
Out in the cold wind, ‘round the razor wire fenced in cellblock
Young mamas with babies, sisters and other kinds of kin
At Tallulah State Prison on Thanksgiving Day, we’re waiting to get in

You gotta get here early, it don’t matter how many miles you drove
They make you wait for hours, jailers always move slow
They run names, check numbers, gravel faced guards they don’t smile
Grammy and me in line, silently waiting single file

Thanksgiving at the prison, surrounded by families
Road weary pilgrims who show up faithfully
Sometimes love ain’t easy, sometimes love ain’t free

My grammy looks so old now, her hair is soft and white like the snow
Her hands tremble when they frisk her from head to her toes
They make her take her winter coat off then they frisk her again
When they’re done she wipes their touch off her dress, stands tall and heads in

Thanksgiving at the prison, surrounded by families
Road weary pilgrims who show up faithfully
Even though it ain’t easy, even though it ain’t free
Sometimes love ain’t easy, I guess love ain’t free”

Mary isn’t alone in thinking about prisoners on Thanksgiving.  A lot of us who have worked behind bars turn our thoughts to those who can’t go home.  Jack Cashill, an Emmy-award winning filmmaker and producer, shared a letter online from a prisoner.  It doesn’t surprise me one bit — the gratefulness expressed.  But I’d say it’s a lesson for many of us who complain about the minutia of life (me), and even those of us (me) who are sad on Thanksgiving without our parents to share our joy and sorrow. Most of us need to stop and see how much being in the moment and appreciating what we have is a way to heal our hurts.  Of course, prisoners learn this too.  Here’s a snippet of the part of the letter that I like best.  So thanks to Steven Nary who wrote it in Avenal State Prison in California:

“For everyone who has ever come into my life, no matter how long our interaction was or whether it was inside or outside of prison, I am grateful for each moment, which is a gift in itself and a blessing…”

On a day where we think both about what we’ve lost and what we’ve found, let’s remember those behind bars.

Radio Show on CJ Reform

Of course there’s not a lot you can talk about in 15 minutes. However, today I was on “The Mara Dolan Show” on Lowell’s radio station, WCAP (980am) talking up a storm. Mara’s a former criminal defense attorney so we focused on criminal justice reform and also talked a bit about former probation chief, John O’Brien’s sentence. You can hear the show at this link. For info on John O’Brien’s sentence, see this article in the Boston Globe.

Locked Down, Locked Out by Maya Schenwar

Locked Down

I started reading Maya Schenwar’s book which is aptly subtitled “Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How we can do Better,” just as I was dealing with a loved one who was suffering from drug addiction behind bars. I knew all too well the feelings of “Just keep her in jail for God’s sake, maybe she’ll be safe and stop using.”

Schenwar begins this book with her sister’s addiction, and it is a good hook, a real way to draw us in, because the pain and frustration is so palpable.  She, like myself, a prison activist, knows all too well that prison or jail is hardly a place to detox — a hard cold floor, sometimes naked, sometimes screaming — hardly a place for the kind of safety we’d like for those we love.

But Schenwar’s sister’s struggle and her family’s excruciatingly painful experience of dealing with it is only her entry point into the story of incarceration. This saga, as she says, is borne by all who love someone locked up, although “this country’s most marginalized communities bear the overwhelming brunt of the devastation.” Locked Down, Locked Out is a heartfelt book which takes to task the “behemoth” often called “the prison industrial complex.” Prisons and jails are locking up 2.3 million people behind bars and Schenwar gives us stories as well as facts to illustrate its inner workings, while still managing to present us with hopeful alternatives to prisons.

Schenwar, who runs the website Truthout, is an accomplished journalist who has interviewed and connected with prisoners across the country. She gives us insight after insight as she takes us through snapshots of incarceration issues. As she says in her chapter entitled, “The Visiting Room,” connection to outside loved ones is necessary for prisoners. I paused, hurt welling up in my throat when I read “Even for the most dutiful visitors and appreciative visitees, prison feels like abandonment.” Not only does that ring true for my family member behind bars but for all the women I taught for ten years. How often they lingered at the steel door when I left my class for the evening with words like “Have a safe ride home.” I remember how I walked down a long hall, women fading into the distance as I exited the prison.There is no way for anyone involved in the criminal justice system to read this book without having such images float into your mind.

Schenwar also gives us words of prisoners who say how much mail means to them, images that evoke hope even in the form of the simplest post card. She talks of how families are bereft after their loved ones get sent away, along side the idea that many think by incarcerating lawbreakers, we are getting rid of the “bad eggs.” And she poignantly asks: “What exactly are we wishing for when we want someone close to us incarcerated?” This is a wonderful question, and one I hadn’t exactly thought of so was glad to hear her answers which are personal and human— for them to stop hurting, among them. But she knows too well that prison may not stop prisoners’ “spiraling” record or return them to fulfilling, happy lives. And in spite of the fact that one young man whom she interviews tells her, at least “You’re not gonna get shot here,” her search for answers for her sister and for others causes her to explore how can we keep people out of prison.

So what are Schenwar’s answers? While the book is a bit disjointed here, as she goes through her sister’s release, pregnancy, and a variety of programs, she does use her personal experience to enhance our understanding of her discoveries. One of the best, is how she points out the positive that comes from building communities for people who come out of prison or for people before they ever go in. She says “really effective treatment means bringing people out of isolation—not imposing more of it.” She points out ways people on the inside work with people on the outside through telling their stories. And she highlights some particular community-based programs that she has encountered from shore to shore, including her sister’s recovery house for previously-incarcerated mothers where her sister can stay with her baby.

It’s a hopeful way to end the book although, for those of us who live with someone always on the brink of a relapse, we know that addiction is not a problem easily solved. Schenwar promises no happy ending here. Heroin users get clean or they often die. This I know from my loved one’s addiction. But, while Schenwar shows how prison is not the answer to addiction, her dedication to a better world is inspiring, and convincing too: there are solutions to what often feels like despair.

Chris Tinson on Ferguson


Photo by Amanda Wills,

Chris Tinson, a radio journalist and assistant professor of African American Studies at Hampshire College sent me a fascinating and important email about work going on in Ferguson. Here tis:
“A couple of weeks ago I was able to travel with a group of students from my college to Ferguson to do some solidarity work down there. We connected with a range of youth, students, other out-of-town activists, elders, and organizers. Some of the local folk were connected to the Organization for Black Struggle, the St. Louis-based group that anchored many of the events at #FergusonOctober. Many others were just young people, fed-up and in the streets. Some were calling themselves Millennial Activists United, Tribe X, Lost/Found Voices, etc. They were poets, writers, students who’ve paused their education to struggle, workers who lost their jobs as a result of protests. Some of whom had been jailed for days during the August protests and are back in the streets, refusing to go home. As one young brother told me, ‘We can’t go home, because we ain’t got no homes to go to; this is our home.’ They are mad as hell, and righteously so.”

“Even as we all continue to watch intently for whatever shenanigans the county prosecutor is cooking up, in what looks like will not be an indictment but some sort of compromise verdict/decision, it remains to be seen what the other side of these events will look like. One thing is certain, there will be a new day, based off the infectious energy of the youth, in St. Louis. As I’ve said elsewhere: ‘Ferguson is Happening to America.’”

“It was clear from being there about 4 days that there was a bit of a rift between the older and younger generations, as well as between the clergy and the streets, even as many clergy put themselves strategically on the line and were arrested with many protesters. However, the generational divide isn’t as thick as first imagined. The older and senior black and brown folk from around the area know what this is about. Though they weren’t out in the streets chanting and facing down police at 2am, it doesn’t mean that they don’t understand the anger and want to pray everyone back to normal. All throughout FergusonOctober I witnessed multigenerational families marching, going to town halls, gathering and sharing information about protesters who had been arrested, or providing hot meals to protestors still in the streets long after the temperature had cooled.”

“Although the news is no longer reporting this regularly, there are still daily protests, daily actions, daily confrontations with police, who are hellbent on ‘maintaining order.’ But the youth and many adults are saying there will be no peace until there is justice. Were this anywhere else, I am willing to bet that folks would have been back to business as usual. But not St. Louis. The infectious energy that was on display and that is ongoing in a series of rolling protests, has ripped through a sleeping giant of a community with no intention of retreating or compromising anytime soon. Watch out though: there is an effort afoot to applaud them to death, congratulate them on the job well-done attracting the world’s attention to their frustration. They know that strategy well. It’s been happening to them all their lives while not being ignored. This is a new generation of justice seekers, and though they see themselves in the long history of social distress, student activism, and CR/BP politics these are not their only points of connection to history. They are makers of history, not appendages to it.”

“Many in Ferguson are citing the daily, routine, ritualized instances of brutality, violent indifference, and structural marginalization, including economic assaults on working class poor folk through the area’s ticket and warrant system, for example. Others cite the historical depletion of black middle class possibility due to white extraction of resources as deep sources of the changes underway in STL/Ferguson. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) entitled “The Making of Ferguson” indicts federal housing and social policies as the underlying causes that led up to Darren Wilson’s “legal” extinguishing of Mike Brown’s life. ‘The conditions that created Ferguson cannot be addressed without remedying a century of public policies that segregated our metropolitan landscape. Remedies are unlikely if we fail to recognize these policies and how their effects have endured,’ writes EPI research associate, Richard Rothstein. The takeaway: social structures are unlikely to change without a profound understanding and appreciation for the histories of government-sponsored anti-black social policy. Instead of accepting this fact as an explanation, many media outlets started and have begun anew the ‘what was wrong with Mike Brown’ line of inquiry. Could folk be anymore wrongheaded about this? And why is there no broad-based refutation of that new (old) strategy of blaming victims of white on black state violence?

“I know I may be preaching to the choir here, but the recent attempts to re-try Mike Brown (tried by bullets fired from Darren Wilson and now tried by the machinations of the grand jury process) mirror such attempts to re-try, re-accuse Assata Shakur, and the recent double-down on the effort to silence long-held political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal. Despite this Mumia is still allowing his voice and insights as instruments of justice. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett (GOP-FOP friendly) is on record recently saying that prisoners are prisoners because they’ve given up their Constitutional rights. Alright, Tom, if you’re that certain, then why not kill everyone imprisoned and save your tax-payers some dough? But of course, these officials are ‘civilized, law and order’ types. They know that they can only achieve and maintain order through physical, gratuitous, and legislative violence, rights be damned. All in the name of self-referential definition of democracy. For such folk, the law is a tool of violence.

“There is a dismal picture being painted here. I had a wild nightmare recently that black people were on display at museums; as something that used to be, used to exist; encased with a nice 5×7 gold-plated description of the specimen that told of its travails in the most innocuous, sterile language imagined so as not to alienate or generate any feelings of discomfort for docents, patrons, city officials, or well-to-do liberal teachers who’d be forced to explain to their fifth grade class of ten year old that ‘we used to have black people here, and then slowly they began to mysteriously disappear.’ When I awoke, the news was still on.”

“No doubt, I continue to fight the good fight for racial justice in our day; marking the small but significant victories of a convicted white shooter, an indicted cop, a federal probe here and there. But the overhaul we work towards is actively and productively offset by forces that profit off of the marginalization and civic death of black residents. These forces don’t always profit equally or materially, though these need not be ruled out.”

“In the meantime, we struggle. The youth demonstrating critical citizenship in the streets of St. Louis and at other hot-spots around the country, yelling at the top of their hoarse lungs at the government, ‘They think we a game; they think we a joke,’ have justice tattooed on their hearts and minds. They know what it is, though they’ve been kept from it, and they know that only through the power of their voice, tears, pain, energy and creativity and most of all their willing to risk their own comforts and safety, can anything that remotely looks like justice be achieved. They might not get justice, but they’ve enlisted themselves on the side of history that fought and will continue to fight for it. Seeing their example, we can do nothing less.”