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Honoring Black History Month, in Prison

Black History Month is often referred to by my fellow Blackademics as “the high season.” Schools and organizations across the country seek us out for obligatory assemblies and programs. Though the shortest month, February is the most popular time of the year for scholars of color to situate our scholarship within longstanding questions of freedom and justice.

Last month was a dizzying whirlwind for me filled with twelve speaking engagements that literally stretched from Feb. 1 to Feb. 28. I began Black History Month in conversation with graduate students at the University of Connecticut’s School of Social Work discussing the relationship between community development and what I term concentrated punishment.

Concentrated punishment exists in communities with disproportionate rates of surveillance, incarceration and disenfranchisement that undermine stability. The urban concentration of these communities, coupled with their distinct racial and ethnic diversity, creates a perpetual gap between the principle and practice of American democracy. It’s fitting then, that I ended the month honoring Black History Month in prison.

The Cheshire Correctional Institute is a level 4, high-security facility. There are bars and barbed wire, double windows and striped lines on the floor to clearly distinguish between inmate and outsider. Most inmates wear state-issued khakis and a plain white shirt with sneakers. Some have to wear brightly colored jumpsuits to mark them as high-risk.

Two sets of reinforced doors separate the small entry room where visitors are ID’d, sent through a metal detector and forced to leave scarves, jackets and car keys in grey lockers. Cell phones aren’t allowed in any part of the building. Even when you have the ability to leave of your own volition, entering a prison is a visual and visceral reminder of boundaries both real and imagined.

Cheshire’s Black History Month program featured Reginald Dwayne Betts and me in conversation. Betts is a poet, Yale Law graduate and father who was sentenced to prison at the age of 16 for a carjacking in Virginia. We met years ago on the beach in Puerto Rico as our kids played together.

The tension in Dwayne’s voice is palpable. He’s quick to reject the tired “felon made good” trope and admonishes those who label him as an “ex-felon” in some obtuse effort to distance him from the 60 inmates who sit across from us on the other side of the sunken floor. We sit at a crooked table in hard plastic chairs with a few sheets of blank paper, two books of Dwayne’s poetry and a blue pen that we share. A poet and a professor.

Two men sing the Negro National Anthem to start the second half of the program:

Stony the road we trod, bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet,
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered;
Out from the gloomy past, ‘til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

Walking into a room filled with Black and Brown faces during a Black History Month program is usually expected. But this particular time, seeing so many people who look like me is maddening. Without a cell phone, I can’t capture the images I want to embed into my consciousness. Every cracked ceiling tile darkened by water damage. Every frayed electrical cord held together with duct tape and wishes. Every clouded view through dirty windows obscured by barbed wire and bricks.

Even though “re-entry” is a popular buzzword among scholars and grant makers, most of the people sitting in this room were never entered into society to begin with.

I don’t want to forget the guilt I felt after taking a millisecond pause when the first inmate extended his hand to shake mine. Moments later, a young man asked what can be done to reverse the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision. Sharp minds. I realize I am safer in this space filled with both officers and protective inmates than I am walking down the street of my tree-lined neighborhood. Even among those of us who think ourselves “woke”, this space is a perpetual reminder of the blind spots created by freedom.

I’m not here as a naïve interloper unaware that there are men in this room convicted of murder, drug crimes and sexual assaults. But I am here knowing that eight years prior, my family buried our 21-year-old cousin, Brian Anthony Patterson. Brian’s murder shifted my gaze from a detached social scientist analyzing mass incarceration data to an engaged scholar-activist demanding systemic reform that prioritizes justice for victims and families.

Brian’s death, followed by the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, propelled my work to abolish the death penalty in Connecticut. It was built on the belief that true justice depends on our ability to extend humanity to others – even as they deny it in themselves.

There’s a running joke that everyone in prison says they’re innocent. Not here. The inmates we spend time with in the T.R.U.E. unit learn to take full responsibility for their crimes. T.R.U.E. stands for Truthfulness, Respectfulness, Understanding and Elevating. There’s a brightly colored mantra etched onto a chalkboard that says, “Don’t make excuses. Make improvements.”

The unit is comprised of men ages 18 to 25 from different neighborhoods across the state. They speak of the psychological toll of reconciling the harm they’ve caused others with the personal goals they want to achieve. Inmates serving life sentences work as mentors developing a comprehensive curriculum called the Reflections program. They work alongside counselors to emphasize that forgiveness happens on the timeline of the person harmed. There’s a dedicated focus on respect and self-awareness, connection and commitment.

Tomorrow begins a new month on the unit. T.R.U.E. residents will take turns entering a small office to pay their monthly fees. Another opportunity to practice accountability. After four hours at Cheshire, I walk away from the T.R.U.E. unit wondering whether having access to this kind of positive intergenerational development would have prevented some of these men from getting locked up in the first place. The unusually long drive home gives me time to ponder how the success of this unit can be replicated in other facilities. Most people on the unit will eventually return home to neighborhoods where struggle remains a constant.

More than 650,000 people are released from prisons in the United States each year. Many are people of color returning to urban communities that are already grappling with the effects of crime, poverty, violence and inferior education – all of the socioeconomic indicators that significantly reduce one’s life chances. Community members struggle to secure access to housing, education and employment. This struggle is intensified for those leaving prisons and attempting to return to community.

The collateral consequences of a conviction limit opportunities for the formerly incarcerated to support their families and make positive contributions. These restrictions have a disproportionate impact on groups already struggling to define their place in American society. For example, over 25% of African Americans and about 20% of Latinos live below the federally established poverty line. The bulk of these communities – the neighborhoods to which the formerly incarcerated return – are concentrated in urban areas that face the additional challenge of reconciling high demands for services with limited resources.

It begs two questions: To what will they return? And what must be done to prepare them for life after prison?

Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, where she writes about American Politics, political psychology and public policy. You can follow her on Twitter @KBDPHD.

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