“Redemption is not just for me” An Op-Ed by Emile DeWeaver

In an op-ed published in the San Francisco Chronicle, co-founder Emile DeWeaver reflects on the meaning of his recent commutation for other incarcerated people and the power of restorative justice.

“People who said they “didn’t care” are admitting to themselves that they both want to care and can be restorative members of their communities. They’re energized to transform their lives; and their transformations can change the lives around them, just as my transformation ripples through the world around me.”

Read the full text here:


Co-Founder Emile DeWeaver’s Sentence Commuted

We are beyond excited to share the news that Prison Renaissance co-founder Emile DeWeaver’s sentence was commuted by Governor Jerry Brown on December 23. Emile’s tireless commitment to the rehabilitative power of art and writing has already inspired many, and this major decision will allow him to continue the work of building bridges over walls with allies and incarcerated communities far and wide, old and new.

We would like to thank everyone who wrote letters of support or who has followed Emile’s journey. Please check back soon to learn more about how you can continue to support Prison Renaissance and assist Emile as he transitions into a community leader on the outside. We are overjoyed at the prospect of this new phase in Emile’s life, and it is with overwhelming gratitude, joy, and hope that everyone at Prison Renaissance looks forward to 2018 and the work that lies ahead.

Read the press release here:


Good Apples, by Alan Devenish

Good Apples

Reading Macbeth’s monologue
in the women’s maximum security
prison, the room goes quiet—
those petty tomorrows tumbling
toward a furious nothing—until
a voice among the lowered heads
intones, “He’s talking about us.”
“It’s just like here,” someone else
says, “every day the same.” Affirmative
murmurs fill our circle. Then the student
with the baseball cap and bag of snacks
sighs, “Well, this is depressing,”
which somehow lifts the mood,
a deprecatory pebble dropped
into the gloom, rippling out
into laughter.

A shout in the hallway—the guard
calling the line. The women stand, pack
their see-through knapsacks, square
the circled desks back into rows,
then form ranks for their return
to yesterday’s tomorrow.

Earlier, unbagging my night-class fare
of cheese and crackers, I hoped
the badly needed rain would stop
before the long drive home.
But not bad, that apple
from our moribund tree
still squeezing out some sweetness
before the fruit falls, bruised
surfeit for some foraging bear.

Exiting, I notice they’ve painted
the cinderblock white with black
borders, as if color itself were a crime.
My inked wrist fluoresces under the lamp’s
ultraviolet eye, and the officer
in her Plexiglas booth releases me
with the simple twist of a switch.

With better luck and a touch of grace
(a summary pardon declaring these women
all good apples), my students in their prison
-issue drab would also find themselves
outside the clanging gates, clothed
in the warm end of the spectrum,
the soft floodlit rain falling
on their upturned faces.


Artist Statement: “Good Apples” owes its origin to my students’ response to a reading of the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow ” soliloquy from Macbeth in our poetry class. I chose the speech to illustrate the use of metaphor but what occurred surpassed any lesson I could have foreseen. Several students volunteered to read the passage aloud and when they had finished I invited comments. When none followed, I assumed the students were still grappling with the intricacies of Shakespearean rhetoric. Then, when they did voice their reactions it became clear they not only “got” the metaphors but saw in them the desperation of their own lives, the “petty pace” of incarceration, the sameness of their tomorrows. As students spoke, others nodded or assented verbally, so that a sort of felt consensus pervaded the room. I was touched, if saddened at their intimate connection to these words crafted four centuries ago, how the poetry spoke to them and for them. It struck me at the same time how different my life was from any of theirs. Yet, through the poetry we were sharing a language that spoke to us all. And through their response to these words they too were communicating their lives to one another and to me. In that moment, I never felt more “in prison” and yet felt that we had transcended the bounds of this environment through the medium of metaphor. It was this–the students’ vulnerable and honest response to the poetry–that prompted my own words. I wanted to acknowledge and if possible honor their language and their lives.


Alan Devenish currently teaches in the Bard Prison Initiative and has taught literature and human rights for the Marymount Manhattan Prison College Program. 

They Left & The Sun is a Flower by Joseph Krauter

“They Left” by Joseph Krauter


The Sun is a Flower by Joseph Krauter


Joseph Krauter is a 33-year-old writer and visual artist. He writes horror; and his visual mediums are watercolors, colored pencils, and lead pencils. Mr. Krauter has ASD Spectrum Disorder, specifically Asperger’s Syndrome. He is fascinated by color pencil art and water color painting. His passion in visual and written work is in detail, and he’s never found the Devil in them. He would like an experienced writer and a visual artist to mentor him.

Forced Out by Juan Meza

Forced Out

Forced out
Out of my land
Out of my people
Out of my friends.
Of the constitution
Of my songs
Of my hair
My sweat
My family
My Salmon

Juan Meza is a 39-year-old poet, Shakespearean actor, and a member of Artistic Ensemble, an abstract movement company. To Juan, community represents hope for a life that matters. He would like an experienced poet and an experienced stage performer as mentors.

Philadelphia, by Eel C. Jesus


Pt. I

Some hopes and dreams are like trees. Across our seasons, they blossom, sway, lose all their leaves, and stand bare, lacking – something. Yet for the most part they are sturdy; deeply rooted within that quiet purity I’ve held so tightly, the innocence we’ve lost but try desperately to touch again. Meanwhile, other hopes and dreams are like breaths. We bring them in and for a short time, they give us reasons to strive, to achieve a greater meaning, even an answer to the question of “Why do I want to be more than what life’s given me?” But we can’t hold these types of hopes and dreams for long, and like breaths, we let them go. They enter the world, either gone, lost, but mostly, not realized – not known, except to us alone. Perhaps, most of our hopes and dreams were never truly meant for us. Instead, their purposes are meant to serve others.


11.30 p.m.

“The nights are never pitch black here.” Eel whispers to himself. He wants to hide from the world, but not the type of hiding that he’s been doing this far. His hiding behind half-smiles and pleasantries have gotten tiresome. He’s tired. He longs to disappear, to exist in a space and time where all his feelings stop, but the lamp on the walkway shines too bright on his reality. He’s had about 60 minutes of sleep in the past forty-eight hours, and he’s convinced that the worst part of being human is feeling.


2:00 a.m.

Pictures are playing themselves through Eel’s thoughts again. Old hopes, current dreams, worries – all scrambled black and white, each an inkspot atop the other. He feels the heaviness of them pull at him. Now, he’s focused on an inkspot, a smudge in time – frozen beautifully. It’s him, it’s Cuttle, it’s that treehouse, it’s a brother’s love, and it’s perfect. He wishes he could live there, but he’s here, and Cuttle, Cuttle’s where people go after. Eel’s eyes water and their wetness grounds him in his present. He knows he’s teetering on the edge of something – someplace he doesn’t want to be. He’s scared.


6:00 a.m.

He hears himself breathing. His ears have been full of himself lately. His hands are trembling, so he reaches into the shelf and pulls out the source of his anxiety, an envelope. Inside are a letter and a photograph. The letter gives a date, July 4th, and information about the people in the picture. The photo is of a family: a man, his wife, and two boys. Eel things the picture was taken within the past year. The family is standing in front of what looks to be their home. They are smiling, but the redness of their eyes tells a different story. He can’t look at them anymore.


6:30 a.m.

Eel hasn’t looked forward to today and he hasn’t wanted today to come, nonetheless, today is here. The family from the photograph will be here soon. They want to know him, but not like how potential friends want to know one another. They want to know him as how Cuttle knew him. He’s scared all over. His stomach hurts. He wants to throw-up, he almost throws-up; he wins this time. He splashes water on his face, rinses out his mouth, splashes water on his face again before he reads the mirror’s thoughts.

Today’s going to happen, so put on your great half-smile, give them some gentle words, and they’ll go away.

He truly believes they will.


7:00 a.m.

The man from the photograph’s name is Dolph Finnigan, his wife is Dora. Dolph is a Lieutenant in the military, Cuttle’s Lieutenant, and Dora is a school teacher. They are fortyish. The boys, Marlin and Seth, are young. Marlin is eight years old going on nine. He just completed the fourth grade and is vocal and outgoing. Seth turned eleven two months ago. He’s shy, loves music and reads a lot. Seth’s parents are worried about him because they don’t think that his quietness is a phase. Eel roughly runs the palm of his left hand over his forehead several times. He’s trying to push Cuttle out; Cuttle always gets in his head and he never comes in alone.


9:00 a.m.

The Finnigan’s arrive. It takes Eel a while before he can find the courage to watch them from the window. They look exactly like their photograph except that Dolph is broader in the shoulders than Eel expected, and Seth seems smaller. He realizes too late, that he shouldn’t have agreed to meet them. He wants to back out, but he quietly rehearses how he’ll greet them and runs through a few different hello’s.

“Dad! Dad! Look at him, Dad. He has the same chin, and his eyes, Dad, they’re Cuttles’. Look at him Dad, Look! He’s just smaller, like I’m small” the little one, Marlin, drags Eel out of his daze. Eel is embarrassed, he failed to greet them properly and now struggles even to make eye contact.

“Hello.” Eel says. This family was a part of his brother’s life, and now, they’ve come to be a part of his. Eel doesn’t want them because he breaks things, that’s his M.O., but these people are already slightly broken. He remembers the picture, and he can see the redness of their eyes spoke the loudest truth. Eel is a mix of emotions and can’t find words for fear he’ll cry. He’s going to cry.

“Don’t start, please, we’ve only just stopped ourselves,” Dora says as she reaches out to touch Eel. Eel stiffens.

“Hello Eel, this here is my family, Dora, Seth, and Marlin.” Dolph gestures toward each.

Eel shakes his head slightly and blinks four times rapidly to clear his head. Pointing to the other side of the table, he says, “Let’s sit down. You all have to sit on that side. I have to sit over here, it’s policy. Thank you for coming. I’m grateful to meet you all.” It’s the truth he hears, and he’s relieved. He lingers a bit, just enough to let the truth soak up the sourness on his lips.

“You’re here, that speaks to the love you have… This isn’t an easy place to come…” Eel’s words softly fall off their trail as he sees his room clearly for the first time. It’s a living room and it doesn’t belong here. It’s a living room, in that, it reminds those here of what’s worth living for it’s a living room, but it’s full of everything everyone is living without. He can’t stand this room.

“Coming here isn’t a hassle, I want you to know that,” Dolph says with conviction. “We-“

“Lt., can – can you tell me how it happened?” Eel doesn’t want condolences or sentimentalities. He’s sick of waiting. He wants to know how because the how’s have been exhausting his imagination.

“What do you know” Dolph replies. “How much do you know?”

With as much steel as he can muster to mask his irritation, Eel answers, “Our family’s still grieving, so we haven’t sat down together to talk. Angelo, he’s one of your guys, right?” Dolph nods, “Well, he came to see me two weeks ago, but he still couldn’t talk about it. He’s only where he can tell me how the weather was. Plus, he just wanted to hear about a conversation Cuttle and I had. I think he needed that.”

“Me and my family want to hear about the same conversation. Your brother was who he was because of it. You must know that by now. I asked Cuttle, once, how did he get to be the way he was? If my boys turn out like Cuttle, I know I’ve been a good father. Anyway, he looked up to you. He asked me to come with him to see you, said that you’d tell me. I realize now that I should have come then.” Dolph says with eyes glazed in memory and a voice full of could-haves.

Eel hates that tone, but the look is worse. The look is what haunts. It’s the reason behind him putting on a new face every day.

“You’re here now. I feel like I’ve known you all for some time. Cuttle talked about Marlin and Seth all the time when he came. Your boys were his life. I’ve known them since they were babies.” Eel allows himself a quick glance at the boys, but he doesn’t make eye contact. He doesn’t linger. He can’t let his face crumble; it’s his last one.

Marlin barely lets Eel finish before he says, “I’ve known you too, since I was smaller. I’ll be nine soon and ten after that. Cuttle even built me a treehouse like the one you two built. It’s even half-way up the tree…”

The image of that treehouse pulls Eel away. For a moment, he’s fourteen again, the world and life is less complicated. One of the Finnigans is talking in the background. He’s unable to make out the words. Right now, he’s content with hammering nails into the oak tree in his father’s backyard. He knows he can’t stay there and forces himself to leave.

“Eel, Eel, I can send you pictures of my treehouse if you’d like. Would you like that?”

Marlin asks in the manner of a kid who isn’t used to being ignored.

“Yeah, yeah little buddy, that’ll be great. I can’t wait to see it,” Eel says. Marlin is smiling, and it’s a real smile. Eel wonders how long has it been since this little boy last smiled and meant it. Eel’s heart sinks with realization because he knows the exact date and time like he knows his own name and birthday. A piece of his face falls to the floor. The sound of it crashing fills the place and he watches, silently, as the tile floor drinks that part of him. Silence.

Dolph, uneasy with a hint of panic, fills the space. “Eel, I really want to tell you what happened, I really do, but my boys, they only know the basics, and I remember everything so clearly. Can I tell you another time, when it’s just you and me? I can come back tomorrow while the boys are visiting your mother. Is that okay with you?”

Eel nods in agreement outwardly. He tells himself that the Lt. has his reasons, but he can’t help but feel cheated. They’ve all come to hear about a conversation between two brothers. They’ve come one after the other, and they leave with a piece of Eel, but none of them has left a piece of Cuttle behind.

Eel looks at the clock on the wall. The hands read 1:08 p.m. and he wonders how much time has passed in silence. He remains quiet; gathers himself, and lets his eyes search for a spot on the floor. It’s better if he doesn’t look at them. He sees that there’s a crack in the tile; it’s filled with grime. He’s found a place to start and he jumps in.

“I was nineteen, and Cuttle was fifteen. He came with our dad to see me. At the time, I’d only been here three years. Growing up here is different, sometimes you only have yourself as a friend and parent. Because of that, there’s a lot of introspection, but growing up alone, as Cuttle had to do, is its own struggle.

“He had questions he needed answered and believed that I could give them to him. He’s always been like that. You all know him to be like that – driven, yet thoughtful. He said to me, never could he have imagined that I would be here, caged. He said that I had a free and open spirit and that this was not a place for me, it wasn’t a place for him. My first thought was that he was going to tell me he wouldn’t come see me anymore. Instead, he said that he looked up to me and wanted to be like me, not the acts I’ve done or who I pretended to be on the streets, but the person I am for him and my family.

“I think he was scared because, one, he didn’t want to end up like me, and two, he couldn’t understand why I could, would, or want to live behind two such opposite identities. Maybe, this was a point in his life where he was lost in-between who he wanted to be and what others wanted. Whatever his reasons for being scared, he found himself at a young age which is amazing. Anyway, he asked me, why or what did I believe was the cause for my being here?

“That’s a heavy question for a fifteen year old, but the nature of our relationship was that I would give him the truth, and the truth was the least I could give for abandoning him.

“Cuttle’s question, it’s the one I live with every day and I told him as much. But to answer his question, I said, when I look at myself, I can honestly say that I have never been satisfied with myself. I didn’t believe that who I was, was enough. So. I couldn’t see all that I had – all that I am. I couldn’t grow my potential or open my mind to possibilities.

“I could see that he was a little off balance with where my explanation was going. So, I told him that to have a relationship on a truly honest level, both parties had to share an openness and willingness to accept the truth about one another, and this meant putting scars, secrets, and even insecurities out in the open.

“Cuttle told me, sometime later, that this was when he realized that acceptance had nothing to do with making sense of someone or something. That’s another story.

“I told him, my not having a place within myself that I could love is why I questioned myself constantly. I felt broken and didn’t know how to fix myself. Yet, the years isolated from the world lets a person piece themselves together. When I got down to the few pieces that I couldn’t understand or maybe didn’t want to understand. I realized that my patter was that I found fault in everything.

“We are all on the same timeline – one timeline, I told him. We’re given one precious life, just one. One to live, one to give, one to experience, and one should be, is enough. We should be enough, if not enough for others, at least enough for ourselves. This is a hard lesson that I’ve forced Cuttle and others to learn alongside me. And although I never told him outright, my wish for Cuttle was that I didn’t want him to ever know these places within ones’ self. Even at fifteen, he still had that boyish innocence. I didn’t think I could protect him. So, I could only tell him that these ugly places exist and to be aware of them.

“I told him that today, when I look at people out in the world, I say to myself, I really admire those who can have and see the value of one because they truly know how precious one life is. My hope, my one dream, I told him, was to be one of those people who can truly see the value in one.

“The rest of our conversation was Cuttle asking me about how he should deal with doubt and uncertainty, all of which, I didn’t have an answer for, but he also asked me, how would he know when one was enough? I said that I didn’t know myself because I only knew that one should have been enough when I lost the one of almost everything I was given, and by then, it was too late for me. He said then that he would find a way to know and he’d share it with me someday. One would always be enough for him was his promise because one is a whole and one can sustain. So, yes. He was always like that – a man grown at fifteen, maybe younger. He had to be.

“From fifteen till what happened in the Kandahar Province is a blur. Cuttle chose a career, dedicated himself to that life, and we saw each other less and less. Four times a year until he turned eighteen, then once or twice a year when he was on leave, but we wrote one another. His life became lines on paper.”


2:30 p.m.

Eel finally hands the table over to silence and notices that the Finnigans are crying. He sees Cuttle’s life in every tear, each sniffle, and wipe; their conversation, so long ago, displayed across each face. His brother had found a way to know when one was enough and this family along with every person before them, are the result. Eel finds himself back in the place he doesn’t want to be, he doesn’t want to be human right now.

Eel put one hope…

“Your brother, Cuttle, found his was Eel. His friends, his extended families, we all loved him for it. He could drink one beer. He could own one car. He loved one woman, but he didn’t have just one life. He was a part of all of our lives. He was our lives…” Dolph’s voice fades away as Eel phases in and out of reality.

…one dream into the world…

Your brother was so special, so gentle. He gave everything – himself, he gave us that too. That’s why we’re here Eel. He gave us you. The someday Cuttle talked about sharing with you is here, with us. You see that right? Right?…” Dora is trying to hold Eel in the present, but she’s losing ground.

…and Cuttle caught it, nurtured it, lived it, and now, that one hope – that one dream, Cuttle has returned it.


Eel C. Jesus lives and writes in Northern California.

Notes From An American Prisoner: An Ode To Fyodor Dostoevsky by Brandon Loran Maxwell

Notes From An American Prisoner: An Ode To Fyodor Dostoevsky

I am a loving man, soulless by disposition; a forgiving man, vindictive by circumstance. I am an innocent man, but I am a monster. Another might say I am two men, or even say I am no man at all. But what another says is of little consequence. Do I believe good exists in the world? Not proportionately to the injustices of the world. I admit, however, of the good that does exist, I have experienced very little, and understand even less.

“Guilty!” Pack ‘em in like sardines. Place ‘em on the back burner for a seven-year stint. Just let our children pick up the mess come release date. That is what fuels the sheep I count.

Admittedly, I live one tyrannical hour at a time because anything more is a trivial pursuit, a hypothetical ship docked on Generality Island. That you will probably never understand, though.

What? What do you mean you’re not rehabilitated? You freeze all night, starve all day—get raped in the showers—and you’re still not fixed? Something must be wrong with you.

“Guilty!” Seven more years ought to do the trick. Maybe our children’s children will have better luck. Better yet, maybe we need another prison—where’s that Senator who owes me a favor? It’s so damn expensive to consult my conscience these days—why bother.

I am a man without a name because an eight-digit number suits me perfectly. Indeed, I live a simple life, here, comfortably, in the palm of the state. It’s kind of like a vacation—if your idea of retreat is Dante’s Inferno.

Sure, I used to care about identity, individuality—but those cares have long since adjourned. “Before your mother was born,” as McCartney might say. Is he still around?

They say when you’re exposed to something for too long, you become desensitized—so now I beg the judge to keep me. I live here and I’ll die here. Anything more is just a fairytale, a figment of incarceration. And surely I am stronger than that—right?

I used to work at a little movie theatre on the corner not far from here. It’s not there anymore so don’t look for it. I loved the solitude. But I loathed the decline of American cinema. They don’t make ‘em like they used to.

I used to watch On the Waterfront over and over again. I could relate to Brando. He told it like it was. “You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” Nobody said it quite like Brando—not even Bogart.

I used to hate it when customers came to the counter asking for popcorn. Most of the time, I managed to muster up a passable smile. But inside I secretly fantasized about gouging their eyes out.

Their eyes would almost certainly serve a more purposeful existence on the black market somewhere—perhaps in India—in the skull of “a thinker,” a Maharishi. Besides, Brando wouldn’t have stood for this type of nonsense. Why should I?

Sometimes I feel like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. The entire world has changed to color, yet here I am still living in black and white—lounging in the past. Thus, I am fairly apathetic.

Admittedly, I was lying just now when I said “I feel like Norma Desmond.” Perhaps I did it out of dejection—who really knows. A conversation is just nice to engage in sometimes. Moreover, as we do not have much in common, one of us must lie to keep the conversation going—don’t you agree?

The anticipatory footsteps of my neighbor serenade me every evening just before dinner, almost like a lullaby. He has very little space to walk, but he walks proudly. Maybe it’s the hunger. Maybe not. The body will do strange things to a man—a loving man, soulless by disposition; a forgiving man, vindictive by circumstance.

You must imagine, undoubtedly, freedom lovers, that I want to amuse you. But you are mistaken. I can tell you earnestly that I have many times tried to become a good person. But I am not equal to the task.

Good cannot exist in a man of meager but ambitious means. That is, a man in the twentieth-century must, and morally ought to be, preeminently a soulless creature.


Author’s Note: I’ll never forget the first time I read the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. I was a student in my first year of college when a professor handed me a copy of his 1864 classic “Notes From The Underground,” and asked me to write a critical analysis. The book was unlike anything I had read. Compared to other writers, Dostoevsky rang unapologetic. His voice experimental. His life tragic and complex. His undertones introspective and seditious.

He wrote about what he knew. At just 28 years old, Dostoevsky had been sentenced to prison and barred from writing by the government for affiliating with an intellectual group that discussed antigovernment activities—an experience that forever shaped him. On his incarceration in Russia, Dostoevsky would later write, “I consider those four years as a time during which I was buried alive and shut up in a coffin.”

I immediately related. Before college, I also had spent time in jail and glimpsed into the abyss of human despair. So with Dostoevsky in mind, I began sifting through old poems and essays I had sent to family members from jail. Eventually I found an old poem I hadn’t finished, re-worked it to match the experimental prose in which “Notes From The Underground” was written, and submitted it to my professor. The essay went on to gain national recognition in the category of personal essays and memories by Writer’s Digest.

Brandon Loran Maxwell is a Writer’s Digest prize-winning essayist, contributor at Bold Global Media, and speaker at the Foundation For Economic Education. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrandonLMaxwell

An Open Letter from Donna Roberts

An Open Letter to the Members of Prison Renaissance from Donna Roberts


Let me start by confirming some of the things you may already be thinking.
I am not male.
I am not Black or Hispanic. I have never been openly discriminated against because of my race or religion. I have never been racially profiled.
I have never been incarcerated.
I have never been arrested or detained.
I have never been in a gang.
I have never taken illegal drugs. I have never even taken a drag on a cigarette.
No one in my family came home drunk and angry or forgot to feed me because they were high.
I always had clean clothes and a comfortable home.
I grew up in a nice neighborhood. We rode bikes, swam in swimming pools, played Monopoly.
I was not afraid.
I was not abused.
I have never gone hungry.
I have never experienced physical violence.
I have never witnessed a loved one experience physical violence.

I am not you.
I have not seen the things you have seen.
I have not walked a mile, or even a step, in your shoes.
In fact, in dozens of ways I am probably the opposite of you.
In short, I am a privileged white girl from a good neighborhood.

So, what can I possibly have to say to you?
I can say that despite all our differences, despite that we are worlds apart, we can come together for a common cause.
Many of you are familiar with Dr. Philip Zimbardo and his famous Stanford Prison Experiment. Before the experiment Phil was just another faculty member trying to teach students and conduct the research required of faculty. So he set up a simple experiment. He had no idea what he was about to stumble upon. But what he found was so profound that he spent the rest of his career – the rest of his life actually – working with some aspect of it.

Before I “stumbled upon” Prison Renaissance, before I “met” Camille and Emile I used to think, “I need to find my Zimbardo.”

I was well-read and interested in many diverse areas of psychology. But I needed to find focus and meaning and something worth dedicating the rest of my career to.

Before, I didn’t talk or write about anything political or controversial. I didn’t write about my opinions.

But, when confronted with the issues related to prison reform I remembered what I used to tell the adolescents in the CHOICES juvenile diversion program I co-created. I used to quote a country western song (I know, a questionable source, but bear with me). I used to say, “If you don’t stand for something, you’re gonna fall for anything.”

Those words came back to me as I read the mission and goals of Prison Renaissance. I knew it was time for me to stand for something.

Before, I had only a vague idea about prison overcrowding and racial disparity in prison populations. If you’d asked me if America’s prisons were overcrowded, I would have said, “Well, yeah, I think some of them probably are.”

I didn’t know that taken as a whole, the population of those in prison and jail would constitute the fourth largest city in America (Source: Prison Policy Initiative / U.S. Census Bureau).

I didn’t know that in 17 states, prisons are filled beyond capacity with the highest reaching 196%.

I didn’t know that because of overcrowding prisoners routinely died due to medical neglect.

I didn’t know that the U.S. imprisons black men at almost five times the rate that South Africa did during apartheid.

I didn’t know that more black adults are incarcerated by the correctional system today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than under slavery in 1850 (Sources: Prison Policy Initiative; The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness).

If you’d asked me if recidivism was a problem, I would have said, “Yeah, I think the rates are probably too high.”

I didn’t know that over two thirds of people who leave prison will return – 68% within 3 years and 77% within 5 years (U.S. Bureau of Justice).

If you’d asked me about the increase in prison population, I’d have assumed that it had risen somewhat over the last decades.

I didn’t know that the huge drop in the crime rate since 1990 did not slow the pace of mass incarceration.

I didn’t know that the prison population had increased 400% since the Reagan presidency.

I didn’t know that the U.S. has the largest incarceration system in the world – that despite comprising only 5% of the world population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s prisoner population (Sources: Bureau of Justice Statistics; The Sentencing Project).

If you asked me about “enhancements”, I’d have thought you meant the added features in the latest software update.

I didn’t know about California’s system of sentence enhancements, whereby tens of thousands serve time in prison substantially longer than the sentence for their original crime (Source: NBC News).

If you’d asked me if mental illness was a problem in prisons, I’d have replied that, “Rates of mental illness among prisoners are probably slightly above those of the general population.”

I didn’t know that more than half of all inmates in jails and state prisons have some form of mental illness (Source: Urban Institute Report).

If you’d asked me if drugs were a problem in prisons, I’d have surmised that the drug problem was probably tightly controlled, with some exceptions.

I didn’t know that 65% of the nation’s inmates meet medical criteria for substance abuse and addiction, but only 11% receive treatment (Source: National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse).

I didn’t know.

But now I do know.

So I think it’s time to stand for something. And that something is prison reform.

So what can I say to you that might have meaning?

I can say that despite all the layers of our differences I see very clearly that what society is doing with regard to the treatment of prisoners is not working.
And it’s not been working long enough that it’s time to look for alternative ways of doing things.

Thank you, Prison Renaissance, for helping me find my Zimbardo. I hope together we can foster change.

Citizenship: Reframing Incarceration

Citizenship: Reframing Incarceration
by Emile DeWeaver, Editor

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. – Declaration of Independence

I. The State of Our Union

Liberty is tied to our idea of humanity. Wherever we find Liberty lacking, we find men and women struggling against dehumanization. American Liberty comes as response to an empire that disregarded colonists’ human needs and tried to reduce them through taxes into means of production. Though the liberation of African slaves was rooted in both political and economic concerns, it also resulted from ethical concerns, i.e., the tension between the dehumanization of people and the Declaration of Independence’s promise of Liberty. Liberty, then, includes the unalienable right to have one’s humanity recognized by one’s nation, a right often denied to incarcerated citizens.

Liberty is mine by virtue of my citizenship. Though my crimes necessitate a temporary restriction of my physical Liberty, they shouldn’t abrogate my humanity. Despite this, criminal stigma – a punishment that extends beyond incapacitation – has become a normative component of American criminal justice. This stigma is supported by laws that limit my educational, employment, housing, and political opportunities, not just while I’m incarcerated, but for the rest of my life. This stigma means that tomorrow, a prison guard could beat me to death, say that I died of a urinary tract infection, and face no meaningful challenge. It means Americans routinely reduce other Americans to objects.

Often in prison, correctional officers reduce people of means to punishment. One man yelling obscenities at an offer can result in an entire population being locked in their cell for hours. Officers use blanket punishments to provoke those innocent of offense to become angry and inflict retribution on the offender. If one complains about being punished for another’s actions, officers sometimes respond, “You shouldn’t have come to prison.”

Some officers reduce incarcerated people to a means of entertainment. A guard will stop a man and assail him with antagonistic (and often ridiculous) questions: “Hey, come here. Where you going? Why you taking a book to the hospital? Oh, you’re reading this Harry Potter shit? You like wizards and wands and shit?” The recipient of this abuse must endure it. He cannot walk away because the officer gave him a direct order: “Hey, come here.” To disobey would risk a disciplinary infraction (which for some means five to ten additional years in prison). It’s called: “Just fucking with you,” and if you have no sense of humor, well, “You shouldn’t have come to prison.”

Institutionalized dehumanization in the American penal system implies that Liberty is alienable. I urge readers to examine this, and decide whether they want to live in a constitutional democracy where this is possible.

II. Standing for an American Vision

To some, it may seem hypocritical as I appeal to the principals of a society that I spent my teen years attempting to destroy. They might compare me to a cardsharp lecturing other card players about the virtues of honest play. I don’t want to argue about the messenger’s right or lack thereof, because whatever we conclude shouldn’t make Liberty alienable. I, however, would ask those who would use my criminal history to detract from my argument to consider, please, that though I’m being justly punished for crimes I’ve committed, I’m not being punished for who or what I am today. I was a criminal when I was 18 years old. I’m not a criminal now; many incarcerated people are not criminals now, and I submit that not only should our nation protect the human Liberty of everyone in prison, but it should be invested in restoring the physical Liberty of anyone who is no longer a criminal.

Imagine a woman named Jane goes to war for her country, serves with honor, and discharges as an American hero on January 1, 2000. How should Jane’s nation treat her? Of course, it should honor her sacrifices: she should enjoy health care, safe and affordable housing, employment opportunities, and a chance for advancement in her society. Imagine this same war hero murders a man on January 1, 2016. How should Jane’s nation treat her? While her nation shouldn’t deny the sacrifices Jane made 16 years ago, it can’t predicated her treatment, the Liberty afforded to her, on who Jane was 16 years ago. She must face incarceration. The following syllogisms sum up the principle underlying my assertion:

A person is a constructive citizen: they should be treated well. Jane is a constructive citizen; therefore she should be treated well. A person is a destructive citizen: they should be treated badly[1]. Jane is a destructive citizen; therefore she     should be treated badly.

[1] Here, “badly” is used to indicate punitive measures and not inhumane treatment.

When Jane becomes a destructive citizen, her nation is justified in restricting her Liberty, notwithstanding her prior service. But just as Jane’s antisocial change in behavior necessitated a punitive change in her government’s treatment of her, a pro-social change in her behavior should necessitate a restorative change in said treatment. By the same principle, I was a criminal when I was 18 years old, and so my Liberty was restricted. But in a nation that promises unalienable rights to its citizens, I should be released if I become a constructive citizen.

I’m a constructive citizen who can talk about honest play, with as much standing as anyone at the card table. That means I’ve awakened to civic duty. I’m an incarcerated-American who wants to contribute what I can economically and socially to improve society. The first thing I have to contribute is my life story, which is a roadmap for policymakers trying to correct the cycles of violence that I’ve already overcome. I, at one time, felt so alienated from society that I believed myself justified in committing crimes against it, but I’ve also been walking my path to redemption for almost 20 years.

My rebirth emerged with my daughter. My love for her broke through the hatreds I had for society and myself, revealing my animosities as shells hiding the vulnerabilities – fear and rejection – that I didn’t want to face. I didn’t know how to face them, but I turned to the only power I felt I had in a cell, writing, and I survived my demons. I learned that knowledge and loving acceptance of my failings – and the failings of others – constitutes courage. With my survival came a survivor’s toolbox: empathy, insight, and the passion to shape the world into a place where others don’t suffer as you’ve suffered. I’m convinced that these tools are teachable. I became a writer to teach others these tools. I’ve dedicated the past five years of my life to giving these tools to other incarcerated men, and I started Prison Renaissance to spread these tools to all the women and men incarcerated in the world.

I want to tell you there are others like me in prison. They are the living solutions to failing schools in the inner-city, survivors with the empathy to connect with the gang-banger on your neighborhood, advocates with the insight and passion to transform that gang-banger into a survivor with a matching passion. Imagine the social transformations that would be possible if our solution to urban violence wasn’t to subtract people from the equation, but to transform them into living solutions. I want you to know that people like me comprise a minority of the prison populations, but that’s mainly because prison policies tend to produce the opposite of empathy, insight, and civic engagement. If people with the tools, the passion, and the proximity to at-risk communities comprised the majority of prison populations, imagine the social transformations that could be possible, from raising high school graduation rates to increasing the civic participation of marginalized youth. These things are possible if we change the way we approach crime and punishment. That’s the vision.

III. Reframing Incarceration

If we’re ever to see the vision of turning incarcerated people into agents of transformation, we have to end the nightmare. We need to examine and redefine the role of prison in society. Incarcerations’ primary function needs to be reduction of criminality within a framework consistent with American Liberty. Instead, our prison system has become a nightmare that destroys Liberty and promotes criminality.

Criminality is too complex to attribute to one cause, but it begins and ends with alienation. The reasons I felt justified selling drugs and employing violence are manifold, but part of it was that I felt like you hated e, like you disregarded my needs. As a teen, I lacked the tools to process the complexities of social injustice, so I reacted with hate for you and a disregard for you needs. I enacted my animosity and disregard for your needs by committing crimes, not against you, but them. I reduced you to my means of retribution against an enemy I couldn’t define. This human disconnection lies at the heart of criminality, which is why it’s vital that we build a new vision for our prison system.

Penal policies isolate incarcerated people – anyone who’s tried to visit or form a relationship with someone in prison can tell you that – and criminal stigma continues to isolate individuals even after they’ve paid their prescribed societal debt. In an ethical society, penal policies should aim to change a person’s behavior, but how is this possible when penal policies reinforce the alienation that leads to crime? It’s not possible. In fact, I can think of no strategy more likely to increase crime rates, incidences of broken families, and to increase suffering – in short, to reduce Liberty.

IV. A New Frame

I’m an incarcerated-American. I believe in a safer public, as you do, which is why I believe we need to approach crime and punishment in an ethical way, consistent with the promise of Liberty for every American citizen. What might that look like? I look forward to sharing my ideas, my life’s roadmap, in the coming months. In the meantime, let the debates begin. But let them not be about who’s toughest on criminals or how much money we might save if we reduce the time people serve in prison. Let the debates be about how we can transform incarcerated populations into community servants who are eager to help solve our nation’s social problems.