Columnist Razvan Sibii: What we can learn from formerly incarcerated people

  • Razvan Sibii

Published: 5/17/2021 10:43:28 AM

When you deny a minority group access to housing, to education, to the labor market, and to political opportunity, you’re not only infringing on their human and civil rights — you’re robbing everyone, including members of the majority, of the contributions the people you excluded could have made to society if given the chance.

That is the result of racism, of sexism, of xenophobia. And that is the result of prejudice against formerly incarcerated people, too.

As many as 100 million Americans have a criminal record. In 2014, in most states, at least one in 10 incarcerated people had been in prison for a decade or more. That same year, the mean time served in prison in Massachusetts was 6.1 years.

The number of people serving long sentences is on the rise. Lots and lots of Americans, in other words, have spent a significant period of their adult lives in prison — an environment that forces people to adapt to unique pressures and challenges.

The hodgepodge of local, state and federal laws preventing newly released people from getting good jobs and social services, plus the attendant social stigma, ensure that many of them find it impossible to fully reintegrate into their communities and are forced to subsist at the margins of society. That is an injustice and a waste of human potential.

People who have been incarcerated for a long time can teach us about resilience, personal growth and innovation, among other things. Business, politics, journalism, the academia — they would all benefit from proactively bringing in formerly incarcerated people.

I spoke with two men who are deeply familiar with the question of the untapped potential of people who have spent many years locked up. Jesse Vasquez was incarcerated at age 17 and was in prison for 19 years, before being paroled two years ago. While incarcerated, he served as the editor-in-chief of San Quentin News, the nation’s most esteemed prison newspaper. He now works with Arsola’s Distribution and Community Services in Oakland, California.

Bill Drummond is a longtime journalist and professor at UC Berkeley. He has taught journalism classes to incarcerated people, and is the author of “Prison Truth: The Story of San Quentin News.”

The newsroom that Vasquez ran at San Quentin State Prison was unlike any other newsroom. It was staffed exclusively by men, none of whom had come into the prison with extensive journalistic experience. In case of disagreement, staff members could quit or be let go, but they wouldn’t go far, of course; they’d still be in the same facility.

Managing conflict, therefore, was both more important and more urgent than on the outside. But help came from another prison-specific direction: the many “rehabilitation programs” San Quentin had on offer.

“If I’m going to deal all day with the same group of men, I better get along with them,” says Vasquez. “So we drew from restorative justice circles, non-violent communication, victim awareness practices, and others. We would take the time to cultivate ourselves and our environment. You don’t have an HR department to complain to. You can’t walk home. You can’t report me to the labor association. There’s no formal grievance, other than addressing it with your coworkers. And it makes you a better human being because you’re forced to accept corrective measures, as well.”

Drummond, who advised Vasquez on newspaper business, agrees that, for better or worse, prison forces many people to engage in introspection.

“The thing about people in prison that they share in common is that they are actively working on becoming better men. They’re all engaged in an effort to change themselves,” he says.

Contrary to what TV shows and movies say, most people who are serving long sentences for serious crimes do not spend their day trying to convince everyone around them of their innocence. That does not mean that there are no innocent people in prison, nor does it mean that incarcerated men and women don’t rightfully criticize the manner in which the American criminal justice system operates.

But, in Vasquez’s words, they do tend to gain “an awareness that you can’t separate the present from the past” and they do tend to work on taking responsibility for past deeds. What American institution couldn’t use that kind of soul-searching?

A veteran of several storied newsrooms, Drummond believes that the news media, in particular, should hire people whose life experience includes being incarcerated because “they see law enforcement and criminal justice in an entirely different way from the ordinary person” and can therefore write credibly, and with empathy, about these topics.

That the U.S. incarcerates so many people, and for so long, is an absolute outrage. But we compound the problem by preventing formerly incarcerated people from reintegrating at all levels of society. One step toward treating our addiction to “tough on crime” policies is to recognize that people who have spent years behind bars can teach us far more than just how to survive the pseudo-solitary confinement of COVID-19 lockdowns.

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of Journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at razvan@umass.edu.

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