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2 The Experience of Incarceration and Reentry Points Made by the Speakera â¢ The health effects of incarceration extend beyond those who are imprisoned to families, communities, and the entire soci- ety. (Songster) â¢ The justice system has major effects on public health as well as public safety. (Songster) â¢ Conversations about mass incarceration provide an opportu- nity to move beyond hopelessness to hope. (Songster) a This list is the rapporteursâ summary of the main points made by individual speakers as identified above. They are not intended to reflect a consensus among workshop participants. The scholar, educator, and activist Vincent Harding once said, âFrom here and now, constrained but not determined by the past, we are obli- gated to imagine and create a future that could restore the innocence of the first day.â That statement âis very important to me,â said Kempis âGhaniâ Songster, who was released from prison 6 months before the workshop, because innocence âis something that I lost quite early in my life.â Convicted of murder at the age of 15, Songster spent 30 years in the adult prison system, in what he called âdens of wolves and lions.â He saw with his own eyes what incarceration does not only to the individuals experiencing incarceration, but also to their families, loved 5 PREPUBLICATION COPYâUncorrected Proofs
6 THE EFFECTS OF INCARCERATION AND REENTRY ones, and communities. Over and over, Songster saw the incarcerated men enter what he called âthat autistic presence where you could be talking to people and they are glassy eyed.â He saw incarcerated men standing in lines for insulin and then returning from the commissary with bags of cookies and candies, âself-medicating on sugar to deal with the stresses of incarceration.â The health effects of prisons extend well beyond those who are incar- cerated, Songster observed. At Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania, where he was incarcerated, he co-designed and co-facilitated a program called Fathers And Children Together (FACT). He noted: We saw that the majority of the people coming in were fathers, young fathers leaving behind children to grow up and deal with the traumas of their separation due to incarceration. I did a survey on my cell block alone. There were four father-and-son pairs. All eight of them were sen- tenced to life without parole, death by incarceration. Two generations condemned. The children of incarcerated parents are much more likely to end up in the foster care system or be incarcerated themselves, he said. âItâs an exis- tential threat that weâre facing with mass incarceration, and itâs metastasiz- ing like a cancer, not just over the landscape but over our consciousness. Itâs deadening us.â Songster shared that he had read about toxins in the water in Â risons, p which often have been built on industrial dumpsites. He has seen men experiencing incarceration contract leukemia, liver cancer, and other dis- eases at young ages from the toxins and stresses to which they are exposed. âLook up âAmericaâs toxic prisonsâ and see how many of Â mericaâs federal A and state prisons are within [a few] miles of Superfund sites,â he said. People on the outside may say that individuals who are incarcerated deserve to suffer because they did something wrong. But the impor- tant question, Songster pointed out, is not what punishment a person deserves. The important question is what kind of justice system our soci- ety deserves. The existence of mass incarceration âbegs the question: What is happening to us?â he said. âThat desensitization, the numbness to what is going on, has to raise some serious questions about our collec- tive psyche.â A NARRATIVE OF HOPELESSNESS The process of crime and punishment is a narrative mired in hopeless- ness, said Songster. A murder is committed. Both families connected to that event are mired in pain, grief, stress, and loss for the rest of their lives. âThere has to be another level that we can get to,â he said. âIâve made it through 30 years of incarceration. I have blood on my hands. Iâve left PREPUBLICATION COPYâUncorrected Proofs
THE EXPERIENCE OF INCARCERATION AND REENTRY 7 a tear in the fabric of life, a hole in the cosmos that will never be filled. Thirty years of incarceration could never wash off what was on my hands. And no matter how much good Iâm doing, even here standing before you in this honorable position addressing all of you, it will not erase the burden that I carry with me and the loss that Iâve incurred.â Songster continued: However, there has to be a better ending to all of this. Thatâs what this is about. It has to be about hope. By welcoming me to this workshop today, itâs not that youâre welcoming and applauding a murderer. What youâre doing is applauding the possibility that after human beings do wrong they could become assets. A MANUFACTURED CRISIS Society is in the midst of a crisis of the five insidious Ps, said Songster. It is, he said, âProducing People with Problems and then Punishing them for it for Profit.â People who are in prison for nonviolent drug offenses make up just under half of the incarcerated population. The majority of the incarcerated population are people who are there for violent crimes, and they are there on long sentences, explained Songster. Though crime rates have dropped overall, the incarceration rate is still high because the sentences being given are keeping people in prison for longer periods of time. In particu- lar, when people sentenced to life without parole are predominantly from certain communities, the implication is that the communities from which those people come have no redemptive qualities. The effect of long-term sentences on the health and well-being of communities âis something that we need to talk about,â Songster noted. Songster said that he is not a fan of the term reentry. After being incarcerated for 30 years, he returned to a world âthat looked nothing like the one I left. Iâm not reentering anything. Iâm entering things for the first time.â The term reentry âhides the role that incarceration plays in impeding successful reentry,â he said. âIncarceration is probably the big- gest impediment to social integration,â which is the term that he prefers instead of reentry. When imprisoned individuals are released back into society, they bring their physical and mental health issues with them. For many years, Songster had a circulation problem in his legs that went largely untreated. Instead, doctors told him that he was fine so that the prison would not have to spend money on him. When Songster went to his first medical appointment after being released, he said: Iâd never been treated that way before in my life, treated like a human being, treated by somebody that took pride in their work and wanted to PREPUBLICATION COPYâUncorrected Proofs
8 THE EFFECTS OF INCARCERATION AND REENTRY see what was wrong with me. They were not just trying to tell me, âHey, you look okay,â and give me a Motrin or a Naproxen. THE SIREN SONG OF THE STREETS âMy mother, she did the best that she could; she was a single par- ent,â Songster explained. However, a âsiren songâ exists, he added, that is âcalling children away from their parents into the streets, and into all kinds of criminogenic activities and environments.â Parents cannot hear that song, but their children can. Songster said that if he had had a mentor, an older person with whom he could talk, he might have made different decisions. âWe hear the term mentor so much that it can become trite or diluted, but mentors are so important,â he observed. Songster also wondered if impulse control pro- grams in school could have helped him. When he was young, he knew that what he was doing was wrong, adding, âChildren know right from wrong. Itâs their braking mechanism to stop themselves from doing wrong that a lot of times is underdeveloped.â Telling children what is right and what is wrong is not enough, he said. They need help with impulse con- trol in the form of mindfulness training, yoga, and meditationââa new concept of education,â Songster explained. He also observed that African Americans and people of color, in gen- eral, tend to deny that they need therapy. He said, âWe all need therapy. How are you going to grow up in a socially toxic environment and talk about you donât need therapy?â The same is true for individuals experi- encing incarceration, Songster said: âYouâre not going to go spend years in prison, in an unnatural and violent environment, thinking youâre going to come out totally unscathedâmyself included.â Therapy will require an investment in people, but that investment can and should be made, said Songster, despite objections that the funds are not available. He went on: Whenever we talk about initiatives to help people, the question is, where are we going to get the money? But when itâs about how to bomb peo- ple, when itâs about how to invade people, or to shed blood, billions of dollars pop out of nowhere. When we talk about defense funding, Â billions of dollars pop out of nowhere. When itâs about building more prisons, billions of dollars pop out of nowhere. When itâs about making life more miserable and making the world more unlivable at home and abroad, billions of dollars are easily found. Instead of building prisons, money should be spent to prevent people from coming to prison in the first place. Songster suggested that we take the money currently being spent on prisons and spend it on âmaking people be better people.â PREPUBLICATION COPYâUncorrected Proofs
THE EXPERIENCE OF INCARCERATION AND REENTRY 9 PUBLIC SAFETY AND PUBLIC HEALTH Justice is not just about public safety, said Songster. It is also about public health. Public safety is about keeping some people safe from other people, and it relies solely on more police, more prisons, and harsher laws, he explained. But public health is about the health and well-being of society. Songster added, âIt is about asking questions. How did this begin? How do we get ahead of it and not just react to it? What are the root causes? How does what we do promote the continuance of public health?â Looking at mass incarceration as an issue of public health can âfree up our imaginations and creativity,â said Songster. This can suggest dif- ferent ways of dealing with problems such as violence and public safety. It can lead to work such as that done by Todd Clear at Rutgers UniversityâÂ Newark on incarceration and public safety, demonstrating that increasing the number of individuals experiencing imprisonment does not lower crime rates (Clear, 2007). It can lead to new ideas about dealing with vio- lence and victimization so that they are no longer community and national epidemics. âI hope we can have a fruitful conversation that doesnât really answer all our questions but raises new questions,â he explained. A CONVERSATION ABOUT HOPE The motivation behind the workshop was hope, Songster observed. Many studies of the economic, social, and moral implications of mass incarceration have been done, and that research should continue. He noted: But to sit down together and talk about how mass incarceration is a crisis of national health, that is very revolutionary, very forward thinking, very forward moving. It points us toward hope, because now weâre talking about getting down to root causes. Mass incarceration intersects with all the other problems people face; Songster added that âTalking about mass incarceration is probably one of the most worthwhile and hopeful conversations that we can have.â He concluded: James Baldwin said, âMove in the direction that your blood beats.â In this room our blood is beating for community health, our blood is beating for healing justice over hanging justice, our blood is beating for Cornel Westâs definition of justice as what love looks like in public. Our blood is beating for love, our blood is beating for family and for com- munity. Our blood is beating for hope. PREPUBLICATION COPYâUncorrected Proofs
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