The scholar, educator, and activist Vincent Harding once said, “From here and now, constrained but not determined by the past, we are obligated to imagine and create a future that could restore the innocence of the first day.” That statement “is very important to me,” said Kempis “Ghani” Songster, who was released from prison 6 months before the workshop, because innocence “is something that I lost quite early in my life.” Convicted of murder at the age of 15, Songster spent 30 years in the adult prison system, in what he called “dens of wolves and lions.”
He saw with his own eyes what incarceration does not only to the individuals experiencing incarceration, but also to their families, loved
ones, and communities. Over and over, Songster saw the incarcerated men enter what he called “that autistic presence where you could be talking to people and they are glassy eyed.” He saw incarcerated men standing in lines for insulin and then returning from the commissary with bags of cookies and candies, “self-medicating on sugar to deal with the stresses of incarceration.”
The health effects of prisons extend well beyond those who are incarcerated, 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 sentenced 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. “It’s an existential threat that we’re facing with mass incarceration, and it’s metastasizing like a cancer, not just over the landscape but over our consciousness. It’s deadening us.”
Songster shared that he had read about toxins in the water in prisons, which often have been built on industrial dumpsites. He has seen men experiencing incarceration contract leukemia, liver cancer, and other diseases at young ages from the toxins and stresses to which they are exposed. “Look up ‘America’s toxic prisons’ and see how many of America’s federal and state prisons are within [a few] miles of Superfund sites,” he said.
People on the outside may say that individuals who are incarcerated deserve to suffer because they did something wrong. But the important question, Songster pointed out, is not what punishment a person deserves. The important question is what kind of justice system our society deserves. The existence of mass incarceration “begs the question: What is happening to us?” he said. “That desensitization, the numbness to what is going on, has to raise some serious questions about our collective psyche.”
A NARRATIVE OF HOPELESSNESS
The process of crime and punishment is a narrative mired in hopelessness, 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.
“There has to be another level that we can get to,” he said. “I’ve made it through 30 years of incarceration. I have blood on my hands. I’ve left
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 I’m 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 I’ve incurred.” Songster continued:
However, there has to be a better ending to all of this. That’s what this is about. It has to be about hope. By welcoming me to this workshop today, it’s not that you’re welcoming and applauding a murderer. What you’re 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, “Producing People with Problems and then Punishing them for it for Profit.”
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 particular, 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 “is something that we need to talk about,” 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 “that looked nothing like the one I left. I’m not reentering anything. I’m entering things for the first time.” The term reentry “hides the role that incarceration plays in impeding successful reentry,” he said. “Incarceration is probably the biggest impediment to social integration,” 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:
I’d 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
see what was wrong with me. They were not just trying to tell me, “Hey, you look okay,” and give me a Motrin or a Naproxen.
THE SIREN SONG OF THE STREETS
“My mother, she did the best that she could; she was a single parent,” Songster explained. However, a “siren song” exists, he added, that is “calling children away from their parents into the streets, and into all kinds of criminogenic activities and environments.” 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. “We hear the term mentor so much that it can become trite or diluted, but mentors are so important,” he observed. Songster also wondered if impulse control programs in school could have helped him. When he was young, he knew that what he was doing was wrong, adding, “Children know right from wrong. It’s their braking mechanism to stop themselves from doing wrong that a lot of times is underdeveloped.” Telling children what is right and what is wrong is not enough, he said. They need help with impulse control in the form of mindfulness training, yoga, and meditation—“a new concept of education,” Songster explained.
He also observed that African Americans and people of color, in general, tend to deny that they need therapy. He said, “We all need therapy. How are you going to grow up in a socially toxic environment and talk about you don’t need therapy?” The same is true for individuals experiencing incarceration, Songster said: “You’re not going to go spend years in prison, in an unnatural and violent environment, thinking you’re going to come out totally unscathed—myself included.”
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 it’s about how to bomb people, when it’s about how to invade people, or to shed blood, billions of dollars pop out of nowhere. When we talk about defense funding, billions of dollars pop out of nowhere. When it’s about building more prisons, billions of dollars pop out of nowhere. When it’s 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 “making people be better people.”
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, “It 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?”
Looking at mass incarceration as an issue of public health can “free up our imaginations and creativity,” said Songster. This can suggest different 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 University–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 violence and victimization so that they are no longer community and national epidemics. “I hope we can have a fruitful conversation that doesn’t really answer all our questions but raises new questions,” 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 we’re talking about getting down to root causes.
Mass incarceration intersects with all of the other problems people face; Songster added that “Talking about mass incarceration is probably one of the most worthwhile and hopeful conversations that we can have.” He concluded:
James Baldwin said, “Move in the direction that your blood beats.” 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 West’s definition of justice as what love looks like in public. Our blood is beating for love, our blood is beating for family and for community. Our blood is beating for hope.
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