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"Released from Prison?": Contributions from the Reimagining Re-entry Public Philosophy Group (Keywords: Punishment; Phenomenology; Home; Institutionalization; Education; Power)


White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 112, no. 1 ("Punishment").

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Group members are: Zakaria Amara, Randall Bagley. Jr., Simone Weil Davis, Tiina Aila Eldridge, Rachel Fayter, Amanda Hill, Drew Leder, Kym Maclaren, Lorraine Pinnock, James Ruston, Keven Simmonds, Natasha Warren, John H. C. Woodland, Jr., Earl Young, Colie, Matthew, Nathan, Tyrone.


These writings are interspersed with photographs by Sara Bennett, a former public defender who now photographs women with life sentences, both inside and outside prison, as a way to draw attention to the problems of mass incarceration. You can read Sara's artist statement at the end.

 

Introduction  

“The degree of civilization in a society” said Dostoevsky, “can be judged by entering its prisons” – and, we might add “… by the process of re-entry, when incarcerated persons return.” In April 2023, we convened a group of post-incarcerated individuals and philosophy professors with experience of prison teaching to discuss imprisonment and re-entry. Our post-incarcerated participants had taken college-level classes while in prison, and often found it immensely valuable, sometime even life-saving.  But why should philosophical reflection end simply because one had been released from the carceral “cave”? If anything, we suspected that the experience of “re-entry” would be so challenging, fraught with contradictions, and displacing after years of isolation from mainstream society and new technologies, that it might be very helpful to reflect together on the experience.


This research into displacement might also, we hoped, be philosophically illuminating in and of itself, and relevant to displaced others; refugees, those newly unemployed, people making big life changes, etc.  Finally, our group aimed to set up a space of mutual support by gathering people who, by circumstance or court order, are often unable to connect with others who have also recently been released. Yet it is precisely those facing similar situations who might be most understanding and helpful.             


The public philosophers who first convened the gathering live in Baltimore (in the United States) and Toronto (in Canada), so the happy consequence was an international discussion that looked at individual experiences with two carceral systems. Among our fifteen or so participants we ended up with an equal gender division and a rich ethnic, racial and age mix. We later called ourselves “Re-imagining Re-entry: The Public Philosophy Group.” We met via Zoom, and used its auto-transcription capacities to hold onto the discussions. Our first session was organized around a reading of phenomenologist O. F. Bollnow’s article on “Lived-Space”; our second used excerpts from James Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook: A Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.”


The first contribution below is synthesized out of the group discussion by Kym Maclaren of Toronto Metropolitan University, and explores what it is to have a home and how prisons can both offer a qualified sense of home, and also “unhome” a person. Tiina Eldridge then offers a personal reflection on how one’s sense of home, even upon release, can be confounded and confused by prison life and the society one finds beyond it. Next, Drew Leder of Loyola University Maryland, guided by group discussion, reflects on the multiple paradoxes that attend, and often block the success of, the “re-entry experience.” Zakaria Amara’s piece offers a more intimate look at various challenges that he has faced in getting out of prison and making his way in the outside world.  Finally, Randall Bagley points out various mystifications that can keep people in and outside of prisons “in the cave,” as he advocates for education.      


We hope these reflections are compelling and illuminative, of both philosophical and human interest. They analyze the severe challenges associated both with long-term incarceration and then a jarring and obstructed re-entry process. This certainly should lead us to question the methods used in the carceral state and, most importantly, to search together for humanistic alternatives.

 

Being-at-Home and Being-Unhomed in Prison

Kym Maclaren (Toronto Metropolitan University)

 

The self, phenomenology has taught us, is not some hidden inward ghost-like substance, but an embodied engagement with the world. Such engagement is, however, a two-sided process. On the one hand, it involves an encounter with a beyond, with what is foreign, other, not yet comprehended – that which puts oneself and one’s familiar ways of making sense into question.  On the other hand, we are challenged by this foreignness only because we have come to occupy established ways of making sense, a sphere of familiarity, a place wherein one knows how things work, who one is, and where one stands – in short, a home. Home, as Kirsten Jacobson has argued, is where we gather and consolidate ourselves; the sphere of foreignness is where we are called to transform ourselves and make ourselves anew; and it is only because we can recollect ourselves in our home, because it holds, reflects, and shelters us, because it gives us a place, that we have the strength and resources to take on the new, to make new sense of ourselves and the world, to find new ways of being.  Home is our anchor point within reality which gives us orientation and allows us to set out in new directions. 


Home is our anchor point within reality which gives us orientation and allows us to set out in new directions. 

For many of us, such a home might be found in our place of residence, where furniture, decorations, and resources are organized in terms of our own projects and values: this is a place to which we feel we can withdraw in order to rest and gather ourselves, for the space itself holds us, speaks of us, maintains us, and we do not need to act in order to realize ourselves or work in order to remember ourselves. But home might also be a landscape, a group of other people, perhaps even a set of musical soundscapes – whatever it is that returns us to ourselves, replenishes us, prepares us to once again venture out into the unknown. 


Prison, intentionally or not, functions essentially to unhome a person. Deemed guilty of an offence against society, one is exiled, taken away from one’s people, one’s house, one’s familiar daily paths of action.  One is put in a generic cell, perhaps with a stranger one would never choose to live with, and subjected to a schedule and routine in which one has no or little say. For the most part, one is denied the furnishings, clothes, spaces, and activities through which one previously expressed and found oneself.


The purported reasons for imprisonment are manifold: security, punishment, rehabilitation, and an opportunity to turn inwards, to reflect on who one has been, and to transform oneself. But these reasons are contradictory, for what makes prison a punishment is equally what works to undermine self-transformation: exile, or stripping one of all that allows one to feel at home and to find oneself is equally taking away that refuge in which we forge the strength, resolve and resources to move out into the beyond and to learn to be ourselves in new ways. 



It makes sense, then, that people who are incarcerated will seek to establish a sense of home within prison – both for the sake of gathering themselves, and for the sake of transforming themselves. As Rachel Fayter says, “I made my living unit and cell into a home, and even referred to it that way at times. And it wasn’t because I felt particularly comfortable or safe. It was just kind of a human need to have a space to call home.” Natasha Warren spoke of putting up her own artwork in order to make her cell feel more homey, and Amanda Hill found it important to keep changing the pictures on her wall: “I needed to make it reflect my continuing growth,… And then, when it started feeling old again, I would do something different to stay on top of my freedom.” In these ways, people found they could eke out a little space in prison that was their place, a place of holding, refuge, support.  Indeed, for some, prison could even feel in some ways safer, more home-like than the violent situations from which they came. As Tiina Aila Eldridge notes, “when I went to prison, that was the first time where I wasn’t actually at a threat of physical violence. So, it kind of seemed like a safe place…, and it wasn’t a safe place, of course, but it was just free from the threat that was always there for all of my life.”


Ultimately, however, prison unhomes in more ways than simply by exiling a person. As Laura McMahon has argued in her essay “Home Invasions” (2014), precisely because we make our homes in external things – in spaces, with pictures, through the ways we set things up – our homes and the selves that they hold and shelter are vulnerable to violations. And prison practices make use of precisely these violations. As Nathan relates, “no matter how much of a home you try to make your cell, or whatever space you’re in at any given time, you know the correctional officers can come in and walk in there with their boots on your bed, root through your pictures, rip them off the wall, tear them “by accident”, throw stuff on the floor, put stuff in your sink or toilet “by accident”, rummage through your food with their gloves,… not even your own body belongs to you.” What might look like mere destruction of property is in fact the denial of any space for the self in this environment. It is an unhoming. As Nathan says, “if something occurs within that home that’s a violation to your sanity, to your integrity, to your values, to who you are as a person, I mean: is that a home?”  The very place that establishes a sanctuary for the self is simultaneously, because it holds and sustains the self, a place of great vulnerability. This is the truth of all homes; but prisons tend to prey on that vulnerability.


The resilience of many incarcerated people is such that, in the face of this vulnerability, they find still new ways to make a home. As Zak Amara says, “human beings have the remarkable ability to create a home wherever they may be”, and if the spaces one makes over into a home are regularly violated, then people turn inwards, to establish a sense of home in what cannot be taken from them – in their mental space.  As Lorraine Pinnock notes, “I’ve never pinned down one place and said ‘this is my home’… because tomorrow there may be a hurricane, you know, and your space is gone… so if you were to go into that space that they put me in, you would never see any personal effects whatsoever, because my home has always been something mental.” Natasha agrees: “home is myself wherever I am” and Amanda describes her version of this: “As a spiritual person, I knew how to stay grounded: in whatever situation, I found the balance in it that would work for me, and that kept me in a sense of safety and belonging like I was okay and at peace… I was home within my own self.” Like many others, Amanda discovered that “reading books and learning was the world of freedom that I had control over, and nobody could take that from me.” Randall Bagley Jr. concurs: “my way of staying sane for my 24 years of incarceration was that I carved out a niche in my own mind that made me feel comfortable; … for me reading and learning allow me to build that space, to travel within the confines of my prison cell.”


Have we then arrived at the conclusion that, contra phenomenology’s notion of the self as being-in-the-world, the self’s real sanctuary and home is inwardness and the mental space that no one else can put their boots on?  Certainly, the experiences of incarcerated individuals highlight the power and importance of the self’s ability to withdraw inward, but if the philosopher of embodiment, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, is right, this inner solitude is not separable from an embodied, vulnerable self that exists in and through the things of the shared world. This becomes evident, within the experience of incarceration, in individuals’ concerns with “institutionalization”.  The problem is this:  though one might withdraw into a home within one’s own mind, one still needs to navigate the material space of prison.  One must decide whether one acts in accordance with what the prison wants, so as to be as comfortable as possible, or whether one resists. And if one acts so as to create comfort and ease, then, in John Woodland’s words, one is becoming “institutionalized: one has bought into what the department of corrections wants inmates to do, one is trying to make a home. But this place is insanity. This is no place to become comfortable with.”  In other words, though one may withdraw into one’s mental world, one also needs to live in the material world. And how one lives there has an impact upon who and how one is, upon one’s self.


Though one might withdraw into a home within one’s own mind, one still needs to navigate the material space of prison.

Earlier we saw that home is both a place of security and vulnerability.  Now we see a second ambiguity: home is both what can open you to new becomings and what can close you off from such becoming. John’s concern with institutionalization is that, in adjusting to the demands of the prison, and coming to be at home in them, one develops a way of being oneself that fits within prison but will make establishing a new home beyond prison much more difficult. Kirsten Jacobson makes a similar point about home, using the example of travel:


The habits of our lived bodies, our ‘home bodies’… are so deep that we typically find our home – our way of being in the world – anywhere we go, and often thickly or even overwhelmingly so…. Even if we have sought out what we take to be a truly foreign place… we will commonly import our routine ways of looking and our habits of choice into our destination, and as such we remain rooted in our [past] home.


Though withdrawal into the spaces of our own ideas, imaginings, and spirituality grants us a certain invulnerability and freedom, then, we remain embodied beings who must put ourselves out into the world, and how we settle into that world may leave us more or less open to that which will solicit transformations, changes, becoming. The homes that we establish in and through our daily practices can, in other words, become prisons themselves. 

           

This is the difficult situation that those in prison face:  how does one establish, within prison, a sense of home which can be a sanctuary of the self, without submitting one to constant violation, and without establishing a way of being that closes one off from new becomings and productive transformations?

           

For many, the answer to navigating these difficulties has turned out to be community: “it’s really for me the people that help me feel at home” (Rachel). Of course, other people can also make one feel substantially not at home. Randall noted that, upon being released from prison, he found himself “home” amongst family and friends who “expected me to be the man I was 24 years ago… so home is not a home for me”.  But if one finds others who can recognize who one is, who can hold open a space for one to be oneself and to become who one is becoming, who can even remind one what one cares about and help one recollect oneself… this is perhaps the most powerful sense of home. Randall found this sense of home in a community of learners within prison: “everybody was trying to get an education. Everybody was there for a common purpose. It enabled me to see a vision of something better. So, I was able to feel that sense of home in that sense of togetherness, and it was all created by a sense of purpose.”  Rachel found that home on the outside required finding others who had lived through (or worked hard to understand) the experience of incarceration, because only they could really hold open a space that reflected who she had been and was becoming.  And many of our interlocutors spoke of the importance they saw in making space for others: “one of the most important things for me when I was released was creating a space, creating a home, so that individuals with lived experiences such as mine could come into my space and feel security in that room, love, and an environment that smelled of pleasant food and positive energy” (Earl Young).


This sanctuary with others is a home that, though it has its own kinds of vulnerabilities, is not something that correctional officers can put their boots on, or “accidentally” throw in the toilet. And a sanctuary with others is also a place where, if we are truly making space for the others to be who they are becoming, we will always also find ourselves opening out to – and being challenged by – what exceeds us, rather than finding this home a new prison. 

  

Home?

Tiina Aila Eldridge (Registered Social Worker, Walls to Bridges Collective)


It’s been ten and a half years since I was released from prison. I still live in the same tiny bachelor apartment I’ve been in since I was released from the halfway house. There is nothing on my walls and I have made no effort to decorate, yet this is my home and the place I’ve lived the longest. When I was first incarcerated, I was withdrawing from heroin, violently ill with no medical support, in disbelief of what was happening to me and in a delusional/fugue state. One very intense memory I have is lying on my cot in a segregation cell and on the ceiling, someone had drawn a doorway with a small door on the bottom labeled “doggie door.” Having just had my dog pried out of my arms during arrest, I stared up at the door and kept telling myself that I would be okay because one day I would have an apartment and a dog again.


I think of that so much still as I look around this tiny bachelor apartment and I am so grateful for this space. I got my dog too. Sadly, he passed away recently, almost ten years to the day after I moved in here. I have a new dog now, she is the sweetest puppy ever; it is definitely not a home to me if I am not sharing it with a dog. I think I may be ready to move and make a home. I have rent saved and have been looking at furniture and dishes and decorations. Almost everything I have here was donated to me when I first moved by kind, caring people.

 


Why has it taken me so long? I think I have been confounded by what a home is and what a home means by my experiences. Before going to prison, I experienced a period of homelessness. Prior to living here, prison was the longest place I’d lived – even though I was moved around so much while inside. We have no choice but to internalize not getting attached to spaces and people because at any moment you will hear the words, “Eldridge pack your shit.”


Now, more than ever, people are being returned to the community and the reality is, they may likely never have a home.

It’s further confused and convoluted because now, more than ever, people are being returned to the community and the reality is, they may likely never have a home. They can be put in a shelter, which is extremely similar to prison and be considered “housed.” But isn’t genuine homelike housing a basic human right? I have worked in shelters and with unhoused people for many years and I often feel guilty for wanting a bigger space, for having a soft fluffy duvet to snuggle in every night and for having an expensive parka to keep me warm. I don’t know if I will ever know what home means or if I feel I deserve one.

 

The Paradoxes and Double-Binds of “Re-entry”

Drew Leder (Loyola University Maryland)

 

Over the years I have been a volunteer teacher of philosophy usually in maximum security settings. Most of my students were serving life or very long-term sentences, sometimes for crimes committed in their youth. In the American culture of punitive mass incarceration, for close to thirty years I had seen precious few of these students released. This, however, has started to change with the sheer passage of time, reconsideration of certain cases, and Maryland’s Juvenile Restoration Act seeking to reduce life-sentences for juvenile crimes.


For the first time, I actually found myself interacting with ex-students on the outside. This made me consider more deeply what society calls “re-entry.” Could philosophy, which seemed to be of great value to my prison students, also speak to those undergoing the rough transitions that follow release? And what did I and others have to learn from these individuals, often highly reflective, about the phenomenology of the re-entry experience, and their strategies for survival? I will focus on key points of our classroom conversation, going back and forth between my voice and that of classmates.


First, certain individuals did experience support in their attempts to negotiate their difficult transitions. This makes sense: The wider society presumably has a vested interest in ex-prisoners becoming law-abiding tax-paying citizens. Randall Bagley, Jr. spoke of the intellectual and social resources provided by a Georgetown University degree-granting program he began while in prison and was able to continue with after release. Keven Simmons, living in the Toronto area, noted that during his job search no less than 29 of 30 people interacted with him positively, and even that last one ended up providing crucial assistance.

           

However, such accounts were more the exceptions than the general rule. Many spoke of encountering significant obstructions in their search for personal and social success. Natasha Warren describes her interaction with her parole officer thus:


I told her what my dreams were, and like that I wanted to work with this homeless population (and) with female offenders that get out of prison, and she told me that that’s a pipedream. I’m never going to accomplish it. I’m never going to do anything with my life…and I should just accept it. I just couldn't believe how beat down that she made me tried to make me feel, but it just made me stronger.

           

Zakaria Amara describes meeting with his parole officer supervisor to discuss relaxing Internet restrictions: “At the end, I simply asked for access to a job-finding site and word processing, and even that she wouldn’t agree to. She said that she was surprised that I was even released. And that I got a bank account.”

           

Rachel Fayter describes having “the exact same experience. I had a parole officer say to me, ‘why are you going to grad school? Why don’t you just go work at McDonald’s like a regular Joe? Why you gotta go to school?’ I’m like seriously, you’re discouraging me from getting an education, what the fuck?”



Lorraine Pinnock talks about securing a job at a hospital working with HIV patients (she needed to show employment as a condition of parole):

 

I got the wrath of corrections, and the halfway house, brought down on me, because apparently the job paid way above a minimum wage, and it was paying more than what the parole officer and the people at the halfway house was making. I was told that you know people in my position don’t make those sort of wages, and I must have done something illegal to have gained this employment.

 

These released individuals are subject to what Marilyn Frye speaks of as a double-bind structure characteristic in general of oppressive systems. For example, a woman in a sexist society might be defined as a “prude” if she does not engage in sexual activity or a “slut” if she does. She is, so to speak, damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t, meeting with conflicting expectations and the likelihood of censure. Similarly, these ex-prisoners are told to secure an education and job, often as a condition of parole and indication of their successful re-entry. Yet, at the same time they meet with censure for doing so. This structural double-bind can often be internalized in the form of psychological confusion, self-doubt, and inhibition. Oppressive power works very powerfully, as Foucault explores in Discipline and Punish, when it is internalized in systems of self-limitation.


Oppressive power works very powerfully when it is internalized in systems of self-limitation.

Along with experiencing obstacles to going forward in their lives, there is also the threat of going backward, particularly for those under parole that can always be revoked. As Randall Bagley, Jr. says:

 

You walk around with this constant fear, looking over your shoulder, looking over your back. They know your situation. You all over the news. They can just say, okay, he did this, and they’ll lock you back up – so it’s like a constant fear of going back.

           

While support may not be offered by the larger society, perhaps one might find this through allying with others also going through re-entry. They are in the best position to understand one’s experience, commiserate, provide encouragement, as well as useful tips and information. However, in many cases such contacts are viewed as suspicious or outrightly forbidden. As Rachel Fayter notes, those recently released are not “allowed to associate with other criminalized people.”


These accounts seem to demonstrate a deep social ambivalence – etymologically, to have strong forces pointed in two ways – concerning “re-entry.” On the one hand, these are people who have served their time, often in exemplary fashion, and now deserve freedom. Instead of costing the state, they are given the chance and encouragement to be positive contributors. Yet they still retain the sticky designation of “ex-criminals.” Despite the prefix of negation (“ex” meaning “no more”) the compound word reasserts their “criminal” identity as central and inescapable. A single act in the past continues to define who they were, are, and what they may manifest again – again, that essential criminality. They are thus subjected to what Foucault would term a disciplinary structure operating through perpetual surveillance and a microphysics of control, one that echoes the carceral state.


In addition to the literal halfway house that Lorraine Pinnock mentions, this thus constitutes a kind of metaphorical “halfway house” for all undergoing re-entry. That is, those released are now half free citizens, yet half not. They are encouraged to go forward, but simultaneously obstructed in those efforts. As Kafka writes in The Trial:

 

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper on guard. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country who begs for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot admit the man at the moment…. The man, on reflection, asks if he will be allowed, then, to enter later. “It is possible,” answers the doorkeeper, “but not at this moment.” [Finally] The doorkeeper perceives that the man is at the end of his strength and that his hearing is failing, so he bellows in his ear: “No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

 

This in certain ways characterizes the situation of the released prisoner. They are told there is a door that offers you full admittance to the goods of the wider society. Yet at the same time, that door is guarded, obstructed in multiple ways.  This is surely one factor that helps to account for the high rate of recidivism: one U.S. study showed that 68% of released prisoners were arrested for a new crime within three years. Of course, at that point, the prison door again clangs shut, the doorway to true freedom remaining perpetually out of reach.


Happily, that is not the end of the story for many. Foucault himself acknowledges that no power structure is totalizing: there are always modes of available resistance. As Brent Pickett notes of Foucault’s later work, “Here the idea of resistance is connected to the Nietzschean ideal of aesthetic self-creation. Through practical engagement it is possible to work upon the self, and to create more ‘space’ for self-creation apart from the political world.” Moreover, “these various elements of resistance are compatible with a range of practical political engagements, such as broadly liberal or even anarchist positions.”


The prison experience, while traumatic and coercive, also made the survivors strong and resourceful in a variety of ways that they can use to negotiate the trials they face post-release.

I will now turn to those strategies, personal and political, that individuals spoke of as helping them survive, even thrive, despite the paradoxes and double binds of re-entry. The prison experience, while traumatic and coercive, also made the survivors strong and resourceful in a variety of ways that they can use to negotiate the trials they face post-release. It is as if these are men and women who have graduated from the most challenging of universities; sometimes even being a lifer teaches you how best to face life.  In response to a question as what one might write to someone newly released, Zakaria Amara said:

 

They [those on the outside] have no idea how nearly impossible it was for you to convince all those bureaucrats that they wouldn’t lose their jobs if they released you. You’re a champion in my eyes, and you should celebrate this incredible achievement. Having said that as a friend and as someone who has walked the same path, I must let you know that the battle is only half won. As a former convict, you might as well be walking out of those gates with the sign of the Antichrist stamped on your forehead. Anytime you apply for a job or try to meet someone new it will glow red. Some people can see past it, but unfortunately, most can’t. So you’re going to have to be patient. But more importantly, you’re gonna have to be creative by rewriting the story that society has written about you and turning it into a monumental bestseller.

 

This rewriting, from what I heard in class, involves multiple resistances to defining oneself as an “ex-criminal.” As previously mentioned, the “criminal” part of the word labels you in purely negative terms, equating self with the worst of your actions. The “ex” highlights the fact that you are no longer who you were: a declaration of discontinuity. Hence “ex-criminal” is a negation of a negation, but one that, unlike a mathematical formula, does not really give rise to a positive solution. Instead, class members focused on the fundamentally positive nature of who they were, and continuities in their sense of self which had been forged in the crucible of long-term confinement.

           

John Woodland, Jr. told the story of his employment in a treatment center where he was asked to deal with the clients as if they were incarcerated. He began to feel like a correctional officer himself. Then he started to break the rules. Instead of commanding everyone on the unit outside when it was time for a smoke break, as he was required to, he simply let the non-smokers stay inside. Noting the very limited amount of coffee and sugar allotted was often gone by 3 pm, he started bringing in more. Those in the unit asked him why he did this:

 

I say, man, I’ve been in the same situation you are, and I know how you feel, and my personal philosophy is, I treat everybody like a human being the way I wanted to be treated. But the minute you started to treat me less than a human being then me and you will start to part our ways because I’m not gonna let anybody do that to me.

 

These values, for John Woodland, Jr., are fundamental to his identity. They help determine how he wishes to be treated, and how he treats others, even within dehumanizing systems. His challenge is not to change to fit the world, but to remain allied to his own fundamental values and identity.

           

Moreover, counter to the notion that one’s task is to integrate into a well-functioning society, we see John giving an example of the need to challenge and change aspects of that society. Those experiencing re-entry retain the clarity of the outsider’s perspective, having been spatially and temporally isolated for so long. They notice decay in neighborhoods they grew up in; our strange immersion in smartphones that stop people from seeing and talking with one another; the injustices and micro-aggressions that plague their and others’ lives.


This can bring about a reversal of perspective: rather than seeking to change their criminal selves to fit in to the well-functioning society, class-members emphasized the importance of being change-agents for a society that itself can be callous, unjust, even criminal.  Colie talked about the importance of embodying in yourself the change you want to see in the world. Randall Bagley, Jr. notes you can’t just sit around waiting for a system to change: you have to “take the bull by the horns” or nothing will ever happen.


John Woodland, Jr. tells of one such initiative that speaks both to the question of societal change and the import of community for the one newly coming home. In 2012 when some 200 long-term prisoners were released en masse in Maryland due to a legal ruling, this resulted in a kind of social experiment with reverberating outcomes:  

 

They got jobs. They start working in the community and doing positive things, and it changed the attitude of many people in the criminal justice system. The governor, judges, prosecutors, they start to have a different view of someone with a life sentence, and the rest of us who benefited from their actions when they were released had decided that, hey, we’re gonna continue to do the same thing. They now are looking at guys incarcerated and saying, let’s see about giving this guy a chance…They don’t even call us convicts anymore. They call us returning citizens.

 

John describes organizations that were formed to help people after release, barbecues, special events held just for returning citizens and their friends and families.

           

Thus, in the face of the paradoxes, double-binds, and obstructions that characterize the re-entry process, people do find ways to succeed. These messages are of benefit to many of us who face obstacles, whether it is a chronic illness, loss of a job, forced emigration, etc. I’ll give Rachel Fayter the last word here:

           

There’s going to be a lot of challenges along the way, and people you’ll encounter could tell you that you’re unworthy. Sometimes you might feel like giving up and conforming to the narrative that was ascribed to you, running away or returning to your cage. But you’re also going to meet people that will help you on your journey, understand your struggle, and have walked the same path and overcame the same obstacles. Always remember that you’re worthy and you deserve to be treated with compassion and kindness. You have value and knowledge to share with the world, and never let anyone tell you you’re undeserving. Know what you stand for and where you came from. This won’t be easy. There’ll be many forks in the road. Reach out to people, build a supportive community around you and once you’ve found your footing, do your best to support others who are struggling on this journey. Remember, you’re not alone, and your life matters.

 

Recollections of a Returning Citizen

Zakaria Amara (Consultant for ETA Toronto)

 

I am writing this under emotional duress.

 

Professor Kym Maclaren has invited me to write during a season which bears no fruitful words for me. 

 

She is an angel. 

 

I can’t let her down. 

 

So here I am.

 

                                       Why am I struggling to write this?

 

Prison…

 

A word of Latin origins, migrating to France before making England its home.

 

 Prison…

 

My involuntary home for 17 years.

 

Prison…

 

A place that teaches you how to say goodbye to friends.

 

Perhaps I should start there.

 

Saying goodbye to friends…                    

 

Change of rhythm.

 

Saying goodbye to friends was always bittersweet. 

 

Sweet, because they were free again.

 

And bitter, because I was always the one that remained behind.

 

 “Your turn will come,” a friend once said to me, “the more people you see leave, the closer you are to the end of the line.”

 

Words that served me well, until that fateful day finally arrived. 

 

Professor Maclaren wants me to get into more detail here.

 

How did it feel?

 

Shocking, yet destined to be.

 

Most people don’t understand just how difficult it is to be granted conditional release on a life sentence. The fact that I was – and I realize this is coming from left-field – a convicted terrorist, made this outcome even more…

 

Even more…

 

Forgive me, but articulating the odds of release eludes me, so allow me instead to list everyone who needed to be persuaded:

 

Parole Officers: Yes (Shannon and Robin were angels!) Their Supervisor: Yes Prison Security Department: Yes Psychology Department: Yes Community Residential Facility: Yes

Local Police: Yes Canada’s Anti-Terrorism Task Force (in an unprecedented two-day voluntary

interrogation): Yes Parole Board of Canada: Yes


I suspect that even Richard Dawkins would secretly admit that divine intervention may have been necessary to convince all these risk-averse voices to arrive at the humanly seldom-reached island of unanimous consent.

 

            That’s a wordy sentence.

 

What happens next? The professor is prodding me on.

 

I’m pulling teeth here.

 

Two weeks of discomfort and anxious anticipation.

 

That was the period between the decision to grant me parole and my actual release. I don’t have to explain the anxious anticipation –that you can understand.  The discomfort, however, came from the fact that I was no longer a genuine member of the inmate population. I felt like an imposter, or perhaps I was just grappling with survivor’s guilt. 

 

It’s hard to make eye contact with someone you’re leaving behind… in hell.

 

A moment of silence…

 

Don’t tell anyone, but some of us believed that capital punishment was more humane.

 

Now you know… why this is so hard to write.

 

Then…

 

Then the day arrived when I finally walked past the forbidden gates and felt an indescribable sensation of euphoric magic pulsing through every fiber of my being. 

 

I feel awkward writing this, but there is no smooth way to transition from hell.

 

My sister was waiting for me in her car as I walked out unescorted.

 

A man who was paralyzed from the waist down suddenly begins to walk.  His movements are shaky as he extends his arms outwards, hoping to regain an ancient balance he vaguely remembers but has not felt for 17 years…

 

I felt my brain slowly rewiring itself as it began shedding its barbed wire knots…

 

The arbitrators of summer’s end had declared it over,

 

but it was still here,

 

saving its very best for me.

 

For most of my time inside, there was always an ugly grey mesh obscuring my sight from the heavens.  

 

Not today.

 

I can go on describing this period forever, but I must move on to what inevitably follows every peak experience.

 

Disillusionment.

 

Disillusionment at the Mandela-esque realization that after every mountain climbed in life, there is always another peak to climb.

 

I am tempted to end here, but I can hear Professor Maclaren urging me to say more, to unpack, to explain. 

 

Starting over at the age of thirty-eight, with a criminal record and heavy restrictions on communication, association, and movement was incredibly challenging.  But hardest of all was my deep yearning to reconnect with the community that I once tried to harm.

 

I wanted society to hug me, but winter, here in the north, is cold.

 

The halfway house I lived in was stuffed with granola bars. They were literally everywhere; at the reception desk, in the kitchen, in my drawers, and even under my bed.

 

I remember trying to approach total strangers on the street and offering them granola bars.  Looking back, I realize just how strange my behavior must have come across to these strangers.

 

I wanted society to hug me, but winter, here in the north, is cold.

 

Then came the practical stuff.

 

Getting my lost identification felt like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing. 

 

Finding a job. Who wants to hire someone with a criminal record, let alone a convicted terrorist?

 

            Conclude on an upbeat note.

 

But in life, there are always opportunities waiting just around the corner.

 

Professor Maclaren is asking me to expand on this. 

 

I am tired. 

 

Time to cheat.

 

I’ve been out for 15 months/I have a full-time job/ I have an upcoming book titled, The Boy and his Sandcastle: A Journey of Redemption/I consult for ETAtoronto.ca, an organization that helps youth who have fallen prey to violent extremism.

 

I am exhausted now. 


Goodbye.

 

Stuck in Plato’s Cave? Randall Bagley, Jr. (CEO of Voices for the Voiceless and author of Shoes Blues)


True, Dostoevsky said, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”  But I would say that looking into America’s prisons in order to grasp a sense of anything would be a gigantic waste of time. Better to start with Plato’s allegory of the cave. Men are chained up, facing a wall where they see puppet shadows, but believe this to be reality. Someone makes it out of the cave and sees the true light, but they are not received well when they return to the cave to help others.


When the news station gains access, or the auditors come in to inspect their business, the prison administrators make sure the prison looks habitable for humans. It’s like making a film, like the puppet-shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. However, once the director yells “cut” on the presentation, it is as if the director is also referring to the three hot meals an inmate is supposed to be afforded by law, cleaning supplies, and other simple amenities that should be provided for any human being that lives in a country with an estimated GDP of $20.9 trillion annually.   


Then there are problems with those on the outside. For example, there are professionals sitting around teaching students how to exploit marginalized people. They call it “digital marketing.” This is another meaningful example of Plato’s allegory of the cave. Professors are being paid healthy salaries to teach students how to exploit the very people they claim to want to help. Imagine all the millions of people looking at the shadows on the cave wall, these marketing images, and thinking these financial institutions care about the members of the communities they service. 



When I had the opportunity to converse meaningfully with a beautiful panel of such “people who genuinely care,” the word “accountability” kept dancing through my mind’s eye. I think that if more people accepted their truth, and were willing to share it (like the man who left but then came back in the cave) we could get to a place of solving problems as opposed to reintroducing them into our conversations under different headings. The reason why I intoned “accountability” is that people all over the world have a similar opinion about the state of the marginalized people in America. However, things don’t change, certain conversations can’t even be properly broached, because of influential people being “silenced by The Powers that be.”


 I think only education, prison education included, brings greater truth – gets people out of the cave, bringing truth back into it – and is the key to a more sustainable way of life for marginalized people. Prison education is a valuable investment in a more sustainable future for everybody.


I think only education, prison education included, brings greater truth and is the key to a more sustainable way of life for marginalized people. 

Prison education played the most pivotal role in my being released from the “cave.” Before getting accepted into the Georgetown University BLA (Bachelor of Liberal Arts program) I didn’t know that I was existing in a perpetual state of ignorance. I labeled it “Living Dead, Dumb, and Blind” – once I became comfortable with philosophy.  My ears were once dead to advice and wise counsel; I was dumb to the fact that I was in desperate need of a leader, teacher, and cultivator to help me become aware of the state of being I existed in (the cave); I was blind to the opportunities afforded to those who have taken the time to use the cave (maximum security prison) like the wise men of old, that is, to take account of one’s self and resolve to grow, mature, and accept accountability in an effort to re-write the narrative of a returning citizen. As an “escapee’” from the cave I now must enlighten, encourage, and inspire, as Plato so masterfully did in The Republic.


***

Artist Statement Sara Bennett

For almost twenty years, I was a criminal defence attorney, representing people who had been sentenced to prison, sometimes for life. I was passionate about my work and about my clients—women and men who may have committed terrible acts in the past and were in prison for decades or even the rest of their lives, but who are also thoughtful, compassionate and hard-working. I believe that if judges, prosecutors and legislators could see people behind bars as real individuals, they would rethink the carceral system in general and policies that lock people away forever.



I first began using my camera for advocacy purposes when I was the pro bono attorney for Judith Clark, a woman who had been in prison for thirty-three years and would die there unless I could persuade the governor to grant her clemency. Although I hadn’t picked up a camera in decades, I decided to take portraits of women who had been incarcerated with Judy and have them write about her influence on their lives as a way of humanizing her. People who saw that work were surprised at the seeming “ordinariness” of the women. Their reaction made me realize the power of photography as an advocacy tool and sent me down a now ten-year long path of chronicling women with life sentences, both inside and outside prison. I want to visually show that people with life sentences are regular people who should be treated with compassion and respect. 

 

I have now photographed over 50 women with life sentences. Some have come home from prison; some still remain behind bars. I incorporate the women’s handwritten thoughts and reflections; their words are varied and unique, showing their individuality and humanity.

 

I hope you will ask yourself: What do we do with a redeemed life? 

 

 

From The Philosopher, vol. 112, no. 1 ("Punishment").

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