A monthly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.
A dialogue on personal and community accountability
Vina: I remember the night well. It was December 19, 2014, a Friday night. I had just wrapped up a phone call with my friend and colleague Kevin Reese, who was then in prison at Lino Lakes Correctional Facility. It was a usual phone call for us, reflecting on a recent event we had had at the prison, imagining what we might do next, hearing about how some of the guys I had met on the inside were doing.
After we said goodbye, I was sitting quietly and thinking after a long week. But then my phone rang again, the familiar number from Lino Lakes.
“Hey, Kev, what’s up?” I answered.
“V, I needed to ask you one more thing,” he said. “I want to know why you haven’t ever asked about why I’m here. We’ve been connected for more than a year, and you have never asked me why I’m here, what got me here to prison.”
Kevin: I was startled that she never asked about my crime because prison had etched into my brain that I must approach every encounter with my crime on my sleeve, which years later I realized was sort of like approaching every encounter as three-fifths of a human. The lens of most cognitive programs in prison magnifies personal accountability.
It is a concept that I understand and believe in. As human beings, it is our responsibility to be conscious of how the actions we take not only affect us, but also those around us. Being aware of this responsibility is an inescapable duty that we must all honor.
Vina: I didn’t know what to say and was quiet for a moment. “I just didn’t think it mattered, Kevin. It doesn’t have anything to do with what we are doing together.”
“Well, I respect that, and that is why I respect our work together,” he said. “But now I am going to tell you why I am here.”
He then told me a story of a night when a marijuana deal went the wrong way. And how so many young guys had guns, how he at 18 years old then had one, too. And how someone died, another young man.
“That was 10 years ago tonight, V.”
I told him that I was honored that he chose to tell me this story and that I hoped it helped to share it. It seemed important to Kevin to have a way of marking that night 10 years later that ended the life of one man and changed the lives of others forever.
Kevin: Accountability is not an isolated concept, and it can only truly exist if there is buy-in from multiple parties. If the expectation and consequence of personal accountability for individuals for transgressions against the community is prison, then what should the consequence be for society for the transgressions against poor communities and communities of color?
We must ask ourselves this question: Is our society living up to its grandest ideals? The prolific James Baldwin captured this question in the most simple and eloquent fashion when he said, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.”
Vina: I meant it when I told Kevin that I hadn’t thought about why he was in prison in all that time. The world we were imagining and the bridge we were building between prison and the community was not so much about the narrative of the past, but a vision for the future. Yet, others had asked me about his crime and were surprised when I said I didn’t know.
The public narrative focuses on this question, and it contributes to a story that allows us to be comfortable with the idea of prison. By focusing on the wrongdoing – very real wrongs – we can forget the other truths. We can forget that Kevin and the others he was with that night were also sons and brothers and fathers who loved their families. We can forget that grandmothers and mothers raised them with few resources but full hearts. We can forget our own role in the story.
When I think of accountability, I have to look at our societal accountability to a system that puts people like Kevin away for such a long time. It is a system of forgetting, and all the more so when it is time for community members to return home. We have forgotten how to hold people both in accountability and in love. Yet by holding the love, we have the chance to heal from the trauma not just of particular crimes, but of the fear and pain that paved the way to that crime.
Kevin: I sit in this moment as an incarcerated man in my 13th and final year of a prison sentence. I was sentenced to prison for a very real wrong action, and no words could ever speak to the gravity of the weight that I carry knowing that my actions have affected so many others. That is an inescapable truth.
I come from a marginalized and generationally poor community that has always had to scramble to survive from the crumbs off America’s table. This is an inescapable truth as well. We can’t tell one truth without the other.
The work that we have been fortunate to be a part of over nearly five years of working together has been what accountability should look like in action. So on that evening call on December 19, 2014, when I asked Vina why she never wondered what I was in prison for, her response showed what accountability should look like from the community.
She saw her job as offering the simplest courtesy that one human being can give to another – a chance. Often that is all someone is looking for. And with that chance, our work has manifested into some beautiful relationships that have vibrated unquantifiable goodness back into the community.
Our relationship is just one small bond, hatched by one small principle of giving someone a chance. If that same courtesy were extended to entire communities, imagine what healing and prosperity we could produce.
Personal accountability is not something you say; it is something that you do.
Vina Kay, executive director of Voices for Racial Justice, and Kevin Reese are participants in Voices for Racial Justice’s “BRIDGE Partnership.” Vina and Kevin plan to continue their dialogue monthly over the next year, culminating in Kevin’s release in February 2019.