A monthly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.
Just days after the U.S. Senate voted on a criminal justice reform bill that that is giving a much-needed push to de-incarcerate this nation’s prisons and jails, I find myself holding out hope on what it means. It is a great policy, but I’m waiting to see how it shows up in practice.
My skepticism is rooted in my experience with the system, where I have seen policies not transfer into practice far too many times. Let’s examine the Minnesota Department of Corrections’ (DOC) mission statement — a policy that shows up very differently in practice.
The DOC mission statement as written policy is: “Reduce recidivism by promoting offender change through proven strategies during safe and secure incarceration and effective community supervision.”
However, there is a great divide in the way this mission is written versus the impact it truly has on communities. While doing this work, I always wanted to take a broader approach to the gaps in the system, not wanting to focus on my personal experience. But some recent developments have landed me in the gaps of this broken system.
Recently, I was denied work release by the department for doing the community organizing that I do from here. They imposed an infraction for “enterprising.” What they called “enterprising” was me promoting reentry by connecting fellow prisoners to community organizations that valued and respected their experiences and talents.
This means that I will not be returning to the community in February 2019, as expected. I will still be joining the community, but now no later than October 2019.
By the time this goes to print, I will have roughly nine months before my release after more than 14 years of incarceration. So, after taking the loss of my work release (a program that the policy says was tailor-made for someone like me), I wanted to lean on the department mission of effective community reentry.
I reached out to a department official requesting a meeting to talk to her about my reentry possibilities. Instead of meeting with me, she sent me a response that is filled with the language of what the fragments of a broken system look and sound like. She starts her response with, “I am assuming…” We all know that assuming something without speaking to someone is the definition of prejudice.
This official prejudged my request for a meeting as an attempt to persuade her to do me some favor, when in actuality I was looking to speak with her about possibilities. In her role, she is in a position to help me shape what my reentry back to the community could look like.
Instead of offering help, she stated: “There is no possible help for you. You had your chance and made a decision that had dire consequences to what your reentry looks like.”
This response is from a person whom I have never met and who knows nothing about me. The decision she refers to is my work connecting prisoners to the community in a way that supported their struggles and valued their talents.
That being the culture we are in, this is my question to the department:” Is this the type of language and practice that promotes effective reentry?” I want to be clear that the department does not owe me any favors, but it does owe the voters and taxpaying citizens of Minnesota.
There should be an expectation of professionalism and common sense practices that are geared toward everyone contributing to a safer Minnesota. This culture makes people bitter, not better.
As I write this, there is a fear of retaliation. I am marginalized, and the marginalized are always vulnerable to tyranny. I again press send on this keyboard and lean on the department’s mission statement to protect me. Part of its mission is that I should have “safe and secure incarceration.”
I have to explain to the community that awaits me why the wait may be a little longer. So yes, I have made decisions. To contribute to a safer Minnesota, I decided to build from right where I was at.
Look at the track record of the work I have been able to do over the years. I completed every positive program the DOC has to offer, facilitated men’s groups, mentored youth, organized workshops, and went 12-plus years without any major infractions.
I’ve organized people to vote and to give away school supplies to children. I have spoken via phone to churches, universities, community gatherings, museums, libraries, schools, healing circles, political rallies, and stop-the-violence walks.
I have contributed to books, won national awards for education programs, and connected as many formerly incarcerated people to the community in a meaningful way as I possibly could, all while being intentional about positioning my work in the community to be synonymous with promoting peace and prosperity.
That is what I have spent these 14 years in prison doing, and that work has shaped and molded my life. According to the DOC mission statement, it should promote my work as a proven strategy. Instead, the work has been demonized.
The DOC mission statement in actual practice is: “Perpetuate recidivism by promoting offender change through ineffective strategies, during overcrowded incarceration, and under systematic oppressive community supervision.”
The department needs to be humble enough to admit that it may have some of the strategies, but it does not have all of them. Also, if an idea is outside of what the department knows, that does not mean the department has to criminalize it or demonize it.
As the new DOC leadership begins to settle in and embark on what their tenure should look like, the first thing that they should do is either rewrite or recommit to the department’s mission statement. A mission statement should not only guide the policies that an institution believes in — it should also guide its practices.
Kevin Reese is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “BRIDGE Partnership.” Kevin and Executive Director Vina Kay had planned to continue a monthly dialogue over the next few months culminating in Kevin’s release in February 2019. Now that plan may have to change.