Prison justice organizers celebrate a victory — with caution

MGN Online

A monthly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.

A dialogue on reinstating Minnesota’s corrections ombudsman

Kevin: Over the years, I have fought from the inside for many different policies and many different initiatives, each one a little different from the last one because the movement is always moving. Most notably, in 2018, Voices for Racial Justice (VRJ) conducted the “Unfit For Human Consumption” health equity report tracking the healthcare services inside of Minnesota’s correctional facilities.

From the findings of the report, along with a host of other issues, one of the recommendations that arose was the need to reinstate the ombudsman’s office to help create transparency inside and outside of the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC). If you are not familiar with the office, my colleague Brett Grant will provide some clarity and historical context.

Brett: An ombudsman for corrections existed in Minnesota from 1972-2003. The ombudsman was appointed by the governor and had the authority to investigate complaints of injustice made against the Corrections Department and other facilities that operated under the Community Corrections Act (Minn. Stat. 401).

[SEE ALSO: ‘Not For Human Consumption’ – What are they feeding the inmates in our prisons?]

This role provided an important way for people incarcerated to have a voice within the prison system. As Minnesota’s first ombudsman for corrections, T. Williams said, “My experience as ombudsman suggest[s] that the ombudsman can be effective and bring about changes in policy and practice without ‘power of injunction.’ The continuous presence of an ombudsman to respond to complaints and/or act on ombudsman initiative[s] can have a deterrent impact on the system.”

Kevin: One of the key points that I have made for years regarding the ombudsman has been that any people who don’t have representation are at risk of exploitation. For too long, the prisoners in the state of Minnesota did not have any recourse to defend their rights.

In this space of disenfranchisement, there have been close to two decades of trauma and distrust between the prisoners and DOC personnel. This distrust is historical and is part of what makes up the culture of corrections, which is a class system that resembles the Dred Scott verdict.

On the inside, certain policies are practiced like, “No prisoner has any rights that the DOC is bound to respect.” It’s 2019, and you can replace the word “prisoner” with the word “Black” and “DOC” with “White,” and here we go — Dred Scott all over again.

Energy is the real stakeholder in the movement. The energy of a community of people who have been leaned on by the system in the name of justice — but who have not had the platform to lean back and protect their human rights for that same justice — has shown up. The spirit of the prison justice organizing that VRJ’s BRIDGE has done from the inside over the last six years has tapped into that energy.

There are some amazing community groups fighting to make a difference, who are tapping into that energy, as well (more about them to come). Unfortunately, this energy has also manifested in some really ugly and, at times, violent ways in the last year or so on the inside of the DOC.

This past spring, Brett and I had the pleasure to organize with the community to help with the fight to reinstate the ombudsman’s office.  

Submitted photos (l-r) Brett G. Grant and Kevin Reese

Brett: Following a hearing in the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division Committee at the legislature, where public testimony was provided in support of reinstating an ombudsman for corrections in Minnesota, Kevin and I identified a group of local community activists, artists, healers, and organizers to support the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in their efforts to reinstate an ombudsman.

Kevin and I organized a group in late March to think about how we wanted to support this legislation moving forward. The most important thing to all of us was that we supported this legislation as a unified body.

It just so happened that a few days before we were to meet with the group, KSTP reached out to Voices to learn more about the work at the legislature for a story they were working on about re-establishing an ombudsman for corrections. Kevin and I shared with KSTP the work we were doing with our group.

As a result of that conversation, KSTP interviewed Kevin and two other members of our community group, including T. Williams and Samuel Smith from NAMI. Those interviews aired on KSTP on Sunday, May 12, a little over a week before the close of the legislative session.

The entire group was pleased to hear the following message from Samuel at the close of the session: “I am very happy to report that the Public Safety Omnibus Bill will include…the ombudsperson for corrections… Thank you to everyone in this group for their hard work.”

Kevin: Now the work has just begun. The passing of this bill is just the first step. We must continue to organize and let our presence be felt. We must make sure that this office is implemented with the depth and width that it needs in order to be effective.

We cannot let this office just be a token position without any real power. So we will celebrate this victory, but we will do so with our eyes on the prize. This is not the end of the road, but a bridge to a better tomorrow.

Kevin Reese is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “BRIDGE Partnership”; Brett G. Grant is director of research and policy for Voices. Reader responses are welcome to info@voicesforracialjustice.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit voicesforracialjustice.org.

About Kevin Reese and Brett G. Grant

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