A pressing need in African American communities is to concretely address and hopefully counter the disconnect between prisoners in the penitentiary system and their loved ones. Accordingly, the grassroots initiative Peace of Hope, a nonprofit organization spearheaded by Sharon Brooks, has stepped in to help bridge that gap — at least insofar as providing transportation for visiting loved ones is concerned.
Peace of Hope’s transportation service solves a basic problem that, simple as the solution may be, can prove quite a difficulty for many people. After all, for family and friends living in the Twin Cities it can be a prohibitive hardship to reach remote locations, between an hour-and-a-half and four hours away, particularly for those who don’t own automobiles and must avail themselves of mass transit.
Brooks took this issue on both to help communities and out of a personal concern. “Peace of Hope is a dream I had 10 years ago,” she says. “It stems from having my own loved one incarcerated — my son — and looking for resources to help. There were organizations [that] were supportive of me as a Black woman in distress, but not particularly as a Black woman in distress over having my loved one incarcerated. That was the motivation for my organization.”
The lack of support, she notes, is in significant part due to a stigma. Despite the common knowledge that institutionalized racism greatly contributes to the disproportionate number of African Americans incarcerated, people shun or look down on them.
“The media, and us amongst ourselves, hype the stigma even more,” says Brooks. “We feel ashamed and embarrassed and guilty. Media and the way we see ourselves, [it’s perceived as] a demeaning thing. When one out of three families that I’ve talked to all are experiencing that, it’s time to let it go. We want to get friends and loved ones connected to [those incarcerated].”
At the outset, Brooks was, in May, compelled to request a fee of prison visitors in order to offset expenses, not the least being gas. However, on receiving sponsorship — including that of her congregation, New Salem Baptist Church, which supplied vans — she was able to forgo a fee for the service. Brooks also credits MAD DADS, NWCT, Yennie’s Delights and KMOJ for supporting Peace of Hope’s mission.
“We went to Stillwater prison. That was our initial voyage. I’ve been doing this a long time out of my car.” She continues to seek out additional sponsors so she can broaden the effort and aid more community members. Donations, it goes without saying, “are greatly appreciated.
“If we have maybe one to two vans, we can make a trip a week or so,” Brooks says. “If we have four to six vans or more, to accommodate the real numbers in our community that are suffering because of lack of transportation, that will help.”
She plans to institute the trips as regular visits. “The goal is to go once a week minimum and take as many people as we can. This will help rebuild the community in some way.” It certainly can strengthen the communal fabric that dysfunction has virtually shredded.
Prisoners languishing in isolation on one side of the situation and people who care about them feeling cut off on the other side need no longer be such a prevailing state. Brooks believes Peace of Hope can accomplish that and more: “If we can help rebuild the community in this one way — strengthen us — it would be an asset… Community involvement with Peace of Hope will certainly reduce recidivism and crime in our community due to support of stronger family structure during and following incarceration. This could positively affect more than 2,000 families in Minneapolis alone.”
Peace of Hope’s next trip is scheduled for June 9, visiting inmates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Registration for the trip will be held June 7, 4-6 pm at the Minneapolis Urban League’s offices at 2100 Plymouth Ave. in North Minneapolis.
There is, it is important to note, a process by which visitors are required to register with the Department of Corrections for the purpose of background screening. Guidelines and regulations for visitation are accessible online at www.doc.state.mn.us/offenders/visiting.htm. As of May 5, visiting hours have changed — updated information is available at www.doc.state.mn.us.
“It’s not up to me whether [visitors] are approved,” Brooks points out. For June 7, she adds of potential visitors, “Hopefully, they’ve already registered [with DOC], because it takes two to four weeks for the process to be completed, to be approved or not approved. For [Peace of Hope registration], it takes that day.
“There is an instructional DVD on what you can and cannot do when visiting the prisons, because we don’t want [visitors] to make the trip for nothing. We want to make this trip as meaningful and productive as possible.”
Sharon Brooks will be further publicizing Peace of Hope with a radio broadcast over KFAI-FM (90.3 in Minneapolis, 106.7 in St. Paul) featuring as a guest renowned community icon Dr. Mahmoud El-Kati. The program is on June 10 from 10-11 am. Listeners will be able to call in and participate in the discussion.
For further information or to make a tax-deductible donation to Peace of Hope, call 612-220-4678, write P.O. Box 29502, Brooklyn Center, MN 55429, or go online to www.peaceofhope.net.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.