Guess who’s back!

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

 By Lovell Oates, Contributing Writer 


February 7-8, 2014, during Lino Lakes’ Black History Celebration, was the first time I had seen the community in the institutions, interacting and speaking with prisoners, in about 12 years. I was so inspired by their speeches and performances that I started to reflect on times of the past when we, the community, raised, corrected and protected our own.

artbehindbarsgraphicAt that point is when I decided to take advantage of the opportunity presented to all of the men that day by Tracey Williams-Dillard of the MSR (Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder). It was if we wanted our voices heard on real issues or concerns, she would print it in the MSR.

So I put out an SOS! Challenge to the community to help us stop the Joes (clowns) and Tyrones (fools) from continually returning home and harming the community and help them return as men. (See “I Remember When the Community Supported Us” in the MSR, April 17 and 24, May 1).

On October 1, 2014, the community answered the call like a fireman to a five-alarm fire. They brought out the O.G.’s (Original Goddesses) and Heavy Hitters such as Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds, director of the Community Justice Project.

She needed no introduction, stayed true to form, and came right out and kept it real, talking about mass incarceration being by design, and it was clear after studying the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery, except for those duly convicted of a felony. Duly convicted just happens to be poor Whites and people of color, who are disproportionately represented in correctional facilities.

Next, she spoke about the importance of knowing your history, and from that you can manifest true freedom from mental slavery, because as she stated there are many people out in the world who aren’t free. Then the professor treated us to a spoken word that let young brothers know they can be themselves

Dr. Artika Tyner, who has tirelessly led the issue of justice for prisoners, informed all in attendance that one more battle had been won in the war to try and keep prisoners’ lifelines to their loved ones open and affordable in the fight for phone justice. Dr. Tyner had received a letter that day from the FCC that a cap would be placed on charges for interstate calls for prisoners.

Professor Deborah Appleman, director of the Summer Writing Program at Carleton College, spoke about education and writing being a way for incarcerated people to heal themselves and stated many of us have talents we don’t even realize.

Vina Kay, who was the principal organizer and resources person for the workshop, spoke to us about how Kevin Reese’s letter inspired her and let her know the work she is doing matters. Tish Jones, Guante, and Kevin Reese gave spoken word performances that had everyone in the house on their feet. Justin Terrell told us of his hard work on getting the box banned.

Many issues and concerns were brought to me by prisoners before and during the event that they felt needed to raised, such as health care, food, the system taking 20 percent of incoming money, ISR (intense supervised release), failure to address grievances, miscalculation of SRD (supervised release date), failure to give jail credit, and many other concerns. Most of the prisoners had the exact same issues I personally was suffering with.

All of issue were rooted in the fact that as prisoners we don’t have representation since the Department of Corrections (DOC) abolished the Ombudsman for Prisoners position 13 years ago. Ever since then, DOC’s agenda, policies and rules have been pushed unopposed and without resistance.

Now it becomes obvious to me that the community didn’t just leave us high and dry, but they were kicked out of the institutions by the Ombudsmanless DOC.

It was called a workshop, but it was more like a family reunion than a workshop. It’s like your brother and sister you haven’t seen in a while.

The community understood that we had been doing work and we needed help to move further and get more done. We understood they were willing to help and that our work had just begun. By the end of the workshop everyone was operating in unity, one mind, one heart, one spirit, one soul, and one love.

Now guess who’s back! The Community is back, that’s who!

Lovell Oates is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to To learn more about the organization’s work, visit