Heeding a ‘Call to Action’

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

Our Bridging the Gap workshop on October 1, 2014 was an historic day on many levels. Forty community organizers and advocates came into the Lino Lakes Correctional Facility together. The workshop was a true collaboration of inmates, community leaders, and Lino Lakes staff. The chance to connect over a meal and conversation with our new friends was an experience we all know was precious and fleeting.

But what will result from this amazing day?

Behind the scenes of planning the event itself was a desire by Kevin Reese and his colleagues at Lino Lakes to connect with us in the community. They were not looking for pen pals or help with their particular cases. Instead, they were focused on systems change.

From where they sat inside a Minnesota correctional facility, they could see clearly what needed to change. Their own experiences in their communities, and the paths and missteps that led them to incarceration, taught them that there were some themes to their individual stories that could add up to a collective narrative.

All along the planning process, Kevin was working with fellow inmates to think about solutions. As he and I talked over our too-short phone calls (see solution number three), we saw that what the men had to offer would be an important contribution to our organizing and work for systems change. So they developed a list of ideas.

At Voices for Racial Justice, we develop racial equity agendas. Just recently, on February 18, we released the statewide 2015 Racial Equity Agenda that connects issues from health equity to education to criminal justice with a racial equity thread. Last year, in partnership with 25 community organizations, we developed the OUR MPLS agenda naming racial equity solutions for Minneapolis.

The idea of simply stating a clear vision for what we want is a powerful one and offers a tool for organizing and accountability. The list that Kevin and the others talked about and created together reminded me of the very process we use in creating racial equity agendas with our community partners.

The list identifies both programmatic and systems-wide proposals. But all six of the recommendations are grounded in what the inmates at Lino Lakes see and experience. Kevin named the list a Call to Action, and it contains the following recommendations for change:

1) Long-term offenders proposal

Asking that long-term offender re-entry programming be comparable to life sentence re-entry programs. The long-term offenders proposal recognizes that the experience of long sentences (too common in our criminal justice system) creates multiple barriers to effective re-entry. Programmatic changes would help with a smoother transition to community life.

2) Explanation or investigation of county jail transfer situation and change in practice and policy

Kevin has said that they are seeing men being transferred very suddenly to county jails, with no indication of reasons punitive or otherwise. Nor are these men about to be released. This is devastating, according to Kevin, because the programming is not there, phone calls are much more expensive, and inmates lose their connection to a community they know.

3) Prison phone justice

Lower rates are needed for calls within the state.

4) Mentor program for youth offenders

“Give them the tools they need to go home and never come back here.”

5) Ombudsperson for the corrections system

Someone is needed to whom inmates can go with questions and concerns.

6) Space and time for ongoing Bridge group

This is needed inside Lino Lakes Correctional Facility as well as a continued connection with the community.

This agenda coming from the inmates at Lino Lakes has become an organizing tool for those of us in the community who spent the day there in October. Because of the relationships we gained that day, we feel compelled to help see these proposals through.

We are organizers, researchers, artists, professors, lawyers, and legislators with the skills to move this agenda forward. But the voices of the inmates at Lino Lakes who are speaking with true expertise are what give our work heart, soul and meaning.

Vina Kay is executive director of Voices for Racial Justice, which coordinates the “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to info@voicesforracialjustice.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.