Getting our message to the governor

 

Young man delivers letters from inmates

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

“I have never been in a situation where we got more time with the governor than scheduled.” So said my colleague Dan McGrath of TakeAction Minnesota as our morning meeting with Governor Mark Dayton was wrapping up.

TakeAction’s Justice 4 All organizer Justin Terrell had arranged a photo op with the governor to deliver 100 letters from inmates at Lino Lakes Correctional Facility asking for support of voting rights restoration for Minnesotans who have been released from prison (current Minnesota law calls for disenfranchisement until completion of probation).

This was a meeting long in the making. We had it scheduled for last spring, toward the end of the legislative session. But budget negotiations caused the governor to have to cancel our meeting then. That call came the morning of our scheduled meeting — disappointing for all involved, but especially for two people who have a real stake in this issue.

My friend at Lino Lakes Correctional Facility and the initiator of our BRIDGE partnership and this ongoing column is Kevin Reese. He had organized the writing of letters from his fellow inmates. The stories in those letters speak to the human costs of losing the right to vote and the deep desire to be connected and participating in our community.

And Kevin’s 12-year-old son, also Kevin, was going to be the deliverer of those letters to the governor. So after reminding him to dress up a little and be ready to go, it was disappointing to cancel that spring morning.

But the morning of September 23 was different. Young Kevin was ready to go when I picked him up, dressed sharply, and with a strong message for the governor. We practiced a little as we walked to the governor’s temporary office with a group of fellow organizers and advocates. His father’s letter was at the top of the pile, and he was ready to ask the governor to read these letters and come visit his dad and the other men at Lino Lakes.

Kevin and I stood close together as the governor walked in and shook our hands. Then it was Kevin’s turn. He delivered his message as planned, and the governor seemed to listen to Kevin’s quiet voice. But then the governor kept listening, asking me and Kevin about his dad.

I told him about the 11 years of incarceration and the three more to go. I asked him to be part of the next BRIDGE workshop that we are planning now. “It would be good for them to hear from you that you support voting rights restoration,” I told him.

Finally, I asked the governor for a note excusing young Kevin from missing school that morning. He jumped at the chance to write a note to the Olson Middle School principal and took that time to really connect with Kevin.

It was then that I saw two people who could not be more different open up to each other. As he was writing the note, Governor Dayton told Kevin about his own struggles.

“I have struggled with depression and alcoholism my whole life, Kevin. But I have worked hard and it has gotten better. You would think that because I grew up wealthy, everything would be easy,” he said. “But I struggled with an alcoholic mother, and it was really hard. Kevin, I imagine it’s hard for you to have your dad in prison, but it will get better. Be strong.”

I could see that young Kevin was really listening to the governor. The nervousness that he felt earlier seemed to melt away. Now his eyes were large with compassion and connection.

Governor Dayton took another piece of stationary and started writing a second note, this time for young Kevin himself. As he did that, he turned to me and asked what our connection was. I explained my friendship with the older Kevin Reese and our work to develop solutions to the prison system focused on re-entry.

“My friend wants more than anything,” I said, “to get out of prison in a few years and get a job and raise his son.” I mentioned that certain opportunities were limited, like accessing computers and learning how to use them effectively. “That is the kind of policy change,” I said, “that is within the power of your office and the Department of Corrections. These small changes can make a big difference in the lives of inmates in prison and once released, and for children like Kevin here.”

The governor turned to his aide and asked her to learn more about DOC policies on computer access. In my mind I thought of Kevin, of our friendship and wishing him there next to me. It was his voice I was trying to convey. It was his voice reaching our governor.

When, more than 30 minutes later, it was time to go, I nudged Kevin to shake the governor’s hand and thank him. He did, without hesitation. But the governor was not yet finished with Kevin.

“Kevin,” he said, “I’m going to teach you something important now. When you shake someone’s hand, I want you to look that person in the eyes and match their grip. Okay, let’s practice. Look me in the eyes. That’s right. Now match my grip. A little firmer. There you go. I want you to remember that, okay?”

Young Kevin Reese was able to gain our group more time with the governor, more time to convey our message about the necessity of voting rights restoration and other solutions to our incarceration system. But most of all, Kevin was the message to the governor.

Kevin’s very presence clearly made real in the governor’s heart what I am sure was already in his head: that our system of incarceration is broken. The urgency to repair it was standing right in front of him, ready to shake hands.

 

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