They took the time  

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

 

How, after 15 years, members of the community made me feel like a member of my community again.

bridgingthegapRecently, upon being transferred to Minnesota Correctional Facility Lino Lakes, a close friend of mine —Ezekiel Caliguri — introduced me to a group of guys that collectively were members of a movement called BRIDGE. Trust. This is a group of inmates that came together to work as a grassroots organization behind the walls focused on issues that have created a divide between us as inmates and the “free people” in society — what we refer to as the prisoner-community disconnect.

One of the first men I met after arriving here was Kevin Reese, who in 2013 was the driving force in creating the BRIDGE. These two men, like myself, have mutually dealt with all the agony, anguish and trauma that manifests itself in any human being who has served long-term prison bids.

They are an inspiration to me because they have worked persistently through all of the barriers and obstacles presented by the system throughout these years, not letting it drain their energy or determination from becoming better human beings as a whole.

They didn’t condemn us as less than people to them or as the irredeemable human beings that far too many in society feel we are.

On behalf of myself as well as the other members of the BRIDGE, our gratitude goes out to all of them for taking time out of their busy schedules to share the day with us and lend us their ears in efforts to come to a better understanding of our perspective, not based solely on what we are, but who we are as human beings. Thank you! At the second annual BRIDGE Trust Community-Prisoner Workshop, held on January 13, we had the rare opportunity as incarcerated men to socialize with members of the state legislature, including Lt. Governor Tina Smith. We utilized our time with them to develop courses of action and to discuss some of the areas in the criminal justice system where we, as well as many members of our communities, want to see policy changes.

While that interaction was powerful in itself, what really had an astounding impact on me that day was the pleasure of meeting so many members of the community who had a genuine concern for us. It was the first time during my 15-year bid that I had been presented with the opportunity to intermingle and shake hands with so many members of the community — of my community.

What really stood out to me as I lay in my bunk that night reflecting on how the event went was that I then realized for the first time I had spent hours around people not wearing “MNDOC Offender” IDs, and not even once did I ever feel judged or segregated. They made me  feel, for the first time in quite some time, that I was still a member of my community that I had been so disconnected from all these years.

They took the time to hear our stories and made us feel understood. They didn’t condemn us as less than people to them or as the irredeemable human beings that far too many in society feel we are.

So I just wanted to express my appreciation on being able to experience this event. First off, thanks to the other members of the BRIDGE for their faith that the hard work we put in is all worth it, because our voices do matter and no opinions will change if we never express them.

We can’t expect others to put in effort to change the system if those that are in the system, us, aren’t willing to work 10 times as hard. What I really admire is their compassion, and it has rubbed off. We not only work for ourselves; many of the issues we collectively work on will not directly affect us by the time a change is seen, but they are nevertheless changes that we feel need to be in place for the men who will be residing in these cells 10 years from now.

All you guys have had an irreversible impact on me that will stick with me throughout the rest of my life. Thank you for all of your parts in building the BRIDGE, and I look forward to continuing to reinforcing it with you all!

Secondly, during my incarceration there have not been many members of the DOC Administration that were open to letting an event like this take place. So to those that support it and played a role in making it happen, thank you for acting as the support beams in letting the BRIDGE function!

Lastly, and most importantly, to all the members of the community that came in to spend the day with us, your support and partnership are absolutely vital and we can’t express how appreciative we are for every one of you. Thank you for using the BRIDGE because without you all there would be no need for its construction to begin with!

Your relationships — human relationships — are essential to bring about effective change in human beings, and I hope going forward that the DOC has come to that realization as well and continues to allow this BRIDGE to perform these changes in men like it has in a lot of us already. Thank you!

 

Robert Ives is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to info@voicesforracialjustice.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.