A biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.
The sky was dark and rain was starting to fall, but the energy was high at Voices for Racial Justice last Wednesday evening as we welcomed our growing BRIDGE Network to our space for a casual gathering. In fact, as the rain grew heavy, we were glad to be together with food, music, and such good company.
The BRIDGE Network is a group of community members who have direct experience with the criminal justice system — formerly incarcerated people and family members of those currently and formerly incarcerated. This is a community that knows too well how mass incarceration has affected their lives personally and changed the fabric of our communities.
What was missing, of course, were our incarcerated family and friends. Our longtime partner Kevin Reese called from the Faribault Correctional Facility with warm greetings for everyone in the room. But there was sadness that he wasn’t there alongside his sisters and son, enjoying the food and taking in the spoken word shared by Keno Evol.
It is especially hard not having Kevin among us, knowing that he sparked our BRIDGE work to bring the voices of incarcerated people into our communities and to be part of developing solutions to the impact incarceration is having on all of us. We have been working together for several years to build a stronger bridge from prison to the community.
What are we building so far?
- Understanding how incarceration affects health. We have been very focused over the last year on developing a community report on the impact of incarceration on health. We are hearing about how incarcerated people struggle to access humane and respectful health care. We are learning about the stress and worry family members experience trying to support a loved one in prison. The community-based research report is elevating those experiences and stories.
- Healing justice. Our research is being led by a team of Voices staff and community partners who are both researchers and network builders. We are working to build healing justice practices into our work, recognizing that hearing and sharing these stories can be difficult. What we learn here is informing all of our work at Voices.
- Policy change. Already we are seeing that continuing to push for limitations on the practice of solitary confinement and for the return of an ombudsman for corrections are important policy priorities. In addition, addressing the rules around visiting people in prison, accessing good nutrition, and providing culturally grounded mental health care will all affect health and well-being of those in prison.
- Better reentry. We are hearing from the BRIDGE Network that the bridge from prison to the community should include better reentry opportunities. In addition to job training and housing (both of which are necessary), people are seeking a sense of community and agency, as well as the space to organize for a world without mass incarceration.
As we were sharing our stories with each other, sitting around the ‘living room’ at Voices, a man walked in the door. He had a warm smile and sat down near me, reaching to shake my hand. “It’s good to see you again,” he said. I was trying to think how I knew him. Was he part of an organization we worked with? A family member I had met last year?
Then when we really had a chance to talk, I knew, and he reminded me. We had met more than 18 months ago when he was incarcerated at Lino Lakes Correctional Facility and we were having a BRIDGE event there.
“How long have you been out?” I asked.
“60 days!” he said with a big smile.
I smiled, too. This is the bridge I hope we can continue building, one that leads people out of prison and back to communities that are welcoming and that offer the space for storytelling, healing, joy, and building together.
Vina Kay is executive director at Voices for Racial Justice which convenes the BRIDGE Network. Reader responses are welcome to email@example.com. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.