Enlightened leadership opens new possibilities

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

DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell \\ Courtesy of DOC


“The system is broken” is a familiar rallying call throughout the social justice movement. Last month, I wrote an article highlighting what the fragments of the broken criminal justice system look like, and I used my personal struggle for my freedom inside of the Department of Corrections (DOC) as the lens through which to view this system.

For clarity’s sake, all of my critique of and challenges to the DOC remain the same, but I would like to follow up my critique with an olive branch of possibilities.


Our conversation about possibility reminds me of an Emily Dickinson poem, “I Dwell in Possibility.” It is a place of windows and doors and a roof as high as the sky in Dickinson’s poem.

Shortly before the holidays and right after the announcement of his appointment, I received a message from the incoming DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell. He was reaching out to the community, seeking to open the door to new partnerships and possibilities.

We found a time to connect by phone, and our conversation focused on shifting culture within the system and finding the mutual interests of all involved — staff and people incarcerated alike — in safe, healthy environments within our prisons. We spoke of ways of opening up broader community engagement and hearing from those directly impacted by our prison system to create new approaches.

Toward the end of our call, I asked the commissioner if he would be open to talking with my colleague Kevin Reese. He, I said, has a perspective that is important for the leader of our state prisons to hear. Soon I was arranging for Kevin to call Commissioner Schnell and have their own conversation.


Just a few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to speak with the new commissioner of the DOC. This conversation was refreshing, very candid, and filled with the language of possibilities.

There is an amazing amount of progress that can be made at the department level to support the work of rehabilitation as a priority. The prison system should function as a place that gives people the chance to recover from their mistakes and go on to live their lives.

There are some really practical policy adjustments that can shift the way the State views prisoners. The State can shift from a model that is rooted in offenders paying their debt to society in a one-way exchange that leaves poor people poorer and broken people more broken.

A new model would see that while one is paying one’s debt, the State is writing a receipt. That receipt would show that this person is no longer a liability to society, but now an asset. This fundamental shift will go a long way toward creating a system that does not just extract from the community.


I was heartened by Commissioner Schnell’s openness and willingness to hear different perspectives. It stood out to me that he agreed when I shared that the current system of incarceration is unsustainable — for our communities impacted by incarceration as well as for those working in that system.

It can be overwhelming to think about how to shift out of a system that has such powerful control over our communities. I see mass incarceration as the intended result of multiple systems of oppression, from our country’s history of slavery to aggressive and discriminatory policing to prosecution and sentencing.

So where to begin?

Listening to each other, and being open to different perspectives, is a good starting point. Following through with commitment to the actions — whether large or small, practice or policy — that bring on real change is a great next step. The possibility of changing deeply entrenched systems comes to life when leaders use their positions of power in collaboration with communities impacted by those systems.


There is a narrative that the people in prison do not believe in public safety or that their families are not taxpaying citizens. That is not true.

I’m 14 years deep into a prison system, and I wish for safe streets and schools for my child just like everyone else. What I don’t believe in is an impractical system that clearly does not work and actually does more harm to the community than good.

Historically, communities of color have had an uneven relationship with the criminal justice system, and currently that relationship is as uneven as ever. But the beautiful thing about history is that it always is being written, so now in this moment and in this movement we all have a chance to work in the light of our highest ideals.

That is everyone: those who are currently stakeholders in the system, those who sleep next to the toilets and are the human capital of the system, and those organizers and professionals who work on the front lines of the system to create paths to justice. This is the moment for possibilities.

All the problems of the system have been well documented, so now it must be time to embark on the journey of creating solutions. It’s now about possibility. History is watching.

Vina Kay, executive director of Voices for Racial Justice, and Kevin Reese are participants in Voices for Racial Justice’s “BRIDGE Partnership.” Vina and Kevin plan to continue their dialogue monthly over the next year, culminating in Kevin’s release in February 2019.

Reader responses are welcome to info@voicesforracialjustice.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.