A monthly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.
Do you believe in magic?
When I was a kid I did not believe in magic. The notion of showing me something to only make it disappear felt too much like trauma for me to enjoy it as entertainment.
I spent 14½ years in prison re-wishing my belief in magic, hoping that one day I would not wake up next to a toilet behind a steel door. And on July 11, that wish came true.
Over the years I experienced sparks of magic through continuing to reshape and reimagine what the words “human” and “community” mean. The bridge work went beyond what partnership usually means.
Our partnership has been on the front lines of what it truly looks like to tear down walls and build bridges to a better tomorrow.
This week has been magical for me to be back in the city that inspired my poems, with its lushness and diversity that has always made up the tapestry of the city, but also with its segregation of power and resources that make this a necessary place to fight for equity.
The contradiction of the city is my muse. I couldn’t help but reflect on this while I rode in the car with my dear friend and colleague Vina as we drove past the Walker Art Center on our way to get coffee and discuss our new normal.
It was magical, surreal to have Kevin sitting next to me in my car. Leaving the halfway house, we drove past my youngest son’s high school, from which he graduated a year ago. We drove by the Basilica where my older son had his high school graduation ceremony. That son just graduated from college.
So much had happened in the outside world over the years that Kevin and I were building together between prison and the community. I still remember Kevin’s call on a day I was driving my son around getting ready to take him to college.
“Kumar, I have a hundred guys in here praying for you and wishing you well,” Kevin said over the phone line.
And now my dear friend was sitting in that very seat next to me as we made our way to our long-awaited coffee. All those visits to the prison — sitting in a crowded room on hard chairs, leaning toward each other to hear better, but unable to touch — were still fresh in my memory. Now we interacted like normal friends, reaching out to touch an arm, pointing to the street life as we passed by.
During our long-awaited meeting over coffee, we reflected on how there had been so many ways that the system tried to convince us that what we were seeing in the prison system and how it treats the humans who live there was not real. That the people there were somehow separate from the city and it was magic that landed them there.
It was like we were not real humans in the system who made mistakes and deserve to be treated with the same kindness that we all wish for. That we were people who did not deserve their American second chance.
After 15 summers away from the community, I fully expected to struggle with anxiety, feeling misplaced and unwelcome in the world. But by some twist of magic, it has actually been the complete opposite. The city has embraced me with open arms. Everyplace I have been has felt like I was right where I belong.
During our conversation, Vina asked me what I would say to people who might consider me an exception to the prison story. I will say that I am who I am only because there was an army of people who loved on me, supported me, and changed me by calling me things like colleague, writer, artist, leader, friend, and a host of other names connected to the human family.
That’s what allowed me to step into the community and embrace those roles. If I did not have that support, my reentry would look drastically different. Because I did have that support, this reentry has been magical.
In the first 10 days of my friend’s return to the community, I have answered the phone without an automated operator voice telling me I have a call from an inmate at a Minnesota correctional facility or that we have one minute left in our 15-minute call. We talk as long as we want.
We visit with each other over cups of coffee. We correspond by email. Even the act of writing this column is different now. I am getting used to this new normal.
Kevin is out of prison. Our friendship got out of prison, too.
Now we are looking forward. We are imagining a world that does not throw people away and hide them in cages. We are imagining what it would be like for people to be treated with dignity and respect.
So, what we all need to do is rally together and make sure we are bringing whatever goodness we have to the table to support the men and women as they are paying their debt to society. We need to do all that we can to create space for them once they come back to us.
Now that I am home, I am looking forward to being a part of the solution to abolishing mass incarceration and building bridges to criminal justice reform. Thank you so much to the MSR for being such a fearless partner over all these years, and amplifying my voice when it was buried underwater. I’m looking for many more years of partnership.
I want to thank the entire community who has loved on me and supported my work in some extraordinary ways. I am humbled and proud to call such beautiful people family and friends.
All that I am is because we are! We are!
Kevin Reese is director of criminal justice reform at Voices for Racial Justice. Vina Kay is vice president of movement and capacity building at Race Forward. Reader responses are welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about Voices’ work, visit voicesforracialjustice.org.