The Convict Activist / The Convict Vote by Corey John Richardson
I'm angry. No, I'm furious — and it's been stewing, brewing, and percolating for years. It's not because of deeper cuts in our already sub-par education, health care, and other social services due in large part to the continuous expansion of the
U.S. prison system. Not because more and more evidence of rampant prosecutorial abuse surfaces all the time. Not because of the disproportionate application of the death penalty against minorities. Not because of the clear and unequivocal fact that we have two systems of "justice" in this country: one for the rich and one for the poor. Not because the majority of those funneled into our prisons are overwhelmingly from impoverished communities and that they in large portions serve decades for predominantly non—violent/non—sex crimes. Not because private industries which profit from incarceration affect sentencing laws due to their political contributions to lawmakers. Not even because prisoners who survive decades of incarceration and its violence, humiliation, systemic institutional abuses, poor nutrition, counter—productive rehabilitation, isolation, dissolution of the family, lack of medical attention, and increased risk of disease — all sanctioned as "justice" — and then are released onto the streets unhealthy, traumatized, under- educated, and marked with the stigma of Convict... allegedly as "free" men and women. No — I'm mad at us. We, the prisoners, who get out and do absolutely nothing to change the egregious laws which have allowed for the prisonization of America, nor do anything to improve the dehumanizing system of "corrections" that many of us have endured for much of our adult lives.
When I entered prison I quickly realized what people meant when they said to me "Stay out of the way." The way most of us prefer to do time is trouble—free with the guards and administration far away from our cells. So, when asked, I always say "Lay down," and I mean stay away from the prison drama and do something positive with the time that you have to serve.
In this way, I found that I actually have more to accomplish in prison than I ever had as a free man, and I couldn't achieve the goals that I set for myself from segregation. I stay out of their faces and I hope that they stay out of mine. I have had to pick my battles carefully with this policy. I know that
I will aggravate the warden or the commissioner when they see their names at the top of a lawsuit, therefore I make certain that what I am fighting for is 1) justified, and 2) can makes a real difference to those of us serving time.
Of course, not everyone sees it this way. They feel that they have to take advantage of the weak or perpetually scam those around them. As I see it, this is not the way to turn
9r}$oma$5 your life around. And I'm disappointed with thoseﬁwhom limit themselves to chow, cable TV, basketball, and walking the loop sharing the same old war stories for years whéée in prison when they could be taking back their lives. It's hard not to impart this without sounding fake or preachy. I try to just do my best through my own life as an example.
Quite separately, I've grown to resent immensely those prisoners whom ingratiate themselves to the prison administration and staff by means of supporting gfvinal system, whether it's snitching, voting against a grievance with merit while serving on a committee, obstructing in any way a prisoner's lawsuit or demand for policy change, or Simply being a nYeS_man" to the guards. But these "rats" mean very little in the scheme of things. Those that make me truly furious are those of us who make it home.
"What? Well, you piece of ..." I hear what you are thinking"
\/90*’ ‘ already. I ''i the big picture like this: I'm always happy to see my friends, and even those that I don't like, go home. I have photographs on my locker door of many of my friends that made it out there. The caption emblazoned above them reads "Free at Last!!!" It's sheer insanity how we've acquiesced to having entire communities of people locked—up and my greatest desire is to see that all of the prisons are emptied out, thus putting the guards, caseworkers, and wardens in the unemployment lines.
(God knows that they are unfit for any real job.) But the sad truth is the fact that kuQ' get out there and do nothing to change the system, Most just keep coming back to this place which they have hated for years; they were hardly out long enoughi get acquainted with their own kids. When one of us fails, we all fail.
I believe we are called to do something more. Much more.
I believe that we are called to be CONVICT ACTIVISTS. Before we step out into the light of freedom, we need to make a list of our experiences prior to our arrest, followed by what we went through during arrest and prosecution, and then work over our years in prison. On your list you would probably find some of the following: a crumbling education system, lack of effective and free drug rehab, police corruption and racial profiling, criminalization of addiction, unnecessary physical violence against prisoners by guards, an arbitrary parole system, malicious parole officers, scarcity of diversion programs, the death penalty’ ‘ the list 9068 on and on. And yet, when we leave prison behind we seem to focus solely on getting back to our loved ones and finding a little creature comfort. After only a few weeks, it is as if we were never even in prison and that we've gone back in time to a life that looks exactly like the” one that brought us to prison in the first place. When we do end up back on the prison yard, it is as if we are experiencing that same bad dream all over“ "Damn, how did I end up back here again?"
When I help a buddy carry his property up front, I always hope that I never see him again on this side of the fence. I always want to believe that he has left this craziness behind.
Unfortunately, it takes only a short time in prison to witness the revolving door phenomenon of prison. I'll admit it. It disheartens me. The same old faces return. The back—slapping, all of the catching up and the "gotta get my TV money ig." Back on the basketball court almost as if the returnee only sat out one or two games. Then invariably comes the same old complaints: the disgusting slop they call food; the abusive guards; the ungodly cost of collect calls; how unjust the the entire U.S. criminal justice system is; the missing the kids; and on and on.
Now, nearly every state in the union returns one's voting rights upon discharge of parole/probation or serve—out. Only a handful require some filing process and approval. With literally millions of us with felony records, it is undeniable that our vote could change this country for the better. We could easily affect the outcome of local, state, and national elections. With this power, politicians would have to listen oar tomdemands, which don't just include equity in the courts and proportionality in sentencing, but include reform in prisons and sufficient programs in our under—served communities.
It came to me as I watched this last election cycle where I heard much explication about the Women's Vote, the Black Vote, the Gay Vote, the Pro—life Vote, the Hispanic Vote, the White
Male Vote, the Blue—Collar Vote, the ... and I thought, "Where's the GONVICT VOTE§??" Our sheer numbers would seem to necessitate some consideration. Aren't we a formidable political force?
No. It is not that we cannot vote, but it is that we do not vote. If as one body we chc se to vote to address our beliefs which come from our valuable life experiences, then we could affect change in this country to correct some of the most dire social ills that have have led millions to prison and left them now victims of the most inhumane, abusive system in America today.
So, there you have“it. Each of us must immediately register to vote as soon as it is legally possible and recruit all whom share our ideals to do the same, be they convict or family and friends. We must check websites like "house.gov” and "senate.gov" to see whom these so—called representatives are. We must find out what their voting records are and what their views are on the issues that matter the most to us, our communities, and our friends still locked—down behind concrete. Are they just a "Tough on Crime” advocate or do they see the necessity of good public education, quality health care for all, diversion programs, free and effective community drug rehab, sentencing with proportionality, etc.? If they are willing to sacrifice so much good and progress to merely lock—up those whom they perceive as "undesirable" in this growing cancer called The
Prison Industrial Complex, then we must fight against them.
Our one vote is not enough either. We are called to an activism which demands that we become involved at every level.
We show up at town hall meetings and local political rallies.
We write to the editors of our local papers about our concerns.
We become fully active with organizations like NDRAN and the
Innocence Project. These and many other organizations have been fighting for us — and now we must fight as well — politically.
We can change our communities, our laws, and this travesty'@f prisonization. We can give our kids and grandkids a land that is truly free.
Is this all "Pie in the Sky" thinking? No, it is not. Just read your history. Ancient history. American history. Just look KY whoﬁis in the White House today. If a determined people led by those with a clearness of purpose can affect earth—shaking changes time and time again in the course of history, then so can we, Convict Activists, as long as our will is fortified and our ideals are honorable. I for one crave change. Real change in our communities, in our courts, and in our prisons. I will leave these concrete walls in a few years and I won't be coming back — but I will never forget either. I am going to my damnedest to work with others to see that this country looks a little brighter without the blight of mass imprisonment. One day, social scientists will look back on what the Tough on Crime mania has done with a "Tsk, tsk, what could they have been thinking?"
Not too differenéjas we look back today with abhorrence on
5 slavery or a woman's inability to vote or own property. Yes, prisonization is the social justice issue of this era.
I am going to become a Convict Activist, and you can also.
In prison, we must at times "lay low" and "stay out of the way" to get a little education or learn or trade when possible, or p. I simply get home in one piece, but when prison is behind us, it is time to use the strength found while incarcerated to lift up your voice. Many believe that because you are now marked with the label Felon you must put on sack cloth and ashes, only to lie in a ditch. They believe this is true for a heinous crime
; y as for a lesser offense. Do not believe the lie. It is never too late to make a positive difference. You do not have to stay out of the way ever again upon your release. Through your activism and your vote, you can now make a way.
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