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Changing Prison From the Inside Out

Millions of men and women in the country are paid slave labor wages and then charged for food and substandard medical care. They eat, sleep and bathe in dirty, overcrowded conditions--nowhere worse than in the South.
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One of the great shocks of going to prison was the realization that, without the internet, I suddenly had so little agency in the outside world. And I was one of the fortunate few with lots of friends and family to send me books and letters, not to mention money to fill my locker with commissary. Many first-timers, coming from backgrounds nowhere as supportive and privileged as mine was, were lucky to get a vote on which TV channel was on in the day room.

When my sister started typing up my letters in a blog, it transformed my experience of incarceration -- suddenly the walls were half as thick, because half of me was out there. But I was acutely aware of how different things were for those around me. A lack of education meant that reading and writing -- my routes to mental freedom -- were often chores for my neighbors. Figuring out how to turn their menial jobs into a hustle (mostly to get enough food to survive -- prison meals being woefully inadequate) occupied a lot of their time but invariably led to run-ins with other inmates and guards. Watching all of this with the detached sociological eye of a writer aware that my nine months were a relative breeze compared to some of their sentences, I vowed not to forget those I left behind after my release.

I wrote and sent money to several of them, some for years. I wrote here about prison conditions, about how I got in trouble in the first place and how I stayed out of it after. But inevitably, the "bigger" my life became out here, the more theirs receded in there. Still, when I got my Master's degree, I thought I would do my bit in interrupting the poverty-to-prison pipeline by focusing my teaching job search to schools in disadvantaged communities. To my surprise, (funny how a once-streetwise person regains his naiveté over time) my record was an insurmountable obstacle. Didn't matter that my crimes were non-violent, or occurred a decade ago. I'd sold drugs. The legally codified assumption was that I was a permanent danger to the very population I was actually best equipped to reach because of my own experience.

But an unexpected thing happened during my subsequent (ongoing) campaign to get these laws altered. I got tweets from someone who's not supposed to be tweeting -- he's in prison in Alabama. Yes, the authorities know he has a contraband cellphone and have even thrown him in solitary. But somehow he still access to a phone. And more extraordinarily--no shit--he manages to host a show on blog talk radio in which other inmates call in from their contraband cellphones to discuss the execrable conditions (videos of which are also posted on You Tube) within southern prisons.

The Free Alabama Movement represents the same insistence on agency for a population in chains that started with The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass and continued through Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Its statement of purpose reads:

Free Alabama Movement knows that non-violence is not only our best strategy, but the only strategy capable of producing our desired goals. Because we can't expect to show that we are ready to return to society if we can't prove that we are capable of resolving our issues and conducting ourselves as men without resorting to violence. The fact of the matter is that we have to use the technology that is available to us, as well as adjust our strategies to the world we live in today, to improve our conditions. This will include using cellphones, video cameras and the internet to aid our Movement. And this Movement isn't about getting "some outside support," or having our family "call the politicians or mayor's office," "call the news station" and on and on and on. The reason for this is simple: we can't form a movement conditioned on "outside" people without first unifying the "inside people."

That said, FAM's success in there is inextricably related to how well its message spreads out here. The system is maintained by corrections officials who need to be shamed into changing it, taxpayers who need to know what their money is supporting, and legislators who need to see the results of their corruption exposed. Progressives in particular have to make criminal justice reform a priority when we vote (Prop 47 in California this Tuesday), and all of us, of whatever political stripe and skin color, need to get conscious of the degree to which we participate in a culture that dehumanizes the incarcerated so utterly that the result is nothing short of slow-motion genocide.

I might never be allowed to get a paid teaching job in California. But maybe, in the grand scheme of things, my efforts were destined to remind me of my promise not to forget those left inside. Millions of men and women in the country are paid slave labor wages and then charged for food and substandard medical care. They eat, sleep and bathe in dirty, overcrowded conditions--nowhere worse than in the South. The result is cruel and unusual punishment on a massive scale. It is not only unconstitutional but counterproductive -- the vast majority inside will get out one day -- even less employable and equipped to avoid bad choices than they were before.

So take a minute to stop watching cats on Roombas and that killer audition on the X-Factor. The internet may just be as revolutionary a tool as we hoped. Click on the links I've placed throughout. Contribute if you can. Watch, listen and spread the word. Change needs to come. It has to.

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