“THINK OUTSIDE THE CELL: A NEW DAY, A NEW WAY”
A National Symposium and Call to Action on Issues Affecting the Incarcerated, the Formerly Incarcerated, and Their Families
Written by: Stephanie Stroh
If we don’t give our kids time, the system will. This has been the motto of the Stay Strong Foundation, as well as many others who advocate for targeting youth in an effort to proactively address risk-factors that may lead to incarceration.
The “Think Outside the Cell” conference, presented by the Think Outside the Cell Foundation, promised to offer a meaningful national conversation about the issues of incarceration and challenges of successful community reintegration. With a tremendous line-up of speakers and several moderated conversations the conference certainly delivered upon that promise.
Perhaps one of the most refreshing aspects of this event was the turnout. Attendees from all walks of life took time out of their lives to discuss the impact of prison on our nation, communities, families, and selves. With 2.3 million men and women in prison and another 7 million in jail in the United States, challenges surrounding incarceration affect many of us in one way or another. Due to societal stigma and many other hugely discriminatory policies, many of these men and women lack the support necessary for successful reentry. A few of the speakers from the conference really drove these points home.
Terrie Williams, author of Black Pain and expert on depression in the black community, discussed the reality that mental illness is not widely acknowledged in certain communities and cultures. Upon witnessing or experiencing severe trauma (as so many have), humans need to process their feelings and learn how to express them in safe and productive ways. Ms. Williams explained how a history of trauma, coupled with the experience of growing up in a community where trauma is not openly discussed, is the perfect recipe for a future in the prison system. As she thoughtfully stated, “We must give voice to our pain.”
Throughout the conference, discussions about alternatives to incarceration, recidivism rates, and issues of successful reintegration into the community were tackled. The amount of societal expectations placed on incarcerated individuals never ceases to amaze me. After being in virtual (and often times literal) isolation, with limited social contact, few (if any) sources of support, and minimal sunlight for any number of years, you are expected to walk out the front door of the prison with nothing more than a duffel bag filled with all of your possessions, $40 (that you earned while working in prison), and your prison release ID. With these scant resources you must seamlessly reenter a community that has not put progress on hold while you were locked-up and the list of expectations has only just begun: reporting to a parole officer within 24 hours of release (with no money to get there), finding a job (where no one will hire you because of your conviction, not to mention the economic recession), finding a home (that no one wants to rent to you because of your conviction), accessing medical care (that takes weeks to be put into effect), managing your finances (the 7 cents an hour you made in prison never really added up to much), and if you are in the majority, you will probably have to find substance abuse treatment and mental health services. Seems like we expect more from ex-offenders than we do of anyone else – fascinating, considering they have just experienced life in a system that has a 65% fail rate.
The star of Saturday’s show was, without a doubt, Honorable Cory A. Booker (Mayor of Newark, NJ). Mayor Booker spoke from the heart and from personal experience and challenged us all to think about why people are not surprised when a young black man ends up in jail. He poignantly stated, “Children are never good at listening to their elders, but they are always good at imitating them.” When a child grows up surrounded by violence, drugs, gangs, poverty, and oppression, how can they possibly alter their life trajectory? Returning to the philosophy that the critical time for intervention is during childhood, he added, “It’s easier to build strong boys than it is to heal broken men.”
Fortunately, Jumaane Williams (New York City Council Member representing District 45 in Brooklyn) had some concrete suggestions for how to move forward:
1) Stop sending mixed messages. As a nation, we preach against violence, but we are actively engaged in wars and death penalty practices.
2) Say “hello” to the meanest looking youth on the corner. We expect youth to engage in the community and its resources, but the community won’t take the time to engage them. Make that youth feel like they matter in this world.
3) Put pressure on elected officials to allocate funds for prison programming, alternatives to incarceration, proactive diversion programs, and re-entry services. Go ahead, write to your representatives.
4) Change your way of thinking. Don’t think of individuals who are incarcerated as “the other” – start thinking about them as “the future”.
5) Give prisoners a therapeutic forum to discuss their feelings and experiences with trauma. Ignoring these issues does not make them go away.
6) It is time for action. Continue to analyze the system from an intellectual perspective – just do so while you are advocating for a more just and equal system.
The question now is not HOW do we change the status quo; the question is: do we have the collective will to make changes?
Stephanie Stroh, a member of the Criminal Justice Caucus, is a second year student at the Columbia University School of Social Work. She is studying Advanced Generalist Practice and Programming and focusing on Contemporary Social Issues. Her current field internship is at the Office of the Appellate Defender where she works with individuals re-entering and preparing to re-enter society from the prison system.