To build a statewide problem-solving process on the issue of mass incarceration and the impact of the prison system on communities of color
What has been most instrumental to your progress?:
Voices for Racial Justice advances racial, cultural, social and economic justice in Minnesota. We received funding to elevate the voice and power of people who are currently or formerly incarcerated and their families to develop solutions to the problem of mass incarceration, particularly among men of color. One area where we made significant progress this year was in developing a shared understanding about the health equity issues facing incarcerated people. We gathered stories from incarcerated people (many written in their own words) and interviewed family members about health concerns faced by incarcerated people. This research informed a health equity report that will be submitted to the Minnesota Department of Health and inform future advocacy with the Minnesota Department of Corrections. We describe health in a very broad context in the support, ranging from health care access to mental health issues to the environment in prison to the realities formerly incarcerated people face upon reentry into the community. All of these issues affect incarcerated people in prison and well into their life after serving time.
We are currently conducting listening sessions with family members of incarcerated people. These conversations have taught us a lot about how incarceration affects families. We’ve learned about limitations in visitation policies, a lack of support for families who have grievances with the system, and their fears over the living conditions in prison. Further, we’ve started a visioning process that is exploring what it would really take to end mass incarceration in Minnesota—beginning from the school to prison pipeline. Key policy change recommendations are emerging in these conversations, and we are exploring the idea of developing an agenda of recommendations that could both improve daily life for incarcerated people and reduce the number of people who end up in prison in the first place. Some policy proposals we’re exploring now include ending restrictive visitation policies, ending the practice of solitary confinement, and reinstating the Office of the Ombudsman for Corrections to support families that have concerns.
We conducted an innovative voter registration campaign led by incarcerated men. VRJ staff provided voter registration training to incarcerated men by phone, who in turn trained and organized their incarcerated colleagues. Incarcerated people called friends and family in their personal networks urging them to vote in the 2016 elections. Their message was, “We need your voice because we don’t have one.” The men made 1,202 contacts and received pledges from more than 400 people to vote. This was a unique and exciting model both because it was led by the people most affected—incarcerated people who are currently disenfranchised—and because it reached their social networks consisting primarily of people who were unlikely voters in the 2016 election. We received very encouraging feedback from the men who led this project that for the “first time in a long time, our voices mattered.” We hope to build on this progress. This may or may not include future voter registration campaigns, but will definitely involve engaging the skills and potential of our incarcerated colleagues in future organizing efforts around issues that matter to them.
Key lessons learned:
In the voter registration work, we learned another lesson about trust. We found that friends and family members of incarcerated people held so much distrust of our institutions that they sometimes did not want to register to vote or provide personal information that could be used to identify them. This realization brings up many questions about how to build power with this community and to engage them in challenging the institutions that could change outcomes in communities of color. We are thinking creatively about how to protect people’s identities and be sensitive to their concerns. We also think it is important to incorporate training about power and teach people to claim their own power so they can play a role in changing the institutions they have feared. We need to balance these two needs as we pursue future work in affected communities.
Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving:
Our project incorporates all three elements of the community innovation process. We designed the project to be inclusive of people who have intentionally been excluded in our society. We have recognized that too often, as government and advocates design solutions to address prison systems and end mass incarceration, the voices of incarcerated people have not been included. Incarcerated people also make this a resourceful project. We believe that Minnesota’s prisons are filled with people who hold knowledge, talent and potential. We’ve worked with incarcerated people as organizers, advocates, writers and thought leaders. Many have been told they don’t matter and believed that until they began working with VRJ. We have had to adapt our efforts to stay in communication and work together, even when separated by prison walls. The project is collaborative in its design to hear the ideas and concerns of currently and formerly incarcerated people and their families, and to develop together the solutions to mass incarceration. The network that emerges from this process will have a powerful voice in our collective work to end mass incarceration.
Other key elements of Community Innovation:
Training and leadership development are a core component of our process. When affected people have organizing skills, knowledge, and voice, real and transformative change will result. Our incarcerated colleagues have shown great leadership and dedication, attending weekly phone trainings conducted by VRJ staff, organizing with others in prison and with family members in the community, reading materials, and sharing their voices through writing, art, and audio recordings. Through our expanding network, we have learned of issues the public does not see. For example, when our organizers were placed in solitary confinement despite having followed all the DOC rules regarding their training and organizing work, we developed a deeper understanding of the impact of solitary confinement and its subjective use. When incarcerated partners and their families wrote letters sharing their experiences with the health system inside prison, we shared those narratives with decision makers at the state level. Our partners face tremendous challenges both in prison and in the community, and yet they remain committed to organizing because they have seen that it is powerful and life-changing.
Understanding the problem:
Our purpose remains unchanged, but the steps we will take to get there are being informed by this process. We have more clarity about serious issues that need to be addressed in the short term to improve living conditions for incarcerated people. We also have more clarity about how few people and institutions really understand these conditions. We’re working with the Minnesota Department of Health, for example, to raise health equity issues in the prisons. Staff have been shocked to read the testimonies from inmates about the conditions in the prisons and the barriers to health and dental care. As we organize for policy changes, we recognize how important developing a narrative campaign is in changing the perception of people in prison from criminals to human beings. Without that change in perception, the public and political will to address mass incarceration will be limited. We have also seen that it is important to address conditions inside prison, while working to end mass incarceration. Both are important because most incarcerated people will return to our communities. We need them to be healthy, whole people when they do so, and not be further damaged by their time in prison.