It was a pleasure to participate in this conversation at the YWCA in High Point, NC on “Mass Incarceration: Effects on Women and Children”, an issue that grows exponentially as we speak. Bodies of color and lower economic status populations are criminalized and commodified, funneled through the prison industry; and it is an industry. Let us be clear. Modern day slavery; a means to keep some in the margins, while others eat, sleep well at night, all the while ambivalent to, and about, the monstrous inhumane workings of what we call a “justice system.” It is a subversive means of managing power.
Meanwhile, family systems are interrupted and broken. Children are the unaccounted for bearers of scars, contributing to future generations of broken societies. I want to know when we will recognize the greater implications for our collective failures? When will we realize we are a collective whole even? When will we understand what we deny another, we deny ourselves? Life is reciprocal that way. When will we wake up to the reality we are all unconsciously and uncaringly creating? When can we agree how insane, let alone unexplainable, it is that the most “powerful, civilized, and progressive” nation, so “great” per se, houses the world’s LARGEST prison population? Can someone please explain this clear contradiction?
I would like to note after having sat on this panel as a representative for what mass incarceration has done to my life, the lives of my children and people I love, it was disappointing to realize there are some folks who still believe people of color are the only ones who struggle or are affected by struggles. While I acknowledge there is no comparison, nor would I attempt to make one, I ask us to wake up and look around, look beyond—to see without our eyes for just a moment. There are folks who are using the same rhetoric that has echoed for years with zero impact on progression. There are folks who are still so focused on the surface level, constructed layers of oppression (race) that they can’t see the people at the top laughing.
Those in power want us divided as a people, the same ones responsible for the construction of race. They perpetuate race ideologies so we will use them against one another; exactly what they would have us focus on to detract us from the real issues of power and privilege–which cuts across race. These are the folks who have little interest in imagining ways to come together to fight against a system of power beating us all down at every turn. Yes our struggles may look different, vary in degree; the shades of our skin may differ, but our voices are the same if anyone stopped long enough to really listen.
There are folks who do not have the faintest clue what it means to be labeled, stigmatized and discriminated against as a felon. These folks do not understand that “felon” becomes your primary social identity marker, transcending race. They have no idea how hard it is to get a job, any job, and how it is much bigger than, “You can work if you want to work.” These folks can not imagine what it feels like to bare your soul to one more potential employer in hopes of landing a legitimate and sustainable position, only to be given that position so the employer can later abuse his position of power, and remind you they did you a “favor”. These particular folks really believe if we just “change our thoughts,” our realities will change, when in fact changing our thoughts does nothing to change the mindset of the world. It is not so simple.
There are folks who are centered on their own agendas who cannot or will not stop and actually listen, to themselves or others. While in many ways delegitimizing my entire experience of being a displaced woman and convicted felon, these folks negate my struggle as potentially being an oppressive traumatizing experience, simply because they see my skin tone and create imagined ideas and impossibilities rooted in their assumptions around my privilege. Let me clear when I say, I realize my white skin affords me all sorts of privilege in our current society. I would never argue this fact. I am a privileged, predominantly white woman, situated in a white man’s world. But there is more. There is always more.
What I am asking is for us to consider the similarities of a felon’s lived experiences with other marginalized groups, color of skin aside for just a moment. It is a completely different conversation. Studies suggest ex-offenders represent one of the most marginalized positions in the United States today due to the negative stigma associated with their respective labels (Reidenbach, 2011). Further, Bontrager, Bales & Chiricos (2005) claim being labeled a felon is likely the most detrimental consequence administered by the justice system next to being “condemned to die” (pg. 590).
The folks who joined this conversation last night with narrowly focused ideologies, the ones who never walked a mile in the shoes of a felon in the U.S.–those are the ones I want to thank the most, for reminding me how far we have yet to come and how much work needs to be done still. Thank you to everyone who participated in last night’s conversation and reminded me– they will not all understand, and they do not have to. Their ill-informed ideologies, rooted in divisive rhetoric, only fuel my fire, motivating me to continue using my voice in a way that highlights the struggles for women all over the world like me, who are often times dismissed, forgotten, or belittled in terms of their lived experience. I am clear now going forward it will take me being painfully explicit to paint the picture clear enough so they may feel the scars we bear.
Whether you are the circus master some call their president, or the person who sits, sees, hears and does nothing, complicit in the damage being done, there’s no difference. We are all responsible, because we all are. It is time we wake up and stand up against the ongoing abuse of power and privilege. We must. Join the conversation about mass incarceration and allow people back their dignity and access to basic human rights. When voices unite, we are powerful. Let us be one. Because we are.
To the person who took time for me, so that I could remain free to use my voice, my position, and my privilege to make powerful waves–Today I honor you for every day that was taken from you, and every day you still struggle as a result…For every one of us who have lived the experience of freedoms lost and opportunities stolen, dignities robbed and life sentences mandated, this is for us. May we stand together and remind them we are here and we won’t be broken. We are valuable. We are loved. And we are free.