In 2011, two months before my fortieth birthday, my world was obliterated when I became incarcerated and began serving an eight-and-a-half-year prison term. Nothing in my life had prepared me for what I would experience in this alien environment. Prisons, in addition to being wretched, overpopulated warehouses of human suffering, are also environments designed to subjugate and stifle individuality, creativity, and ideas. Prisoners are conditioned to believe that they lack any real potential, and those prisoners who refuse to accept this are discouraged by nearly insurmountable obstacles placed between them and their dreams by prison officials, probation and parole officers, outdated laws that strip them of their civil rights, and a public that is not always ready to accept them back into their communities because they have bought into the rhetoric from proponents of the prison-industrial complex and tough-on-crime initiatives.
First of all, who are prisoners? Maybe you have an image of the most horrible crime stories ever reported; Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, the DC Sniper. Maybe you have a caricature image of someone in a striped jumpsuit with a ball and chain. Or maybe a Hollywood role from Cool Hand Luke or The Shawshank Redemption. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Prisoners are your sons and daughters. They are the kid next door. Your best friend’s husband. They’re college students, mothers, fathers, and business owners. They’re members of your clubs and organizations, childhood friends, and coworkers. They’re the fabric of our society. You see them in the street every day. They say hello and you smile. They hold the door for you and say thank you. They serve you at your favorite restaurant and you tip them and compliment them on the service. Their children go to school with your children. They live in your neighborhood. They are YOU!
There are 2.5 million human beings languishing in US prisons. The vast majority of them will be returning to their communities—your community—as second-class citizens, ineligible for many employment opportunities, unable to vote, without a voice or representation. But let us not ignore why or how prisoners became incarcerated to begin with. Some prisoners are troubled and have led a life of crime, usually the result of a tough upbringing in a poor neighborhood barren of meaningful opportunities to unlock their fullest potential. Others may have made a bad, one-time choice. Then, there is the growing number of the wrongfully incarcerated; sent to prison by overzealous prosecutors, ineffective defense attorneys, corrupt police investigations, faulty eyewitnesses, and a wholly flawed criminal justice system designed not for justice but for expeditiousness and finality—designed to feed the clanking machine that is the prison-industrial complex.
If we are to honestly address the issue of our runaway criminal justice system and its detrimental effect on our society, by denying millions and millions of our citizens a meaningful opportunity to realize their fullest potential, a major paradigm shift is needed. We must, as a society, learn to move from a system of retributive justice to one of restorative justice. When crimes are committed, in order for society to heal, all parties involved must be restored.
Our current system fails us all with its retributive “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach. Change must begin within our hearts and minds by starting to view the former and currently incarcerated persons through a lens that focuses on what their potential is, not a lens that focuses on whatever mistake(s) they may (or may not) have made. Think value assessment vs. risk assessment.
Let’s not forget the rights we all have to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For our democracy—our society—to be healthy, and for all our citizens to realize their fullest potential and for each of us to have the ability to flourish and to maximize our individual happiness, we must put an end to inequality and discrimination—and one major marginalized group that remains woefully underrepresented is made up of prisoners and ex-prisoners.
We must demand that our media outlets cover the stories of prisoners from the prisoners’ perspective. The public needs to know who prisoners really are; their dreams, their aspirations, where they come from, and where they want to go with their lives. There are rich, moving narratives of real women and men who faced great adversity, and in many cases unspeakable horror, yet persevered. There are actually lessons in courage and redemption to be learned from the stories of many who have been incarcerated. Heroic prisoners? Sounds crazy, huh? Not really. I can attest to many, many stories of struggle that would have surely made most of us throw in the towel, but somehow these individuals rose above all that extinguishes hope and went on to achieve their success. Just imagine what other prisoners could accomplish when they return to society equipped with the right tools for success, the proper support from their respective communities, and updated legislation that drives them forward instead of holding them back.
I know firsthand the tremendous potential stored within the women and men of America’s penal institutions. I rise each morning with inmates of the Virginia Department of Corrections. I listen to them every day and I try, as much as I can, to help them by offering whatever assistance I can lend. These are capable people, full of life and ready to get busy creating better versions of themselves. They just need to be presented with the opportunity, someone in their corner cheering them on, and a level playing field with tools for success.
This is where I believe humanism plays a pivotal role in a number of ways. First, humanist organizations and activists should be pushing for major criminal justice and prison reforms through new legislation, while simultaneously motivating individuals and community organizations to provide desperately needed resources, support, and opportunities to prisoners returning to their communities.
But what can humanism do for those still incarcerated and potentially facing years of time to serve? Prison life can have a way of distorting the world, resulting in an uninformed and particularly toxic worldview. Humanism can be just the antidote because the guiding principles of humanism directly address the areas of perspective distorted by incarceration. Humanism also provides for a way that nonreligious prisoners can assemble in a safe space, share stories and experiences, and explore the humanist worldview. In my experience, I’ve found that humanism vastly expands the prisoners’ universe, which could otherwise be limited to just within the radius of the razor wire. I make this claim based on what members of my humanist communities at three different correctional facilities have told me about how humanism has changed their entire outlook on life and, so importantly, how they view themselves and what they now believe is their true potential.
Unlocking prisoners’ potential is an important step in breaking the vicious cycles of recidivism and reincarceration that discourage individuals and, in some cases, entire communities. Marginalized folks, who spend all of their time merely trying to survive, have no time or energy left for personal growth or pursuing their dreams.
Finally, prisoners aren’t looking for handouts. They need some compassion. And not the “Oh, poor little you” patronizing type of compassion. The compassion they seek is people taking action to create real change in our prisons and criminal justice system. They need help in changing the hearts and minds of the citizens in our communities. They seek a platform where they may be heard. Then let prisoners shine their bright light of human potential forth and dispel the darkness of hate and fear and vengeance that is so often directed toward them. We are all one family; all of us global citizens of inherent worth, and our human potential is fruit from the tree of humanity.
Editor’s note: It is our new policy to just use an initial for last names of inmates who contribute their work to the Inside the Walls series.