This essay originally appeared at Apiary Magazine online for APIARY 7 Power Issue

On a cold day in February 2008, my younger brother arrived in Philadelphia wearing a white t-shirt, a pair of gym shorts and sandals. He had just hours prior been released from a Brevard County Florida jail. The only thing he wanted to do: have a steak at Applebee’s before going to the half way house he would live in in Kensington for the next few months.

During the dinner, my brother said he could not wait to get back to the real world and to forget about anything having to do with prison. I sat across the table from him, our father, step-mother, my friend, and my two young children sitting in between us. When he spoke those words, I thought of Plato and the Allegory of the Cave. As if I could see, my brother chained to a wall with other men in the dark, staring at shadows moving in front of them, their experience in life preventing them from questioning the substance those of shadowy forms. I thought of myself, how the events surrounding my brother’s arrest and my assistance with his eventual release had brought me out of that cave and into the light and that I could never go back into the darkness of unknowing.

 

Millions of Americans have some kind of experience with the American prison system. The nearly two million people currently incarcerated in America cannot vote in elections but they are counted for electoral purposes in the counties that incarcerate them, and commonly once released do not register to vote. Their access to communication is restricted to certain companies with ridiculously high charges and the counties the long term prisons are usually located in require long, sometimes day long and overnight, trips from family members.

After their release from prison, these people are usually faced with unsafe half way houses, unfair working environments that threaten to take advantage of your probation status in effect forcing labor. Current prisoners have another obstacle, technology. Once released from prison my brother heard about mobile technology that he was not aware of prior to his time inside, smart phones. After experiencing problems with phones system crashing repeatedly, he took the phone with him to a store in early 2008 after his February release. My brother asked the store clerk “Hey, I don’t know what’s wrong. My phone keeps turning off.”

The clerk then asked my brother “Well, are you going to MySpace?”

My brother replied, “Yo, I don’t even know where your space is.”

“No,” the clerk said, “do you go to MySpace on your phone?”

“Look, I’m not in your space, but I’m about to be.” That was what my brother said before deciding to exit the store.

His fundamental misunderstanding of technology that many people were aware of at the time, while funny now, was a situation that could have gone very wrong. As with the allegory of the cave, after so much time in the darkness, the light can be agitating. Everything you once knew is now questioned, all forms in the world seem untrustworthy after being detained by your own government, and returning to normal after that is difficult. A difficulty that is exasperated by those profiting most from these systems.

There are 1.5 Million American currently incarcerated, holding about 25% of the world’s prison population.[i] More than half of all of the people incarcerated are from cultures identified as minorities, such as African American and Hispanics. Approximately $70 billion is spent every year in the United States on the prison industrial complex. Every state spending about $10,000 more on each inmate than on an individual’s education. [ii] With 1 in 31 Americans experiencing some form of correctional control, it is guaranteed that any person reading this edition of Apiary has a form of personal experience with their states’ justice system. The good news is that personal experience can motivate us to change this system.

The most important thing any one of us can do is be involved. I recommend anyone commit even a few hours a week to volunteer service generally, but I implore people to be involved in changing the prison system, because it affects us all. The goal of incarceration is supposed to be rehabilitation and re-entry. Re-entry into society, not to continuously re-enter jail. Neglecting the needs of the incarcerated while imprisoned, and after, perpetuates the inequities within the United States justice system. Within these pages, Apiary is part of the solution. Reaching out is part of the solution, as is creating and/or supporting spaces and agencies that are working to change the prison system. At the very least, votes matter, and maybe even more so when you know of all of those millions of votes locked behind bars. That each of those inmates, while unable to cast a vote, counts toward the political standing of the county that houses them. It is my solemn hope that within these pages every reader is made more aware that the millions of Americans manipulated for financial and political gain through the prison industrial complex. That those millions of Americans are people, they are our brothers and sisters, and we must do everything we can to lessen incarceration.Image

 


[i] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/12/eric-holder-smart-crime-reform-us-prisons

[ii] http://www.money.cnn.com/infographic/economy/education-vs-prison-costs/

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