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Prison Renaissance - News - Spring 2016
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A Letter from the Editor

To understand my vision for Prison Renaissance, it helps to understand my life. When I was a teenager, my criminal behavior stemmed from needs that I couldn’t articulate, and since we live in a culture where to name a thing is to know it, my inability to articulate limited my ability to understand my motivations. I didn’t understand that growing up in a home broken by domestic violence made me crave security. I couldn’t grasp that the ostracism I experienced as a black youth increased my need for acceptance, or that losing my mother to divorce made me desperate for love’s touch. I couldn’t fill emotional holes I couldn’t define, and the resultant frustration gave rise to fear, confusion, and anger.
 
Driven by an intense fear of death and rejection, exacerbated by a male role model who used violence as currency, I stumbled into corrupted forms of security, love, and acceptance. I felt safe when I could make others feel afraid; I felt loved if I could seduce women; I felt accepted when my friends praised me for running toward rather than away from gunfire. In many ways, I was sick. My only hope was to seek help, but a healthy reality lay so far outside my psychological cosmology that a blind bat was more likely to conceive of Pluto than I was to confide that I didn’t know why I was dying inside. The art of creative writing changed this by stimulating insights that allowed me to name my internal struggles.
 
E.M. Forester asked, “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?” That’s the story of my rebirth: I couldn’t see and examine the things I used to think until I started writing about them. I didn’t know my father was abusive until I wrote about my childhood. I didn’t know I hated him and that hating my father made me despise myself, until I wrote it. I learned how to name my needs. This knowledge, this light, affected rebirth.
 
My story isn’t unique. Some of my incarcerated friends are poets, painters, and performers; they can tell you stories about rebirth similar to mine. What amazes me the most about our stories, what inspired Prison Renaissance, is how the change we effected in ourselves is contagious. Free and incarcerated people encounter our stories and ideas, in person and through our work, and the experience shifts their perspective. In us, they see roadmaps to new possibilities, and what Prison Renaissance sees in these inspired moments is that change starts with self and spreads outward.
 
Prison Renaissance is using visual, verbal, and performance art to create a culture of transformation to end cycles of incarceration. This culture supports the transformation of incarcerated people from outcasts to invigorated citizens eager to partake in solutions to criminality’s roots. It aims to transform public apathy toward incarcerated people and their families into public empathy by (1) rewriting the narratives that encourage stigmatization of people in prison and (2) using artistic collaborations and presentations to create proximity between the public and incarcerated citizens.
 
 
Art is a social medium that allows an artist in California to connect with a bus driver in Florida. Through art, millions can experience who I am, who the incarcerated are. In art, we have the medium to, not only change an individual, but to present this person as a transformative force to the world.
 
What can you do? Increase the proximity between the public and incarcerated people by choosing to engage with us. The Prison Renaissance quarterly newsletter will introduce incarcerated artists through interviews as well as ideas that challenge traditional approaches to criminal justice. Engage us by responding to our art and our lives. Respond by talking about these artists at home and in your workplaces. Respond by debating our ideas in your classrooms. Contact our artists through prisonrenaissance.org to mentor, collaborate, or begin a dialogue. Respond to our interviews and work with your own stories, poems, visual art, critiques, and articles; submit through our website for publication starting this Spring, 2016. In this way, we begin to build a community that supports a culture of transformation to end the cycles of incarceration.
 
Emile DeWeaver
Editor, Prison Renaissance

Rahsaan Thomas grew up in New York City, but he writes in California. He is a journalist who, during his three years working for San Quentin News, has written over 200 articles. In 2014, he self-published his first co-authored collection, Uncaged Stories, an anthology of short pieces by incarcerated writers. He has also been published by The Marshall Project, Missouri Review’s Literature on Lockdown, Live of the Law, The Beat Within, and Brothers in Pen’s 2015 and 2016 anthologies. Mr. Thomas sits on the board of the San Quentin Satellite Chapter of the Northern California Society for Professional Journalists and authors a San Quentin News monthly column, “Yard Talk.” about solutions to cycles of violence and incarceration. He lives in San Quentin State Prison and hopes to return one day to his sons in New York. Visit Prison Renaissance’s Collaborations page to contact Rahsaan Thomas.
A Conversation Between Rahsaan Thomas and JulianGlenn Padgett
San Quentin, California
December 7, 2015
 
Padgett: Tell me about the story you contributed to Uncaged Stories.
 
Thomas: “One Bad Apple.” It’s inspired by my life, but in this version of my life, I get killed. My fictional death kind of represents what I feel: in real life, I killed myself with my decisions. I was trying to find some life with this novel, writing something to warn people against taking my path.
 
Padgett: Was there no one to warn you away from that path?
 
Thomas: No. My mother tried to teach the principles of Martin Luther King, Jr. But I was a kid; I thought King was a chump because he practiced non-violence and got murdered. But now I understand.
 
Padgett: What do you understand?
 
Thomas: About 11 years ago, I read this passage in the Qur’an, and it changed the way I approach life. “Let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice.” What that means to me is you can’t justify hurting people by pointing to how they’re hurting you. If it’s wrong for them, then it’s wrong for you. The beginning of the end for me was when I convinced myself that it was right to hurt the guy who shot my brother. I thought guns would keep me and my family safe, but what I had to realize was the only thing that was going to keep me safe was righteousness. Martin Luther King understood that.
 
Padgett: How has incarceration influenced you as a writer?
 
Thomas: It’s painful. And as I navigate that pain, I gain insights that give direction to my writing. It’s like ... what’s that quote about Dostoevsky and why prison made him a good writer?
 
Padgett: It’s from Hemingway. “Dostoevsky was made by being sent to Siberia. Writers are forged in injustice as a sword is forged.”
 
Thomas: Yeah, when you have a shitty life, it gives you a lot to write about. Sometimes you have to write about it just to cope.
 
Padgett: Everyone knows what pain is, but everyone experiences it in unique ways. When you say prison is painful, what does that mean for you?
 
Thomas: When you’re in prison, you’re thinking about where you went wrong, what might have been, and when you’re watching the world pass you by outside your window, you’re very aware that your family and friends’ lives are moving on without you. The dreams you had are moving on without you.
 
It’s like that old story A Christmas Carol, with Ebenezer Scrooge traveling through time to view his past, present, and future. So painful is hearing the things your son has to endure because you’re not there to help him. Having an elderly mother taking care of you when it’s your turn to take care of her. It’s painful to destroy your soul mate with your absence. It’s painful to hear “Black Lives Matter” on television and feel ashamed because you know you were part of the reason some people devalue black youth.
 
Padgett: You said watching the world pass you by is a lot like A Christmas Carol. What would the Ghost of Christmas Future show you?
 
Thomas: My sixth book on the New York Times Bestseller list [laughs]. No, I hope he shows me grandchildren climbing over my lap. I’d slide them candy before dinner and be Supergrandpa.
 
Padgett: What might the Ghost of Christmas Present show you?
 
Thomas: Hmm ... he’d show a man that’s come a long way.
 
Padgett: And the Ghost of Christmas Past, what would he show you?
 
Thomas: He’d show me a brown child with curly hair crying because his mother just told him that I killed his father. Same way I cried when my grandmother told me someone killed my dad.
 
Padgett: What else?
 
Thomas: He’d show my mother taking me to Brooklyn College on the weekends to learn basic programming. Man, I look at where computers are today, and I wonder what kind of life I could’ve had if I’d stuck with that.
 
Padgett: Why didn’t you?
 
Thomas: Someone shot my brother, and I didn’t know how to handle that. I just felt Brooklyn College wasn’t going to fix it.
 
Padgett: What was your first piece published on a literary platform?
 
Thomas: “I Write from a Cell.” The Missouri Review put out a call for literature from incarcerated people about prison experiences. It was an online call, so I was lucky that the director of my creative writing support group brought me the news – shout ou7t to Zoe Mullery. I wrote about how writing is all you have in prison. It’s how you stay in contact with your family’ it’s how you file your appeals, your habeas corpus. Personally, it’s my chance to have a life, through publication, that transcends prison’s isolation.
 
Padgett: When you received the Missouri Review’s acceptance letter in the mail, what was that like?
 
Thomas: Man, I was blown away.  The Social Media Editor, Alison Balaskovits; I’ll probably never know her, but I love that woman. She wrote, “Yours is a voice that needs to be heard.” She validated me.
 
You get discouraged writing from a cell. I’m sure every writer gets discouraged, but I think it’s more intense when writing is all you have. It’s like you’re writing for your life. That kind of pressure gets heavy. Alison rejuvenated me with a major signpost that I’d chosen the right track.
 
Padgett: Which of your publications make you most proud?
 
Thomas: The Marshall Project published “Life’s Retirement Plan.” Somehow, everybody in my prison knew about it. Teachers, volunteers: they kept saying, “I shared your story!” I know t his woman at Wikipedia, and she told me that my piece made her realize what she should be doing with her money. To have that positive impact on the free world ... just lets me know I’m more than just a prisoner. More than my mistakes, you know?
 
Padgett: Yeah. What was that piece about?
 
Thomas: Money management and investing in your future. I wrote it to convince other Incarcerated-Americans to stop spending all their money on canteen and care packages. That’s just financing your own incarceration, part of why mass incarceration is so profitable for corporate America. Instead of junk food, invest in stocks through the mail. That way you can come home to a nest egg instead of being 30 years behind financially.
 
Padgett: Sure, at the rate they pay us, you’ll be just 10 years behind financially [both laugh].
 
Thomas: Yeah, but it’s something. Better than starting with nothing. That’s what I learned: you can’t just throw your hands up because your choices suck. You have to build with what you have.
 
Padgett: Who are some of the writers who have inspired you?
 
Thomas: Dean Koontz. I know he’s not literary, but to be honest, I haven’t been exposed to much literary fiction. [Shrugs] I just read Frankenstein last year, and I liked that. But Dean Koontz was the first author that showed me how fun reading could be. Before him, I thought books had to be boring. Without Koontz, I wouldn’t have become a writer.
 
Padgett: What other writers inspire you?
 
Thomas: [Laughs] Most of the mare in prison with me. Emile DeWeaver, Tommy Winfrey, Kenny Brydon: these dudes make me better. What I love about Tommy and Emile is they have this way of using imagery and point-of-view to untangle complex issues. They make people understand. And Kenny, he’s just the king of prison lit. If you want to know what prison lit is, read Kenny.
 
Padgett: Writing is one passion for you; I know that running is another. Do you find a connection between the two?
 
Thomas: Yeah, running is about endurance, and so is writing. You have to keep writing and submitting; you’re going to get rejections, but you have to keep writing and submitting. Just like the only way to make 10,000 miles is to keep running.
 
Padgett: And what about the finish line for both passions?
 
Thomas: Hell yeah. It’s the same rush. But after running I’m too exhausted to do much celebrating. [both laugh].
 
Padgett: The Prison Renaissance project creates a culture of transformation to end cycles of incarceration. What does that vision mean to you?
 
Thomas: I think Emile says it best: transforming the world starts with transforming yourself. What we see in Prison Renaissance is transformation is contagious because it’s inspirational. My hope is that if we can spread this idea of rebirth far enough, we can live in a safer society. One that eventually doesn’t need a bunch of prisons.
 
Padgett: You’ll be the first featured artist at prisonrenaissance.org when they begin to post work this spring. What do you hope to accomplish with that exposure?
 
Thomas: Make connections. When you’re in prison, you don’t’ meet very many new people, and what I hope is that I can make connections with writers and editors who share my passion. [Shrugs] I’m not an island; UI recognize I can’t make it alone.
 
Padgett: What do you hope to accomplish with your work in general?
 
Thomas: When you get a double life sentence, people expect you to just be miserable and die quietly. I can’t do that. I want to serve a purpose. I want to prove I’m not who people say I am.
 
Padgett: Who do people say you are?
 
Thomas: A killer.
 
Padgett: Didn’t you kill a man?
 
Thomas: I did ... I want people to see that we’re not just gunning each other down in the streets because we’re animals. The reasons are psychological. Part of me doesn’t accept excuses, but the other part doesn’t know anyone who’s bigger than their own psychology. And even the part of me that doesn’t take excuses knows that this isn’t about excusing bad decisions. It’s about keeping these very real reasons for violence front and center when we’re debating solutions. If we don’t, we’re blind, and we’ll never come up with effective solutions.
 
Padgett: “Writer’s Block” will be your first feature story at the Prison Renaissance website. Why should people read it?
 
Thomas: Because I had to rewrite it 20 times [both laugh]. That’s real, but I think this story shows how art can save people, how it transforms and communicates. That’s what Prison Renaissance is all about.
Citizenship: Reframing Incarceration
by Emile DeWeaver, Editor
 
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.  – Declaration of Independence
 
I. The State of Our Union
 
Liberty is tied to our idea of humanity. Wherever we find Liberty lacking, we find men and women struggling against dehumanization. American Liberty comes as response to an empire that disregarded colonists’ human needs and tried to reduce them through taxes into means of production. Though the liberation of African slaves was rooted in both political and economic concerns, it also resulted from ethical concerns, i.e., the tension between the dehumanization of people and the Declaration of Independence’s promise of Liberty. Liberty, then, includes the unalienable right to have one’s humanity recognized by one’s nation, a right often denied to incarcerated citizens.
 
Liberty is mine by virtue of my citizenship. Though my crimes necessitate a temporary restriction of my physical Liberty, they shouldn’t abrogate my humanity. Despite this, criminal stigma – a punishment that extends beyond incapacitation – has become a normative component of American criminal justice. This stigma is supported by laws that limit my educational, employment, housing, and political opportunities, not just while I’m incarcerated, but for the rest of my life. This stigma means that tomorrow, a prison guard could beat me to death, say that I died of a urinary tract infection, and face no meaningful challenge. It means Americans routinely reduce other Americans to objects.
 
Often in prison, correctional officers reduce people of means to punishment. One man yelling obscenities at an offer can result in an entire population being locked in their cell for hours. Officers use blanket punishments to provoke those innocent of offense to become angry and inflict retribution on the offender. If one complains about being punished for another’s actions, officers sometimes respond, “You shouldn’t have come to prison.”
 
Some officers reduce incarcerated people to a means of entertainment. A guard will stop a man and assail him with antagonistic (and often ridiculous) questions: “Hey, come here. Where you going? Why you taking a book to the hospital? Oh, you’re reading this Harry Potter shit? You like wizards and wands and shit?” The recipient of this abuse must endure it. He cannot walk away because the officer gave him a direct order: “Hey, come here.” To disobey would risk a disciplinary infraction (which for some means five to ten additional years in prison). It’s called: “Just fucking with you,” and if you have no sense of humor, well, “You shouldn’t have come to prison.”
 
Institutionalized dehumanization in the American penal system implies that Liberty is alienable. I urge readers to examine this, and decide whether they want to live in a constitutional democracy where this is possible.
 
II. Standing for an American Vision
 
To some, it may seem hypocritical as I appeal to the principals of a society that I spent my teen years attempting to destroy. They might compare me to a cardsharp lecturing other card players about the virtues of honest play. I don’t want to argue about the messenger’s right or lack thereof, because whatever we conclude shouldn’t make Liberty alienable. I, however, would ask those who would use my criminal history to detract from my argument to consider, please, that though I’m being justly punished for crimes I’ve committed, I’m not being punished for who or what I am today. I was a criminal when I was 18 years old. I’m not a criminal now; many incarcerated people are not criminals now, and I submit that not only should our nation protect the human Liberty of everyone in prison, but it should be invested in restoring the physical Liberty of anyone who is no longer a criminal.
 
Imagine a woman named Jane goes to war for her country, serves with honor, and discharges as an American hero on January 1, 2000. How should Jane’s nation treat her? Of course, it should honor her sacrifices: she should enjoy health care, safe and affordable housing, employment opportunities, and a chance for advancement in her society. Imagine this same war hero murders a man on January 1, 2016. How should Jane’s nation treat her? While her nation shouldn’t deny the sacrifices Jane made 16 years ago, it can’t predicated her treatment, the Liberty afforded to her, on who Jane was 16 years ago. She must face incarceration. The following syllogisms sum up the principle underlying my assertion:
 
A person is a constructive citizen: they should be treated well. Jane is a constructive citizen; therefore she should be treated well. A person is a destructive citizen: they should be treated badly. Jane is a destructive citizen; therefore she   should be treated badly*.
 
When Jane becomes a destructive citizen, her nation is justified in restricting her Liberty, notwithstanding her prior service. But just as Jane’s antisocial change in behavior necessitated a punitive change in her government’s treatment of her, a pro-social change in her behavior should necessitate a restorative change in said treatment. By the same principle, I was a criminal when I was 18 years old, and so my Liberty was restricted. But in a nation that promises unalienable rights to its citizens, I should be released if I become a constructive citizen.
 
I’m a constructive citizen who can talk about honest play, with as much standing as anyone at the card table. That means I’ve awakened to civic duty. I’m an incarcerated-American who wants to contribute what I can economically and socially to improve society.  The first thing I have to contribute is my life story, which is a roadmap for policymakers trying to correct the cycles of violence that I’ve already overcome. I, at one time, felt so alienated from society that I believed myself justified in committing crimes against it, but I’ve also been walking my path to redemption for almost 20 years.
 
My rebirth emerged with my daughter. My love for her broke through the hatreds I had for society and myself, revealing my animosities as shells hiding the vulnerabilities – fear and rejection – that I didn’t want to face. I didn’t know how to face them, but I turned to the only power I felt I had in a cell, writing, and I survived my demons. I learned that knowledge and loving acceptance of my failings – and the failings of others – constitutes courage. With my survival came a survivor’s toolbox: empathy, insight, and the passion to shape the world into a place where others don’t suffer as you’ve suffered. I’m convinced that these tools are teachable. I became a writer to teach others these tools. I’ve dedicated the past five years of my life to giving these tools to other incarcerated men, and I started Prison Renaissance to spread these tools to all the women and men incarcerated in the world.
 
I want to tell you there are others like me in prison. They are the living solutions to failing schools in the inner-city, survivors with the empathy to connect with the gang-banger on your neighborhood, advocates with the insight and passion to transform that gang-banger into a survivor with a matching passion. Imagine the social transformations that would be possible if our solution to urban violence wasn’t to subtract people from the equation, but to transform them into living solutions. I want you to know that people like me comprise a minority of the prison populations, but that’s mainly because prison policies tend to produce the opposite of empathy, insight, and civic engagement. If people with the tools, the passion, and the proximity to at-risk communities comprised the majority of prison populations, imagine the social transformations that could be possible, from raising high school graduation rates to increasing the civic participation of marginalized youth. These things are possible if we change the way we approach crime and punishment. That’s the vision.
 
III. Reframing Incarceration
 
If we’re ever to see the vision of turning incarcerated people into agents of transformation, we have to end the nightmare.  We need to examine and redefine the role of prison in society. Incarcerations’ primary function needs to be reduction of criminality within a framework consistent with American Liberty. Instead, our prison system has become a nightmare that destroys Liberty and promotes criminality.
 
Criminality is too complex to attribute to one cause, but it begins and ends with alienation. The reasons I felt justified selling drugs and employing violence are manifold, but part of it was that I felt like you hated e, like you disregarded my needs. As a teen, I lacked the tools to process the complexities of social injustice, so I reacted with hate for you and a disregard for you needs. I enacted my animosity and disregard for your needs by committing crimes, not against you, but them. I reduced you to my means of retribution against an enemy I couldn’t define. This human disconnection lies at the heart of criminality, which is why it’s vital that we build a new vision for our prison system.
 
Penal policies isolate incarcerated people – anyone who’s tried to visit or form a relationship with someone in prison can tell you that – and criminal stigma continues to isolate individuals even after they’ve paid their prescribed societal debt. In an ethical society, penal policies should aim to change a person’s behavior, but how is this possible when penal policies reinforce the alienation that leads to crime? It’s not possible. In fact, I can think of no strategy more likely to increase crime rates, incidences of broken families, and to increase suffering – in short, to reduce Liberty.
 
IV. A New Frame
 
I’m an incarcerated-American. I believe in a safer public, as you do, which is why I believe we need to approach crime and punishment in an ethical way, consistent with the promise of Liberty for every American citizen. What might that look like? I look forward to sharing my ideas, my life’s roadmap, in the coming months. In the meantime, let the debates begin. But let them not be about who’s toughest on criminals or how much money we might save if we reduce the time people serve in prison. Let the debates be about how we can transform incarcerated populations into community servants who are eager to help solve our nation’s social problems.
 

*Here, “badly” is used to indicate punitive measures and not inhumane treatment.
Copyright © 2016 Prison Renaissance, All rights reserved.


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