The first time I remember articulating this dream was in a purple hard bound journal 11 years ago. I wanted to teach in the Corrections System. Writing. I wanted to bring the process of writing to the jails, to be part of the process of encouraging people to find their voice. I wanted to be able to share the empowering and healing process of taking pen to paper, to share the sheer joy of self-expression, the critical self-discovery and critical exploration of social conditions that influence our lives.
I came close a few times but had never actually had the chance to do it. And now, here I am, my name signed with a flair on the contract with Inside Out Writers. I am going through the process of getting security clearance and doing observations before getting started and I’m so excited and honored.
I know this is going to be a difficult process, I’m not coming in this unrealistically and I’m well aware of the challenges the youth and the system will present, and aware that there are some challenges I’ll face that I can’t even imagine yet. The biggest difficulty for me coming into this lies in dealing with the Juvenile Corrections System. I have serious issues with the so-called justice system.
Recently I was given a chance to articulate some of these views in a documentary on the Lawrence King murder in Oxnard, CA.
Brandon McInerney, the young man who shot him, is being tried as an adult and faces the possibility of life in prison. I was asked how I felt about that development. That question made me pause. I had come to the interview with a lot to say about education, schools, including my own experiences of homophobia as an adult within high schools. That question made the already complicated discussion about education and the responsibility of schools even more difficult. Ultimately my answer is that I don’t believe in the current system of corrections. I don’t feel like locking McInerney up serves justice, nor does it serve community or the life of a young man who, having committed a heinous crime, is still alive. Nothing can bring Lawrence King back and while the murder was a hateful horrible act, McInerney’s life is also valuable (he was 14!) and the pain, ignorance, fear, that led to his actions is also real. I can’t just think in terms of good and bad. Nothing excuses violence against another human being. But a lot of circumstances can condone, and even encourage it. The crime was a reflection of the inaction of the school, community, society. It’s easy to try a 14 year old and lock him up. It’s not as easy to confront the root of the problem, which we all participate in. Which is one of my major problems with the so called justice system. It’s not about rehabilitation, education, empowerment. While we should all be held accountable for our actions on an individual level, punishing the individual makes it easy to leave larger social problems unexamined and to forget that a human life has been affected by social conditions that we all share responsibility for.
I’m not just vehemently against capital punishment, I’m also highly critical of a system that simply throws human beings into an institution where systems of oppression and dysfunction are reenacted and fundamental. The answers can’t exist outside of larger community, which is affected in unacknowledged way by the incarceration and systemic abuse of our children, our mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, neighbors, friends.
So knowing that in addition to my reactions to cops, guards, military and generally all figures of authority in a system of violence and oppression I also have a problem with the construct of the system. Yet I enter it eagerly more than willingly. Why? Because I believe n the youth and in my ability to have a positive impact, to empower and to participate in their growth. It’s worth it to me as a way to challenge the system, even as I enter into an agreement to abide by its rules. Whether I agree with them (no gang colors or script) or not (cursing is not allowed in the institution, although it is not censored out of their writing). The young people can’t even keep the pens that they use in class because they can be used as weapons or as pipes. The idea of not being able to have a writing implement makes my skin crawl. More than the consideration of other restrictions on freedom– not being able to decide what or when to eat, when to get up, no privacy even when going to the bathroom– more than all of the restrictions, the idea of not having a pen makes my heart ache.
Incarcerated AND silenced.
I am eager to get in there and start the work. I know it’s something I’m called to do and part of a larger journey. This is spiritual work to me. It’s a blessing and an honor to be able to finally act on this dream. For a few hours a week I will be of service and be an instrument of change. And for a few hours a week these young people will be able to unlock their voice and be heard, be seen, I’ll be a witness.