Free at Last
By Ellen Quaadgras
First Reading From Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech
And when this happens [applause] (Let it ring, Let it ring), and when we allow freedom ring (Let it ring), when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city (Yes Lord), we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children (Yeah), black men (Yeah) and white men (Yeah), Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics (Yes), will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! (Yes) Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” [enthusiastic applause]
Second Reading by the Soul Matters Team:
We come bound by the threads of a dream
Of all walking together side by side,
none of us above or below
Less or more or forgotten.
A dream that more is possible
even more than we have yet imagined.
A dream of kindness and connection
that softens and turns us toward each other with tenderness.
A dream of courage and commitment
that will enable us to stay the course
and admit where we have gone astray.
May this vision comfort and challenge.
May it weave us together
May it never let us go
until the dream is made real
I was in the middle of my new workout routine the other day – I had my little 5 pound purple hand weights – feeling pretty strong – upbeat music in the background, youtube fitness instructor shouting encouragements, I was jumping and stretching and lifting and curling when this image popped into my head. It was of a prison complex, a dusty looking rec yard, and a few burly looking men pumping iron in the mid-day sun. Along with the odd thought my purple weight in hand – would I make it, if I were in a place like that?
I’ve also noticed that sometimes, when I am stressed or just, maybe it’s random, I’ll sit down to meditate and I think to myself, I wonder this will help me if I ever get thrown in jail and have to deal with the sensory deprivation of having nothing to do.
And sometimes, when I’m just going about my business it occurs to me to wonder, if I were ever in solitary confinement, how would I do? What would I do with that loaf thing I’ve heard they sometimes give you instead of real food, will I be able to handle it?
And I wonder, how cruel are the guards, the other prisoners, would I manage to hold my own? Would I cave?
Now, you may be thinking, Ellen, you have an overactive imagination. Or, you’ve just watched too many prison movies, or seen too many orange is the new black episodes. Maybe.
But I also I remember, some years ago, I went to a series of workshops for families and kids, designed to give the young people a little more leeway than they might have in everyday life – just – free play – and adults go along just about whatever – as long as it’s safe – and give the kids a chance to run with their imagination. And I noticed over time that, in addition to popular activities like, hopscotch, piggy back rides, and throwing pillows at unsuspecting adults, one game that almost always seemed to materialize, eventually, would be some version of jail, some prison-like structure or some kind of loss of freedom. It might be built out of chairs, blankets or pillows, but eventually some adult would commit some prison-worthy offense (like hiding some of those pillows) and meet that terrible fate of being “locked up.”
Which made me realize, maybe it’s not just in my head, it’s in theirs.
Maybe that’s why there are so many movies and shows that feature prisons and prison life, because there is something about it that captures the human imagination. Something we’re compelled by.
Or something we’re trying to work through.
We have all, of course, heard the rallying cry at BLM, marches. Defund the police. Decarcerate our prisons. Decarcerate our people.
And the data is clear, showing that people of color are imprisoned at far higher rates than white people. Michelle Alexander has made a compelling case that the same racist energies that drove slavery and segregation now fuel the prison industry. And author Resmaa Menaken asserts intergenerational trauma, passed down from the very first settlers, and as-yet unhealed, fuels the many forms of racism we see in this country today, including the criminal justice system.
MLK knew about prisons. MLK spent a fair amount of time in them. Unlike me, he didn’t have to imagine what it was like. He had first hand experience.
Prisons are iconic and embedded in our culture.
And, they are embedded, I think, in our minds. All our minds.
And that’s not coincidental. One whole argument for prisons is that they are meant to deter crime. Let that be a lesson to you, and let you be an example to everyone else. Deterrents don’t work unless they are in our minds.
And in our towns and cities and states.
Prisons are everywhere and they are there because enough of us think they help, think they keep us safe, or simply because we can’t think of anything else.
But do they? Keep us safe, I mean?
Prison abolitionist Ruthie Gilmore, doesn’t think so. And she has staked her whole career on helping others understand why. And find better alternatives.
Which means she talks to a lot of people don’t agree with her. Some of them passionately.
Like the group of kids at an environmental workshop where she was the keynote speaker. They were there on a “youth track,” had heard she was a prison abolitionist and called her in to meet with them. They were not pleased.
As she tells the story, the kids were frowning at her when she walked in, with shoulders up and arms crossed. Then they grilled her. You want to close prisons? What about people who did something seriously wrong? What about people who hurt other people? What about someone who kills someone?
I mean, right?
The kids have a point. What about paying the price? What about safety?
They would not be alone in their thinking. You will know this if you watched any of the political ads in the runup to the presidential election, which played on this point with fictional scenarios of hapless crime victims who dial 911 and get no answer.
And you will know this if you talk to many of the people who consider themselves moderates…
In fact, I read, somewhere, that the calls for decarceration and defunding police was the one reasons democrats didn’t win more seats in the senate and the house this cycle.
Or maybe, like me, you’ve had those kinds of thoughts and fears about police defunding, yourself.
SFG, the president of the UUA, wrote in an article to white people on the topic of decarceration, that, as white people—especially those with class privilege—we are taught that police protect and serve the community. They are seen as “helpers.” We teach our children if they are lost, in danger, or need help, to look for a police officer. And I will add, The larger system of incarceration is a logical extension of that concept. That we are protected by police who put the “bad” people in jail to keep me safe from them. At least that’s the theory.
But here’s the thing, and this is the point Gilmore tries to make with every group she talks to. That feeling of safety, the idea that we can keep these problems and these people out of sight, out of mind, may just be an illusion, anyway.
The reality is that when we fight fire with fire, when we return harshness with more harshness, when we model cruelty in our prison system we are perpetuating a set of punitive values that lives on in all our minds.
It may make some of us feel safe, but ultimately, it can take on a life of its own, as it has in this country. It grows and drains resources away from people who need them. It breaks up families, destabilizes communities, and criminalizes people who may just need help. It is a system that depresses and de-energizes, creating hopelessness and conditions for more crime. Which, ultimately, makes us all less safe.
Gilmore contrasts the system in this country with one in Spain, where, for example, a prison sentence for murder is typically 7 years. Which shocked the kids she told this to, because, right, again, what?? For killing another human being? For, arguably, one of the worst crimes there is??
But Gilmore explains that where life is precious life is precious, meaning – that in Spain, all life is seen as valuable, the life of the person who commits a crime, as well as the lives of everyone else. And it turns out, in Spain murder rates are generally much lower than here – nearly 10 times lower.
Now, I haven’t done the research around causation versus correlation and I don’t know the details of how the Spanish system works. But I agree with Gilmore that when we treat people as valuable, by making sure they have the resources they need to live a good life, for example, people will be less likely to commit crimes or behave poorly, in the first place. When we hold people as valuable, they tend to act better, do better.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should… tear down the prison system, set everyone free and simply cheer them on to live a good life. There’s obviously a lot more to this than that. Some people are so hurt inside that they can’t safely be around others.
Even in Spain, there is a sentence and it separates you from society. But its purpose, as Gilmore notes, is to give you time to think about what you’ve done. Ideally, it’s an opportunity to reflect on what, inside you, led you to act the way you did. Time to heal, change, to re-think how you want to live in the world.
And while that sounds nice, and good, I think part of why not everyone sees it this way, why we don’t set up *our* system that way has to do, in part, with a key question of values.
What do people deserve, when they mess up.
Prisoners are in prison because they have committed crimes. Some of them really terrible.
Do they deserve punishment? Maybe, maybe they do. Maybe they really do. Maybe what they did was that bad. Maybe they really *do* deserve punishment.
Does it help? Does it make someone a better person? Does punishing someone make them less likely to act out that way again? Does punishing someone make the rest of us safer? Studies show that, frequently, the answer is no.
What do people deserve? What is best for our communities….?
Can the two align?
We have a system in this country. It’s broken. It’s biased against people of color, it hurts people who are incarcerated, and we’re not sure it’s making any of us any safer… maybe less so.
Resmaa Menaken suggests that it is intergenerational trauma that has led white people in this country to act out racism. In the streets, in our prisons, in our inaction to stop it. I wonder whether this trauma is part of what’s holding the whole system in place.
What do people deserve, when they mess up? What do people deserve, when they break the law? What do people deserve when they create a broken system… or fail to fix it?
What self-reflection is needed? What inner work must be done to heal? What re-thinking needs to be done to change how we live, together, in the world?
What do any of us deserve?
Love? Healing? Support? Insistence that we must change? High expectations? Some faith, maybe.
Changing a country’s criminal justice system is not small thing. It’s been in our minds and in our society so long it’s hard to imagine anything different.
But part of what Gilmore teaches is that we get to imagine everything different – prison reform is everything reform. It’s about rethinking from the inside out and from the bottom up. It starts in the mind and heart, remembering that all life is precious, including yours. And it means acting on that – everywhere. By valuing each other, by valuing the earth, valuing people of all colors and sexualities and ages and abilities, by setting people up to succeed, everywhere, by supporting people who need support before they start to act it out…
It’s not just about getting rid of prisons. It’s about reforming the system so completely that we do not need them anymore.
One roadmap for that kind of change – is beautifully envisioned right in the Black Lives Matter platform. A total re-imagining, that benefits everyone. Lifting from the bottom up. One path that might just heal, and free, us all.
Prisons are everywhere, in our towns and in our minds.
But with some imagination, and some determination,
we will perhaps one day finally be able to say,
in the word of that old negro spiritual:
Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are all free at last.