This past Saturday, around 14 Buckeye Leadership Fellows (BLF) students traveled to Marion Correctional Institution. As of May 2015, this facility held 2,572 men of various security levels. We toured the facility– different types of cell blocks, dorms, and community programming there– and felt the sense of separation from the outside world as we passed through security. Then, we made our way to the chapel, to have 2 on 1 conversations with the men of the facility. This may sound like an odd way to spend a summer Saturday, but I also believe it was the best thing BLF has ever done.
Before I speak about my time at MCI, some context seems helpful. This summer, BLF is hosting its inaugural summer challenge. Specifically, we are partnering with The Kirwan Institute’s More Than My Brother’s Keeper program, which aims to address the disparities faced by boys and young men of color in our community by increasing available opportunities and providing support networks. Our work this summer will be aimed at creating productive dialogue and engaging in conversation around police relations with the South Side of Columbus. To do this in a meaningful way requires knowledge of the community, of the issues at play, and of our own bias. As a result, BLF met with roughly 10 men inside MCI to have open conversation around the prison system, the ways in which their upbringing and environment contributed to their path, and their advice for creating conversation with South Side residents as outsiders to the community.
Now you may be familiar with TEDx Marion Correctional Institution, an independently organized TED event that aims to give voices to those inside MCI. I know I was. But watching the videos of these talks is different from actual face-to-face conversations with those inside the facility. Obviously, it’s a lot more outside of my comfort zone; it was so easy to sit behind my computer screen, far removed from the men and their stories, and tear up at their brilliant TED talks, but never spend time getting to know the men or the system in which they live. Even after becoming more knowledgable about the prison system through social justice lectures, I felt an overwhelming sense of nervousness as I sat down amongst the men who we would meet with for the next hour on Saturday.
I think this stemmed from not knowing what to expect. Would I say the wrong thing? Would they resent my privilege? Would they feel embarrassed or hurt by my questions? My fears and insecurities consumed me, until right about the moment one of the men stuck out his hand and introduced himself. “Hi, I’m Wayne,” he said with a smile and firm handshake. He seemed so excited we were there, as did all of the men, as I looked around and was met with comfortable and courteous greetings.
For the next hour, I got to know three of the men pretty well: Wayne, Self, and Matt. I listened to their stories–ones of their home life before prison, their every day experiences inside, their past mistakes and “20/20” hindsight, as Matt so eloquently called it. They also had questions for me, like Why was I there? What did I hope to learn or take away from the experience? What were my future plans after graduation? Wayne told me that as much as we would learn from them in those few hours, they would learn from us. All of the men we met were there by choice, as they all volunteer through a program called Lifeline that gives their peers access to a variety of programs such as the TEDx salons, computer classes, and language prep. courses. They organize and speak at many of these events, and on Saturday we even got to hear a few new poems that would soon premiere at their next TED event.
I say all of this in great detail because I think anyone outside of our group that day will find it hard to understand the amazing exchange of ideas and thoughts and love that happened in the chapel on Saturday. It is so easy to read statistics and then put the prison system out of our mind– I am guilty of that often– but this Saturday gave me a glimpse of the people beyond the numbers. Reminding ourselves that there are millions of individuals in America’s prison system may be a hard reality to face, but when I think of Self (and the book he is writing), or Matt (and the family he is scared of losing while inside), I am reminded that I need to do something.
I am still figuring out what that action will be. I am still learning and educating myself on the issues. This blog post is in no way a declaration of my knowledge or piety; instead, it is a public service announcement of sorts. It is a call to read and learn and ask why. It is a reminder that while prisoners may seem external to society, they are very much a part of America. They are very much human. Additionally, this is a shoutout to transparency and empathy. I am shocked by how much the men shared with us and their willingness to open up to college students about difficult topics, but that openness inspires me to be open and an engaged listener, even when uncomfortable. Their stories encouraged me to empathize and then confront the complex issues faced by our inner cities and youth.
If this post seems a little fiery, I’m glad. It has taken me a few days to truly get down in words my thoughts and feelings toward this Saturday. So in conclusion, I am excited to continue the relationships BLF built this weekend, as well as continue pressing outside of my comfort zone to truly affect change in the South Side this summer and beyond. If you would like to learn more about mass incarceration in the US (a topic rarely discussed by politicians), I encourage you to watch the video below.