I know what community is.
Many people in our society live in near isolation in their day-to-day lives. They have family; they know a few people at work; they attend social functions such as football games.
But their sense of community is often weak, if it exists at all. A feeling of isolation even from one’s nearest neighbors is all too common.
In prison like in war, it sometimes happens that groups of men become like brothers to one another because they have shared so much traumatic experience together. I have lived with such a group of friends for over ten years in prison. Although the life has been very hard, our community helps us deal with it. We are as aware of our relationships to and dependence upon one another as all human beings are of the rise and fall of the sun. This community continues to be my refuge in a war zone, and it is part of the justification I have for my religious faith.
I am an educated and largely fulfilled human being. And I am a prisoner serving a life sentence in prison. These two facts, in spite of anything you might have heard to the contrary, are not mutually exclusive. Although prisons are violent, chaotic pits of mayhem, we have managed to overcome and express our humanity through genuine community.
When there is a shared sense of identity and purpose among people, they are bound together by the strong ties of familiarity and a shared story. My brothers and I have developed a definite sense of our shared story as we have served our time together in the prison system. I can say with pride that the people I live with are people I choose to have around me every day, and that the home we have built, which is not a kingdom that can be built by hands, is the fertile ground of real community.
Ours is a community of like-minded men built in a place which should not exist and which will be a stain on the legacy of our nation’s history. But we flourish as human beings in spite of the oppressive conditions we face. Sadly, we are the exceptions. We have been fortunate, and we are thankful for the grace we have received when we have seen others languish or die here. Instead we have invested in ourselves, our families, our stories, and defended our brothers in every way possible for human beings to defend one another. We encourage one another to keep striving because prison dehumanizes and demoralizes people. It is a weapon designed to spiritually and physically destroy human beings and their families. I have witnessed its tragic success with my own eyes.
And it can only be sold to the public through irrational fear. The people of our nation have been told the lie that they need it. Are you convinced of an illusion? Consider well with us the issues at hand, if you will. In the U.S., the time is now upon us to reconsider mass incarceration: its effects, its justification, its future.
All communities have a common fountain from which flows the waters of harmonious life. Our ancestors understood this. When we are aware of ourselves as a part of something larger than us, we will have a proper regard for standards of behavior toward one another quite naturally. We know that when we harm someone else, we harm ourselves. To dehumanize someone else is to dehumanize ourselves. Why would anyone harm their own body? Poison the well? Hurt my brother? That would hurt me. I would never do that, no matter how angry I get at him. I understand community now.
But those who do not live in such community think that the access they have to the waters of life is completely separate from the access others have, each person having his own little well. Therefore, if we poison the well of another, it won’t affect us.
Poison our well? No, of course not.
Poison someone else’s well? Why not, if they deserve it, if they are dangerous to me and my family?
Such a philosophy governs all of mass incarceration, and we have accepted it because we have believed we needed it, perhaps because we were angry and afraid for our families when we watched the news reports of crime. Yes, of course, there must be some response to crime. But many scholars, authors and speakers familiar with the complex issues associated with mass incarceration, such as Michelle Alexander, Jeffrey Reiman, Howard Zehr, James Gilligan, etc., are now pointing out that this response should be far better informed and less poisonous to the well. In future posts we want to discuss these ideas and more.
When we understand the principles of community, we quite naturally recognize the truth that you and I are part of the same family, the same people, and the same nation. If on the other hand we continue to separate and dehumanize, then we surely will be judged by history for poisoning the fountain.