Providence. Washington. New York. Breath. Catching.

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I flew out of JFK the day after the New York primaries.
Still burnt from the rally on Sunday.
Five hours in Prospect Park on a perfect spring day.
It felt for a moment like Sanders might win.
I shouted like an American when he walked on that stage.
Noisy enthusiasm in groups mostly makes me blush.
But I almost got there at that Brooklyn rally surrounded by 30,000 hopeful lefties all yelling for a different kind of democracy.

I couldn’t write in New York City.
I couldn’t properly THINK.

Partly it was flinging myself at New York the way I did.
The beautiful, noisy, exhausting bastard.

Partly it was the constant effort of trying to get my head around the contradictions of a mind-bendingly optimistic country that also majors in human despair.

And ya know…partly it was all the beer.

Danni and I walked through Harlem in the freezing rain last Tuesday. The part of Harlem where people are missing a lot of teeth. Waiting outside methadone clinics and court rooms and boarded up shopfronts.
All movement and spitting and unhinged shouting.
The cop outside the courthouse chastised us for standing too close to the court door. Then gave helpful directions to the best soul-food restaurant in Harlem.
When we thanked him he told us to stay safe.
So I told him to stay safe also.
He patted his gun and said, “I think I’ll be okay”.

I sat in on a community meeting on Thursday night.
Maybe 50 formerly incarcerated people, residents of an old New York reintegration service, crowded around a big white table.
The guest speaker was a New York Times journalist who had written an exposé of police and prison brutality. After he finished talking, people were invited to share their stories. And at some point I realised I was flinching. Repeatedly. Because every single person in that room had a story. Of horrific violence. In jails, prisons and police cells. Every. One.

There are services here that are disparaged by people who think they’re too soft;
“Hug-a-thug” programs they call them.
Funny.
In amongst the mean.

In one service I spoke to a staff member, born and raised in Harlem who had spent over thirty years in and out of prison. He had been addicted and homeless and broken and then when he came out of prison a few years ago he was exhausted. He didn’t want to go back to prison. He wanted to do something else. He wanted to be something else.
He talked mostly about the worker who had helped him bust this cycle
Who had stuck around even when he messed up. Relapsed. Lost it. The usual.
He said the worker had showed him love.
And that he hadn’t seen a whole lot of love in his life.
And when he said that his eyes filled with tears.

The thing is that those hug-a-thug programs are doing something so basic.
And so profoundly right.
And mostly what that is, is that they do not see the work that they are doing as being with thugs.
Or criminals.
Or offenders.

They refuse to define someone solely by their crime or their history of incarceration. And in a country that has perpetual punishment and discrimination for formerly incarcerated people built into the systems of social security, housing, employment and welfare, this is not an easy position to hang on to.  There are still states in the US where a felony conviction means you can never vote.

For millions of people in North America, the worst thing you ever did can define the way you are treated for the rest of your life.

The hug-a-thug services get that if that is how you treat people, then that is what people will believe about themselves. And if that is what people believe about themselves (and they know how to make money through the economies of crime, and they know how to be in prison, and then they can’t get a legitimate job, and they can’t access social security or housing, and no-one is in their corner) it is pretty mad to expect people to navigate their way out of the criminal justice system and into the community on their own.

When identity is created through a lifetime of poverty, and social exclusion, and then cemented by state institutions which as it turns out regularly beat you up, finding a different way to be and live is really fucking hard.

But what the successful reintegration services also get is that if you stop defining someone by their offending or their past, and instead you ask them to tell you who they are outside of that, and who they want to be, then you have yourself a starting point for change.

And if  you add systemic advocacy, practical support and genuine hope to this mix, then the prospect of staying out of the criminal justice system can dramatically shift; from the realm of the miraculous into a space of concrete possibility.

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Detroit

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Motown is deserted downtown.

It is snowing.

There is a gentleman’s club round the corner from my hotel.
It is called Legends.
Which is about the best name for a strip club ever.

Anyway.

It shut down because of a fire last year, and even though it was the premier gentleman’s club in Detroit (oh yeah- I’ve DONE my gentleman club research), it hasn’t opened its doors again.

The sign out the back is faded.
The car parks are empty.
There is steam coming up from the sewers.

The guy playing his trumpet in Greektown last night was playing the star wars theme. I mean he was good. But ya know.
It was the star wars theme. And this is Detroit.

The thing about urban decay is that although the ironic photo opportunities are overwhelmingly great, it is mostly pretty sad.

And quiet.

There’s stuff HAPPENING here of course.
Renewal stuff.
Midtown is being revived.
Young people are moving into loft apartments and opening vintage stores, and artists are doing cool things with abandoned houses.

But it’s harder to see the renewal in the poor neighbourhoods. The places that people who go to prison come from. And return to.

Viewing cities through this lens – this community sector, people coming out of prison and jail lens – is such a weird and weirdly perfect way to get to know a city.

The vague menace that scares outsiders like me gets given shape and form when you meet the people that live or work in the neighbourhoods that are broken. And fear gives way. In the beautiful way that fear usually does. When another human is sitting in front of you, drinking bad coffee and talking about their kids, and the 23 years they spent in prison for a crime they didn’t commit.

And you get to ask dumb questions. What did you guys actually DO on those corners? What do you DO when you get your bus ticket after 15 years in prison and you don’t have a home to go to? How do you keep working in this area without dying of heartbreak?

Poverty is not the same everywhere. Here poverty comes with no access to social security, it comes with snow, and guns, and a whole generation of young black men lost to incarceration. It comes with infrastructure so broken that the water supplies get poisoned. It comes with burnt down houses and abandoned skyscrapers. And it comes with the seduction of the ‘if-ya-try-hard-enough-you-can-be-who-you-want-to-be’ narrative that is all at once true and without a doubt the biggest lie America ever told.

We want so much for stories of success to be stories of individual tenacity and personal courage, and determination. And when stories ARE all of that, it is easy to assume that succeeding after prison should mostly be a matter of drawing on untapped internal resources.

But that’s actually all kinds of steam coming out of sewers.*

Poverty here is overwhelmingly black. And overwhelmingly criminalised.
And if there is a thread that runs between systems of incarceration in Australia and the US, it is surely the fact that we manage complex disadvantage and social and racial inequality in criminal justice settings.

I mean building individual capacity is obviously wildly important when helping someone coming out of prison, but what is very clear from visiting services and speaking with the stack of super smart people that work in this area, is that individualised programs can only work on any significant scale, if at the same time pragmatic structural barriers to re-entry and reintegration are acknowledged, and challenged, and addressed.

Oh. And the picture. THAT is me hanging with the ridiculously amazing Andre L Johnson. CEO of the Detroit Recovery Project.  His own story is remarkable. And the work of his organisation is off the charts. Walking alongside people. Building communities. Addressing the structural barriers.  All of it. They’re doing all of it.

 

 

*NEW COOL DETROIT EXPRESSION I JUST MADE UP!! IT’S GOING TO CATCH ON!! JUST YOU WAIT….

Chicago

IMG_0241The doors to the re-entry services in Chicago all have pictures of little black guns on them. Little black guns with big red lines through them.

Please don’t bring your weapons into this service okay?
Okay?
Good.
Good.

Prisoner reintegration with no guns inside.
’cause ah, you know….
It’s probably a good place to start.

My hotel has a guy who stands outside and hands out umbrellas when it rains. To guests like me who have not thought hard enough about the weather.
He is the umbrella guy.
And this is fancy pants downtown.

There are not so many umbrella guys in the other neighbourhoods I’ve visited.
Guys, yes.
HEAPS of guys.
Hanging about. Doing guy loitering on street corner type things.

It’s so HARD here.
That’s what I keep thinking.
Heartbreakingly hard.
Everyone trying so hard in different ways. To get jobs. To make money. To get by.
And then to see the trajectory of those kids on those corners.

You can still get locked up for years for a non-violent drug offence.
You can still then come out of prison after all those years with nothing but a bus ticket back home.

But if the disaster of mass incarceration has produced anything, it might be the bunch of radically committed, smart and just-getting-the-hell-on-with-it people working with the organisations I’ve visited over the last few days. I’m basically deeply in love with everybody.

And the services. They do all of the stuff you might imagine would be critical for people coming out of prison; providing essential jobs training and placement,  housing support, drug and alcohol treatment, networked case-management, social enterprises, community building, peer-led support; basically finding a stack of ways for people getting out of prison to find a sense of belonging (and all of this in astonishing, documented, recidivism busting ways).

But that’s not it. It doesn’t stop at individual support. At the same time these organisations are also  jumping up and down. About criminal records and employment. About the state of prisons. About the lack of affordable housing. About the absence of drug treatment. About resourcing.  About bail. About diversion. And more. So much more. And this systemic advocacy happens in the most polite, strategic, non-alienating, jumping up and down ways possible. But there is no doubt that systems change  is core to what these organisations are about.

And oh man…When I am walking past those doors with the terrifying guns,  with my borrowed umbrella, through freezing (THIS IS SURELY NOT TRULY SPRING) Chicago, that combination of practical pragmatic support, in combination with EXTREME perseverance in shifting discriminatory structures has this  nerdy little social work heart beating hard.  So much to learn here. So. Much.