The room was silent as former inmates and families with loved ones in the prison system worked on a “freedom tree,” a wall-sized paper tree with bare branches on which leaves—crafted out of construction paper—became ornaments bearing words of hope: No walls. Renewal. Health.
On Saturday, over 20 people filed into the Ella Baker Center, just off Broadway in downtown Oakland, for a conference that gave former inmates, parents and family members of incarcerated young people a chance to tell their stories to each other. Books Not Bars, a national organization that represents the largest network of families of incarcerated youth, hosted the meeting, meant to create a space for healing and dialogue. The day’s discussion centered on testimonies that laid out individuals’ personal experiences and the center’s push for rehabilitation instead of punishment in California’s prison system.
“We’ve brought together families of incarcerated youth and incarcerated adults from across California,” said Owen Li, the center’s lead organizer for Books Not Bars. “The reason we’re here is to do some neutral support—some healing—but also to figure out what are the issues that need to be addressed and what is our plan of action.”
“The issues we’re tackling today are the issues of family connection,” he continued. “We know that one of the ways that people will be more successful in not getting re-arrested is if they are able to stay connected with their families during prison. Families desperately want to stay connected with their loved ones while they’re in prison, but the system is set up to make it really difficult. Getting on the list for visitation is difficult. Driving for six hours each way is difficult. Rules are often made up on the spot. Having someone in solitary and not being able to touch them. There are a lot of people that have dealt with these issues.”
Books not Bars organizes families of people who are incarcerated in California to find alternatives to the states “wasteful and abusive prison system,” organizers said. They advocate for new laws, sponsor legislation in the state’s capitol, expose violations family members bring to their attention, and empower family members to advocate for themselves. “We see family as that human story that brings to life what happens in prisons that are far off—out of sight and out of mind—with the knowledge that what happens there affects everyone,” said Sumayyah Waheed, a campaign director at the center.
Several of the participants had been involved with the organization since 2004, when the Ella Baker Center started the Books Not Bars campaign. “It was because of a magazine,” said Laura Brady, an early member of Books Not Bars, of her decision to be a part of the organization. In 2004 her son, then 15 years old, was incarcerated at the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton. He served 6 years in the California Youth Authority and another 5 years in the California State Prison at Corcoran.
“My son wanted a magazine that had Anna Kournikova. I couldn’t find the stupid magazine, so I got a FHM magazine with Carmen Electra on it. When I got home—I didn’t even pay attention to the cover—on the corner on the left hand side it said ‘Nation’s Scariest Prison.’ When I opened it up, it was all about Chad [Chaderjian] and that moms are crackheads, their kids are pretty much pieces of crap. I began a writing war with the publisher, the parole officer that was at the facility that was interviewed and came up with these horrible analogies of people and the kids that are incarcerated.”
She went on to be in a documentary called “System Failure,” and has been advocating for better conditions and treatment in prisons ever since. (Last month, Brady said, her son was stabbed several times by a prison gang while serving a parole violation at Fresno County Jail. He survived.)
During the meeting on Saturday, there were several group conversations where people shared their experiences with the prison system. Gail Brown, of Life Support Alliance (an organization based in California that supports life-term prisoners) also addressed the group. Most of the day focused on the difficulties relating to seeing imprisoned family members during incarceration.
As people chatted during a lunch—lasagna, garlic bread, and salad—Sandra, who lives in Oakland, separated herself from the group to speak privately with Oakland North. (Oakland North has elected to only identify formerly incarcerated participants by their first names.) She was formerly incarcerated and had no “clue that a center and people like this existed,” she said. “I felt so alone—especially people that haven’t even been to prison and they care so much and they try to help.”
Sandra has been to several prisons, she said: Central California Women’s Facility, California Institution for Women, Northern California Women’s Facility, and Valley State Prison for Women. “I was on crack cocaine for 15 years. When my son was killed at a club in San José—he was 23 years old—for a year I smoked crack everyday. I don’t know how I made it,” she said.
She has been out of prison since 2007 and now participates in programs at the center. Her personal turning point came when she met an inmate sentenced to a life term, she said. “She made me see that I didn’t want to end up like her. She got honest with me,” Sandra said. “I never ever thought about prison like this before—it was just get in there, do your time, and get out. I never met someone that told me there is a place they want to keep you for the rest of your life. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is it for her.’ That just opened it up for me.”
Now, Sandra is enrolled in college for her first full semester. “Drugs were just something I used to not feel and not deal with and accept what was going on in life,” Sandra said. “I love this center. I love what they stand for. I believe in what they’re doing. I believe I have to play the biggest part in what my future is going to be. They give me support. I can come down and talk to someone, run stuff by them.”
Several others also wanted to share their stories, but not so openly at the event. Josh was one of several attendees to take a private walk down the center’s hallway and sit down in a room to share his story with Oakland North away from the other conference attendees. On May 2, he said, he was released from prison after being incarcerated for 22 years. He entered the prison system at 17 years old. “I had started using a lot of drugs, and with drug use goes a gravitation towards the criminal lifestyle,” he said. “I was involved in a robbery where a security guard was killed. So I was tried as an adult and found guilty of second-degree murder. I became what’s called a ‘lifer.’”
The prison system was different from his environment as a child. “I grew up in Berkeley. I loved the diversity of that culture,” Josh said. “Prison’s not like that. Prisons are very much segregated by race. There is a lot of anger. There is a lot of despair. It was very much a shock getting into that system. We weren’t allowed to be friends because of their skin. I hated that. It disgusted me. And it solidified my view that I’ll never let myself completely adapt to that environment. Once I cleaned myself up from the drugs, found out who I was again, and realized I didn’t hate myself, I was going to do whatever I had to do not to lose myself again.”
“For me, the connections I had with my family, the support I got through my family, kept me sane at times when that was the only thing keeping me sane. It really inspired me to work through the struggle and the hard times,” Josh said. “So seeing that this is going on to try to address what the blocks are between family connections and loved ones in prison means a lot.”
Lillian, who has been out of prison for 15 years, made a request to share her story privately before taking the walk down the hall. “I was incarcerated for writing a check instead of earning a check,” she said of being imprisoned for check fraud. “I had to learn I could not create my own system and methods for making money and doing business within this very county. Seems I always had something going on to create a salary for myself, but it wasn’t within the laws.”
Lillian spoke about her struggles as a black woman in the penal system. “More Afro-Americans believed the prison system was automatically going to be a part of their lives because the belief was so strong in our community—and still is so strong in our community. We get our facts mixed up,” she said. “We don’t like police officers and we don’t like the laws concerning us because they didn’t support us from the beginning. … By the time I changed my psychology, I had been arrested nine times and violated parole nine times. I had to figure out a way to accept the fact that the law was the law and I could not beat it. Breaking the law was not the way that community would change.”
By 3 p.m., the day’s meeting had moved into a PowerPoint presentation by Waheed, who went over the center’s accomplishments and goals. “We wrote two bills in two different years,” she said, “setting up a visiting hotline and guaranteeing four phone call per month in youth prisons.” The bills—AB 1300 in 2007 and SB 1250 in 2008—gave all minors in prison the right to make four outbound phone calls a month. The hotline provides updates on the visiting status of loved ones so families don’t travel to someone they can’t see.
“Both of those are laws today,” Waheed told the conference attendees. “Families have basically written a law in California.”
In 2011, Governor Jerry Brown proposed closing all youth correctional facilities to alleviate the yearly costs of incarcerating young people. “That was a huge moment for us,” Waheed said to the group. “We have seen five youth prisons close.”
Most recently, she said, the group has lobbied to change the legislative language regarding “time adds,” a process through which the California Division of Juvenile Justice guards can delay youths’ parole consideration hearings without judicial review due to accusations of bad behavior, fights and talking back. The delay usually adds a year to youths’ sentences, Waheed said.
By 6 p.m. a discussion of the economics of incarceration was over, and everyone enjoyed dinner—chicken wings and heavy hors d’oeuvres—to celebrate what they’ve accomplished. “The point was we made progress,” said Waheed, “and we only have more to win.”
Corrections were made to this article on August 21, 2012.