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Reading series offers a platform for voices of incarcerated people

on October 1, 2019

Last Wednesday, Oakland residents met to discuss incarceration and the effect that it has on the community. The event was held in the Oakland Freedom and Movement Center, where a small group of people congregated in the back of the building to read works written by those who have been incarcerated.

Sponsored by California Prison Focus (CPF), Liberate the Caged Voices is a monthly event created by facilitator Nube Brown, who began working with the group a few years back. California Prison Focus monitors the conditions inside of California prisons while providing a platform for those inside to be heard through their newspaper or through the Prison Focus radio program. CPF’s quarterly newspaper publishes letters from prisoners, and their purpose, beyond keeping loved ones updated, is to inform readers about what occurs inside of California prisons without fear of censorship. The group’s goal for these outlets is to allow those in the community to actively change the narrative about life in the prison system,while also informing readers of perspectives that they don’t normally have access to.

Almost a year ago, Brown was working for CPF when she got an urge to do more to give the incarcerated another way to be heard. “We have all these amazing letters, but what are we going to do? People need to see these letters. People need to read these letters. When I first started reading them, I would be in tears,” said Brown. That’s how she got the idea for Liberate the Caged Voices, at which people gather to read the letters, presenting these works to larger audiences. “The audience members, they have to read the letters. They have to come up on stage and bring voice to these people,” said Brown.

“I want to create a platform where we’re uplifting their humanity because these are fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers and now these are my people. This is my community and I don’t want to see my community hurt anymore,” continued Brown.

Attendees sat facing a makeshift stage space where those who felt comfortable would read aloud to the group. The primary focus of the meeting was to focus on Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa.

Brown picked an article Jamaa had written titled “The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder of Solitary Confinement,” and began the piece, then prompted others to join. The article centers on the misconduct and mistreatment Jamaa said he witnessed during his incarceration. He wrote that the prison staff “violated our constitutional civil rights by beating us, and destroying the spirits of so many of us for years.” As Brown spoke his words into the intimate space, attendees shifted and listened with engaged, but tearful, eyes.

In his piece, Jamaa also touched on the state of prisoners once they’re released. “These released prisoners were coming from a torture chamber,” he wrote, citing that many who leave solitary confinement have lasting physical and psychological damage. Depression, PTSD, insomnia, paranoia, and self-mutilation were symptoms mentioned in the piece.  Some in the crowd bowed their heads in disbelief. Following the reading, claps resounded throughout the space and people who felt they had something to say were given the opportunity to speak.

As the event kicked off, a phone began to ring. The call was from a man who identified himself as William, a prior attendee of CPF events. He said he had been convicted of an attempted robbery at the age of 17, and had been released in March after serving 31 years in prison. But, he said, his probation officer had put out a warrant for his arrest a week ago, and he had turned himself in. He had called to inform Brown that he was being released the next day. The call ended with William in high spirits, thanking Brown and those in attendance for their support.

In the audience was Arthur League, who said he had served prison time during the 1980s and 90s. Taking the opportunity to speak following the phone call with William, League spoke about the importance of having a support system. “Everybody has to be a leader. You have to be that future you want, even amongst each other. Everybody can’t do everything, but somebody can do something,” he said.

League said that organizations such as CPF are providing a support system to a group of people that are often forgotten about, or have few resources available to them. He said that with time, more people will be released with better opportunities ahead of them to lead lives that will allow them to contribute to their communities.

Following the phone call, Luis Bato Ralamantez, one of the founders of CPF, thanked those in attendance and said the call led him to recall his time in San Quentin State Prison. “It’s almost like another world, where no matter how hard you try you’re never really free,” said Bato Ralamantez.

As the meeting came to an end, a man named Sean “Stone” Ramsey came in with just enough time left to speak to the audience. Ramsey said he served a total of 16 years, with the last 5 years in solitary confinement. “It was kind of hard for me. Coming home and everything was different. Technology was out of this world. I didn’t know anything about anything,” said Ramsey, speaking of his return to society.

He also spoke about the meaningfulness of the California Prison Focus paper to people who are incarcerated. “Those magazines are very important. When I was in prison, they have guys that don’t get any mail, or they have family that passed away. So the only mail they might get is the California Prison Focus and we’d read it from cover to cover,” he said.

Brown and other members of Liberate the Caged Voices are planning a fundraiser for November 9 and have meetings planned for the months of October and December.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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