By Rahsaan Thomas
Would being considered Incarcerated-Americans instead of prisoners, inmates or convicts, be a step toward ending mass incarceration, or a leap backwards?
A panel consisting of Tommy Winfrey, Emile DeWeaver and Juan Meza sat down in San Quentin’s dimly lit gym to discuss the issue. Winfrey opposes the term. Emile is an advocate for it, while Meza sided with Winfrey but changed his mind.
DeWeaver describes being considered Incarcerated-Americans as a way to stop mass incarceration.
“It is an individual’s recognition that he is a citizen and from that awaking, an acknowledgment of his civil responsibilities,” said DeWeaver. “Second, for someone in free society to use the term Incarcerated-American is a sign that we are all part of the same society, and we are looking for solutions to problems that are hurting this country together.”
Winfrey: “I am opposed to the label ‘Incarcerated-American.’ One, there are plenty of people locked up who are not Americans. As a prisoner, I’m not given full status as an American. Also, I don’t feel like somebody else has a right to place an additional label on me. I don’t want to soften the blow of where I live. It absolves accountability.”
DeWeaver reacts: “I think Tommy and I are living in the same world when he says that I’m not a part of society and I am disenfranchised; I don’t have the same rights as people on the streets. I see that as the problem. The term, Incarcerated-American, is not a denial that problems exist; it’s a first step because if we can’t even see ourselves as part of society, then I find it hard to envision a future where we will ever be part of society.”
Meza, who arrived late, described siding against the term Incarcerated-American at first.
Meza: “I didn’t want to change from prisoner, but when I heard Emile’s take on it, it made me think of Incarcerated-American in a different sense. Instead of being excluded from the community, I now have citizenship. Even though incarcerated, I am still part of the social structure.”
Winfrey: “This artificial term, in my opinion, is a step backwards. I won’t be happy ‘til we are just called Americans.”
DeWeaver: “I can see the problem with Incarcerated-American as a term if it allowed people to ignore the problem. But I think it makes people aware of the problem. We shouldn’t be excluded from society more than incarceration dictates.”
Winfrey: “I think there is already a huge awareness. Americans from the top down know over 2,200,000 people are locked up. My problem with the label is that it creates a class of American. When you create a label, there is always some stigma attached.”
DeWeaver: “I don’t think it creates another class, there is another class, and it’s us. There is a lot of awareness but it is rooted in economic concerns. I would like the conversation to be about the human beings who are incarcerated, not the costs to incarcerate them.”
Winfrey: “We are trying to classify everybody as a group, when we are individuals. Until we write our own stories, we are going to be treated as second class.
DeWeaver: “All labels aren’t bad. What this label allows us to do is be examples of what this can be and that gives others a model to go by. If people in prison started embracing the idea of civic responsibility, this world would be a better place. The key word is citizens. We are disenfranchised, but thinking of ourselves as citizens is the road to enfranchisement.”