When Lee Gibson walked into San Quentin State Prison on June 28 as a formerly incarcerated person, he recalled memories about his time behind bars. The “crashing clang and secure click of the iron gates … sent tingles down my spine,” he said.
Gibson is now the community advocate manager for Initiate Justice, a community-based criminal justice reform organization. Initiate Justice has more than 45,000 incarcerated members. Joining Gibson on the visit to San Quentin were Executive Director Antoinette Ratcliffe, Communications Manager Michelle Cárdenas, and Policy Analyst Sarah Rigney.
Gibson said that he was excited to meet with members of the prison’s Civic Engagement Group. The incarcerated-led group meets once a week to discuss issues and workshop ideas of interest to the incarcerated population.
The meeting between the groups was held in San Quentin’s library. Ratcliffe, Cárdenas, and Rigney each gave a presentation about their role in the organization. They also shared that they have family members who have been directly impacted by incarceration.
“Visiting San Quentin served as a critical reminder of why we do this work,” said Ratcliffe after. “It gave me the opportunity to put faces to the names of some of our powerful inside organizers and members, which was priceless.”
Jesse Milo, a member of the Civic Engagement Group, said, “The work we do can be discouraging at times. But it is vital to creating a healthier California.”
Adding a personal note, Milo said, “As someone who harmed his community 21 years ago, I feel I have a duty to help fix it.”
The chair of the Civic Engagement Group, Steven Warren, said, “Building bridges to outside organizations like Initiate Justice is inspiring. This collaboration gives us incarcerated Californians a chance to be heard through sharing lived experiences, also influencing legislation for all carceral impacted.”
Referring to the workshop, Gibson said, “The guys were attentive and inquisitive, which shows dedication. It was refreshing to see how politically informed … they were. The questions and answers were like a Ping-Pong match that had us mentally stimulated and excited to be in the space with them. We look forward to returning and continuing to push the pendulum further to not needing prisons in the first place.”
Ratcliffe added, “The work we do is hard and sometimes feels impossible, but our visits inside are a critical reminder of why we continue to do it.”
Rigney said, “Visiting San Quentin and participating in the Civic Engagement Workshop was an incredibly powerful and meaningful experience.”
She told the group how powerful stories are for changing hearts and minds. Cárdenas agreed, adding, “Most of us have very similar stories.”
Cárdenas, who seeks to end the use of dehumanizing language to describe incarcerated people, said, “Using dehumanizing words gives connotations toward the person. So, changing the language to humane terms reminds listeners that we are people.”
She said that she “refuses to be a part of the culture that perceives incarcerated people as anything other than who they are.”
The Initiate Justice staffers said they are committed to returning to conduct more workshops with the Civic Engagement Group.
“The most meaningful part was learning from the brilliant insights that were shared during our workshop,” Ratcliffe said.
The Ella Baker Center supports the Civic Engagement Group. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is a community-based organization that advocates for legislative policies geared at equity and fairness.