Ella Baker’s co-program director shares some hard-won wisdom
James King is a formerly incarcerated graduate of Patten College and the Prison University Project.
He was the first-ever Inside Fellow for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, California.
King left San Quentin and returned to the community just before the coronavirus pandemic. He has
become a powerful voice for prison reform at the state legislative level, and he continues his efforts
to effect real change in the justice system, especially decarceration and civil rights for prisoners.
In 2010, my father died. At the time, I was roughly 2,000 miles away, incarcerated at California Men’s Colony East. It had been about six years since my arrest, trial, and sentencing, and six years since we’d last seen each other. It had been more than a year since cancer and chemo had stolen his ability to talk on the phone. And it was two weeks after his death that word arrived to me, thanks to a family member realizing that I was still writing him after his death.
Anyone reading this who is currently or formerly incarcerated knows that this is far from the most horrible example of impersonal cruelty prisons exact upon families in the name of justice. And no one who has been incarcerated will be surprised at what I experienced next. As word spread on the yard of my father’s passing, multiple older men began reaching out to me. Perhaps I reminded them of the sons and daughter they’d been separated from, or perhaps they felt empathy based upon their own experiences of losing loved ones while incarcerated. Whatever the reason, they began cooking meals for me, stopping by the cell to talk crap about sports, or just to see how I was doing.
For not the first time, I was consoled and comforted by people the legal system had decided were irredeemable, and never worthy of freedom again. Like me, these were survivors of America’s devastating tough-on-crime era, a time which saw even shoplifters sentenced to life sentences, and every young Black male or Latinx person as a threat to be dealt with in the harshest terms.
It was that experience that finally brought clarity to something I’d been observing for years, but did not yet have the words for. People who are incarcerated are first and foremost people. We form communities, support one another, and strive to live out our days to the best of our ability. Often young and impulsive when we are first introduced to the criminal justice system, we age, mature and learn to live and let live, while hoping those who have the power to dictate our quality of life do not harm us too much. That is not to say that we do not also suffer from the same afflictions that plague all of American society. Prisons have a high number of people with mental health issues, and just as many problems with substance abuse as anybody. You learn not to leave a radio unattended, or the value of having a cellie you can trust.
Toward the end of my incarceration, I was privileged to go to a prison where in-person college classes were being offered. There I learned about democracy, government, and the ways that legislative policies impact people who rarely look like the people who are making the legislative policies. I began paying attention to the organizations on the outside who were working diligently to change laws that had led to California having one of the highest numbers of incarcerated people in the world. And I began to see that, while their intentions were good, they needed the help and support of currently incarcerated people to help them understand the system, and the things that needed to change.
People who are incarcerated know firsthand how unjust our criminal justice system is. It is a system that criminalizes survivors, and re-victimizes people who have been harmed by others. Imagine the family member who loses a loved one to violence, has to endure a trial, perhaps even testify. Then in the event of a conviction, they are offered no further support or help healing for 25 years, only to be called by a prosecutor, notifying them that the person convicted is eligible for release, and they are needed to come to the parole hearing to speak against it. Once again, they are called upon to relive the worst time in their lives, in service of a justice system that has been punishing the other person for 25 years.
For the person in prison, incarceration takes the feelings of callousness, low self-worth, and shame that often fuel harmful acts to a whole ’nother level. Yet due to the communities that form, and the natural maturity one develops over the decades, people learn to heal, or at least cope with those feelings in spite of the violence of incarceration. Somewhat ironically, those who are in prisons form and participate in healing communities that give them a hard-earned emotional maturity that survivors and victims frequently don’t have access to.
Ultimately, if we are ever going to create a society that is inclusive, equitable, and open to all, we cannot do it without the participation of people who are currently incarcerated. During the years of my incarceration, I watched other incarcerated people work to advocate for parole opportunities for children who’d been sentenced to life sentences. I watched friends draft and lobby for changes to California’s felony murder law, so that people who hadn’t committed murders, or intended for anyone to die, would no longer be charged with murder, and I watched as time and time again, incarcerated people sent money, asked their families to support, or spread the word on the yard about each of the efforts to repeal or change the three strikes law. What I’m trying to describe is democracy in action. It is the deep work of people who are isolated from society, working to be included in that society. I can tell you firsthand that those who are working to change laws have grown past the point of breaking them.