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Taking on the prison problem

I get invited to speak to a lot of US Transition groups, and often I go. Often the leaders are blog readers, sometimes people I know through the internet, often future-friends. While every talk is different, they have some real similarities. Whether speaking in a suburb of Maryland, a large city in Ohio or to a coalition of rural towns in Virginia, I know that some things will probably happen.

I will meet wonderful, kind hosts who will put me up in their guest room and on their couch. I will most likely speak at a Unitarian Church (although I have spoken in many, many different kinds of venues including Churches of many denominations, synagogues, Grange Halls, Public Libraries, Town Halls, Public Parks and other venues, Unitarian Churches by far predominate.)

The audience will be warm, welcoming and attentive. The average age of the audience will be at least a decade older than me and often much more (50s, usually.) The audience will be largely or exclusively white (although I have also spoken to a very few impressive urban transition groups that are neither) and middle class. Before my talk a long list of committees and administrative tasks will be discussed, and we will welcome many co-sponsors of my talk from local resources that tend strongly towards the middle-class progressive.

After my talk on food issues, oil and climate issues, transportation, etc… (depending on what they’ve asked me to speak on), someone will raise their hand and say how wonderful it is that the audience is of X size, but how do we get the message out to everyone else, and why are there only white middle class people in the audience? Odds are I will have already had this conversation two or three times with the leaders of the group or others involved also. They will point out that they have done outreach and advertising, movie nights, etc… and it still seems to be mostly attracting the same group of people – older white people with money to spare.

When these questions are asked, I find myself giving a number of answers over and over again. Some of them I have rather frequently written about here, for example:

1. Most people do not hire babysitters/come out on a freezing/raining/frying (insert your climate here) evening after work unless they are going to have some fun. There is a comparatively limited number of people who think watching documentaries about oil extraction or climate change is fun. There are a comparatively limited number of people who think coming out to hear someone who wrote a book (even four or five books, even if she’s as fun as I am ;-) ) is a good time. Want to get people out? Throw a party. Offer beer. Have a local food tasting and cooking class. Get someone to show you how to do something fun and useful. Dance. Have music. Offer babysitting. Do something FUN. In the INTERSTICES of fun, tell them about climate change or peak oil.

2. Use the Church Model. This is not religious, but it is something I’ve been working on for years, trying to point out why more people join churches than Environmental groups, and why even very energized movements often die out much more quickly than institutions like Churches. When you go to a Church (or synagogue or whatever) you are offered something. There’s babysitting and Sunday school for the kids, often social networking for the parents, cookies and wine afterwards, a chance to meet people in the community, quiet and pretty music. After you go for a while, you might be asked to contribute to support the church or you might be asked to sit on the building committee, but no one says “Hey, come join us for the building committee meeting and discuss the failures of our roofing, and then stay for the service.” You get the good stuff FIRST. How many times have I seen a Transition group leader pass around to new people a chance to sign up for the equivalent of the Building committee BEFORE they’ve had any other positive experiences.

3. I will say this as many times as it takes. For the people who are already dealing with the consequences of volatile energy prices, climate change and economic insecurity, asking them to get together to use their time and resources to help build resilience to something that hasn’t happened yet is a bad idea – and kind of insulting. If you don’t have anything to offer people who are already struggling with these issues, they will not come. As long as this is framed as preparing for some abstract future collapse, only people who think thinking about things getting worse is either useful or productive will come. So folks who don’t like thinking about bad things and folks who already have plenty of bad things in their lives will stay home. If, however, you have positive resources to offer people who need help NOW, they will come, and offer help to others.

4. You do not have to agree about most stuff to work together. Most Transition Groups I have encountered focus on framing the issue early on, and pretty much eliminate anyone from membership who does not share their underlying premises. Often people fail to grasp what you DO need in common in order to work together and spend a lot of time filtering out people who don’t agree. Do you have to agree on gay marriage to work on local food systems? Nope, you just have to agree that you want local food and that the nice gay couple and the religious conservative ones will focus on food, not marriage. Do you have to agree on gun control to work on local food systems? Nope, you just have to agree that you want local food and be skillful at keeping your focus. Do you have to agree on the REASONS why we need local food? Nope, you absolutely do not. If your neighbor is storing food for the rapture, the ones down the street because folks in their neighborhood are already going hungry and they expect it will only get worse and you are doing it because of climate-change induced drought, well, you’ve got a coalition, if you can keep the focus where it needs to be. This takes skillful LEADERSHIP and a commitment to not judging people as evil because they disagree with you. Those are both REALLY important skill sets for harder times, so cultivate them.

5. Leadership, leadership, leadership. Just because someone is willing to do the boring work of making flyers does not mean they can lead. Leadership is a job, and it is one worth doing right (note, I am not criticizing people who lead not out of natural aptitude but because there is no one else – I’ve done that myself, but spend your energies finding the right person while you do it!). I don’t mean this in a bad way, but honestly, charismatic leadership is probably the biggest difference I see between groups that bring out 25 people and those that bring out 400. Charismatic leaders good at outreach and expansion are rare, but you probably have one in your midst. Then you have to cultivate him/her, and commit to providing the best person with the kind of support they would need to do the job. 90% of the time, I can tell you how active a group will be when I meet the official or unofficial leaders. That goes double for attracting people who are not obvious candidates for membership.

I’ve written variations on this before, I’ve also given this speech at talks before, but I’ve decided to add another suggestion, at least for US Transition groups (and the like, there are other non-Transition PO and Climate Groups to whom this applies equally, but whether official or unofficial, the word “Transition” in the majority of group names).

If you are SERIOUS about wanting to increase the diversity of your membership in terms of age, class and race, wanting to make your future communities more secure, wanting to expand local food and employment opportunities, wanting to do outreach into minority communities and offer something to those already hardest hit by the early stages of our society’s crash, I’d recommend one particular access point – find ways for your group to work with recently released prison inmates in your community.

Why prison inmates? Why not poor single Moms or homeless veterans or (as is the American general perception) For Cripes Sake ANYONE but prison inmates who are bad people who deserve nothing at all from us?

The answer? Because it needs doing, and you are going to have to do it eventually. It might also be the right and compassionate thing to do, but that’s not the only reason. The fact is that at any given time the US has more than 2 MILLION inmates. The enormous cost of the prison industry – in energy used for confinement and transport of prisoners, in economic costs – are not sustainable into the future. Sooner or later, as Dmitry Orlov first pointed out in _Reinventing Collapse_ we’re going to stop imprisoning such an enormous portion of the US population.

Your community ALREADY has a population of men and women (mostly men) who go in and out of prison, and when out, have no jobs, few resources, and eventually commit crimes (sometimes with the intent of getting back in prison, which has the virtue of familiarity, food, shelter and heat, unlike their daily lives.) We send them to prison in lieu of social welfare programs, which in some countries would treat mental illness or addiction as a medical condition, not a crime, but don’t save any money on the deal. When a warm bed and a meal are not an option, given no other alternatives, those folks will not stop committing crimes and making your life a lot harder.

Come a point at which we can no longer afford the tremendous costs of our prison programs (rapidly approaching) those folks will be living in your neighborhood. They will not be less mentally ill, less traumatized or less addicted, they will simply no longer have jail as a convenient way to keep them off the streets and not to count them in the unemployment rolls. They will simply be your neighbors. What kind of neighbors do you want?

That means it is time to start getting neighborly. Because what we do know is that community support makes a huge difference between going back to prison (remember, not always going to be an option) and becoming a more settled part of the community. As sociologists suggest, there is a pattern to cutting into criminal recidivism, even if it isn’t perfect:

The few inmates who do reintegrate without much difficulty, who are best positioned to deal with the psychological effects of the transition, have the “big three” in place: they have a job lined up or find one quickly (e.g., through a trade union they previously worked with); they have housing (often with a relative or through a social-service program); and they have access to healthcare and treatment for substance-abuse and mental-health issues as necessary. The most effective reentry programs address these factors, and Western recommends directing more resources their way.

One more factor that can tip the odds is a mentor. Anthony Braga, M.P.A. ’02, a senior research fellow in the HKS program and chief policy adviser to Boston’s police commissioner, found that this was the key feature of the successful Boston Reentry Initiative. A joint project of local, state, and federal government, it matches each inmate being released with a mentor from a community organization. Braga, a longtime lecturer at Harvard who is now a professor at Rutgers, found that high-risk offenders who participated in the program and received mentoring took 30 percent longer to end up back in prison, and their offenses were far less likely to be violent crimes when they were rearrested. He says these results “show that you can make inroads and start getting them away from the pressures that lead them to falling back into their old ways.” (But Western notes that keeping expectations modest is important: “Some of the most successful reentry programs,” he says, “only reduce recidivism by 10 percent.”)

Jerry does have a mentor, his case worker at the shelter, a woman he calls “an angel.” Most recently, when his state-paid health insurance was canceled in error, she helped him get it reinstated. Not all former prisoners have advocates like this, notes Catherine Sirois ’10, the project manager for Western’s study; most are released into a piecemeal system where the assistance they receive relies on “luck, not a plan.”

It is tremendously difficult to get and keep and job if you are one of the large portion of black men in this society who have a history with the US criminal justice system. And that starts early – minority men who drop out of high school and never get a degree are enormously likely to end up in prison. The vicious circle – impoverished, minority, hard to employ, into prison, even less employable, even poorer and more desperate….goes on and on unless someone breaks it. It is traditional for Americans to cut off our noses to spite our faces on these subjects – even if it would make our communities safer and our neighborhoods nicer, we don’t like to give help to people who are not “deserving” so we mostly don’t, and we build more prisons. But knowing that there won’t be more prisons and prison industry forever should give us the boost we need.

Disproportionally, inmates are not white. Moreover, not only they but their families need support. In many low-income urban communities near you, there’s hardly a family without someone in prison, often over long distances, often impoverishing everyone in the family still further, often making it harder for their kids and their parents. You want to make people sit up and pay attention to your message about collapse – well, get down on the ground and meet a need that isn’t being met. Help arrange sustainable transport for visiting day. Help provide non-judgemental resource support for the wives and girlfriends and kids and parents left behind who no one cares about because their loved ones did something bad.

You want to reinvigorate local food systems and the local economy – how about helping work on projects that will find jobs for both former inmates and those who are most at risk – the low income, high school dropouts in your community. Think about Catherine Sneed’s Prison Garden program, for example. What else does your community need skilled labor in – local food production, making locally produced goods, tool repair – how will those businesses come about? Who will work in them? It probably won’t be retired, affluent baby boomers – so how about investing in local work for those who aren’t going to college, but who have gifts with their hands and minds that haven’t been fully utilized. The kinds of mentorship mentioned above are something that members of Transition groups could provide – along with a welcome into the community at large.

Is this easy stuff? Absolutely not. Is it sometimes risky, likely to bring about moments of painful culture clash, occasionally probably a little dangerous, much harder than showing another peak oil movie, and will it fail sometimes? Yup. Does it require you to ask who is really a part of your community, and what you want the future to look like, not in an idealized space, but in the real one we all inhabit. Yeah. Is it going to stretch you way out of your comfort zone? Absolutely. If you do it, and you do it well, will it change everything about how others see your relevance and your commitment? Yeah, I think it might.

Climate change is going to stretch you hard too. So will peak oil. So will the economic grind. So if you aren’t prepared to make space NOW, when things are comparatively good to reach out to the most despised, hardest hit people in your community, when will you be? Because those folks are there now, and they’ll be there afterwards, and you are going to have to ask the question “What is my relationship to these people” sooner or later. So ask now, and try and make it the one you want.

The prison population is just one issue – it is a good one if you need a place to start, but there may be other places in your community where people are struggling, and those struggles are going to spill over hard into your future. So next time someone asks me this question, I’ve got a new answer. It isn’t because I don’t think the old one was wrong or not true, but it didn’t go far enough. Yes, throw a party. Yes, nurture new leadership. Yes make it fun. But also, find a lever for changing the future by changing the now. If you want to change the world, and you want to make the community you live in into the one you want to live in through very tough times, go to where things are toughest. Pick the place where the people you want to reach need you most, and do the hardest work you can think of right now that will help you now and help you in the future. Then go to the next toughest place and do the next hardest work. And onwards. And onwards.

Editorial Notes: Photo credit: flickr/ethan lofton

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