Reggie Harris was sitting in a prison cell doing eight-and-a-half years when he reached in the book bin wheeled through the halls and picked up a battered fragment of August Wilson's play "Fences." Though he only saw the middle half of the play-he didn't learn how it ended until he was released-reading the drama that paralleled his own experience caused Harris to reexamine his life and rediscover his creative voice.
Now, seven years later, Harris returns to the Stillwater prison twice a week to work with 20 to 25 men in the Stillwater Poetry Group (SPG), making its first video public performance August 20 at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis.
"Wilson's play got me to thinking about how I ended up where I was at," said Harris, a 40-something-year-old black man with long dreadlocks, a smile that lights his entire face and a melodious voice made for reciting poems. After a total of 13 years in prison for drug-related charges, he now lives in St. Paul and is the founder of the writing group In The Belly.
"Looking at my father's arguing and whippings differently. Poetry became the vehicle to explore that. I'd always written love poems. The density and conciseness of poetry, how two words can be a paragraph, was a way to talk about things I wouldn't have so freely discussed. It was a form of release."
The prisoners Harris works with grow more numerous every day. In 1971, America's prison population was about 200,000. Tripling in the last decade alone, America now incarcerates two million people, more than any other nation on earth. The "war on drugs" with "mandatory minimum" sentences account for 60 to 70 percent of convictions, mostly nonviolent possession and sales of small amounts to support individuals' own addiction. Crimes from rape to sexual abuse of children and serious domestic violence are often "pleaded down" to sentences far shorter than those for $10 worth of crack cocaine.
"Angela Davis calls it the 'prison-industrial complex.' I make links between prisons and the plantation," he said. "Now, they're also holding pens for the homeless, the mentally ill, domestic violence issues." Nationally, the majority of prisoners are people of color. The Council on Crime and Justice, in its 2001 "Color of Justice" study, found that Minnesota has the largest disparity between black and white imprisonment rates. Race plays a role at every point in the process, from police stops to severity of charges-made at the prosecutor's discretion-to sentences.
Gaps for misdemeanors alone are stark: African-Americans are arrested for "disorderly conduct" ten times more often than whites, for "trespass" 19 times more often and for the vaguely defined crime "lurking" 27 times more often. The study concluded that "prosecutors are more likely to file more serious charges and seek higher sentences for minorities than for whites." (For more information: www.crimeandjustice.org ) Crack cocaine-used mostly by people of color-brings sentences as much as 100 times higher than powder cocaine, favored by whites. Whites more often receive probation and treatment, while minorities are more often imprisoned. Despite 1999 Congressional hearings exposing these inequalities, the Clinton Administration refused to change these policies, which continue to put more than one-third of African-American males, aged 15 to 30, into the criminal justice system.
Recent studies suggest that a third of prisoners have (usually) untreated mental health problems. While many Americans are beginning to acknowledge a national health care crisis, mental health treatment remains even more unavailable than medical care. Despite the huge number of drug-related sentences, most prisons have long waiting lists for treatment and therapy.
"It's almost misleading to call SPG a poetry group," Harris said. "They're doing a lot more than just writing poems. We've conducted critical-thinking, interdisciplinary workshops that addressed themes the guys wanted to address: What is manhood? What is feminism? Domestic violence, the breakup of families; how to parent from prison."
SPG member Sarith Peou writes in his poem "My Testimony" about how poetry can transform a prisoner's life. "Compressed thoughts/swell in my head./Hurt so much/I wish I was dead./I want to release them/drop them like lead./I change them into poems ..."
Instead of just bringing in books, Harris had writers, actors, dancers and activists engage the SPG men through their own experience-based art and analysis, inspiring the kind of process Harris began after reading Wilson's play.
"Members of SPG went from writing poems about being mad at the system to doing deep exploration about their own ideas and values," Harris said passionately. "Deconstructing their own beliefs and ideologies. Seeing SPG and themselves as a community within the prison."
Harris estimates that 90 percent of convictions are for "economic crimes," including theft, robbery, small-time fraud, "boosting clothes" and most drug charges. Only about 1 percent of inmates are incarcerated for murder. Labor Department statistics show African-Americans' unemployment averages twice the rate of whites. DePaul University sociologist Michael Eric Dyson documents how the export of American manufacturing jobs disproportionately impacted the black community, creating unemployment as high as 50 percent in some inner cities. Native Americans on reservations experience up to 80 percent unemployment.
However, not all corporations are pulling jobs from American cities and sending them overseas. Some are moving them directly into the prison system, where prisoners can work for Third World wages. "Private industry has a captive labor force. No unions, no sick days, no paid holidays-hell, no holidays!" Harris said. "No way to express grievances."
He explains that, while incarcerated, he built furniture and after various "deductions," earned $5.86 a month. "All the clothing shops, furniture stores, services that use incarcerated help, it's pure profit for them," he said. "There was a time they sent those jobs to Latin America. Now, they have them here with two million people at your disposal."
By the mid-1990s, a U.S. News & World Reports headline said, "Need Work? Go To Jail" (12/9/1996), noting that Stillwater prisoners made 40 cents an hour. Nationally, prisoners make 50 cents to $2 an hour, averaging $1.10, making designer blue jeans, Victoria's Secret lingerie and computer components, as well as taking airline reservations and calling homes for marketing research.
The prison system is increasingly being "privatized," as corporations like Corrections Corporations of America have increasingly taken over the task of managing prisons. News reports have described how CCA has cut health care and education programs to prisoners and hired doctors whose licenses had been suspended. Prisons have been a highly profitable business for some companies, but less profitable for the Americans inside; Amnesty International and other organizations have documented widespread abuse in the American prison system. MINNCOR (started in 1996) made $12,244,800 in 2002 profits from Stillwater prison labor. Their homepage boasts, "Some of the most successful companies take advantage of our expanded and diverse production facilities, flexible production scheduling and reliable, consistent workforce." MINNCOR CEO Dan Ferrise was made Stillwater Prison warden last September.
"Times are getting harder./Now, the only question is, harder for WHO?/ They can cut and paste any angle on the 10:00 o'clock news/ to have you believe a horse is a mule./If they said it/it must be true," said SPG co-founder David Doppler in his scathing poem "Don't Call A Horse A Mule," which describes his struggle with a society increasingly obsessed with social control and consumerism. Like two-thirds of SPG members, Doppler is doing life without parole.
"Freedom has to mean something different to that person," Harris said. "Liberation means something different. I did my last bit -- 8 1/2 years-because I knew I'd get out and feel that breeze in the trees again." Harris voice drops in volume, rises in intensity. "These guys have to bring the breeze inside. They're doing it by breaking boundaries, crossing borders, reaching out to each other."
Harris tells the story of Jacob Hernandez: gay, exploited and brutalized by other inmates and unable to find any allies-even in SPG.
"He was so totally isolated, he went to his cell and hung himself," Doppler said. "Totally isolated around 1,300 guys-guys incarcerated and oppressed for much of the same reasons he was." Harris says the men in SPG were stunned by Hernandez' death. "The next week, they brought in another guy falling into the same traps as Hernandez. They weren't trying to change him. Or tell him what being a man is or what being black is or what being an inmate is. They were just trying to support this guy. That's the kind of change I see needed out here."
As agribusiness and Wal-Mart destroy rural and small-town economies, prisons that warehouse largely urban minorities are a main source of jobs for displaced white workers. Former president Bill Clinton pressed states to try more juveniles as adults and lengthened sentences, and his "three strikes and you're out" policies for (often nonviolent) felonies keep prison cells full, while "welfare reform" legislation has made poor and uneducated women the fastest growing prison population.
No one expects the number of prisoners to decrease anytime soon. Legislators predict the number of future prisoners according to the number of children in Child Protective Services, said Minnesota sociologist Michael Tikkanen in his article "Invisible Children" ( www.dissidentvoice.org ). Abused and neglected children are 66 times more likely to enter the juvenile justice system, and, ultimately, adult prisons. Minnesota's 12,000 to 14,000 abused and neglected kids, many of whom spend most of their childhoods in foster care, are mostly poor and minority. Minnesota's social programs are better funded than those of most states, but it still spends far more on incarcerating adults than on providing for children.
Tikkanen quotes now-Governor Tim Pawlenty as saying in 2001, "Children who are the victims of failed parental responsibility are not my problem. Nor are they the problem of the state of Minnesota." (Communication with Andy Dawkins and David Strand, September 2001).
Reggie Harris is adamant that he is "not doing missionary work," saying he learns more than he teaches at SPG.
"I don't think it's even possible in prison to rehabilitate," he said. "Prisons are designed to oppress, dehumanize, control and give us the illusion of safety ... How do you humanize people locking them in cages with flashlights up their behinds? Art is a way to connect inmates with their humanity, but also to connect us to the humanity of the inmate."
Inside/Outside Joint presents projected video performances of SGP poets with Twin Cities artists Will Powers, Desdamona, Ed Bok Lee, Carolyn Holbrook and others, $10-20 benefits SPG. Fri. Aug. 20th at 8 p.m. at Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Ave. S. Minneapolis.
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