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I’ve Known Rivers: Prison Matters

Creasie Finney Hairston, PhD

I have been in many different prisons but never been “in prison.” I have been “to court” on numerous occasions though only once as a defendant. I protested a ticket for a traffic violation and then decided like numerous other defendants to take a plea and pay the fine. I faced far worse consequences if I insisted on waiting for the judge to hear my case. The procedures and obligations of parolees have been repeated in my presence many times, though I have never been on parole, and hearing “you have a collect call from an inmate at…” when I answer the phone is not unfamiliar or startling to me. As Langston Hughes’ poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, goes, ”I’ve known rivers”…but not really.

My formal involvement in criminal justice matters began more than thirty years ago and was prompted by an invitation to attend a college graduation ceremony at a correctional institution. While waiting for the ceremony to begin and during the reception that followed, I talked with a professor from a local college who taught at the facility. Our conversation began with casual introductions but then ventured on to how each of us happened to be at the event, our observations about the invasive search process to enter, how “outsiders” viewed prisoners, what appeared to us to be needless control measures, and his own experiences working at the prison. Though I had been a visitor at a few prisons and read books and papers on crime and justice, it had not occurred to me until then how a family’s experience of “going on a visit” and interacting with prisoners as people, just like other folks, was so different than what I had read in books or seen on television. I remarked at that time, “I am going to write about this.” His reply was, “Somebody needs to.”

For over thirty years I have been a social work faculty member and academic administrator involved in justice matters. I have developed and staffed children’s visiting areas in prison visiting rooms; organized parent education, family events, and support programs for men in prison; run a support group for women at a county jail and supervised social work interns placed in prisons for men and women and in post release housing programs. I have also conducted interviews in prison as a member of a death penalty mitigation team, investigated allegations of abuse in a women’s prison and monitored living conditions in a large county jail and several state prisons. Similar to other academics studying justice matters, I have toured prisons and jails in several states and even participated in academic meetings held at correctional facilities.

Most of my direct service activities took place earlier in my career and were usually provided under the auspices of grassroots, faith-based, or not-for-profit volunteer groups and organizations. More often than not, the groups provided support for incarcerated persons and former prisoners and their families while also leading strong advocacy campaigns to improve criminal justice policies and practices. As examples, in Tennessee I served as one of the external sponsors of Parents in Prison, an organization created and led by prisoners, in Indiana as a volunteer with Rethinking Prisons and Church Action for Safe and Just Communities, and in Illinois as chair of the John Howard Association’s Prison Monitoring Committee.

Most of my direct service activities took place earlier in my career and were usually provided under the auspices of grassroots, faith-based, or not-for-profit volunteer groups and organizations. … Throughout the years I have been involved in criminal justice matters, particularly as they affect families, in the usual roles and positions held by college professors and other social scientists.

Throughout the years I have been involved in criminal justice matters, particularly as they affect families, in the usual roles and positions held by college professors and other social scientists. In addition to writing papers and presenting at conferences, I have been a research team member or consultant with major firms and foundations. The list includes the Vera Institute of Justice, the Urban Institute, Annie E. Casey Foundation, RTI International, and the Brennan Center for Justice. I have been a member of expert panels convened by national organizations and departments of corrections to examine the impact of incarceration and reentry on children, families, and communities, and have participated in numerous meetings convened by Federal agencies. Among the latter are the Office on Violence Against Women, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, various units of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Institute of Corrections. The agendas of these different groups covered such diverse areas as responsible fatherhood and marriage programs for men in prison, mentoring programs for prisoners’ children, inmate telephone call rates, prisoner reentry programs, and statistics and data on incarcerated parents and their children.

My current criminal justice system portfolio does not include regular visits to correctional institutions or providing direct services to individuals and families. I am also not currently doing, and have not done, the major writing I had in mind when I asserted with conviction, “I am going to write about it.” Addressing criminal justice system policies and practices, however, is still very much a part of my professional identity. Criminal justice is a focal area of study and policy analysis for the Policy and Research Center that I direct and central to my public service and community engagement. I am a member and Past President of the Board of the Illinois Academy of Criminology, on the Board of the National Alliance for the Empowerment of Formerly Incarcerated Persons, Editor of the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, and a member of the Community Advisory Council and Policy Review Task Group for Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability. I participate in a weekly support group for formerly incarcerated persons and their allies, and I am developing a study to document and assess the programs and services of a violence interruption and prevention organization staffed primarily by former prisoners.

I am often the lone social worker and social work educator “sitting at the table” when policies and practices affecting justice-involved persons are discussed, volunteer services are planned, and social change and reform strategies are deliberated. In many instances, I am the only academic, i.e., college professor or administrator, involved in these discussions. Depending on the meeting and expertise presumed to be needed or desired by the meeting organizers, I may also be the only participant who has actually ever talked with, as opposed to interviewed, prisoners or their families. On occasion, unless introduced otherwise, the reason for my presence is presumed to be that of a prisoner’s family member. Since others are not automatically identified that way, this may be because of the high numbers of Black persons who are incarcerated and the fact that I am a Black woman.It could be, however, because I make a conscious effort to use the practical knowledge I have gained and my social work education and expertise to help elevate the concerns and aspirations of families who are not at the table and to support those who are.

I do not know how or if the work I have done or am doing impacts recidivism statistics or affects other measures typically used to determine program success. I have no doubt that some persons I have known and helped over the years are not counted in the post-release success group. I have contact on a regular basis, however, with many former prisoners who have been able to do all right with a little help.

I am often the lone social worker and social work educator “sitting at the table” when policies and practices affecting justice-involved persons are discussed, volunteer services are planned, and social change and reform strategies are deliberated. In many instances, I am the only academic, i.e., college professor or administrator, involved in these discussions.

The harsh realities of working and living in prisons and jails, and efforts that families must endure to maintain connections and reunite, once seen up close, are hard to forget. I have seen the emotional impact of participation in parent education classes on men labeled as hardened criminals, and observed children happily interacting with their incarcerated parents in children’s visiting areas rather than from behind plexiglass barriers. I have witnessed the process persons leaving prison go through trying to get health care, stay clean, adhere to numerous supervised release rules, and avoid illegal activity when they have no money and few prospects for a job. I have heard “thank you” for caring, for being there, for your support many times over, and have seen how services and connections mean a lot and make a difference to the persons who receive them. These are things I cannot, nor do I want to, easily dismiss.

Mass incarceration is now a hot topic and subject of debate as to what could and should be done. Sadly, I have witnessed throughout a thirty-year period the implementation of harsher criminal justice laws and processes, rather than more enlightened ones. The collateral consequences of a criminal conviction are huge and, for some, pose life sentences served in communities rather than in prison. There have been in the last few years, however, some changes in social and administrative policies that have been central targets for change by justice reform groups in which I participate. Though a long time coming, for example, we are seeing lower, though still exorbitant, telephone rates for prisoners’ phone calls to their families and friends. Surprisingly, a few days ago the owner of Securus, a private company making huge profits from the prisoner phone system, stated that the system should probably be under the auspices of a not-for-profit organization. Pell grants allowing prisoners to obtain a college education are back on the table, after being banned for many years, and several states and local municipalities have removed the question about a criminal record from employment applications. There is a long way to go for real criminal justice system reform, however, and it is not likely that prisons will be abolished in the lifetime of today’s abolitionists. In the mean time, life goes on.

The change, or changes, that we seek will not be automatic or achieved by wishful thinking or well-reasoned proclamations about what should occur. It has been difficult for me to see how I could affect things that I care about by being a critic from a distance, standing safely on the shore. I have, therefore, chosen to get in the water, go with the flow on occasion, sometimes row my own canoe, and at other times cruise with likeminded activists on a large riverboat. My involvement in the unjust system we call the criminal justice system has taken me on many rivers. I hope that in my ventures on these waters I have made, and am making, a positive difference that matters for both individuals and broader social and racial justice causes. I have been affected immensely, both personally and professionally, by these journeys. As stated so eloquently by Langston Hughes, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

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