One of the projects that we have been working towards this year has been building community with people who have had very different experiences of life, experiences that have that perhaps rendered our lives as segregated from early on. So much of ‘society’ tends to keep us stratified, based on socioeconomic, cultural, age and other arbitrary factors.
One of the Red Vic Lectures last year, was given by an attorney, Jared Rudolf, on the History of the California Prison system. It was a fascinating talk and as we all got into the questions towards the end, it became clear that some of the attendees, were themselves formerly incarcerated individuals. They were there speaking from their perspective and found a space where they were heard. As we got to talking about their experience, I asked them what they were lacking. At that point, their answer was ‘a place to be, and to build community’. The thing they asked for was a place to play Dungeons and Dragons, a game that had been their primary form of escape and relief during their years inside. Now on the outside, facing all the pressures of life, they had nowhere to play. Being part of a network of intentional communities, space is abundant, rendering this a simple thing to solve. And so it was that the ‘Second Life’ project was borne: our attempt to create community together, a collaboration between the Embassy Network and The Prisoner Reentry Network. We gather together each week to play. The games are attended by formerly incarcerated lifers, residents and community members. And no one need ask who is who. We leave our backgrounds at the door and join each other at the table as equals. We build life together. We cook, eat, talk about the struggles of life. I am still learning to play D&D (a truly remarkable experience). Despite the vast differences in some of our experiences, there is much common thinking, and shared strife also. We became part of the same tribe.
The games were the platform by which we got to know each other, but the group started to attend our other free events, salons and lectures. They came to, and took part in our story telling events, and became loved and valued active members not just passive participants. When Trump was elected, they joined us in our protest reading of Foucault’s “Society Must Be Defended”. It was, and remains, a beautiful, reciprocal growth process.
This is not philanthropy, this is a step toward healing the rifts of a lifetime of separation, that began so early in all of our lives. Whilst most of us were finishing school and deciding where (not whether to, but where) to go to university, these humans were facing not only the tragic ethical consequences of their actions, but also the full force of the criminal justice system. And they faced it alone. Most of them went inside as teenagers, and receiving life sentences, spent around 20 years inside, before being one of the lucky few, who were eventually found suitable for parole. The chances of a new life, a second life, are abominable.
This month our community has been tested. Two members of our Second Life group, violated their parole. This is so easy to do, especially when you have been inside for 20 years and are not given any guidance on how to exist in the world, not only under the everyday struggle to survive, but also under the extreme conditions of parole. The terms of parole are strict and put them in a highly precarious position. The consequences of parole violations are a return to prison, to serve out the rest of their indefinite term life sentences. In terms of freedom, these are the precariat.
The first time one of our group violated the terms of their parole, I was distraught. They had recovered from cancer just a month before. I was with them in hospital as they had their chemo pump removed a few days after Christmas Day. We watched Harry Potter on the hospital TV and quietly breathed a sigh of relief. For him, being released from prison and then from cancer, this was a second, second chance. When I heard he was in jail for his violation, I wrote letters to the judge, hoping for another chance. But I had no idea how to navigate the court system. After a three hour hearing, the judge sent him back to serve out his sentence. He is now back in Deuel prison.
The second time it happened, a month later, we were ready. We had our letters for the judge prepared, and the community rose up. We found out how to contact the public defender and around 20 of us turned up to the first hearing. We raised the money that we needed in the end to get a private attorney, as the consequences of failing were too high — a return to life sentence no less. It was clear from the judge’s response that people showing up to court, writing letters, made all the difference. ‘Injustice happens in empty courtrooms’, Jared Rudolf of the Prisoner Reentry Network told us.
The situation is ongoing and devastating. Not only for these two people that we love, but for everyone in their position, and for the people that love them.
What can we do?
Put into an incredibly precarious path through life, with only tenuous freedom, this group has so much to offer, yet their continued presence with us is fragile. These are issues that should be dealt with by the state, but that can be provided for by the community. Our intentional communities are a rich ecology of emotional, logistical and financial support. We run mutual aid support circles, that are free, open and welcome to all. We have a solidarity fund for those who need it. We have a continually renewed fund for therapy for people who don’t have health insurance, and for subsidized rent. Our tribe has social workers, medics, lawyers, people with experience of mental health issues and sobriety, all building together. As a collective, there is a lot of mutually provided support and accountability, that might be something this group of humans can contribute to and participate in.
What has this done for us? We’ve learnt so much from this group of people. Each has a unique form of wisdom, drive, commitment. A deep sense of morality and ethics, cultivated partly out of a need to take responsibility for harms by their hand (something many of us never learn), partly out of personal suffering. A respect for the process of forgiveness, whether applied to ourselves or to others. For me personally, I have discovered a genuine sense of shared values, a critique of the system, a healthy inquiry into the forces that led us to where we are. As a collective, this collaboration has brought us together in a new way, with a shared goal of fighting for this group and a manifestation of our fight for all people.
The future holds what I hope to be a collective vision for our work with this group of people, and with the Prisoner Reentry Network, who are doing such incredibly important work. We will continue to build community for those who want it, and create spaces for garnering agency, for learning and co-creation. Our way of life, and the riches it brings, must be open to all who are ready to contribute to it. We are looking to begin raising money to employ formerly incarcerated people to build this project out. If you want to support us in this, please do get in touch.
What have I learnt? Go and do the thing that you feel is right, even if it feels alien. See the people that the world is keeping from you. Build life with those people, remember that you are the same humans, just dealt different cards. Fight for people, the way that you hope they’d fight for you, and fight even harder to change the circumstances that meant they needed to be defended in the first place. They might be the people that you change the world with.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead
- For Bert, and for Raven ❤ -