I woke up this morning in my grandmother’s house in the middle of the farmlands of rural west Texas. I drove alone through miles of cotton fields and watched the men on John Deere tractors harvesting this year’s crop. They carve intricate patterns in the red earth as they strip the white puffs of cotton. Miles of these fields surround the prison where my father is being held. He can see little else beyond the fences and concertina wire, so the planting and harvesting of the fields provide some of the only non-prison activity in view.
I spent every summer of my childhood playing in this red dirt. My mother grew up in this part of Texas, and now a prison stands in the middle of these fields that fed and supported a whole community of country farming families. People who went to high school with my mother now stand sentry over my father and the other incarcerated men who live each day in one of the 75 Texas state prisons. Many of these prisons are in rural areas, and all of them are known to their inhabitants as “farms.” Most of the folks who went to school with my mother thought they would grow up to work the land the way their parents had before them. Instead big businesses bought out most of the farmland in the state and brought in machines to replace the majority of the farmers who once made a living off the land. Unemployment soared, and many people left to find jobs in the state’s urban centers. Those who stayed soon could find jobs nowhere but in the many prisons being built throughout the rural areas of Texas. The prison industry is now the primary employer in many of these former farming communities, and local high schools have cut back on their agriculture curriculum in favor of courses and after school programs to train young people to become prison guards.
As a child, I never could have predicted that this drastic economic and cultural shift would occur in my mother’s homeland or the fact that it would have such a profound impact on my family. I was nine when we began our battles with the courts and fifteen when my father first entered the prison system. Today I watch the children in the prison visiting room and wonder what their lives will be like twenty years from now. How many of these children will eventually lose all contact with their incarcerated parents? How many of these children will grow up to be prison guards? How many will pretend they never had a loved one in prison? How many will be activists? How many of these children will one day be incarcerated themselves?
When I tell someone that my father is in prison, usually they want to know why. People want to know what he did to get locked up and judge for themselves what kind of a person that makes him, and perhaps what kind of a person that makes me. I do not speak publicly of the charge against my father. Some people assume that my silence implies shame, but I have never been ashamed. I do not speak of the crime of which he was convicted because it does not define who my father is.
According to the Prison Activist Resource Center, the United States now has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the history of the world, imprisoning over two million people, which constitutes one out of every four of the world’s prisoners. A government that locks up this many of its own people must suffer from deep, systemic flaws in its concepts of justice. The government, the media, and indeed the people of this nation are obsessed with crime. Speaking of crime and who deserves punishment frequently precludes any realistic discussion about the material conditions of prisoners’ lives and the injustices occurring inside our prisons, or the logic of using incarceration as the sole solution to any and all kinds of crime. It overshadows everything human, familial, and familiar about prisoners. As a society, we have forgotten the fact that prisoners are still members of our communities, our neighborhoods, our nation. We have forgotten that the vast majority of prisoners will return to free society one day, and most of them will have few job skills, very little education, no family waiting for them, and no place to live. After years of being told when to sleep and when to wake, years of having no choice about what to wear or what to eat, many newly released prisoners experience great difficulty making even the most basic decisions. Most of these people will be angry about the way they have been treated, and rightly so. No person deserves to live in such conditions, regardless of their crime. We must revolutionize our system of punishment in this country, but in order to do that effectively, we must simultaneously revolutionize the ways in which we think about crime and punishment, prisons and prisoners, victims and perpetrators.
I need your help to change the system, as all the children of prisoners do. Just as it took so much and so many to bring about the grave malfunctioning of our criminal justice system, it will take a great many people, numerous years, and on-going struggles to improve the quality of life for prisoners and their families as well as crime victims and their families and society at large in meaningful and lasting ways. According to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics, prisoners with convictions for non-violent offenses comprise more than half of the prison population nationwide. Prisons cultivate violence, and the vast majority of prisoners will one day return to free society. We must consider how our systems of punishment define who we are as a society and seek practical and effective alternatives to prisons, such as restorative justice, drug rehabilitation centers, and community service combined with educational programs. Our goals should be to make society safe and to ensure our civil and human rights, not to warehouse and degrade those among us who we have deemed “criminal.” We must also strive to sever our economic ties to imprisonment and the labor of prisoners. Since capitalism relies on a constant supply of flexible and cheap labor, we face the distinct challenge of eliminating the economic exploitation of the incarcerated while safeguarding against the possibility of shifting this burden onto another oppressed population.
In order to succeed, we must form a cohesive network of activists. We should focus on really listening to one another, never believing ourselves infallible or the authoritative voices in any struggle. We should form coalitions with unlikely and genuine allies. Above all else, we should never assume we know what is best for others. We must continually engage the people who we seek to represent and let the members of the community tell us how we can best help them to help themselves. A prison reform movement should emanate from within prison walls and operate in tandem with parolees and prisoners’ families organizing on the outside. This does not mean that those of us not directly implicated in any particular struggle should ignore it or not take part. We should all be willing to engage in a struggle when we witness overwhelming oppression, but we must also never lose sight of the interests, living conditions, and civil rights of the people most effected by the struggle and most vulnerable to the oppression in question.
If you are reading this letter long after I wrote it, you must know that there is work yet to be done, but what is the call to action you face as you read this? You must know so much that I long to know. Did the state of Pennsylvania execute Mumia Abu-Jamal in spite of the strong evidence of his innocence? Did the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, held for years without charges, ever get to see their day in court or to return home to their families? Did U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales effectively use his position to increase the practice of torture in our military and civilian prisons? Which of these events had a profound impact on our lives? Did we learn from any of our mistakes? You future readers must know the answers to my questions, and I hope that this knowledge empowers you and inspires you to continue the work that we and our activist predecessors have started. Look to the future, as we do now, and fight against the injustices of the present with the knowledge that future generations will learn from your successes and failures, as you learn from ours. Remember my father and the millions of incarcerated people like him. Remember all the families of prisoners who struggle on the other side of prison walls. We continue to fight for human rights for every person touched by the criminal justice system. We do this for you generations as much as we do it for ourselves. Join your works with ours, and do not rest until the last prisoner walks free.
Yours in solidarity,
December 19, 2004
This letter is from “Letters From Young Activists, Today’s Rebels Speak Out”
Ashley Lucas is a twenty-five-year-old activist, academic, playwright, and actor from El Paso, Texas. She does prison-related organizing with Families to Amend the California Three Strikes (FACTS) and All of Us or None, and she is an outside supporter of the Angola Human Relations Club.