I’ve been writing about my experiences in prison during my 27 years of incarceration at nine different Tennessee prisons, trying to paint word-pictures for the community outside the razor wire. Perhaps, in some way, that is a form of activism toward ideological change about the prison system.
For most of my years in prison, I’ve been ashamedly afraid to speak out too loudly against the system for fear of retribution. Through the years, I’ve witnessed many outspoken peers who filed grievances or voiced injustices get sent to harsher prisons, physically abused or placed in segregation. So, I’ve mostly stayed at the edge of such controversy, only sending out essays, writing books and poetry, and contributing to other people’s anthologies about prison conditions.
More recently, I’ve had the opportunity to engage with radical activists on various issues and have been inspired by the final-straw moments that pushed them to action. I met these fine people after forming a prison book club several years ago as a means to build community and provide a safe space for the men around me to be vulnerable and express their emotions, and where thought-provoking consideration of new ideas and ways of thinking could be explored.
Discussing the virtues of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird or Napoleon’s evil descent in George Orwell’s Animal Farm takes on a new perspective when the book club is behind bars. Incarcerated readers see parallels with the United States’s criminal legal system and spiritedly debated the novels’ flawed characters and whether “justice” was truly delivered in their scenarios.
I look around the room and I see 20 amazing men who I’ve come to call friends. In the mix are those who have murder charges, drug charges, and everything in between. If someone only looked at a book club member’s rap sheet, they may conclude that they’re a hopeless, ignorant criminal without any hope of redemption. But without the scarlet letter declaring each one a felon, a person sitting in the room with these intelligent, compassionate and helpful men may reach a totally different conclusion.
In 2022, we read an essay that Janet Wolf wrote in the book And The Criminals With Him, where the author and others explore the concepts set into motion by Baptist minister and radical civil rights activist Will Campbell. In fact, Wolf reached out to us with an incredible offer to come and talk with our group. It was amazing sitting around a table, asking her questions about the material she wrote and experiencing the humanity she brought to our book club.
Turns out that Wolf is much more than an author of books, she is also an intriguing radical activist in her own right. She starts vigils outside of prisons, conducts “think tanks” in prison workshops and on death row, and puts feet to pavement organizing folks to speak their minds and use their votes to change legislation. Wolf recounts in her book how, on Christmas Eve in 1976 as part of a small group of people standing outside of an old state prison, the lights of activism came on for her, literally and figuratively.
The huddled group lit candles and sang carols in hopes prisoners would feel their presence — but Wolf wasn’t feeling like what they were doing really mattered. Then, her small son tugged on her coat and pointed to the cell windows. She writes that she “turned to look where he was pointing and saw, in cell after cell, the glow of matches and lighters being held up to the windows, spilling through the bars.” That was Wolf’s radicalization moment. Since that time, Wolf has visited death row prisoners and advocated on their behalf. She became a radical activist.
Our book club also got to meet author Lindsey Krinks, who wrote Praying with Our Feet. She told us how during her college years she was introduced to information, statistics and facts that she couldn’t just sit on. “I was learning that I wasn’t called merely to pray for city leaders to do the right thing about people experiencing homelessness. I was also called to act in tangible ways,” she told us.
Krinks went on to cofound Open Table Nashville, an interfaith homeless outreach nonprofit, and has been ordained as a street chaplain. She organizes marches and protests to push for legislative changes that benefit those experiencing homelessness. She told us about her book, “It’s a story of falling in love with a people, with a struggle, with this world and all its madness. It’s a story of a seeker searching for belonging, for some spark, some horizon of hope.” Krinks, too, is a radical activist.
This brings me to my own final-straw moment, the one that moved me from the sidelines to the center. The prison where I’m housed sits on pristine acres of rolling hills with beautiful trees, where deer and wild turkeys roam without fear just beyond the razor wire, where we can see from our small cell windows. The prison yard is manicured to perfection with a full staff of incarcerated landscapers working on it daily. Ironically, the prisoners are not allowed to walk on the grass, just the walkways and stairs. So, unless you’re a landscaper working on the lawn, feet don’t touch grass. The prison guards are constantly screaming, “Get off my grass,” if even a hint of a shoe hits the soil. Prisoners have been handcuffed and taken to segregation for not immediately adhering to this command.
I have often looked outside my window and imagined feeling that lush grass on the bottom of my feet, tickling my toes. Still, I obeyed the rules — it didn’t seem worth risking my prison job, housing unit, and any small privilege I may have earned during these 27 years of good behavior.
One average Tuesday afternoon, as we were lined up on the concrete walk to go to chow, I saw one prisoner, Lucas, take his shoes off, then his socks. Lucas is 72 years old, has been incarcerated for 38 years and was just diagnosed with cancer. His days are numbered. As we began moving to chow, Lucas walked on the grass. “Inmate, get off my grass,” the yard sergeant yelled. Lucas paid him no mind and continued walking. Soon several officers came running and sprayed Lucas with pepper spray, knocking him to the ground.
Most prisoners kept walking, heads down, just as they are taught to do, minding their own business. But when my book club friends saw me stop, they also stopped. When I stepped my feet onto the grass, they all followed suit. My heart was racing but my gut told me I was doing the right thing. No words were spoken for a while. Soon though, the guards approached us, and commanded, “Get off my grass inmates.”
By that time, the captain came running out seeing a disturbance developing. He saw how quickly this could get ugly, pulled his guards away and told us to go on to chow. After months of turmoil between the prison administration and the grass protesters, we were finally allowed a space in front of our unit where we can touch grass — even with bare feet. Lucas is now part of our book club.
Since that day, our book club has sent hundreds of letters to politicians, organized writing campaigns for causes related to treatment of prisoners and filed multiple grievances when injustices occur at our site. When I read articles or watch news reports about prisons, they’re usually devoid of any incarcerated voices. As insiders, we must insist that stories about us include our perspectives when possible. Contacting news media through letters is our newest mission. This can only happen if we band together and advocate for causes that surround our captivity.
This is my life. Reading and touching grass radicalized me.
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