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    spiderwebs sparkling in the sunshine

    Kinship in Lockdown America

    Learning with the Incarcerated through Relationships

    Chris Hoke

    September 10, 2020
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    I was pulling into a frantic grocery store parking lot the night the governor’s Stay Home Stay Safe order took effect when my phone buzzed – a text message from my formerly incarcerated friend Kevin: “so is this gonna be yr first lockdown? lol”

    No one out here was using that word yet. His clever connection made me smile.

    I’ve worked as a jail chaplain, gang pastor, and prison reentry organizer here in the Pacific Northwest for the last fifteen years. I know what guys mean in their letters from prison tiers, especially in high security units, when they write, “We’re on lockdown.” They’re stuck in their cells most of the day. No movement around the unit, their small worlds. No programming or church. No visitors or volunteers entering the facility. No eating at the tables together. No visiting their “neighbors’ houses.”

    Guys are rarely disturbed when they tell me they’re on lockdown. They have experience in making the most of such temporary limitations. My friend’s text message spoke with the ease of that experience. All other never-incarcerated voices in my life buzzed through my social media feeds and groups texts with high alarm. I realized that a grand experiment in kinship with the 2.3 million incarcerated men and women in our country was about to begin.

    The entire criminal justice system is a mass-psychological-defense-mechanism that ensures most Americans never have to identify with those we lock up.

    Then I thought, Wait, no; few would ever make the connection. The entire criminal justice system is a mass-psychological-defense-mechanism that ensures most Americans never have to identify with those we lock up.

    Those lines of kinship need to be taught. And, as with my friend’s text message that day, only direct relationship with someone on the other side of incarceration can poke through those walls between us.

    A few days later, I sat before a grid of grainy video rectangles on my laptop screen: five members of a local Presbyterian church who are all writing letters with one imprisoned former gang member named Jessie. These men and women are participating in our organization’s One Parish One Prisoner pilot program.

    Twelve congregations across Washington State – a mix of Presbyterian, Catholic, Methodist, and Lutheran churches – are part of this experiment with us. Each church has selected and gathered a small team of five to seven congregants who will build relationship with a local incarcerated individual, someone in search of a support system for his or her release in the next year. Local churches become re-entry teams, or, really, resurrection communities. They grow to know and love someone like Jessie deep inside the tombs of mass incarceration: hearing his voice through letters and collect calls, seeing his face in the visiting room, learning how to identify and roll away the heavy stones, the many legal and financial barriers Jessie and millions of other face when they try to rise back into the land of the living. The prison gates opening on release day are just the beginning. The gates of Hades are thick.

    In the first few minutes of this Zoom meeting with the team, an eighty-five-year-old woman named Dottie – wispy white perm and crystal blue eyes – told the group about the quarantine measures at her retirement center: “They won’t let us out; nobody can come in. It’s like we’re in prison!”

    Then she paused, taking notice of her own words. “And I’m starting to think, If I’m feeling confined, what has Jessie felt for the last twenty years?!”

    “Go into your bathroom. Don’t take your phone, only a thin blanket and your worst pajamas, and have someone lock the door behind you from the outside.”

    My friend Jesús was speaking to me through a jail video visit – another grainy, eye-contact-skewing window. But this time, it was a window between the kiosk in his unit’s lower level and the laptop here in my office. “Now wait for a cop to bring you worse snacks than you’d ever feed your own toddler.”

    Jesús held the black phone receiver to his ear and the medical mask over his nose and mouth, muffling his voice. I could only see the expression in his eyes. I saw a row of prison doors lining the horizon behind him. “And people are complaining about not getting their hair cut out there, or having to wear a little mask when they go into a store! Come on, man.”

    I got a letter from Ruben, a former gang member from East Los Angeles, now one year from release inside a Washington prison. He’s become a popular and lively mentor in the state’s first gang recovery and healing program. Once he decided to change his life, he also decided to try out his grandmother’s Catholic faith, taking a deep dive into the little Friday evening mass with the visiting chaplain. So when he heard about the One Parish One Prisoner idea, Ruben was thrilled at a chance to “chop it up” with “some Catholic dudes” who’d be willing to write him and build some new friendships in the town where he’ll be living next year.

    “At first they were hesitant,” Ruben wrote me about his team of four middle-aged white men from Saint Teresa of Calcutta Catholic Parish, “putting just their initials on the envelope. Using the church’s return address. Now, bro, it’s so cool. They’re using their full names, home addresses. These guys are sending photos of their kids and vacations now. They share their struggles. I share mine.”

    The next week he wrote me more, telling me how at first he thought this program might be goofy but he now believes “we gotta make this thing grow”: “It’s so effortless to write these dudes. So real. They have their own styles. Like Steve. That dude’s fire, bro. He tells me what he’s learning, sends me quotes from what he’s reading, tells what he’s struggling with, what they’ve been through as a family. Hard stuff. And Carl – turns out we were both living not just in LA at the same time, but right there in Long Beach! We can talk Dodgers all damn day.”

    Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries, down there in Los Angeles, often says this: “Mother Teresa once diagnosed the world’s ills by saying, We’ve forgotten that we belong to one another. Kinship is what we call it when we refuse to forget that.”

    A month into quarantine across the nation, I started seeing a number of Twitter threads about how we need to lower our expectations of ourselves during this time. Compassionate brain science stuff for all of us wondering, Why am I constantly on edge? Why can’t I focus? Our brains are in survival mode, these articles gently reminded readers. There’s a global pandemic, an economic crisis, our lives as we know them have been turned upside down. Our brains are not the most centered, patient, or productive in this environment. The solution these commentaries all prescribe: Go easy on ourselves.

    How can we extend that understanding to men and women who’ve survived, day after day, in lockdown barracks for years? Those whose entire lives have been a saga of ongoing trauma, who grew up in survival brain, found street drugs for self-medication, made poor decisions, never became “productive” members of society? How might our short taste of tribulation change our understanding of what men and women releasing from prison may need their first year, their first months, their first days out?

    I wrote a few guys in prison, asking them if they had any advice for Americans out here who are trying to adjust to their confinement. Ruben wrote back first, telling me, like lots of folks in their houses, that he watches too much TV. And too much news. “I tripped out on the wild fires. Then the impeachment stuff, all the evidence, the lying. And now this virus?? The way I see it, the planet is sick. And when I came to prison, I was a sick individual. My symptoms were anger, gangbanging, drugs, ego, lying, and selfishness. Oh yeah, and denial.”

    How might our short taste of tribulation change our understanding of what men and women releasing from prison may need their first year, their first months, their first days out?

    I underline handwritten sentences in prison letters like these and pin them to my office walls.

    “But getting locked up was a turning point in my life. Losing everything. That’s when it hit me: If I’m sick, there’s treatment, there’s a cure, right? I could change my whole way of life. That’s when I got some hope, bro. If a sick vato like me can change everything and learn a new way of living, the planet can too.”

    Ruben called me collect the next day. He said he’d been thinking more about how he uses his lockdown time. “Like last night, I had to get on my knees in my cell. I turned the news off. Something told me I gotta pray for this president, bro. Serious!” He seemed shy to admit this. I got out a pen and scribbled his words as he spoke.

    “It’s not just about getting that money rolling, the economy. I used to think that making money was everything. My hustle was my life. I didn’t care if people got hurt. It was all power, image, greed. I’d lie, do whatever. I’d hurt anyone who tried to stop our hustle. It’s so easy to see in others now.”

    Ruben paused.

    “So I pray for him, bro. I turn off the TV, do my spiritual reading, do a prayer. It’s been the only way I maintain.” I asked Ruben how he prays. He was quiet on the other end. I pictured Ruben on his knees in his concrete cell, the huge LA Dodgers’ logo tattooed on the back of his shaved head, beaded with perspiration. “I can feel the Holy Spirit sometimes. I gotta get real still and humble myself. I repeat it over and over, the few little words of a prayer I do, right?” I waited for him to continue on his end of the line, listening.

    Then I found myself inside that stillness.

    Ruben has a rare plumbing job inside the prison. He likes it. Even when he shows up with a mask and gloves during lockdown, usually to unclog a cell’s toilet, “Everybody’s always happy to see me!”

    But hours and movement are still limited. Recently Ruben called me and told me instead of TV he’s trying to look elsewhere during his cell time. “There’s a spider outside my window. I call it Paul. I had a homie back in LA called Spider. But his real name was Paul. So I call this spider Paul.”

    I instantly loved Ruben even more, and now Paul as well, as I listened and reached for a pencil once again. “So check this out: I see Paul catching a fly, in his web. Now, I don’t know if Paul’s a dude or a chick or whatever, but I make a coffee and watch him and I’m like, “Get it, Paul! Feed your family!”

    Ruben described watching this spider carrying, or dragging, its fly. “Look at this foo! What a beast!” That’s high praise in recent slang. “But he can’t do it. He stops. And he just starts eating it. I watch it get smaller, this fly he caught. He had to improvise. It was a reminder to me. I’m on a mission too. To get to my kids. If this spider Paul can do it, so can I. I’m not the only one to struggle.”

    I marveled at this simplest thread of kinship Ruben has found between his own life and another life on the other side of the walls. Ruben let himself be in awe of what Paul was carrying and how he faced his challenges. Ruben is humble enough to learn and be inspired by those society may deem as less valuable.

    “God is teaching me. He provides, teaches us, we just gotta see it, you know? Recognize it. It’s small. I just try to pay attention.”

    Weeks later my laptop screen was full of more faces: Ruben’s One Parish One Prisoner team. Steve shook his head while rubbing his eyes with two fingers beneath his eyeglasses. “I’m just amazed at Ruben. How passionate he is about his growing relationship with his daughters. His hope for a life he can build with them. I’m telling him, in our letters together, about how I almost lost my daughters not too long ago. He gives me hope.”

    “Absolutely,” Carl chimed in. “Especially when I think of some of the things I’ve done in my life, if I had been caught. I’d be in jail myself if it weren’t for the statute of limitations.” The screen, the grid of windows between us, was quiet for a moment here. “Ruben’s a better man than I am, that’s for sure.”

    Men and women in prison, for much of their lives, have seen police brutality up close and the brazen theatrics of racism. For far too many, that was how they themselves were welcomed into the human disposal system.

    For millions of other Americans, however, the viral video of a black man’s life slowly crushed under the knee of white law enforcement was a jarring exposure, a revelation. Enough evidence can eventually beget new charges. Our nation is facing clearer charges than ever for some of our longest-running sins.

    Sometimes change begins when you get caught on camera. The overdue reckoning finally begins. In the Twelve Step community, they often say, “It takes what it takes.”

    I woke up to an email from Dottie. She wrote that the night before she’d watched the movie Just Mercy, about Bryan Stevenson’s work confronting racial bias and injustice in the court system.

    I woke up at 5:00 a.m. this morning and my first thoughts were of how wrong we white people have been over the years. I felt convicted because I haven’t acted on the wrongs I’ve seen over the years! My regret this morning is that I’m now eighty-five. But I want to do whatever I can to advocate for justice and mercy for those in our society that have been shoved away into the tombs of incarceration!

    I’m really looking forward to meeting Jessie in the flesh and have told him that I have grown to love him over these past months as a grandson.

    Bryan Stevenson starts all his keynote lectures with the same first step to changing all injustices: what he calls “the power of proximity.” Get closer to the issue, in the flesh. Risk relationship with one person on the other side of our learned fears.

    As they say in change groups in prison: It’s never too late.

    My friend Jesús, the one in the mask who teased me through the jail video visitation screen – I knew he’d been assaulted by two police officers when he was arrested last January.

    I had helped his girlfriend, who was present at the incident, write her formal witness statement the next day: how she and Jesús hoped the two police officers who arrived at the rainy gas station early that morning would help him recover his stolen phone; how the white officers cussed at him to shut his mouth when he began to describe the situation; how they told him he was under arrest if he didn’t shut up, then punched him in the face, pressed him against the wall, kneed him in his stomach repeatedly, and broke his ribs while the other officer held his arms behind his back. One officer pressed him to the rainy gas station asphalt with a knee in his neck, while the other then tazed him.

    But I hadn’t done anything about it. I’d assumed nothing could be done. I thought offering relationship was enough. I paid for our expensive video visits into the prison, and helped pay for his video visits with his girlfriend and kids. “You don’t know how much this means,” he told me more than once. “This screen here is my only window out of this box, my only escape.”

    But after I watched the video of George Floyd’s killing on my phone at home, after I woke each morning to new steps in our culture to revisit and revise our narrative on policing, I thought of Jesús. On our next call, I asked Jesús about the gas station surveillance video of his arrest.

    Emails with his public defender turned to phone calls. He helped me file a public disclosure request with the city records. Before my copy of the evidence came in the mail, the attorney offered to hold his phone’s video call function up to his work computer so I could glimpse the incident.

    When I saw the video of my friend being abused, watched the armed officer rush Jesús, punch him in his unprotected face, throw MMA-style knee-kicks into his stomach while the other officer held his hands behind his back – police aggression I only hear about as an upper-class white man, or see in movies – I almost whimpered.

    Then I saw the officer’s full weight rise onto his knee placed into the back of Jesús’s neck, there on the ground.

    I didn’t know if I wanted to cry or marshal our entire ministry network to expose this and get our brother home. Because the officers now alleged that Jesús, while protecting his body in the melee, had lifted his elbow to one of their necks. He was charged with felony assault on an officer. So Jesús was facing five years to life in prison for not surrendering to brutality more fully.

    The attorney heard my gasps. “Is this new to you?” he asked. “I know it’s fucked up. But this is, sadly, normal. This is how the system still works. Jesús is telling the truth about what happened, you can see. Most of my clients just don’t have family or pastors like you calling and asking to see the evidence.”

    Taking a closer look at recent history led me to an inner turn, the “new mind” we commonly translate as repentance. I could no longer accept what’s normal. It takes what it takes.

    The attorney had told me the prosecutor watching this same video wouldn’t see what we see. “All they see is a man resisting arrest.” So I offered to recruit my videographer friend Fred to simply slow down the video, pause, annotate and highlight each act of normalized violence to break through the numbness in any viewer. “That might help.”

    Hours after I sent Fred the surveillance video file and directions for slowing down the silent footage for the prosecutor, Fred texted me: “I can’t stop thinking about policing and parenting. Does a nation police like they parent, or parent like they police? There’s some connection here.”

    I called Fred on the drive home from my office, and asked him to say more.

    “I’ve been trying to deescalate my own parenting,” Fred confessed. “As I watched the video of these cops, so quick to exert control over Jesús, I kept thinking, Why do I have to rush to punishment, or physical restraint so quickly?

    Each thin thread of kinship and repentance can slowly make a new web of connections. We remember that we belong to each other.

    I parked in front of my house and watched my four-year-old son open the front door and run across the grass towards my passenger door, as Fred’s voice continued on speaker: “I started thinking, I mean, while watching those officers punching Jesús as they order him to ‘Shut the fuck up’ … How were they parented?

    Each thin thread of kinship and repentance can slowly make a new web of connections. We remember that we belong to each other.

    I told Fred that Jesús, the man in the video he’d been watching all afternoon, has two small children himself. And that Jesús had been asking similar parenting questions over the last year. “I can put you in touch, if you want,” I offered. “I think he’d love to hear from someone like you.”

    My friend paused, then said: “I think I’d love that, too.”

    See the video Fred Sprinkle made here.

    Contributed By

    Chris Hoke is the founding director of Underground Ministries in Washington State, a PC(USA) pastor, and the author of Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit through Jail, among Outlaws, and across Borders (HarperOne 2015). undergroundministries.org

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