Reflection on a Prison Education Program Visit

SCI Phoenix Visit Reflection

The day dawned as one of those crisp not-quite-fall-weather days, the kind that makes you want to sit outside on your lunch hour and feel the sun on your skin. But the men we were invited to visit at SCI Phoenix Correctional Facility had little-to-no time in the sun, and when they did, they were enclosed with cinderblock buildings and fences encircled with barbed wire.

In correctional facilities across the U.S., dehumanization seems to be the name of the game, but the men who facilitated our program actively work to restore humanity to both themselves and the visitors they receive from the outside. Their group, Let’s Circle Up, exists to intentionally challenge stereotypes, recognize our shared compassion and work towards restorative justice.

I’ve been a teacher for most of my life, so it was quite a joy to enter SCI Phoenix as a student. Our facilitators – men imprisoned at Phoenix – began with an exercise they called “The Wagonwheel,” where those of us who were visiting from Eastern – students, faculty, staff and alumni – sat in an outer circle and the men we were visiting sat in an inner circle. We rotated chairs to spend a few minutes chatting with one another about various questions: What is your favorite TV show? Talk about a time when you broke a rule. If you could be a vehicle, what would you be? Before long, the room was filled with the eager swapping of stories and so much raucous laughter that the facilitator had to quiet us down.

And I swear, that laughter was downright transformative. 

If we had done nothing else that day, that laughter would have been enough. It reminded me that we are people of flaws and foibles, triumphs and imagination, and smiles despite the heaviness of the world. I swapped stories with individual men about the performance of MacBeth they’d participated in the week before, what it’s like to grow up in farm country, and the James Baldwin books we both happened to be reading. 

I was reminded of shared humanity, and this is no small thing when considering the pursuit of justice.

But the day drew on, the sun now high in the sky somewhere outside of the thick and impenetrable walls. Inside, our teachers continued to encourage us to do the hard work, the introspective work, the world-changing work of re-envisioning justice.

In small groups, we brainstormed creative ways to express a shared vision of what justice could look like. I found myself in a group with Trish Reger, Dean of the College of Health & Sciences, who spoke about her habit of daily journaling and how words had impacted her life, and two writers, both of whom loved poetry. Our group decided to write a collaborative poem about compassion as an in-road to justice. Each line of our poem was written by a different individual, alternating between the real and the ideal. Together, despite our distinct life journeys, we formed a single vision, one that speaks truth to power and left in all of us a prophetic vision.

Compassion

Recognizing the humanity in everyone
“Single file, IDs out, what’s your number?”
My son says, “Close your eyes and count to ten. Then come find where I’ve been hiding.”
There is no hope, only dark death for those in the cage.

A kinder justice is a patient justice
Impatience is like a caged lion, seeking to be fed, to have its mane stroked
Hope is life. Let light have its truth.
Prejudgment equals death.

An ear to listen – to hear what the other person is afraid to even speak
The deaf stay in darkness where there is no real justice
A vision and dream of mercy and love
A nightmare of despair, every day the same.

May light shine as a refuge of the condemned
Prejudice dims hope and destroys dreams
Our lights shine brightest when we’re together
You who have turned off the lights, cut off the electricity: 
Who is it who made you not believe in candles?

To learn more about the "Let's Circle Up!" organization inside SCI Phoenix, contact:

Charles Boyd
Smart Communications/PADOC
AY3031
SCI Phoenix
PO Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733

Felix Rosado
Smart Communications/PADOC
DB0028
SCI Phoenix
PO Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733

Margo Campbell
LetsCircleUp@gmail.com