Since I was thrown in jail with my brother and cousin for a crime we did not commit, my life has not been the same. Unlike many who are handcuffed and face felony charges, however, I was equipped to defend my family with extraordinary community support and collegiate networks.
Countless others have not been as lucky. My friend and fellow poet from LA, Nanon Williams, was sentenced to death row in Texas at only 17 years old. Despite findings by a federal judge, forensics experts and Amnesty International that he was wrongfully convicted, after 22 years Nanon is still surviving the daily abuse, unchecked violence, and untold torture millions face in prison.
You shouldn't need the credentials of the President to get justice. Yet even having the same university degrees as Mr. Obama was not enough to keep me from being imprisoned in the dungeons and tombs mistakenly called "correctional" facilities. Nanon's case is emblematic of the prison crisis. My own reflects just how far its misguided reach has expanded.
Both are evidence that fundamental change is long overdue.
Building on the lessons of organizers who came together to end apartheid and famine in Africa 30 years ago, we ask you to stand in solidarity with us for the 1st Annual DAY OF ACTION AND DIALOGUE for International Prison Activism. On November 21-22, 2014, we will bring together artists, activists, educators and allies from around the globe to share stories, strategies,and solutions in workshops, town halls, and brown bag/teach-ins that address our critical issues.
Is prison the place to cure health problems? Can it fix drug addiction and mental health issues? Does it improve literacy or reduce poverty? Should any "justice" system deny human rights like freedom from torture? Protection by law enforcement? The right to vote and participate in the political process? Or access to basic services and education during and after prison?
Why and how do we find the moral courage and political will to demand humane treatment, developmental support and rehabilitation for those accountable for acts of harm? If no one is born with the intention to harm another person, how can we hold ourselves accountable as a society for the cumulative effects of the harm that we collectively allow?
Guided by visionary elders like Eddie Ellis, Soffiyah Elijah, Lani Guinier and Harry Belafonte, art and activism have opened doors for me to men, women and children incarcerated in correctional facilities reaching 25 states across the nation. I have learned invaluable lessons from those who have suffered and survived in prisons around the world. The need to prioritize public health and human potential over profit and punishment has never been more urgent.
Replacing a centuries old system based on punishment with a new one inspired by equality of life opportunities and improving public health requires confronting the inequities of race and class this generation has inherited. As the United States boasts the world's record for imprisoning the most citizens, the rising tide of movements to transform prisons, and end race and class-based mass incarceration, is only beginning to be informed by the effective strategies emerging worldwide.
On our own, none of us is immune to the systemic trauma claiming thousands of lives each year. Collectively, however, we possess the power to end the inhumane conditions of confinement destroying lives and devastating communities in the name of justice.
Our mission is to change the dehumanizing narrative and radically transform the systemic conditions stripping millions in prisons around the world of basic human rights.