Fresh Eyes: Bridging gaps between people in prison

Jorge Cornell and the Rev. Nelson Johnson at FCI Petersburg.

by Jorge Cornell

I participated in a panel discussion at the Conscious Seminar for Men, which was held on the grounds of FCI Petersburg, a medium-security federal prison in Virginia, on Feb. 20. The first question raised for discussion was one that I had proposed: How do we bridge the gap between youth and elders here in prison? (Two other questions that I proposed were not selected for discussion.)

I’ve had conversations with elders on this topic where their mindset is that the young generation is wilder than they themselves were “back in the day.” But my thinking is that every generation says that. The older generation is ignoring the youth and not pulling them aside when they see them doing stupid things. We’re not being taught to look out for the next man. You can work on yourself — as we’re taught — by helping others, too. Let them know you truly regret your bad decisions.

What do you want your legacy to be? Prison? How do we bridge the gap? What can we do to take care of young men, to show them the way so that they can have a better life? They can make corrections, change their ways, and be productive in society and make a good life for themselves and their families.

For a start, when a youth is struggling, approach him. Get involved. Do the best you can to kill the situation and help him understand the choices he’s making and the consequences, which may cost a life. Many youth don’t think about dying. It’s important to bring awareness — to keep them in the program — and eventually it will get to them.

We have the same issues that can bring us together but the system keeps us separate and doesn’t allow us to think outside the box.

There’s another question that I have been wrestling with: How can we bridge the gap between black and brown?

The issues between the Hispanic/Latino and African-American communities, I believe, come from issues of hatred back to our upbringing and the fact that our ways of thinking are so different. There are Hispanic tables where a black can’t sit. The system divides us, too. Both races are family/group oriented. At the end of the day, the administration in prison caters to this mentality. That’s a means of keeping races divided. If we come together, we’re a threat.

We became slaves and they took our culture, our food and everything else. And they try programming you into their way. It’s like hypnotizing us, to keep us not focused. If prison is really about rehabilitation, why is there so much recidivism? How to bridge the gap?

By talking, getting together, getting past the stereotypes, starting dialogue. When either race is being disrespected, we want to make a move — but we’re all being disrespected every day, and we’re allowing it. We are not standing up for better food, better medical care, property, laundry. No one fights it. We have the same issues that can bring us together but the system keeps us separate and doesn’t allow us to think outside the box.

I proposed a third question: How do we approach a correctional officer of color and engage in a meaningful conversation about the oppression of people of color in the system?

We are already in an oppressive environment, and officers of color want to oppress us even more. They go above and beyond their duties, almost like they hate their own people. How do we engage in a conversation like that? How can we explain that they’re doing to us what was done to their grandparents, and great-grandparents? Did their grandmother say, ‘I’m proud of you,’ when they became a correctional officer?

Unicor, also known as Federal Prison Industries, is a job, a multi-million dollar enterprise. The director here told us a story of how her mom back in Georgia took her to a doctor’s office as a little girl and they had to go in the back door and had to be separated from the white patients. Knowing this — what she went through — being called names and whatnot, there’s no question she’s a strong, black woman, but at the end of the day she’s an oppressor. We are being paid less than minimum wage in here. She told the story and the next day, a worker told her he was sick. She didn’t care, didn’t call medical, didn’t send him back to his unit to rest; she forced workers to reach the piece rate needed for success. Thirty-five hours per week, and workers are lucky to make $200 a month.

Knowing what she herself went through, she should see that this is not “business as usual” — this is slavery! She is just like the house n***** holding a gun on the field slaves.

Jorge Cornell is the former leader of the North Carolina Almighty Latin King & Queen Nation who previously lived in Greensboro. He is currently serving a 28-year sentence in FCI Petersburg, a medium-security prison in Virginia.