I had a conversation the other day with a good lady named Dianna Goodwin. She’s a senior advisor to New York state Senator Lewis R. Sepúlveda, who is also the chair for the State Senate Committee on Crime Victims, Crime, and Correction. I was discussing with Dianna the need for reform in the New York state prison system, which is probably one of the most reactionary and corrupt prison systems in the country.
Dianna was of the position that the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision will not recognize and approve prison chapters of my UFD organization, due to our past association with the New African Independence slash Liberation Movement, and their revolutionary New African Nationalist ideology. I told Dianna, regardless of DOCS, we’ll do so or not.
Something has to give because the New York state prison system isn’t working. It is graduating young prisoners deeper into criminality and reinforcing the criminal behavior older prisoners. I know this because I’m witnessing it live and direct. I was also a product of it and had to crawl from up under the negative and corrupted influences of this environment, fair and bloody knuckles, on my own, to save myself.
Indeed, if not for my commitment to UFD, and my passion to help save young prisoners from gangs, drugs and violence, I would have slipped deeper into the abyss of criminality, because DOCS doesn’t inspire prisoners to change and better themselves. The idea of corrections in New York state is a joke. I told Dianne, New York should be doing like North Dakota, which is implementing innovative prison reforms styled after the prison system in Norway. Dianna said she wholeheartedly agreed, and this is why she came out of retirement. She said she often tells people the New York state prison system needs to be modeled after Norway. But she said, the question is, how do we do this?
The challenge is convincing New York voters why reforming our prison system is necessary. The moral argument alone we are not going to win. Not without something more, cause there’s even people on the left, who I call liberal progressives, that buy into the hype law and order rhetoric, that all criminals deserve to be punished. That we owe a debt to society. Just recently, governor Cuomo came out against granting the right to vote for prisoners, and it was the same old, “we owe a debt to society” argument he used to justify his position. This is the man who said New York will be a progressive beacon for the nation.
Prisoners are the least powerful and most vulnerable demographic who are easily scapegoated by both the right and the liberal left. One Republican legislator called a current bill, “absurd,” that would grant parole review of the cases of prisoners 55 years old or older, who served 15 years or more in prison. He made it seem like this bill, if passed, would somehow open the flood gates of prison, to give prisoners who committed heinous crimes a “get out of jail” free card. This is only one of many examples of how we prisoners are scapegoated, and the public and liberal left buy into it.
Well let’s talk truth. The New York state prison system costs New York taxpayers billions of dollars a year, and it doesn’t work. The recidivism rate in New York is close to the 76.6% national average. That means the majority of those people released from prison in New York, and throughout the country, re-offend within three years. Most of the guys I’ve run into who are on their second or third bid tell me they didn’t last a year.
Let’s talk truth. Most prisoners in New York are Black and Hispanic, and come from mostly the five boroughs of New York city in urban communities throughout the state, like Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, and Albany. So, although we cannot vote, the white upstate communities we are incarcerated in, count us as part of their populations, for which they get a larger share of the public fund. With us gone from our communities, our communities get less funding.
Let’s talk truth. People commit less crime the older they get, so giving 55-year-old prisoners a chance at parole makes sense. Let’s talk truth. The one truth the right and the liberal left ignore. The American prison system, including in New York, is racist and classist, so it preys on the poor and people of color.
Putting all this truth together, to bring about prison reform Norwegian style, we must win the public debate and show how our prison systems isn’t only immoral, but is a big waste of taxpayer’s money, as it contributes very little to public safety. And you know the best way to win that argument? By supporting the efforts of prisoners like myself, who are taking the initiative to reform and rehabilitate ourselves and those other prisoners around us. Agree or not with UFD past politics, our success within the prison system as a gang, drug, and violence prevention intervention program, will be a political coup for the movement for criminal justice and prison reform.
We need to do more to highlight the value prisoners and former prisoners actually bring to society. It’s harder for the right to scapegoat us when you can consistently point to the good and great deeds prisoners and former prisoners are doing. That’s how we win the public debate to push for more aggressive prison reform, Norwegian style.
This is Dontie S. Mitchell, better known as Mfalme Sikivu, reporting to you from Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, New York. Follow me on Facebook @freeDontieMitchell. Also, please share this commentary. Email it to New York’s Governor Andrew M. Cuomo. Ask your friends and family to do the same. Thank you for listening and God bless.
(Sound of a cell door closing.) These commentaries are recorded by Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio.