Fighting for Our Loved Ones Behind the Walls—An Organizer's Story

This summer organizing with the Ella Baker Center has taught me the power of listening, and the power of hope. This is a reflection by a young organizer, who through the collaboration with community, has a message for Oakland: loved ones behind the walls are worth fighting for. There is hope for better quality of life and fair chances to advance in our society. It can be done!

The first day of my internship at the Ella Baker Center I was handed a worksheet about conducting one-on-one meetings with members. Going into the job, I knew that listening was the key skill I would have to hone in order to make connections and relationships to sustain our movement against mass incarceration. I never imagined how the power of relationships would transform my experience as an organizer and the lives of those around me.

During my second week, I went to Santa Rita jail to do outreach around Proposition 47, California legislation that reclassifies low level felonies to misdemeanors. Santa Rita had a dry taste in the air, secluded from the rest of Alameda County. As we got out of the car, I remembered what I had been instructed: use your intuition when approaching people. If they are having a bad day, or seem to not want to talk, don’t force any information on to them. You never know what a person is going through. Be respectful of people’s space.

The visitation hours at Santa Rita prison are strict, so it’s not uncommon to see people rushing inside, sometimes sprinting up the long ramp to the entrance, as not to be denied precious moments with their loved one inside the walls.

One woman came down the ramp, whose vibrant nature seemed open to our information on Prop 47 and the Ella Baker Center. To my dismay, she let me know that Prop 47 wouldn’t do her any good, and she thanked me for the information. As we talked, I began to use my listening skills, sensing a serious need from this kind woman.

Her husband was serving 25 years to life. She let me know that a social worker she was corresponding with had requested a letter from her, in order to get her husband into a drug rehabilitation center while he served his sentence. She needed help writing out her husband’s story in a letter which would ask for him to be able to enroll in the program.

A letter, I thought, seemed pretty simple. They say sometimes you have to wear different hats as an organizer, so I invited her to a one-on-one in my office, where we could sit down and write out the letter.

Alice came to my office with a heavy heart. Out of her purse came a yellow notepad, and on it was a handwritten story that I knew would be a challenge to capture in one letter. I read her story out loud, and there was a lot of grief and indignity in the air. I tried to quench it using touch, compassion, and silence. We got to writing.

Her eyes lit up, my voice raised and fell and asked, my eyes scanned the screen searching for the perfect words, her hands sat fidgeting in her lap, hopeful.

Once we composed the letter of her and her husband’s story, I remember thinking, “Even if nothing comes out of this letter, the atmosphere of resilience and hope we created was cathartic, and nothing less than productive.” I felt extremely accomplished and so did my new friend. We read the letter twice over to check for errors. We embraced, feeling validated, feeling a sense of trust.

The most impactful parts of the letter pointed out the suffering that her husband faced in jail and the domestic violence they both withstood in the midst of battling his drug addiction and trauma. Her husband never had a family, Alice told me. A street family, yes. A drug family, yes. But she was the only family that was fighting for him now.

Time after time she had seen the love of her life come out of prison weaker and more tormented than before. In the letter, we were intentional to include his need for restoration, not incessant incarceration. Her example of perseverance and love had a great impact on me.

A week later, I got a voicemail from my friend, thanking me for the work that we did on the letter. She informed me that our initial goal was ultimately a failure—the court mandated that if her husband joined the program and for any reason was not able to finish it, they would give him 30 years, in other words, the rest of his life. I felt disheartened, and even through her gratitude and deep sincerity, I knew that the hope we had garnered was diminishing quickly.

It wasn't until another two weeks passed that my friend called again with an update. Her words stunned me: “His sentence was reduced from 25 years to life, to 2 years and 4 months. We did it!”

I let out a loud shriek in the Ella Baker Center office and my face felt hot as she explained to me that the letter had reached the judge, as well as the family who were the victims of her husband’s initial robbery. They all read the story, and agreed to see his humanity, to shorten his life long sentence.

As Alice says, “This story is about going from three strikes, never touching your loved one again, to standing up with another chance. It can be done." It is a story about each human’s capacity to feel.

Alice's capacity to fight for her husband, love him unconditionally, and continue to hope. My capacity to listen, help tell a story, and frame it in a way that acknowledges systemic flaws and realizes the need to unpack emotional trauma. The social worker, Lynsey Scott's, capacity to deliver the letter, believing in the resilience of people, and in the ethic of her work to serve. The compassion and work of public defenders, Christina Moore and Steven Schweitzer, to fight for Alice's husband regardless of obstacles.

This story is about building power together through the darkness of our stories and from the deepness of our connections.

My friend is making steps towards planning for her husband’s reentry in a little over 2 years, and preparing for the next chapter of their lives together, without walls to separate them.

Although the win is something to celebrate, the reality is that the fight is not over. Drug addiction and serious trauma from incarceration is something many people, like her husband, are still dealing with, which will transcend the time of their sentences. It’s time we use our hearts to listen and our minds to empower the voice of change.

Become an Ella Baker Center member, work on a policy bill, go to a rally, keep fighting, but most of all, wash the judgement from your hearts, and remind yourself that the most liberating feeling is not one of superiority, but one of companionship.