The Truebloods' living room is humming with friendly chatter and chewing, and then seeped in silence as an author enters the room. Laura Magnani introduces herself, author of Beyond Prisons. She is the director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Bay Area Healing Justice Program, working with people of many backgrounds to transform social tensions and systems to promote peace.
She begins her workshop by introducing the themes of what is to come, which includes mass incarceration, race, and solitary confinement. She first hits us hard with statistics. She talk about who makes up the prison population and the actions that put them there. But then she makes it stick: she talks about the systems that put them there, and how they are only perpetuating the problems. She informs us that an increasing number of prisons are privately owned, and their funding comes from their occupancy. This promotes a motivation to fill them up. The jails become crowded because most can’t pay the bail, so more money is spent providing more prisons instead of funding programs that redirection criminal behaviors at the root. Thus, there is no effort to keep people out of these prisons. But even that isn’t enough. There is a public fear that released prisoners haven’t changed, so a law was enacted called the 3-strikes law. If you are arrested once, then twice for serious felonies, if you are ever arrested again you are locked up for life.
Laura lets this settle. Students shift uncomfortably in their seats, feeling powerless at the feet of this unjust system. She then hits home with visuals. She introduces a brief film on what prison is actually like, focusing mainly on solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is a punishment designed to give criminals the time to reflect on their actions and an opportunity to change. With the ever-harshening judicial system, what went from days in solitude becomes decades trapped in small windowless cement rooms. Not only does this system neglect to heal, but can literally drive a person crazy and worsen their condition. She conducts our anger to mezzo forte, and then gives us a small release: the hunger strike. The people in prisons are not powerless. Through making their protests known, they are able to win small rights like possession of calendars.
Laura has positioned us like balloons: she has filled us up with injustice, directed us at the system, and then hands us the pin. It is our fight if we make it. I don’t know if she heard the conversations that followed after she left, but as she walked down the front steps I hope she patted herself on the back for sparking 30 young activists, and inspiring, not just with her message but also by her example, to fight for justice.