Elaine Frantz Parsons

Historian of Violence and Culture

Today's Underground Railroad

Some months ago, I met with a man who helps recently-released male inmates find housing, treatment, support, training, and jobs. “Honestly,” he laughed, “I feel like Harriet Tubman, running around trying to help these men find any sort of way.”

I was reminded of that comment yesterday, when Pennsylvania State Representative Ed Gainey gave a talk to several dozen inmates at State Correctional Institution- Pittsburgh (SCI- Pittsburgh, or “The Wall”). Representative Gainey’s little sister, Janese Talton-Jackson, was a victim of homicide this year, apparently gunned down by a man she rejected in a bar. Gainey had agreed to come speak at the prison to give the perspective of victims of violent crimes. He spoke powerfully about seeing that blue bag zipped up around the body of his dead sister.

But Gainey is not only the heartbroken brother of the victim of senseless violence: he is a lawmaker charged with addressing the problems that create such violence. After describing his own pain, he talked to the incarcerated men about theirs: the structural forces that had worked against them, the twin blights of drugs and the drug war, and the terrible violence and carceral state which they had produced. He spoke of his work to remediate these forces, co-chairing a Heroin/ Opioid Task Force, and co-sponsoring legislation to limit gun proliferation and to expunge nonviolent charges from criminal records. He had requested increased funding for drug treatment in this year’s budget, but in the end had gotten less than half what he asked for.

The men in brown jumpsuits took in every word. Built in 1882, SCI-Pittsburgh’s fortress-like nineteenth-century construction makes it nearly impossible to retrofit as a modern maximum security prison, so it is now low- to medium- security. Its inmates are low escape risks: old men with canes and wheelchairs; men being treated by its cancer center; mentally challenged and mentally ill inmates; “lifers” who have already served so long, and with such good behavior, that they do not require maximum security. But most of the low-flight-risk inmates are those who are serving the last years of their terms and getting ready to transition back to the outside. Inmates call SCI-Pittsburgh a “Go Home Prison”. But they know that most of those who go home will be back.

After Gainey’s talk, a queue of incarcerated men formed to ask questions. Some simply thanked him for his words and for his willingness to come out. Some began to share stories about injustices they had faced in their trial and conviction, and were gently but firmly shut down by the fellow inmates who had organized the event, and wanted to avoid special pleading. But most of the men’s questions had to do with transitioning back to life outside of prison. One man introduced himself as having a few years left on a sentence for third degree murder. Could Gainey talk to him about who he should turn to when he needed help when he was outside? A young man in for heroin dealing asked about job training and about employment discrimination against ex-convicts. Others asked about whether there was a way to support yourself while you attended job training on release. Many of these men were preparing to take care not only of themselves, but of partners and children who had long been struggling to get by without their help.

Gainey’s responses were blunt. He told the men that they would suffer and they would struggle. He recommended that they give themselves 60 months, five years, to get on their feet. He told them that they would definitely be rejected, and every day. They would knock at 1000 doors, and 999 of them would not open. There was treatment and support but it was woefully underfunded.

“Don’t let them put you back in here,” he urged. “You have to eat. That’s a given. You have to eat. And all of you here, you know how to eat. But whether you end up back here or not depends on whether you can be patient, and on whether your greed is bigger than your hunger. You can feed your hunger. You go to the soup kitchen. If you have to go there for 60 months, you keep going there. There is no shame in feeding yourself when you are hungry. But if your greed is bigger than that, you will go back to how you know how to feed yourself, and that’s how you get back in here. Let your hunger be humble.”

Let your hunger be humble. Looking at the incarcerated men around me, and thinking about the hard, hard thing that was being asked of them, I realized what my friend meant when he said he felt like Harriet Tubman. Around 700,000 men and women will be released from prisons in our country this year, and many millions from jails, often into almost unimaginably difficult situations. According to the National Institute of Justice, more than three quarters of the men and women released from prisons in this country are rearrested within five years. Assisting these men and women in their long transition from incarceration to stable and self-sustaining lives is arguably the most pressing social justice imperative of our time.

Ultimately, we will need to disassemble the carceral state, and federal, state, and local governments will need to dramatically increase their funding for reintegration, much as the Freedman’s Bureau was created to assist freed slaves. But until we get there, all of us have an obligation to assist those ex-convicts who are working to escape reincarceration, and against such heavy odds.

What we need, then, is to build up an Underground Railroad for today, in the shape of a massive and robust social movement to recognize the legitimacy of the claims of, assist, and reintegrate ex-convicts. To do this, allies will need to overcome their fear of former convicts. Just as antebellum white Americans struggled to recognize the common humanity of slaves, so our culture has been set up to prevent us from recognizing the common humanity of prisoners. In the state of Pennsylvania, for instance, we are forbidden to take videos, audio recordings, or photographs within the prisons. Until the law was struck down last year, prisoners in Pennsylvania were not even allowed to sign their own names to works of art or writings circulated outside the prison: even now, the prison system effectively pressures prisoners not to do so. And the walls around prisons are nearly as effective at keeping us out as they are at keeping prisoners in: it is a difficult and frustrating process to get into the prisons as a volunteer. Or, to come in as a visitor, you must already have formed a personal relationship with the prisoner. The carceral system is set up to prevent prisoners from communicating with those outside, beyond their immediate family and community.

In the vacuum of the opportunities for real interactions with prisoners, non-incarcerated Americans have fanatasized them. Just as northerners in the last decades of slavery turned to slave-themed minstrel shows to feed their fascination with the hidden plantation, so a huge industry of crime and punishment-themed newscasts, television dramas and comedies, and music has sprung up to serve the curiosity of middle-class whites who are forbidden actual human connections with incarcerated people. But these sensationalized forms, even when they express sympathy with inmates, make them appear to be radically different, feeding outsiders’ fears.

Our carceral state is a terrible injustice. We need to fight the injustice itself, but as this fight continues, one of our most pressing needs is to meaningfully help those recently-freed men and women who have the opportunity to escape its grasp. We can do this in several ways. It is crucial to elect public officials like Ed Gainey who are sympathetic to the cause and to pressure and support them to pass legislation funding ex-convict rehabilitation, training, housing, and employment.

As individuals, however, the first step is to place ourselves in situations in which we form personal connections with convicts or ex-convicts by going through the cumbersome process of volunteering at prisons, joining prisoner advocacy groups, working at soup kitchens and treatment centers, or simply becoming aware of those who we come in contact with in our daily lives are engaged in this struggle: in this country, you don’t have to look far at all to find a recent ex-convict. These interactions break down the fears that prevent us from helping, and also put us in a position to ask ex-convicts what they need for us to do to support them. Depending on our skills and resources, they might ask us for financial support, training, education, or mentorship, help to find and keep decent housing, or help in finding and keeping jobs. This sounds small and manageable, but done right, it will keep growing and building on itself as we keep responding to the needs we can clearly see around us.

Many of us like to imagine that, had we lived in the days of slavery, we would have been part of the Underground Railroad. We flatter ourselves that we would have taken desperate strangers into our homes, fed and sheltered them, and risked our lives to help them on their path to freedom. We know that our current carceral system is deeply unjust, and terribly destructive to the millions of men and women who, in any other age or nation, would never have served time.

Michelle Alexander has rightly labelled the carceral state as the “New Jim Crow.” But I would push it back a few decades. Our prisons are today’s plantations. Ex-convicts are fugitives from them. They are in pressing need of our support, empathy, and assistance.

We need to abolish the carceral state. In the meantime, let’s build a new Underground Railroad.