We can learn from many people in history. There are lessons to be learned from every situation and from every person. Those lessons can then be translated into progress in other arenas.
Oftentimes, when people research ways in which to reform prisons and rehabilitate those with the criminal label, they do the obvious—they read articles and books on the subject, they talk to people within the industry, and they study what has and has not worked in the past when changes are attempted.
While you can think outside of the box while staying within the four-corners of the subject matter you are trying to improve or revamp, sometimes thinking outside the box entails looking in places that would not seem to provide the best guidance at first glance. Sometimes sources from other historical events and revolutions can provide the necessary ingredient to spark lasting beneficial change.
Currently, I am listening to the audio book Assata—the autobiography of Assata Shakur, a black revolutionary who is living in Cuba where she has political asylum. Throughout her childhood, she encountered numerous obstacles as an African American woman growing up in a racist and segregated culture. As an adolescent, she was constantly taught that she was not as worthy as her white counterparts.
Assata, a strong woman who was determined to not let society’s label define her, developed into a powerful advocate for black individuals in America. Many white people, especially those in power, despised her for her politics. She was jailed. She was abused. She was condemned. Nevertheless, the resistance she encountered did not silence her. She did not give up on what she believed was right because others hated her for her politics. She stayed resolute and positively impacted the lives of numerous African Americans.
Lessons learned from studying Assata’s past are applicable to many areas of life, including prison and criminal justice reform. Assata’s words are power and provide a template for transformation:
- “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.”
- “We need a r/evolution of the mind. We need a r/evolution of the heart. We need a r/evolution of the spirit. The power of the people is stronger than any weapon. A people’s r/evolution can’t be stopped. We need to be weapons of mass construction. Weapons of mass love. It’s not enough just to change the system. We need to change ourselves. We have got to make this world user friendly…r/evolution means the end of exploitation. r/evolution means respecting people from other cultures. r/evolution is creative…r/evolution is love.”
- “The rulers of this country have always considered their property more important than our lives.”
- “No movement can survive unless it is constantly growing and changing with the times. If it isn’t growing, if it’s stagnant, and without the support of the people, no movement for liberation can exist, no matter how correct its analysis of the situation is. That’s why political work and organizing are so important. Unless you are addressing the issues people are concerned about and contributing positive direction, they’ll never support you. The first thing the enemy tries to do is isolate revolutionaries from the masses of people, making us horrible and hideous monsters so that our people will hate us.”
- “What kind of justice is this? Where the poor go to prison and the rich go free. Where witnesses are rented, bought, or bribed. Where people are tried not because of any criminal actions but because of their political beliefs.”
- “If you are deaf, dumb, and blind to what’s happening in the world, you’re under no obligation to do anything. But if you know what’s happening and you don’t do anything but sit on your ass, then you’re nothing but a punk.”
- “Only a fool lets somebody else tell him who his enemy is.”
- “Nobody is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them.”
- “When Black people seriously organize and take up arms to fight for our liberation, there will be a lot of white people who will drop dead from no other reason than their own guilt and fear.”
- “All you have to do is ask yourselves, who controls the government? And who are the victims of that control?”
- “People are tried and convicted in the newspapers and on television before they ever see a courtroom.”
- “Those who have dared to speak out against the injustices in this country, both Black and white, have paid dearly for their courage, sometimes with their lives.”
- “And it is that one percent, the heads of large corporations, who control the policies of news media and determine what you and I hear on radio, read in the newspapers, see on television. It is more important for us to think about where the media gets its information.”
- “In the long run, the people are our only appeal. The only ones who can free us are ourselves.”
- “We do not have the right in the name of social justice to bore anyone to death.”
- “Too many people in the U.S. support death and destruction without being aware of it. They indirectly support the killing our people without ever having to look at the corpses.”
- “Love is contraband in Hell, cause love is an acid that eats away bars.”
- “Any community seriously concerned with its own freedom has to be concerned about other peoples’ freedom as well.”
- “I’m not quite sure what freedom is, but I know damn well what it ain’t. How have we gotten so silly, I wonder.”
- “Revolution is about change, and the first place the change begins is in yourself.”
We do not have to agree with everything a person says for that individual’s lessons to be applicable. We do not have to like a person to find the truth in his or her words. We do not have to condone a person’s actions to treat them with love and respect. It is easy to turn a blind eye to the atrocities of jails and prisons and how we set those entrenched in the criminal justice system up for failure. By not fully educating ourselves, we are accepting the injustice. It is time for people to get educated about what the criminal justice system truly looks like from those who have firsthand experience—not the judges, not the prosecutors, not the police, not the prison guards, but from the accused.