“Prison can be a wise man’s university or a fool’s playground.”
This phrase, the mantra of a “lifer” at Graterford Prison Michael Lions, framed the closing ceremony of Associate Professor of Political Science Keith Reeves’ course The Politics of Punishment. Featuring the candid testimonies of ex-convicts Tyrone Werts and KJ, Reeves “could not see a more fitting ending to the course” than “hearing from those who have been inside the prison system.” Their testimonies, however, were complex counter-narratives: Tyrone and KJ highlighted their victimization to the “politics of punishment” as much as they unexpectedly depicted prison as a transformative and redemptive space. Seated in a circle in Bond Memorial Hall, Tyrone and KJ also demystified the image of the black male “criminal,” humanizing the people these 16 Swarthmore students had only ever debated as numerical statistics or subjects in theoretical studies.
Werts, an agreeable, eloquent and mature man with salt-and-pepper hair, a beige suit and a cast foot, is often mistaken for a judge, he explains. Under his warm smile and fancy clothes lies a darker story, the story of a man who has to work every day to walk the straight and narrow.
“If the cops get a call that a six-foot-tall black male has robbed 7-11 and I happen to be walking nearby, they will look at me and think ‘well, I don’t think he did it!’” he explained jokingly. “I even use debit cards to keep a record of where I have been,” he said, and he makes it a point to speak with every cashier he comes in contact with.
Despite his light demeanor, what Werts is hinting at is not at all funny; instead, it’s the unfortunate truth of the difficulty ex-convicts face upon reentry. After serving 37 years at Graterford Correctional Facility for being present during an armed robbery that resulted in a murder, Werts is haunted by the prospect of losing his newfound liberty.
Convicted as part of a deal that granted the mastermind behind the robbery a lesser sentence for ratting out the others, Werts refused to take a plea bargain that, in exchange for his confession, would have only required him to serve 8 years in prison.
“How could I plead guilty to a murder when I didn’t kill anybody?” Tyrone asked his audience. Married, 23 years old and bitter, Tyrone began his long and dismal sentence in ‘74 — mandatory life without parole — at Graterford.
At a second-grade reading level at 23 years old, Tyrone is the son of two “good” parents. God-fearing people, they raised him in Philadelphia and attempted to instil in him Christian values. Growing up in the thick of the civil rights, black power and anti-war movements, however, Werts became militant and found in the streets a reprieve from the repression he felt at home. Meeting the wrong people for the wrong reasons landed Werts in prison. Smoking marijuana and drinking, he spent his first days in prison with an altered mind.
However, he cited two events on Monday that he claims got him out of jail. The first, a compassionate man who pushed Werts to pursue a GED program, despite his low test scores on the mandated prison evaluation exams. Noticing his “above-average IQ,” Mr. Bello enrolled him in a night course and mentored him, completely reversing the humiliation Werts felt as a child growing up in elementary school, when one teacher told him he could never be an astronomer because he was “too dumb.” After receiving the highest score on his GED exam ever recorded, the “proudest moment of his life,” Werts went on to get his Bachelor’s Degree at Villanova while still incarcerated.
The second event was the pestering of another “lifer” who introduced him to leadership seminars taking place within the prison. Finding this lifers’ advice to “consider creating a great life” for himself while there “oxymoronic,” Werts eventually heeded it and his identity changed.
“I had an epiphany. I was so focused on myself that I didn’t even think of the pain my family and the victim’s family was feeling,” Werts said. Taking “responsibility for my own life,” Werts became president of a leadership group in prison. The relationships he fostered within the prison and with government officials contributed to his appeals being heard and his eventual release from the place he thought he would die in. Describing coming home as “bittersweet,” Werts acknowledged those men who mentored him and who he believes deserved to be let out more than he did.
KJ, a 33 year-old, first time offender, was released this September after serving a 40-month sentence for the possession with intent to sell of 60 grams of marijuana. KJ described himself as the kind of student who was underwhelmed by school, smart but lacking motivation.
“Teachers would tell me, ‘you would get all As if you only did your hw” he explained.
Having lost both of his parents at the age of 6 — his mother committed suicide — KJ was practically raised by his grandmother, who kept him in church. Through his involvement in the church, he discovered his natural talent for the arts, namely acting and music. As a member in plays and on the church choir, KJ began to play the drums, saxophone, clarinet and eventually piano.
His problems began in college. Free of his grandmother’s influence, KJ delved into drugs, making friends with “everybody,” regardless of race. Once out of college, a full-blown marijuana addict, KJ began selling. Using his natural knack for business, KJ approached selling in a professional way, adopting a set of “ethics” with his clients.
One day, his “lucrative” business was cut short. An acquaintance, a Caucasian male, was arrested for suspected involvement in drug distribution. Agreeing to a plea bargain, this man made KJ out to be a “big-time distributor.” When sentenced, KJ was flabbergasted. Comparing his sentence to the case that followed his, namely that of a Caucasian, rich Swarthmore resident with a high-power attorney who received two years for possessing 2 acres of marijuana, KJ felt racially profiled.
While at first frustrated with his arrest, KJ made no excuses. Upon being released, KJ sometimes missed the cell. There, he challenged his own “preconceived notion of what criminals are,” played a lot of chess (the game the “wise” inmates were playing), and sharpened his reading skills, especially with Frederick Douglass’ work. Being incarcerated also brought him in contact with Professor Reeves and the greater Swarthmore community, a relationship he treasures. For KJ, jail was predominantly a cathartic experience: “my body was locked in, but my mind was free.”
What threads both of these men’s testimonies together is the difficulty of re-entering after incarceration and the systematic problems they see within the criminal justice system. Questioning the usefulness of arbitrary mandatory minimums for certain crimes, life without parole as a sentence, biased sentencing, and the $685 million Pennsylvania is dishing out to construct prisons, Tyrone and KJ are grappling with the politics of punishment. Tired of politicians vowing to be hard on crime, these men call for preventative methods and early institutional changes.
“Politics of Punishment” allows Swat students to engage with these sorts of questions, to paint their own picture of the American criminal justice system.
Reeves, who studied Political Science with a concentration in Black Studies and Public Policy while a student at Swarthmore, has conducted on-site prison research for the past decade. He created the course, which is offered in two sections, to “provide both a critical and in-depth exploration of the interplay among American electoral politics, public concerns regarding crime, and criminal justice policy.” Building off of his own research, Reeves asked his students to consider everything from the high population of incarcerated people (2.3 million), the origins of the use of “jails” and “prisons” as “instruments of social and crime control,” the racial and class differences in criminal behavior and incarceration rates, to prison-based “gerrymandering” and the ways in which keeping people incarcerated is a lucrative financial and political franchise.
Not satisfied with just informing his students, Reeves seeks to create dialogue between Swarthmore students and those imprisoned and to instil the educational fervor Swatties feel within the inmates. After two years of tenuous organizing, last spring Reeves launched his first Urban Underclass collaboration course with the Temple-founded Inside Out Program. Once a week, a group of Swarthmore students visited the Graterford prison and engaged in an innovative and dynamic learning experience: comprised of a lecture component and small-group discussions, the inmates and students gathered in a circle and learned communally, analyzing and disputing the week’s assigned reading.
The key word here is “communal.” A native of Chester, Reeves underscores the “reciprocity” of the relationship between Swarthmore and the Graterford inmates. Undeniably, the Swarthmore students are engaged in civic engagement: they leave the “safe” bubble they are used to and devote time each week to work with the inmates. However, the inmates also provide an invaluable piece: filling in the gaps of research with their lived experience, these inmates force students to question the racially-charged and class-based narratives circulated about criminals. They make visible the impact of policy and theory, concepts that are hotly debated theoretically but rarely experientially.
Interestingly, at the beginning of each semester, Reeves asks his students to read Walter Mosley’s “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned” as their first text. It’s a fictional story about Socrates, a black male convicted felon who experiences difficulty re-entering the world after serving almost 30 years in an Indiana prison. Suggested by Professor Ken Sharpe, Reeves cites his use of the novel as “one of the most significant pedagogical decisions” he has made. The novel “equalizes the playing field” whereas the form of the novel — the beauty of the writing style and the strength of the narrative — attracts the “Outside” Swarthmore students, the content allows the “Inside” students to “see themselves” in Socrates’ character.
For many, the Mosley text is the first new book they have ever owned. Reading and re-reading the text, these incarcerated men memorize the book inside and out, carrying it “around with them as if it’s the Bible,” Reeves explained. In its depiction of the struggle of reintegrating oneself into society, it becomes “a book of empowerment and affirmation” for them.
For both Inside and Outside students, however, the text serves another critical purpose — to develop “our characteristics of empathy … sympathy … and tolerance.” Only once students are convinced they are a part of an environment “infused with empathy, real intellectual integrity” and one that prioritizes not only “hearing what people are saying but also listening” can students begin to grapple with issues like historical and contemporary racism. And as evidenced in the policy projects undertaken by the students of last semester’s “Politics of Punishment,” empathy is the primary ingredient of collaborative political efforts.
Hana Lehmann ’13, inspired by her interactions with the participants in the Inside Out Program, wrote a thesis about the potential of prisons as “transformative spaces.” Hoping to fill in the void of scholarship on adult identity formation and crises, Lehmann examines how “criminalization” incites a process of identity shift, one that forces black male inmates to accept a “compacted negative identity that permanently labels them a second-class citizen.”
She was first drawn to the subject of mass incarceration in Urban Education, and in particular the school-to-prison pipeline literature. Her interest peaked in the two subsequent courses she took, “Urban Underclass” and “Politics of Punishment,” both with Reeves last semester. For Lehmann, only by “knowing what happens in these transformational spaces” is there hope in “stopping the pipeline” and putting an end to the statistics: 1 in every 100 men and 1 in 3 black men are currently incarcerated in the US.
Describing the course as a “humanizing space,” Lehmann worked personally with KJ and others to develop a public policy plan that focused on the Federal Pell Grant: specifically, making it a funding resource for those incarcerated to pursue a college-level education. But as Lehmann shares, this process was anything but painless. “We had to bust our asses to get them what they needed,” she explained. Lacking access to a computer, Swarthmore students would have to print and deliver information needed by the inmates and transcribe drafts of the measure they co-wrote.
Lehmann is happy to know that her work was not be in vain. KJ feels deeply indebted to Lehmann’s efforts; he smiled brightly whenever he spoke of the project and the “tears” that came to his eyes when he realized “how serious they [Swat students]” were about enacting change. In the fall, an advocacy group will also be created on campus to support this initiative.
Three political science majors in attendance, Jeewon Kim ’13, Cristina Matamoros ’14 and Naudia Williams ’14, reflect on the lecture. Kim, a Political Science Major, greatly appreciated being able to hear Tyrone and KJ speak. Struck by the transformative potential of jail, Kim saw the Closing Ceremony as “humanizing.”
Williams, a volunteer at the Chester Youth Court and the apprentice of a public defender, left the lecture believing “that the criminal justice system is in the business of convictions/punishment and not necessarily justice” claiming “punitive policies … serve to marginalize and stigmatize an often forgotten population.”
Matamoros, a Film and Media Studies minor, was inspired to take the course after taking a “comparative politics course” abroad in Sweden and comparing “the Swedish and American punitive systems.” Taking Williams’ take-aways a bit further, Matamoros calls for taking a hard look at the war being waged on drugs, the education system that only reserves the basic “right” of “good education” to “privileged white communities,” and, “most importantly we must make sure that ex-felons are rightly integrated into our community.” Asking us to adopt the Swedish mentality that “regard[s] very highly … that everyone deserves a second chance,” she called for the end of the stigma around black and Latino male convicted felons. Met with unemployment, and plagued by feelings of alienation and rejection, these men are inevitably propelled to the very “underground economy,” as KJ put it, that got them incarcerated in the first place.