You learn how to bake mac and cheese in a microwave.

November 22, 2017

You learn how to bake mac and cheese in a microwave. The oven kind – brown and crispy on top.

Not everyone learns that. But it’s a skill some people acquire since each of us would find a way to contribute to the Thanksgiving meal. We had to. It was a special moment for us, just like it was for the millions of Americans on the outside who’d never know the way our cages created camaraderie.

Thanksgiving was one of the few times when each of us had the chance to affirm not just the existence and struggle of the people around us, but also the unbreakable solidarity forged when cell doors shut and shackles become reality.

Thanksgiving in prison mattered.

It’s something I directly experienced six times in the 1990s, and something I’ve indirectly experienced thousands of times since due to my ongoing work as the President of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization built on elevating the voices of people who are currently or formerly incarcerated in an effort to drive impactful criminal justice reform.

Incarcerated Thanksgiving is something that I reflect on every year around this time. If you’re free, Thanksgiving is synonymous with family. The same holds true if you’re caged, but the family that’s back at home – if they are still waiting for you – is cast into the shadows, almost by necessity, by the family you serve alongside as one of the two-plus million incarcerated human beings in the United States.

Even still, it’s too tempting to think about the people who are on the other side of the barbed wire and concrete walls. It was almost impossible not to wonder what Thanksgiving might have been like had I been blessed with what’s historically been the most effective diversionary program in the United States: white skin and privilege.

Yet it’s easy to understand that the people who are on the outside – the people who’ve never known the feel of steel handcuffs wrapped around their wrists, or who’ve never had to choose between being the predator or the prey in an environment that breeds violence and rewards hostility – it’s easy to understand that these people weren’t worried about my Thanksgiving meal.

It’s easy to understand because I knew then what I know now: when you’re in prison, you’re the ‘other.’ You’re an afterthought. You’re something foreign and someone who is not to be considered in polite conversation – even, and perhaps especially, when that conversation is about you. This is all because somewhere on the journey that one-in-three black men endure, a journey that takes millions of our brothers from promise and potential to prison and postmortems, you stop being a husband, a son, or a father. Somewhere on that journey you become a convict, a felon, or an inmate – a criminal.

You become something less-than-human.

And in doing so you lose your seat at humanity’s Thanksgiving table. You instead become nothing more than the turkey in the middle, being carved up and chewed apart by people who forgot that what kept them on the ‘right’ side of the law was often as dependent on circumstance as it was on choice. You become something to be poked and prodded, studied with good intention or ridiculed with arrogant scorn. You become inanimate.

The saddest and most heartbreaking part is how that actually impacts us. For those of us who undergo this (re)branding by the people who through their tax dollars pay for our confinement, our torture, and our hell, we almost get caught up in meeting your ever-lowering expectations. We’re treated like animals and begin to see ourselves as not much more. We start to let you tell us when we’re done, where we belong on your plate, and how much of us is allowed to come to your work the following day.  And whatever scraps of humanity might remain are usually tossed aside – cold, brown meat in the family dog’s dish.

Unless we make the choice to join you at the table.

I think, immediately after I completed my incarceration in New York prisons – time that included a year at the notoriously brutal and inhumane Rikers Island – I was waiting for your invitation to do just that. And while I was blessed with extraordinary opportunities to leverage my experience as part of my growth, I also know that the most change came when I stopped waiting for that invitation and, instead, just decided to take my seat.

Now, I’m no longer the only one at this table. JustLeadershipUSA has trained hundreds of formerly incarcerated individuals and has empowered them to take their seats and redefine the conversation that you were busy having without us.

What inspires me in all of that work are the moments like the one I started to describe here – those prison Thanksgivings in which you really see that the last day in prison might be the saddest day in prison, because you’ll be leaving behind some of the best and the brightest that this country had to offer.

I won’t ever forget the people I served with or the obligation I have to be of service to them now. And I would urge you to consider your role in that service. Enjoy your holidays, and take the time cherish the people around you. But also understand that the people who cannot give thanks in freedom are still just that – people. And thousands, if not millions, of us will join you at this table soon enough.

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