Moderator: Adrian Pantoja, Professor of Political Studies/Chicano Studies, Pitzer College & Associate Dean
Renford Reese, Professor of Political Studies, Cal Poly Pomona
Tyee Griffith, Program Manager, Justice Education Initiative at The Claremont Colleges
Adrian Pantoja: Hello, everyone. Welcome to today’s webinar. Today’s presentation is titled “Combating the Prison Industrial Complex.” We have two distinguished guests with us today; we have Professor Redford Reese and Professor Tyee Griffith, who will be speaking on this topic. This event is sponsored by the Racial Justice Initiative and the Justice Education Initiative. Oftentimes, I tell people I’m affiliated with both the RJI and Justice Education, and people say, “What’s the difference? Aren’t they the same thing?” And in many ways, that’s a really good point, because they’re both so interrelated. You can’t do or speak about racial justice without talking about the criminal justice system. You can’t talk about the criminal justice system without talking about racial justice. And so our guests today will be talking about the intersection of racial justice and the criminal justice system. And more importantly, they’re going to be speaking about, as the title suggests, their lessons from the front lines. They’ve been involved with these issues for many, many years. They’re veterans, and they have earned their stripes, combat experience, and so they can share those stories with us today.
Let me introduce our guests. First, we have Professor Renford Reese. Professor Reese received his PhD in public policy from the University of Southern California School of Public Policy, Planning and Development. He conducted his dissertation research on ethnic conflict and intergroup relations at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development in Geneva, Switzerland. He received his master’s degree in Public Policy from Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies and his bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Vanderbilt University. Dr. Reese is in his 25th year as a professor in political science at Cal Poly Pomona. He teaches courses on the criminal justice system and nonprofit management. He has been the faculty coordinator of 17 study abroad programs in 10 countries at Cal Poly Pomona. He is a former guest columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News and the author of 10 books. Dr. Reese is a former Fulbright fellow lecturing in the American Studies Program at the University of Hong Kong. He is the founder-director of the Prison Education Project, the Reintegration Academy and the Colorful Flags program. I’m sure he’ll be speaking about those programs today. Reese produced five documentaries that have won various film festival awards. He has developed prison education initiatives in Uganda, London and Scotland. He mentored Rodney King in the late 1990s. The South African Concept of a Boon to Humanity (I hope I said that right) is integrated throughout Reese’s work, I am because we are. A fun fact about Dr. Reese is that he is one of the only professors in the nation who has participated in the NFL Combine.
Next, we have also someone that’s affiliated with football, Professor Tyee Griffith (oh, that’s not in her bio; I think it should be), Professor Tyee Griffith. She is the founding manager of the Justice Education Initiative at The Claremont Colleges, the coordinator for the Reintegration Academy and original volunteer with the Prison Education Project. She is a doctoral student in political science and government in the department of government at Claremont Graduate University, and an adjunct faculty member in Political Studies here at Pitzer College. She earned her Master’s Degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in social policy from Cal Poly Pomona. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology with an emphasis in law and society from Cal State LA. Tyee has worked in the justice system for nearly 20 years and has over 15 years of experience in higher education. She has taught in five California prisons, two juvenile facilities and four international prisons. Her research focuses on the criminalization of Black people in the US, recidivism and reentry services for formerly incarcerated individuals, and the use of education as a tool for rehabilitation and community empowerment. Her goal is to develop programs and legislation that dismantle the prison industrial complex, while expanding educational opportunities to underserved and underrepresented communities. So welcome, both Professor Tyee and Professor Reese, and I will turn it over to you.
Renford Reese: Thank you so much, Adrian. The first thing I want to do is just let everyone who is in the audience know that I want to be brief, I want to make this as interactive as possible. I’ve learned my lesson about giving long-winded talks, long-winded lectures. When I first started teaching at Cal Poly Pomona, I was lecturing and a young man in the front row was asleep. And I turned to the guy beside him. I said, “John, wake him up.” And John said, “No, you wake him up, you put him to sleep.”
So, I don’t want to put our audience to sleep, I want to try to make this as interactive as possible. Tyee and I will go back and forth with this. Someone said, may have said, the best story ever. And you’ve probably heard it two times. So I want to go back and forth with Tyee, but I want to start by talking about my involvement, my journey, and looking at social justice, but not just social justice in the United States, but throughout the world. And as Adrian mentioned in the introduction, I’ve been fortunate to have taken 17 groups of students on study abroad programs to 10 different countries.
And if I can share my PowerPoint slide with you…I realized that on my third trip to Africa (I’ve traveled to Africa 14 times), and on my third trip to Africa, I started to understand the burden and the pain and the trauma that is in the DNA of people of the African diaspora.
On this trip, I was in Ghana, and I asked these young men, they were about 17,18 years old, I told him to come in and speak to my 25 students from Cal Poly Pomona, just come and talk to them. Tell them about what you know about America, what you like about America, and all of these five youth, all of them lionized and romanticized and looked up to rappers in the United States.
And then I asked him, I said, tell me something about your heritage, your background. And the first person said my name is Kwaesi, I am from Kumasi. I’m Ashanti. My mother’s Ashanti, my father’s Ashanti. I speak the language of Twi. My family has lived in the Kumasi region for over 500 years.
The next person said, “My name is Kwame. I am Ga, my mother’s Ga, my father’s Ga, I speak the language of Ga. My family has lived in the Volta Region for over 500 years.”
And at some point during this forum, this panel, I said, “Time out, you have this twisted upside-down inside-out convoluted. You’re lionizing and looking up to the African American rappers. But the fact is that they’ve been derooted. They’re dangling. You might be poor in your pocket, but you’re rich in your heritage. Your families have lived in the same villages for over 500 years. You have your own mother tongue. All African Americans speak English, 100%. And English comes from England, the land of the colonizer. So just by speaking English, African Americans have a colonized mindset.”
So while in Ghana, I was able to understand again the legacy of trauma, the legacy of oppression, not just by reading about it in a history book, but understanding the people. The heritage, the disconnect, all of this happened from (follow the cursor) from Senegal, all the way down 3000 miles down to Angola. That’s where the slave trade took place.
People talk about Black history and Black History Month. I don’t think we could talk about Black history unless we go back to the hinterlands of Africa. So in Africa on this 3000 miles from Senegal, all the way down to Angola, the slave traders would go in the hinterlands. They would go to Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso and Walderslade, in some cases 600 miles down to a place called Assin Manso, Slave River, the last place these slaves could bathe before they were marched on to Elmina, to the Cape Coast, about 30 miles away. Elmina is the first permanent structure built for the slave trade south of the Sahara Desert.
The Portuguese built Elmina in 1482. So when you go into Elmina it’s a castle, a slave depot. The thing about Elmina is that when you go in, you learn that they held this, they had this holding cell that held 200 slaves at one time, one hole on the right side for ventilation. So imagine having 200 slaves that stayed in this 1000 square foot place for over three months.
On the other side of Elmina, they held the women on this side, this room held the men, on the other side, they held the women. In that slaveholding cell, they would bring the women out and they would shower them, spray them off. And you will have the captain and his soldiers, the slavers who would have Vespers who would have fellowship, who would read the Bible and pray together.
And after they prayed, the captain would come down, look down and find the one woman that he wanted. He would take this woman, get her escorted to his quarters, he would rape the woman and then give this woman to the rest of the soldiers for them to rape. But yet, it was the African who was supposed to be the savage. And so, after they left this holding cell, they went down to this iron-clad door called the door of no return.
One can only think about literally hundreds of thousands of Africans leaving their motherland; 12.5 Africans, 12.5 million Africans from 1525 to 1866 left the continent. Only 10.7 million survived. The rest died because of scurvy, dysentery, dehydration. Contrary to popular belief, out of that 10.7 million, only about 335,000 made it to the shores of North America. Most of those Africans were shipped to South America, to Brazil and to the Caribbean countries, the Caribbean regions.
When they got to North America, we know through Alex Haley. The bestselling novel Roots, written in 1976, turned into a mini-series by one of my mentors, David Wolper, in 1977. This was one of the most pivotal moments of my childhood. In ‘77, I was in the second grade. And I remember seeing the rawness and in the candor of Roots.
And the most memorable episode in Roots revolves around a photo that you see now. Kunta Kinte had run, he was a protagonist in this, he had come from the Gambia, he had run away trying to escape slavery. And the master had the overseer Ames punish Kunta. So they string him up to about 12 feet. And not only does Ames punish Kunta, what he wants to do is he wants to transform him. He wants to break him. So with every lash that he gives Kunta, he says “I’m going to change your name to Toby. Toby is a good name. It’s an American name.” So with every lash, he asks Kunta what his name is and Kunta says, “Kunta Kinte.”
So he lashes him again. And I would imagine after about 40 lashes, Kunta finally relents. He finally capitulates and he says, “My name is Toby.” Well, Ames is shocked.
He says, “Say it again.” He says, “My name is Toby.” And then he calls all the villagers and he says, “I want to hear you. I want to hear it again. I want everyone, everyone, to see how a bad N-word is turned good.” So Kunta says, “My name is Toby.”
When he broke, when Ames broke Kunta, he broke that village. When he broke that village, he broke a people. And it was at this point, a watershed moment in American history, that the African was no longer African, and some would argue, never fully accepted as Americans.
So what you have, again, is an identity crisis. Who is this person? What is their identity? If you go to any third-grade class in America, you ask that third grader to bring something back, some artifact back from your great-great grandparents heritage on your mother’s side, everyone in that classroom can bring something back from Mexico, El Salvador, Germany, France, England, except for the African American third grader.
So this fortifies this person in his maelstrom of an identity complex, this is where I want to start. And then we’re going to go from this. And the theme of my talk is from shackles to shackles where you have Ames, and you have the politicization of the Black body.
So you go from Kunta to the three-fifths amendment. Then you go from the three-fifths amendment that says that for political purposes, Blacks represent three-fifths of a human being. And you go fast forward up to the 13th 14th, and 15th amendments. All of those amendments are about the Black body.
It was my classmate at Vanderbilt, Michelle Alexander, the author of the great book, The New Jim Crow, who said there are more Africans in prison today than were enslaved in 1850. So my talk, the theme of my talk is from shackles to shackles, what has really changed? The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. Okay, time.
Tyee Griffith: Thank you so much for that, Dr. Reese. I am so fortunate and privileged to have not only received great mentorship from Dr. Reese, but also to be one of his mentees, one of his graduate students. And just to hear these messages, it’s profoundly changed me and so exactly what Dr. Reese is talking about, these broken communities and these broken people. That’s my story, right? That’s my story. I grew up in a community that was broken, a community that had an identity complex, a community that was plagued with gun violence, and drugs and gangs. And I witnessed so many of my friends, my family members, people go into prison, go into jail. And so for me, I’ve been involved in justice education really my whole life. I can remember as a child going to visit people at various California prisons on the weekend. And so to think about the fact that we have this system that really is meant to, in my opinion, break down Black people, and we have to be intentional. And so when I talk about being intentional, I’m thinking about that child that I was growing up and seeing this violence, growing up and witnessing domestic violence in my home. You get to a point where you no longer need to be oppressed because you become a vehicle of your own oppression. And that was the route that I was heading.
I dropped out of high school at 15 years old, thinking that I knew what life was about. And it was because I had these everyday examples of this is how you have to be tough. This is how you have to get by, this is how you have to move in this society. And it wasn’t until I myself ended up in juvenile hall that I realized this is not the route that I want to go in life. And so Dr. Reese’s story in the beginning is so touching to me, because I feel that so many people that we deal with that are currently incarcerated, that are formerly incarcerated, have come from these broken communities, where they are literally doing what they can to survive. Not thinking about next year, not thinking about five years from now, but really thinking about today and remaining in that constant state of survival mode. And so for me, being involved in justice education, going and giving back, is something very personal to me. It’s very personal to me because I was those people. The last time I was in juvenile hall, I was 15 and I was pregnant. I had dropped out of high school. And it was because someone inside that facility cared enough about me to want to help me, to tell me the things that they saw in me, things that I didn’t see in myself. And so, when we talk about not only this broken community, we also need to talk about the fact that we have very few mentors left in these communities.
I literally went from elementary to middle school to high school, not having one Black teacher. Believe it or not, Dr. Reese was my very first Black teacher. How did I have to get all the way to college to have a Black professor? And so when you have these types of situations, where you don’t see that representation, where you don’t see that support, where you come into those classroom spaces, and you have teachers that don’t look like you, that demonize every little thing that you do, it pushes a lot of kids out of the educational system and into the criminal justice system. And so I’d love to ask Dr. Reese, talking a bit about shackle to shackle.
I have been on the front lines with Dr. Reese working with the Prison Education Project, the Reintegration Academy. And so for me, I think I want to know about your vision, just even in beginning these programs, because they have fundamentally changed and shaped my life in so many great ways. And so, when I think about you, Dr. Reese, I know that you’re a visionary. And where did the idea come from in terms of wanting to create the Prison Education Project and the Reintegration Academy?
Renford Reese: Well, thank you, Ty. And thank you, your story is so powerful and inspirational. But I want to just show you when you ask “Where did this come from?” I wrote a book back in 2006 called Prison Race. And the thesis of the book is that it isn’t a double entendre, that there is a race to incarcerate, there has been a race to incarcerate over the past three decades. But there’s one race that has been disproportionately impacted by unjust criminal justice policies.
And so before this book, I had written a book called American Paradox: Young Black Men. And the in-custody population started reading this book has started spreading like wildfire. And then I came back two years later and wrote Prison Race.
I remember being on PBS. And there was a woman by the name of Val Gavalas, she was interviewing me, she was right here at my loft on Gary and Mission in Pomona. And she said, “Dr. Reese, how do we know the criminal justice system is biased?”
I said, “Val, let’s do this test. Let’s not talk about it in the abstract. Let’s take the Rockefeller law in New York that was passed in the early 1970s.” The Rockefeller law says if you are caught possessing two ounces of narcotics, if you’re caught selling one ounce, you get 15 years to life in prison for your first offense.
I said, “Let’s do this, Val. Let’s go to Harvard. Let’s go to Yale. Let’s go to USC, UCLA. And let’s lock up every student that is in possession of two ounces of narcotics. That’s even marijuana. And let’s lock them up for 15 years to life. If we did it today, that would be a revolution tonight. Why? Because these are the policymakers’ kids. But if you’re not going to lock that sophomore biology major up from Harvard 15 years to life, why are you going to lock the inner city kid up 15 years to life? That’s somebody who’s a potential engineer, somebody who’s a potential journalist, somebody who’s a potential neurosurgeon. But we look at the kids, these kids as being incorrigible.”
And I always tell this story, Ty, if you really want to use an example, it’s an example of two people, two youth, two young men, they’re right here on Garey and Mission in Pomona. They’re both 19 years old; one is African American. He runs down, jogs down, snatches a woman’s purse, and he runs back to his homeboys; they give each other high fives and they laugh.
The next young man, he’s 19 years old, he’s a fraternity guy at UCLA. He goes, he jogs down, he snatches a woman’s purse. He comes back to his frat brothers, they laugh, they give each other high fives.
And when the police come on the scene, this is where a bias seeps into the system from the very outset, from the first word the police writes in his report, this is where the bias starts. So the police characterizes the African American’s incident as strong-arm robbery. He characterizes the UCLA young man’s incident as purse snatching.
So when these two reports go to the DA, the DA looks at one and he gives the first, the African American young man, five years, 80%, for strong-arm robbery. He looks at the characterization of the other report that said he was just having fun. It was a prank. And he gives this young man 100 hours of community service. And so we can go from there. And in this book, I talk about the drug laws.
In this interview, I talked about the drug laws where blacks make up 13% of all illicit drug users, but they make up 35% of those arrested for drug use, or drug offenses. They make up 55% of those who are convicted of drug offenses, and 74% of those incarcerated for drug offenses are African American.
So my question is, how do we go from 13, 14% of all illicit drug users to 74% of those convicted if the system is fair? In some states like Florida, 80% of those in prison for drug offenses are African American. So what we have and what you see, Ty, is a country that has noble principles, but ignoble practices. It was King who said, “We just want you, America, to be who you say you are on paper.”
It’s not the laws, it’s the application of laws. Because what would happen if in the Rockefeller situation, you could say well, that that law is too draconian. Well, it wouldn’t take you long to understand it’s draconian when your 18-year-old son or daughter who’s at Scripps, or Pomona College or Pitzer, it wouldn’t take you long to understand how unjust it is when they’ve been sent off to prison for 15 years for possessing marijuana, two ounces of narcotics.
So this was my entree into this work. I had written American Paradox: Young Black Men. The thesis of this book is that young Black men wanted to be the illest, realist, killest, the ultimate gangster thug. And the consequences of this desire to keep it real, had two death-dealing consequences. One, they wind up in prison or dead.
So when I transitioned to start working on Prison Race, I was in Centinela State Prison, I was speaking, lecturing to the IYO program, Incarcerated Youth Offenders program. I spoke for 20 minutes, and I open the floor up for Q&A. There were 20 young men in this talk. And when I opened it up for Q&A, I said, my goodness, these young men could be where I am if they had better guidance, better mentorship. And quite frankly, it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said that geography is destiny. Think about that. How poignant, how true.
Can a statement be that geography is destiny? If they had grown up in my environment, and not in these toxic, dangerous environments, they could be a professor, they could be a lawyer, they could be a surgeon. So geography is destiny. And then I started corresponding with some of these young men, writing with them and I realized that they were just as brilliant at any of my students at Cal Poly Pomona. And that was my impetus to write Prison Race. And in Prison Race at the back, I had this very quixotic, very idealistic idea.
And It was just theoretical, it was just in the abstract, that we could create a Reintegration Academy to bring parolees, recently released individuals, to a college campus for 10 weeks. Put them on that campus so they can smell the flowers, see the trees, consume the energy of the college campus. Put them on there so they can see two coeds holding hands under a tree; that might trigger them to say, hey, I want that life, not the life that I’ve had.
And someone says, “You’re going to be naive and quixotic about this, and idealistic about this, we’re going to give you $15,000 for you to put your mouth where this money is.” And that’s what we did. In 2009, we had the first Reintegration Academy which was hosted at Cal Poly Pomona. We’re now two days away from hosting our 10th Reintegration Academy, which is now hosted at the perfect, most ideal home for this program, which is Pitzer College.
Tyee Griffith: Thank you so much for that Dr. Reese. And I know firsthand the importance of having that mentorship, because that is exactly what helped to turn my life around. You talk about geography, and that’s something that we can’t help, we can’t help where we’re born, we can’t help who our parents are, the neighborhoods that we grow up in. And so there has to come a point in time where we have to decide to be intentional. And I think that’s exactly what I did. I grew up seeing everything that I saw, I didn’t know anyone that had gone to college. My parents hadn’t gone to college. And so naturally, I didn’t think college was a place for me.
So I finally went back to school, got that high school diploma and I thought, okay, I can go out here and get a job, right, a good job. And I think we all know the realities of that, how far you get in society with only a high school diploma. And as a single parent, I got to the point where I got pretty desperate. And I could totally see how people in desperate situations do desperate things. But for me, I thought, why not give college a shot, right? I was working two, three dead end jobs, I had thought I wanted to go into law enforcement and worked in law enforcement for a while and realized that whatever my thoughts were going into law enforcement, thinking I can get in there and change the system and realizing that I was hired to operate within a system that had already been created.
I was out there with, again, just that high school diploma. And so the best decision I ever made was to go to college, to start at the community college level and slowly begin to build myself up. As I did that, I found the mentorship that I needed, I found the guidance that I needed, the things that I had thought that I couldn’t do before I excelled in. And so I think you’re right, Dr. Reese, it is about that guidance, it is about that mentorship. And so that’s why as one of your students, when you talked about the Prison Education Project and having this ideal and looking for students who would want to go and provide this additional educational support to incarcerated people, I think I might have been one of the first students to sign up for that program and have been excited every step of the way to really not only participate but to give back in truly fundamental ways. And so I do want to thank you for that.
Renford Reese: Ty, if I could just step in and just give you an overview of that, you were a part of the first group. This happened back in 2011. People think that you need a million dollars in grants to go out and make change. The Prison Education Project had no money in the very beginning. But what we had was this desire to be in the trenches, to be on the front lines. You have 34 prisons in the state of California. Nearly every prison has a community college and/or a university within a 30-mile radius. The philosophy of PEP is to use the resources that you have in your backyard. We have students that know what they’re majoring in. We have students that know how to add and multiply. We have professors who know their discipline. So come on, let’s go. Don’t hold it to yourself. Don’t hoard it. Let’s go! Let’s go expose a group of people who’ve never been exposed to much. Somebody gave up on them when they were in the first, second and third grade. Now we have a chance to outreach to them.
And I’m going to tell you about the power of teaching inside a correctional facility. After having taught for 25 years, you get accustomed to students zoning out, whispering to each other, writing letters to each other, being on their cell phones, being on Instagram or social media, on their laptop computers. When you go on the inside of a prison, you’re in-custody students are hanging on your every word. And as someone who takes teaching pedagogy seriously, there’s nothing more powerful than having a responsibility of teaching someone who is waiting on your knowledge. They’re hungry for your knowledge. And it’s a spiritual experience on the inside, those of you who are on this call who’ve taught on the inside, you know it’s spiritual. It’s hard to explain, it’s inexplicable when you come out and people say, “Well, why are you in a prison?” You can’t explain it. But it’s powerful because it’s a relationship that’s based on reciprocity. It’s a reciprocal reflex. So you go in to teach, but you learn just as much as you teach. They go in to learn, but they teach just as much as they learn. And then you have this gratitude loop, where everybody is grateful, everybody’s thankful. And it creates a sense of a magic on the inside. And so for now, we’ve developed into the biggest prison education program of its kind in the United States, during the middle of COVID. We’re in 16 correctional facilities, two facilities in Hawaii, one in Scotland, eight juvenile facilities.
And the concept is still the same time, Ty. And that concept is the volunteers come in with words, not money. And if words have been used to damage, words can be used to heal, to uplift to inspire, I believe in you, you can do this, I have your back, I’m proud of you. And words, not money, words are the most powerful way to transform the internal human condition, not the external, but the internal human condition, how you feel about yourself, your self-esteem, your confidence. If somebody tells you you’ll never amount to anything every day of your life, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But on the contrary, if someone tells you you’re going to go to college, you’re going to be great. You’re going to be successful, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ty, the most important thing, the most powerful thing about words, and we don’t think about this, is that they’re free. The fact that we all have agency over our words; think about how you feel when somebody says you’re amazing, you’re so amazing. Think about how you feel when somebody says, “I’m so proud of you.”
That’s not money, that’s words. So with the Prison Education Project, we go in all these facilities, we teach a range of 20 classes, everything from Physics to Calculus, to Engineering, to Computer Science to Shakespeare, Intro to College, Intro to Career Development. More than anything else, we let them know that we’re there, we see you. More than anything else, we use these words to uplift, whether it’s physics or whether it’s Shakespeare.
So this has been an extraordinary journey for the Prison Education Project. We’ve had programs, Ty, you are part of the first group to go into CIM, California Institute for Men, and you are a pioneer, you were the first group, part of the first group to go to Uganda. For four years, we had the biggest prison education program in Uganda. And again, over the last, I would say eight years, Pitzer has been there along the way. When Pitzer says that social justice is at the cornerstone of their pedagogical framework, that’s not in theory, that’s not an abstract, it’s true. It was Nigel Boyle who came with us and volunteers, Tessa and Suchi from Scripps that came with us to Uganda to teach those classes. For four years, we had the biggest program on the continent of Africa. And so every step of the way, Pitzer has been there, The Claremont Colleges have been there and it’s just been an amazing journey. And I will make the argument, Ty, there’s a new Biden administration, criminal justice reform isn’t going to be in the top five agenda items. They’re going to scour, they’re going to canvass the entire country. They’re going to start in Florida, go to Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, they’ll go through Oklahoma, they’ll go to Arizona, and they’re looking for a model.
And then when they come to California, they’ll stumble upon what we’ve been doing over the last decade, whether it’s the Pitzer BA program, the bachelors program, first Inside-Out bachelors program in the country, whether it is the New Resource program at Pitzer that funds people who are adult or mature who overcome challenges, including our formerly incarcerated population, whether it’s the Prison Education Project, the Reintegration Academy or now, Project Rebound, which is a program that is on 14 CSU campuses, a program to support formerly incarcerated students, a program that is sponsored, signed off on by the governor with a $3.3 million budget each year. So I’ve seen things change, I think California is the most progressive state in the United States when it comes to criminal justice reform. And I’m proud to be in this state, and I’m proud to see that change. We felt like we were swimming upstream for so long. But there are a lot of dynamic things that have happened in this area over the last decade.
Tyee Griffith: And I think what’s so impressive about what we’re doing is the fact that we have these in-prison programs like PEP there to support folks, because we always say that with transformation, the work starts while folks are on the inside. And so we have PEP there to support them. We also have the outside component which is the Reintegration Academy. Now, you know, teaching in prisons is definitely not easy, right? It’s definitely not easy, it takes a lot of time, a lot of patience. But I will say that working with the reentry population is definitely a bit more difficult because they need more support. And we just don’t have enough programs like the Reintegration Academy that’s there to support the re-entry population. And so when you have someone who’s there, who needs support, who needs housing, who needs all of these other important resources, that’s when you really have to lift up your sleeves and dig in and start doing the hard work. And so it’s some of the things that we are seeing now with our bachelor’s degree program at CRC. We’ve had a couple of our students be released and so now we’re working to ensure that they are truly successful, recognizing that success is more than just completing this degree. It’s also ensuring that they have the tools that they need to transcend their background, to transform and give back because that’s what so many of them want to do. I’m so grateful for the Reintegration Academy and PEP for providing that platform for folks.
Renford Reese: I agree, Ty, I agree with you. And I could not agree with you more. I think when we talk about the next decade, the next frontier, I think the next frontier is not just in custody, programming is what happens when they are released. And I’ve been critical that you have people all over, from Boston College to Harvard and Cornell and all of these colleges going in, clamoring to get into the prisons. And they have their dinner party conversations, they’re drinking wine, they’re eating cheese, and people are patting them on their back for how amazing they are. But the fact is, where are you when these people are released? That’s when they need your help the most. They can’t call you, they can’t email you, you’re a ghost.
So after having been a professor for so long, I’m accustomed to going to many conferences and sitting on committees and steering committees. And everybody’s talking about the problem, but few people want to really get in the trenches and do something about the solution. When you go inside, these individuals can look through your eyes and see to your soul. They know if you’re a cultural tourist, they know if you just want to put something on your resume. And when they call you or try to get in touch with you on the outside, they understand that this is just an experiment. So I think the new frontier is to galvanize the same energy that we’ve galvanized on the inside to go on the inside. Now let’s rally around, let’s give some guidance, let’s give some support, let’s give some real mentorship when they need all of these different things. Let’s give them a warm handoff when they come out. And so I think you’re absolutely right. Thank you for bringing that up.
And I think we have 15 minutes, maybe we can entertain some questions, Ty.
Tyee Griffith: If there are any questions, go ahead and please feel free to type them in the chat. But you know Dr. Reese, I think you’re absolutely right. And one thing that I just want to use this quick moment to share with all of you is we will be doing a mentor training for our Reintegration Academy students tomorrow from 5-6 and so I will share more information for those of you that are interested in getting involved.
Again, the real work starts when folks get out and are there and need that support; they need that help filling out that job application, that FAFSA application, maybe an application for school, they need support with interview questions. And so many of the little things that the vast majority of us take for granted, they need that support, help with life skills, soft skills. And so that is exactly what the Reintegration Academy provides.
Renford Resse: And I’ll just give you an overview of how we do this. The Reintegration Academy works with the Department of the CDCR, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations division of adult parole operations. And so what we do is we start out with a group, a pool of 500 recently-released individuals from prison. And we narrow those down. So all of the parole agents actually give us a list of three or four of their referrals, the people that they think would be best for this program. And so we get about 40 of those referrals, we interview those individuals, and we try to stay within about 35 to 40. We try not to disappoint people after the interview and say that they’ve not made the cut. So we try to only interview the people that we’re pretty certain will be accepted and selected into this program. It’s an eight-week program. Now, those individuals pre-COVID, post-COVID, they come to the college campus. And one of the great things about coming to Pitzer’s campus, you see all the succulents, you see the grass, it’s bucolic, it’s pastoral. But one of the great features is, you figure in our last cohort, two cohorts ago in 2019, that was a lifer cohort. So out of 38 of those participants, 33 of them had spent a life sentence, that meant over 15 years in prison.
And so the main feature was when they went to the dining hall and I remember this guy who had been in prison for 35 years, eating prison food for 35 years, he had just been out for a week. And he was over at Pitzer, he ran up to me and he said, “Dr. Reese, they have steak!” I said, “I know, go get you some.” And about five minutes later he came up to me, “Dr. Reese, Dr. Reese. they have chicken wings, they have shrimp!” I said, “Go get it all, get it all.” So that’s one of the ways we dealt with attrition, we didn’t have attrition because of Pitzer’s dining hall. So kudos to the dining hall at Pitzer.
Tyee Griffith: So Mace, to answer your question, like Dr. Reese said, pre- and post-COVID, we will be back in person but for this RA [Reintegration Academy] session, it will be virtual and the mentorship opportunity is also virtual.
Next question is a volunteer stepping into a carceral setting. How do you find an appropriate balance between compassionately showing up for someone and overpromising?
Renford Reese: Well, for me, I don’t think when you say overpromising, I think just showing up is monumental. I remember, this is at Mt. SAC, [Mount San Antonio College], this is about seven, eight years ago. And the volunteers would say, “Dr. Reese, I’m shy, I don’t like speaking. But I want to volunteer, what can I do?” I said, “Come on, just show up, your energy, you’re going to emanate, you’re going to release some type of energy. So even if you’re not saying one word, you being there is going to be transformative.”
And in the second week, that same volunteer was looking at one of our students, trying to write notes. And the student, the participant, their pen gave out. And this volunteer tapped him on the shoulder and gave him her pen. Now that might sound simple, but it was powerful, it was beautiful. And in the end, it’s transformative because it’s saying I see you, I’m here for you, I have your back. It’s symbolic. It’s metaphorical. But basically, that’s what it’s saying. And so in terms of overpromising, just be careful about that. When you tell them that you’re going to go out and get information on the horticulture program at Mt. SAC, then go out and get information on the horticulture program at Mt. SAC. A person says they want to be integrated, a pest control management specialist, let’s go find information on that. And that’s all about being serious.
If you come to the Reintegration Academy, you don’t want to just come in and just see all these people who spent life in prison, they’ve been in there for 20, 25 years, that’s not what we’re about. We’re not cultural tourists. If you say you’re going to do something, let’s make sure you go and do it. That’s what has made us who we are at the Reintegration Academy and the Prison Education Project.
Tyee Griffith: Yes. And also, just keeping your word lets them know that you’re serious, even if it is, like Dr. Reese said, just bringing in a piece of information, that really does go a long way.
Next question, what is your recommendation for the best way to stay involved and engaged in these issues after graduation?
Well, I graduated from Dr. Reese’s program almost a decade ago. And I’ve remained engaged and involved by just showing up. These opportunities are out there. Dr. Reese will send out emails about the next cohort, the next volunteer opportunity, and I’m there so it really is just about showing up. There’s lots of programs and ways for you to engage. And so just know that graduating doesn’t mean that that’s where your activism and engagement should end.
Renford Reese: Let me follow up. One of my main challenges and charges now is to really be invisible. When I grew up in Georgia, I grew up in a small rural town. I went to a segregated kindergarten, Westside Training School for the Coloreds in McDonough, Georgia. When I grew up, we called it Five Miles, Georgia, because it was five miles from the schoolhouse, five miles from the church house and five miles from the store. And we were so far in the country, we didn’t get Saturday Night Live until Tuesday night.
So when I grew up in Five Miles, I think this is when I first came in contact with segregation and race and all these different dynamics. But it’s something that just has propelled me, I’ve been curious, intellectually curious, culturally curious about how to resolve these cleavages. How do we resolve these particular issues.? And working in McDonough, I remember being a janitor. And as a janitor, I was at Vanderbilt, and I was just coming home in the summer, and we would buff the floors; me, a guy named Peewee, a guy named Lester High and Goldfish. And after we buffed the floors, I don’t know if you saw Shawshank Redemption with Red and Andy Dufresne, they were up on the roof top and they were just drinking Coke. So after we buffed those floors, we just sat back and we just marveled at how shiny those floors were.
And then the next day, the next morning, people came in, and they were totally oblivious. They walked on our floors, they were totally oblivious. They wouldn’t recognize if the floors were dirty, if they had trash on them. But they didn’t. So that’s okay for us. It’s like a good referee in a basketball or football game. If that’s my charge is to be invisible, to get our volunteers in front of those in-custody students, and that’s when the magic occurs. And so for me, it’s about creating these opportunities that are dynamic.
Now we’re in Hawaii. So we have two facilities in Hawaii. And if they don’t have volunteers in Hawaii, that means geographically, we’re the closest volunteers to those six prisons. So once we claim those prisons, guess what, I’m taking a group of volunteers to Hawaii, we’re going to volunteer on the inside; everybody has the rest of the day to do what they want to do. We’ve done that in Uganda, we’ve done that in London, we’ve done that in Scotland, and we’re going to do it in Hawaii. And as of hopefully tomorrow, we’re going to be doing it in Bermuda.
So I’m reaching out to someone I’m wanting to call me from Bermuda and say, “Dr. Reese, can you bring PEP out?” we’re out there, we’re going to come virtually, and then I’m bringing a group over. So I just think that this is organic. And I think you have to stay true to the mission, you have to stay on the frontlines, you’ve got to stay in the trenches. And for me, that means being invisible.
Tyee Griffith: Thank you so much for that Dr. Reese. And if I can just add, for me, this is something that’s just deeply embedded in me, something that I’m extremely passionate about. Growing up the way I did and seeing so many of the people that I love and care about end up in prisons, this is just my way to pay it forward, really. Because that could have been me. I do recognize that and so, for me, I’m going to continue doing this work until I can’t do it anymore like Dr. Reese. But any place that Dr. Reese is going, he knows all he has to do is call me up and I’m there, bags are packed and I’m ready to go.
Renford Reese: And for people who want to get, I see Mace, Mace has been a warrior for us. And I took Mace on a study abroad trip to Vancouver. And I think what stands out, I know all of my students and their characteristics, I took Tyee on a study abroad trip to Amsterdam when she was a student. But with Mace what stands out is that when we got to LAX, she had three suitcases. I don’t mean duffel bags, I’m talking about 60-pound suitcases. And I remember telling her, “Look, you’re going to have to repack, put two of those suitcases in the one.” She said, “Not a good look.”
But Mace after that, that was an NGO and Social Services Outreach class. But she came out, she’d been so committed to PEP, she’d been a warrior. Now she’s in graduate school, I think Mace is about to graduate from graduate school at the University of Illinois, Urbana, but she’s still involved, she’s still engaged. And so those of you who are interested, you have to put time in first. And they will take you to some of these places, and that’s the reward. So it’s not that you can go and not that you can be eligible for a trip abroad unless you’ve already committed two semesters to this program.
Tyee Griffith: And it’s a great motivator. I will say, you travel with Dr. Reese, I’ve gone to I think about five countries now with Dr. Reese; he knows everything about every place that we go. And he is a stickler about those bags. And so because of Dr. Reese, I call myself the ultimate packer. I literally have a carry on and a backpack. That’s it, and I can make it work for three weeks. And so that’s it, you recognize that when you’re doing this trench work, it’s not much that you need; that duffel bag, and that carry on is perfect. Because the reality is that we’re really using our words. And like Dr. Reese said, when we go inside, we don’t have access to PowerPoints, we don’t have access to a lot of the fancy equipment that we use in college classrooms. We have access to our words, and they are extremely powerful.
Any other questions? We have about two minutes left. If not, I will turn it over to Dr. Reese for some closing remarks.
Renford Reese: Thank you, Ty. What runs, the thing that runs is the concept, that runs through all of this work is the concept of ubuntu which means humanity. It means “I am because we are.” It’s a South African term. And I remember going to Emory University and meeting with Bishop Desmond Tutu, the great social, civil rights, social justice activist. And I remember going to South Africa. And when I was in Bucalevu and Langa and Crossroads, I remember people had no running water, people living off of $1 a day, one out of four women were infected with HIV AIDS. And I remember asking, how do you live? How do you survive? How do you keep your head up? How do the kids play soccer in their fields? And the guy said, ubuntu. And I said ubuntu, tell me about it. He said, ubuntu means when my neighbor is hungry, I feed him. When I’m hungry, he feeds me. Ubuntu brotherhood is sisterhood, is community, and whether we believe in God, Allah, Buddha, the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna, Mother Nature, Yawei, when it’s all said and done, somebody is going to hold us accountable for what we did here. Not how many degrees we have, not what type of house we lived in the suburbs. Not what type of car we drove, but how we loved. And I always say that we’re separate as the five fingers. But we’re one as the hand. Ubuntu. I am because we are. Thank you.
Tyee Griffith: Thank you so much, Dr. Reese. This has been wonderful. And thank you so much to the Racial Justice Initiative at Pitzer College and the Justice Education Initiative for hosting this event. Thank you all for attending.