HOW MY FIRST TRIP TO JAIL BROUGHT ME HOPE
By Sarah Becker
On the morning of Sunday, January 14th, I found myself in a discussion with a prisoner about both when he expected to be out the Harris County Jail and the importance of the upcoming primary elections. It was different from the conversations I have in my circles, both extraordinary yet ordinary all at once.
You see, I am a white girl who grew up in the suburbs. I don’t exactly find myself at the County Jail often. By often, I mean never. But I’ve been on a bit of a journey.
I became determined to educate myself on issues of racial justice after watching black men and women be targets of police brutality the last few summers. Two summers was a true turning point for me when Philando Castile was murdered. After the election, the feeling of urgency to educate myself only intensified.
At the beginning of 2017, I became a Safety Pin Box subscriber. Safety Pin Box is a subscription service for white people who want to be allies in the fight for black liberation. Each month I receive a box in the mail with a set of tasks to help educate myself and be a better ally (tip 1-don’t call yourself an ally). Over the course of a few months, I had learned things about the prison system, mass incarceration and prison labor that no class at school had ever taught me.
All of this education from Safety Pin Box had the effect of humanizing the people behind bars. It helped me see where prejudices had been taught, and where I needed to unlearn. It helped me understand the real issues and the reasons why people are in jail. It helped me grow.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago-when I saw information about Project Orange pop up in my Facebook feed, I didn’t think twice and knew instantly I wanted to be involved.
You see, one of the other foundational things Safety Pin Box has taught me is that knowledge is not enough to create a more just world. We must take action. And this was one small thing I could do to take action. So I signed up to go.
I had also recently become a Volunteer Deputy Voter Registrar (VDVR). A VDVR helps people ensure they have completed the voter registration application completely and is responsible for turning the registration forms into the proper place. It only requires a one hour training. I am proud to say that the first future voter that I assisted using my VDVR capacity was in the jail.
The morning at the jail was great. The staff from Sheriff Ed Gonzalez’s office was more than accommodating, and I believe, was even working overtime to escort us. We had to go through security checks to get in the jail, but there was nothing more intrusive than a security check at an airport. We did go through a brief training by the Sheriff’s office which was helpful.
While all the reading I had done about the prison system was useful, it doesn’t compare to walking into a jail with your own feet and seeing it with your own eyes. Conditions were about as I expected-not terrible, but not great either. At the county jail, prisoners are housed in large rooms with bunk beds. I believe there are about 50 people to a room. The rooms were filled with bunk beds and there are also toilets and showers, but little to no privacy for those. There is no walled bathroom.
We had access to the prisoners through a small slot in the door, and though it was time consuming and you had to be patient, it was also really wonderful to discuss this sacred right to vote.
My world views are always shifted a bit by an experience like this. As I said before, Safety Pin Box helped me understand the effects of mass incarceration and how unjust laws contribute to it. But seeing the faces and meeting the people who are suffering from its effects makes me that much more resolved to keep fighting. We have much work to do to dismantle the systems that uphold mass incarceration, but this was a tiny step forward in splitting open the halls of power to those who have traditionally been kept out of them.
The people at the jail are just that-people. They deserve to have a voice in our political process, and we should be about the job of amplifying their voices.
Come join us next time!
Sarah Becker is a mom of three small children, a Licensed Specialist in School Psychology and public school advocate. You can find more of her work at hisdparents.org.