The fourth annual Prisoner’s Family Conference, which was held over the last three days in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been more productive and more moving than any conference I have ever previously attended. An activist, rather than a scholarly, gathering, this conference brought together prisoners’ families, academics, prison ministry folks, lawyers, and advocates from all over the United States. This small but highly diverse group of people is doing remarkable work in a wide variety of prison-related settings, and both individually and in the aggregate I found them to be highly intelligent, painfully honest, and overwhelmingly likable people. Despite my eight years of performance and activist work connected to prisoners and families, I have never before been in a space where so many prisoners’ family members had gathered to support one another, and I greatly wish that many of my loved ones, including my mother, my father, and my friend and collaborator Jodie Lawston, could have been here to bear witness to all that transpired at the conference this week. (Jodie was slated to attend the conference but could not because of an illness. She is very disappointed to have missed the conference.)
At the opening session of the conference on Wednesday morning, Carolyn Esparza, the conference’s founder and chair, spoke about the challenges that she had see prisoners’ families face in Texas. She described a mother and children who drive over three hundred miles one-way from their home to a prison once a month to visit their husband and father; the officials at this prison decided that the family was visiting “too regularly” and has further restricted their ability to see one another, despite the fact that no one in this family violated any of the prison’s rules. Esparza also told another story about a man incarcerated in Texas who was bending over to retrieve his clothing after a routine strip search when a guard inserted the antenna of his transistor radio into the prisoner’s anus. The prisoner filed a complaint, and his family hired a lawyer. The warden on this unit tried to force the prisoner to sign a false confession saying he had fabricated this story of sexual violence, and when the prisoner refused, he was routinely punished by guards until the family’s attorney was able to get him moved to another prison, where he continued to experience restrictions on his visitation and phone calls because of sanctions put in place against him at the prison where he’d filed his complaint. Esparza hears these kinds of reports from prisoners’ families because she runs a nonprofit called Community Solutions of El Paso, which helps families and children cope with the ongoing trauma and challenges caused by having an incarcerated family member. She and her staff accomplish a great deal of good with very few resources.
After Esparza’s opening remarks, the first keynote speaker of the conference took the stage: Gregg Marcantel, the Secretary of Corrections for the State of New Mexico. Secretary Marcantel was appointed to this post just a few months ago, after having spent decades in law enforcement as a Marine and a police officer. The message of his address at the Prisoner’s Family Conference was that he understands the importance of preservation of family ties during incarceration and family reunification afterwards as key components in preventing recidivism among reentrants. He expressed a strong belief that the vast majority of incarcerated people can safely return to their homes and communities if they have the right kind of support, and we, the attendees of the Prisoner’s Family Conference, offered to help him implement policies and programming to strengthen families divided by incarceration. We promised him that first day of the conference that we would be working together both during the conference and afterwards to draft a Prisoners’ Families Bill of Rights and that we would deliver it to him when it was done. We asked Secretary Marcantel if he would receive the document from us and work with us to create programming for prisoners’ families in New Mexico, and he immediately replied in the affirmative. We are grateful to Secretary Marcantel’s commitment to preserving the rights of families, and over the course of two nights with over thirty conference attendees meeting as a working group, we crafted a first draft of the Prisoners’ Families Bill of Rights, which we will further revise before delivering it to Secretary Marcantel and his staff. We will also make that document public on this website and as many others as we can in hopes that state and federal prison systems, community advocates, and legislators throughout the U.S. will find ways to use it productively.
Far more exciting things took place at this conference than I can report in a single blog post, and I will be posting more in the days to come. Stay tuned.