Life on the Inside: Building Community and Connection Across Prison Walls
In Field Notes, writers show us the creativity, perspectives, and strategies of everyday organizers who are pushing us toward a world where a truly just, multiracial democracy is possible. The U.S. prison system leads the world in incarceration rates, with the growth of private prisons providing an economic incentive to see these numbers climb. One challenge facing activists is how narratives of incarceration dehumanize people who go through the system. In this Field Note, Ryan M. Moser shows how one visitation program has seen success across multiple states in changing preconceived notions about incarcerated people.
Ryan M. Moser
08 November, 2023
Edward Demoreta, 40, a former school teacher, who is serving 25 years in prison, sat fidgeting his hands. When the visitor asked him what people should know about prison, Demoreta replied that the Department of Corrections encourages the worst version of himself.
“Because of this violent environment and the way we're treated by officers, we’re not being prepared for reentry back into society,” Demoreta said.
“Why should free people care about you or how the officers treat you?” the visitor asked.
Demoreta paused, contemplating, as the woman who posed the question stared intently. “Because if society picks which groups of people we care about, we’ll find ourselves in the company of history’s greatest villains.”
Each week, community members in South Florida have the opportunity to visit the Everglades or Homestead Correctional Institutions, and have one-on-one and group discussions with incarcerated residents. The multi-state Prison Visitation Program is an endeavor of the Frederick Douglass Project for Justice (FDPJ), founded in 2020 by Dr. Marc Howard, a professor at Georgetown University. Its goal is to shed light on the humanity that exists within the prison by giving people on the outside a chance to interact with system-impacted people.
According to FDPJ’s mission statement, the program “facilitates structured meetings and respectful conversations between members of free society and [incarcerated people], so they can learn from each other, form powerful human connections, and transform both their own lives and society at large.”
Two million people are imprisoned in the United States, yet few people on the outside know what happens to men and women once they’re locked away behind bars. Florida is exceptionally punitive – it has the third largest prison system in the country – and continually takes steps to further isolate residents by only allowing video visitation in most county jails, limiting the amount of contact they can have with family and friends, and broadening the gap between the imprisoned and society. Emails to and from institutions are regularly censored and rejected for content about prison conditions.
One of the goals of the Prison Visitation Program is to disrupt the silence and stereotypes that have prevented open dialogue for so long, and the impact can be seen in the sincere conversations being had in the program and the lingering effects on the people inside.
“We invite and support people to connect with each other on a purely human level, giving rise to some extraordinary transformative conversations,” said Dr. Howard.
Dr. Howard first visited a prison to see his childhood friend who had been wrongfully convicted, and was eventually exonerated, of a double homicide. That visit shaped the course of Dr. Howard's life; he is now one of the country’s leading advocates for criminal justice reform. He launched the Frederick Douglass Project for Justice, hoping to embody the values and legacy of the 19th-century abolitionist, through a focus on emancipation, equality, and justice.
The Prison Visitation Program, which is at the project’s core, began in Washington, D.C., and expanded to Colorado and Florida before the COVID-19 pandemic paused its growth. But the success of the meetings is evident, and the project now has programs planned for New York, California, and Minnesota.
These encounters between people who usually wouldn’t meet are meant to nurture empathy in both the visitors and the incarcerated residents, and help bridge the gap between them.
“We can only create compassion in the criminal justice system if there’s a cultural shift about how the people on the outside view people on the inside,” said Howard. “Movies and the media portray people with justice involvement as not smart and not worthy of opportunity. Based on my hundreds of trips to prisons, I know this perception is inaccurate.”
In February 2022, the project partnered with the Miami-based prison education nonprofit Exchange for Change (E4C) to expand the program to Florida — the first of its kind in the state.
Kathie Klarreich, a former journalist who’s now the executive director of E4C said, “The visitors come from a cross section of society, volunteering their time to come inside and sit down with our student leadership.”
The visitors include entrepreneurs, college students, church leaders, and police officers. Some are part of organizations that are trying to learn more about the challenges people face behind the wall. All volunteers must go through a background check and training session.
For each session, cohorts of approximately 15 community members — many of them repeat visitors — come to prison and meet with 15 incarcerated residents, usually for around two hours. After introductions are made in a large circle, the participants break up into smaller groups.
During a recent meeting in the Everglades C.I. visitation room, groups of Black, Latine, and white men and women, both young and old, were huddled together sitting on plastic chairs and discussing some of the given prompts: What’s something other people don’t know about you? How can people on the outside help? What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Although the topics are planned in advance, and visitors are trained to approach discussions with respect and dignity for the person sitting across from them, the conversations were still organic and flowed naturally.
The in-person meetings are a starting point for meaningful change, but getting people to participate remains an ongoing challenge. However, volunteers who did participate said being able to meet in person was more important than anything else.
“The face-to-face interaction is what brings compassionate understanding,” said a Florida International University graduate student.
Dr. Howard and his staff hopes such exchanges will open up hearts and minds to the plight of imprisoned people nationwide.
“We want our participants to take their positive experience back into the community and hire people with a justice-involved background, to become activists for change in the legal system, and to vote for leaders that will create more equitable practices,” said Howard.
While it’s too early to see how that will play out in the long term, several visitors have already returned as facilitators and teachers, donated books, and attended E4C graduations. In June 2022, Dick’s Sporting Goods got its corporate leadership involved and donated 60 basketballs and soccer balls for the prison recreation yard.
But perhaps most importantly, transformation is happening inside the prison, too. Klarreich has already seen a difference in the people involved. “The vulnerability of our students has made a profound impact on the visitors,” Klarreich said. “Everyone supports each other, and the little things that happen in here have had a huge ripple effect inside the prison.”
One example is the change in discourse within the institution; since the meetings began, echoes of the program can be heard in conversations between incarcerated residents. Knowing that some of their voices are being heard seems to nurture a new optimism on the pound.
After serving 14 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, David Lemus, 53, never imagined that he would willingly choose to go back inside a prison as a volunteer.
“My palms still get clammy when I hear those doors clank behind me,” Lemus said.
Lemus was doing what most formerly incarcerated people do after his conviction was overturned — working and starting a family — but he still wanted to help incarcerated people in some way. Then a friend introduced him to the Frederick Douglass Project for Justice
“When I was in prison, I held my head low in defeat and lost faith in justice and humanity,” said Lemus. “Now I get to come inside and mentor men who feel just like I did, and show them people care.”
Ryan M. Moser is a writer formerly incarcerated in Florida. His work has been published in the Evening Street Review, Storyteller, Santa Fe Literary Review, The Progressive, The Marshall Project, Medium, The Wild Word, The Startup, and more