LBS has done a lot of working challenging the construction of a new youth detention center in Baltimore. This effort has helped to highlight the way institutional racism and the prison industrial complex manifests themselves here in Baltimore. It’s important that we don’t assume that this is the only area where institutional racism is embedded in our political infrastructure.
A very recent example of this has been the state’s harassment and disruption of a radical Black grassroots organization working in state prisons. Gary Maynard, who is the Maryland Secretary of the Office of Public Safety and Corrections, has presided over an administration that has attempted to marginalize a group that explicitly empowers those who are incarcerated to develop a greater consciousness about social justice. Recently there was a minor incident where the director of this program, Dominique Stevenson, unknowingly brought a floppy disk into the facility. As a result, the program was suspended because floppy disks are considered contraband in Maryland prisons. Ever since this incident, the program has been temporarily suspended.
Friend of a Friend (FOF) is a mentoring program that focuses primarily on getting prisoners to understand their culture and history and their responsibility as members of a community they can either have a positive or negative effect on. FOF is a bridge organization for the larger community that wish to help out in any way they can. This organization has bridged prisoners to tenured professors at Morgan State University and Howard University as well as opportunities to participate in full-scale productions and also debates.
All of this connects them to a larger community to halt the conundrum of social and economic isolation that leads directly to re-incarceration. Through all this, the program also teaches conflict resolution skills that help the men to avert fights and saves lives, both in and out of prison. The final part of this program that must be commended is the tireless work that the director and others put in to establish a community waiting to help ease the transition of those that are released from the prisons. FOF has helped to facilitate jobs, networks of friends and family to support, and opportunities for them to mentor at-risk youth in Baltimore to halt their progress towards incarceration. All of this is focused on peace, healing, and the reconnection to kinship and communal structures.
On Friday, November 16, 2012, people representing the FOF program and other allies approached Secretary Maynard at an event at Howard County Community College. He was approached peacefully by passionate advocates about his lack of attention to the issue of the FOF program being suspended.
As illustrated in video in this editorial, the protestors were not violent or disrespectful. Secretary Maynard behaved very paternalistically to their demands. In an email message that he sent to Bashi Rose considering the incident, he described the protestors as being a “mob” and being “loud and argumentative”. When referencing the FOF program as a whole, he said “I saw nothing yesterday that I could support.”
For Secretary Maynard to call this organization a “mob” is misleading at best. Nothing could be further from the truth and this has been recognized by the Secretary and his department on numerous occasions.
This undue termination also relates to another issue that has been ignored by Secretary Maynard in his correspondences about FOF. He agreed to institute a community liaison that would be picked by community leaders such as Dominique Stevenson. This position would not be a staff member of the department, but would be fully recognized and included in decision making processes. The purpose of this position is to facilitate a greater awareness of how prisons operate and what the citizenry can do to be involved in its programming.
It is important to remember that these prisons are not theirs, they are OUR prisons and there are many active members of the community that want to step and take responsibility for how they operate. If a democratic society is what we aim for then we cannot allow the lives of tens of thousands of our brothers and sisters to be run by bureaucrats who work without hearing the opinions of the people that employ them. Secretary Maynard agreed to recognize a community liaison and we must hold him accountable to his word.
The State of Maryland prides itself on encouraging community involvement in the administering of program inside their facilities. Unfortunately, this flies in the face of the reality of what goes on inside. As of 5PM on November 28, 2012, all self help programs were shutdown. This speaks to the complete disregard that the Maynard administration has for the roles that these programs play in improving the climate inside prisons. It’s peculiar that the administration would disrupt FOF even though the program fosters cohesiveness and community inside the prison. It seems that it would be in the administration’s interest that such a healthy communal atmosphere exists inside of a prison.
So why would the administration suspend this program?
People who have been apart of the program have remarked about how many of the participants develop a love and respect for themselves. This has resulted in prisoners in carrying themselves not as inmates, but as human beings who deserved to be respected and acknowledged. Whenever Black people have stood up and advocated for our own empowerment, dominant institutions in our society have taken this to be a threat to the social order. This is probably how the Maynard administration feels about the FOF program. It’s important to understand that the disruption of FOF is not merely an isolated incident of state aggression, but it is an example of the ongoing war that being waged against the livelihood of Black people in Maryland.
It is ludicrous for Secretary Maynard and the State of Maryland not to support the FOF program. This is sad commentary on the inherent racist structure of the prison industrial complex in Maryland. We must put faces to the name of the individuals who are denying our people access to adequate services and support so that they can live better lives.
We DEMAND for the immediate reinstatement of the Friend of a Friend program.