It took me a while to talk about my story and explore my childhood pain on a deeper level. I sat in groups, slowly began to talk about my traumatic experiences, then allowed feedback and guidance to help me pin point the source of my hurt. I soon became a little more comfortable sharing my story, with certain people, in certain settings.
I started sharing my story more and more, but now in different venues, not just the groups I sat in. I shared my story with the visitors on the tour, then with random people who would come in as “guests” to sit in these groups I was involved in. They were brought in by the group’s sponsors, and many times, without notice. It seemed like I was telling my most painful experiences and my crime over and over to strangers, whereas initially I shared my story with trusted peers in safe and intimate circles; circles that took months to establish trust.
Soon I became tired of constantly sharing my story. I began losing feeling in the things I would share. It felt mechanical and all in the brain rather than the heart. Sharing my crime became a memorized narrative, and talking about the abuse and childhood traumas such as death threats by my stepfather when I was 12 years old and homelessness as a teenager felt detached from reality, as if I was retelling a novel I had read.
I felt like a puppet. I was being “asked” to share my story for guests, which took away the healing powers that talking about painful issues has. I then learned these “guests” were funders or potential funders for the programs that we were in and sponsors were bringing them in to get money for their nonprofit programs or projects.
I completely understand the nonprofit world in the criminal justice field. I get that education about issues, and in particular, that education coming from those directly impacted, is extremely crucial. But what I started to witness and personally experience was money was more important, not us.
It disheartens me when I am expected to tell my most traumatic experiences at the drop of a dime just because some “guests” show up. It makes me feel like an “articulate” zoo animal on display. It further saddens me that men in other programs experience the same thing, but many don’t even know that’s what’s happening to them, just as I was once oblivious to what I was being used for without my consent. In some cases men feel like they HAVE TO share because in a weird way, that’s their only way to convince people from free society that they are not monsters; by telling random people about their shame. The men who are enlightened about what’s actually going on feel conflicted but many do it anyway in fear of not receiving the benefits these groups promise.
Though the groups and programs provide a service for us incarcerated men, it does not mean that we are owned by the good deeds that we are provided with. It feels as if I’m supposed to be appreciative and therefore oblige, or be feared as an ungrateful person, which are characteristics of the same guy who committed the crime in the first place. Eventually, however, I learned that it was OK to speak up at times when I wasn’t comfortable sharing. I learned that in doing so, I was not only staying true in honoring myself, but my victim. When I work with organizations like Re:store Justice, I make all the decisions for myself. For the rest of us who participate, yes, we share our stories, but we do when WE feel like it or when WE want to. We, incarcerated men, are in charge of who we want to meet and who we choose to open up to. Nothing is obligated, only respected because we are the decision makers. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for some other programs here and other criminal justice organizations that sneak in here with promises of job skills, resources, celebrities, or worse, freedom.
I believe it’s okay to share our story with people who are interested in helping with criminal justice reform. I believe the people directly impacted are the people who need to be heard from the most. However, that should be OUR choice, not the non-impacted person who “runs” the group or organization. When the money or the race for funding becomes exploitative of the most crucial and life altering times in a person’s life, (and on top of that, without consent) that’s a problem. The competition for funding in the nonprofit world can easily become the very structure that they were initially created to undo.