Disclosure # 1: As an incarcerated writer, I find prison writing that focuses on the “talent” of incarcerated individuals in order to motivate people to support prison reform as short-sighted and demeaning.
Disclosure # 2: I am not atcually an incarcerated writer; I am a writer who is currently incarcerated.
Disclosure # 3: When asked by a Board of Parole Hearings investigator what type of work I’d pursue if granted release, I spoke soley about a career in construction.
Writing about the concrete ceiling, a barrier composed of the societal biases and systemic hindrances that prevent formerly incarcerated citizens from ever being fully restored to society, may be the only time when referencing the talents of my incarcerated peers is appropriate. In every other case, it pulls emphasis from what is truly important; has the incarcerated person developed the internal tools to be an asset to their community and can they be placed safely back into society?
Plus, focusing on talent contributes to a merit-based release strategy that is not un-similar to immigration policies our current president wants to implement. The merit argument presupposes that some are more talented than others, instead of acknowledging that we, as a society value some “talents” more than others. In short, everyone is talented, everyone has value, everyone deserves a chance to become assets to their community, even if that asset is merely being a working member of their community, or a loving, retired grandparent.
That being said, formerly incarcerated citizens face a lot of hurdles when it comes to returning home and participating in certain professions. Regardless of our opinions about talent, incarcerated people learn to dream small when making plans for future release.
The end result is that we, as a society, miss a lot of valuable resources. All around me are potential coders who would end Silicon Valley’s diversity woes, story tellers who want to tell positive tales in television, movies and literature, and artists who want to inspire the next generation to avoid the mistakes they made. My friend Eddie, who aces every algebra test he takes, wants nothing more than to become a chemist and work to find cures for some of the most intractable diseases we face. He was found suitable for release by the parole board a few months ago, but will not be able to pursue his goal because the formerly incarcerated are not permitted to become licensed chemist.
What Eddie and many others are dealing with is the concrete ceiling, a barrier to any of us fully making amends for the harm we’ve caused in the past because it limits the ways in which we can contribute in the future.
In truth, this concrete ceiling is largely unnecessary. The fields that many of us aspire to are very competitive, and those races are largely won by the younger, fresher faces among us.
I know that having a desire to write for a living doesn’t mean I’ll be able to succeed on that career path so, to give myself more options, I’ve learned a trade I hope to never fall back on. Still, I hope to one day find a way to contribute in the best way I know how, perhaps my writings can help the next potential writer who feels overwhelmed by the size of their dreams.
James King is a writer. Some of his influences are James Baldwin, Angela Davis, his hometown of Ferguson, Mo, and that all oppression must be eradicated. He writes to introduce marginalized perspectives, and he writes to feel whole. Read more about James.