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Quakerism mandates leadership: J. Jondhi Harrell on mass incarceration

J. Jondhi Harrell outside the Friends Center in Philadelphia
J. Jondhi Harrell outside the Friends Center in Philadelphia.  Photo: Madeline Smith-Gibbs / AFSC

Note: I first met J. Jondhi Harrell through Philadelphia’s prison and reentry activism circles.  Later, I worshipped with him at Germantown Friends Meeting, where he recently became a member.  As an insider to the worlds of both Quakerism and the criminal justice system – he was incarcerated for over 20 years – he speaks powerfully about prison, reentry, and Friends’ mandate to confront the dehumanizing system of mass incarceration.  To learn more about AFSC's healing justice work, visit our issue page, take a look at what Quaker meetings/churches can do, or register for one of our monthly Calls for Spirited Action happening from now until May.  -Madeline 

Knee-deep in the issue of mass incarceration

J. Jondhi Harrell (JJH): My family’s from Georgia.  Every year we’d go down to Georgia for a family reunion.  I was born in 1955 ... so I grew up during the Civil Rights era.  We rode in the back of the Greyhound bus every year until my father started driving us down.  We sat in the balcony because we weren’t allowed to sit in the downstairs section with the white people.  There were certain stores we frequented, and others we didn’t go into.  Restaurants we definitely didn’t go to, that wasn’t even thought of.  I’ve lived through the Civil Rights movement and I can see the changes and I can see the reality of how we’ve moved through that.  It’s a different reality that a lot of people don’t fully take into account.

I think that mass incarceration has always been here – it’s never gone away, it’s never changed.  It’s manifested itself in the last 30, 40 years in a more dramatic way due to the War on Drugs and some of the bad laws that have intensified the acquisition of bodies for mass incarceration, but I can’t think of a time when mass incarceration wasn’t a dominant feature of American society. 

If you look at slavery and what slavery was, it was a vehicle to build this country’s wealth on a very low-cost labor force.  Slave labor built huge parts of this country, in terms of railroads, in terms of infrastructure, cutting down trees and building roads, building towns, feeding the population, the cotton industry – so many things were built with slave labor.  After slavery was ended, the Jim Crow system that was put into place was a vehicle for continued enslavement, but now on legal grounds: if you were a vagrant, you could be incarcerated and put on a chain gang.  What’s a vagrant?  A person who has left the plantation he grew up on, looking for a better opportunity. 

The slavery system was replaced by the sharecropping system, which was definitely a new form of slavery.  The masters or landowners would advance the plows and seeds and mules and food necessary to sustain a family from planting to harvest, and then take the majority of the harvest.  Often the cost of what had gone into it were not only absorbed, but you ended up owing money at the end of the year, so you’re constantly behind and constantly working to maintain your own life and to put money into the coffers of people who thought they were superior to you.

 Central Philadelphia Friends Meeting

People who wanted to leave that system and find something better and migrate to other areas certainly found discrimination and hardships on other levels, even when folks came north to create a new and better life – often the life was somewhat better but the segregation and discrimination and hardships were still on a level that was unlike any other racial or cultural group that had ever come to America.  I’m of the point of view that mass incarceration had its foundation in slavery, and it matured over the years of segregation and lynching and civil rights, and now it’s merely reformed itself into a more sinister form that can be readily identified as mass incarceration.

Madeline Smith-Gibbs (MSG): Given that mass incarceration is, at its root, something that has been around for hundreds of years, what do you think is necessary to change that force and to start moving towards a different vision?

JJH: I think that education is paramount.  People have to be informed.  They have to be given the moral choice: this is the situation, what are you going to do change that?  I think that mass incarceration is the new civil rights movement of our time.  If Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers and Fred Hampton were alive now, they would be knee-deep in the issue of mass incarceration.  They would be leading the forefront against it.  I think that political activity is vital.  We started the BLOC Party, which stands for Build, Lobby, Organize, and Campaign.  The key to what we are saying and doing is that it’s necessary for us to change the fundamental system …

The reality of the political system and capitalist society is votes, money, and power.  Unless you have one of the three or a combination of the three, your voice is not going to be heard on the same level as the voices of those who are funding the system.  They work 24 hours, 7 days a week to move that forward.  So what we have to do, is organize on a political level – which is what the BLOC Party is proposing for returning citizens.  That needs to be linked to ordinary citizens.  People in the community need to join the BLOC Party, people in the community need to make a distinction between the politicians who can attack the problem and those who are part of the problem.  Unless we can mobilize people on a huge, intense level to attack all aspects of mass incarceration, it’s going to continue to flourish.  

Mass incarceration is not just the prisons.  Mass incarceration is the Family Court Building on the corner over there and the way people are funneled into the system.  Mass incarceration is the police in the subway station, on the streets, in the cars, and who they selectively choose to stop and frisk and prosecute and detain and look for illegal activity.  Illegal activities happen all over the cities in all neighborhoods, but they are strictly enforced in black neighborhoods, and they look the other way in other neighborhoods.  You can be a car full of white kids smoking a joint in Northeast Philly and ride all day long and nobody stops you.  But in North Philly if you’re riding, you ain’t gotta be smoking – just look like you want to smoke something, and you’ll be stopped.  

People have to see mass incarceration for what it really is: a tool of oppression, a tool of suppression, a control mechanism that keeps urban people, black people, Hispanic people – more importantly, poor people – in their social caste.  

I think that one of the most important things that [Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow”] points out in her literature is that there are social castes.  People don’t like to think of American society that way – they like to think this is a democracy, you can rise as high as you want, the myth of the white picket fence and your ability to obtain what you dream of.  That’s not the case.  In this society there is a rigid caste system.  You may be able to escape from one caste to the next, but there are rigidly delineated ways of doings that: going to a specific college, linking into this community, acquiring this skill, acquiring this level of education, joining this political party, being a part of this clique or group – and always bowing down to the dominant culture.  That is how you advance in the United States.  

Unless you can adhere to and follow the principles that are revered in white society, you are not going to advance.  That’s the reality.  I think what Michelle Alexander has raised in “The New Jim Crow” is, how our society is really structured. Is this right? Are we going to allow it to continue?  I think that’s very powerful.

Creating a system of accountability for returning citizens

After his release from prison in 2009, Jondhi cofounded a reentry organization.  However, he soon developed a broader vision for reentry work, and split ways with his partners in order to create The Center for Returning Citizens (TCRC). 

JJH: We don’t even call TCRC a reentry organization.  We call it a “system of accountability” because it’s necessary for you to be accountable to yourself, to your family, and to the community and greater society.  If you incorporate that principle into reentry, you’re dealing with a different paradigm.  That has been our focus from the very beginning: we wanted to create a new look for what is traditionally called reentry.  So we deal with family reunification, we deal with at-risk youth, children of incarcerated parents, we deal with violence in our community because we feel that returning citizens who have in the past contributed to the destruction of the neighborhoods have a moral responsibility to rectify that and go back in the neighborhoods and try to do work that will bring those neighborhoods back to a better state.  We are deeply involved in employment, but we are also looking at job creation in addition to job attainment because it’s important for the black population in urban areas to control their own neighborhoods and have neighborhoods that return the money to the neighborhoods.  

Currently most of the businesses in black areas are run by other racial groups, so the money doesn’t circulate in the environment.  What it does is flows from the residents to the merchants and then back to [the merchants’] neighborhoods – so what we’re trying to do is make it a different system.  We’ve also constructed a workshop series which deals with ethics, time management, social responsibility, parenting, many different aspects of reorganizing your life, your cognitive thinking, your behavior patterns – all the things that are necessary to really bring transformation to the person.  

Traditionally, that hasn’t been the focus of reentry.  Reentry has been more about getting out, getting your resume, finding jobs, being absorbed into greater society.  We feel that returning citizens should be a dynamic force in their community and in society, and in order to do that you have to look at their situations and their aspirations and what needs to be done to move them forward in a different way.  

A culture of achievement and struggle

MSG: How much of what you do with individuals at TCRC is also a political project?  

JJH: There are in the city of Philadelphia well over 200,000 returning citizens, yet we have no political power, we have no political base, we have no organized economic power.  We have economic clout because we are consumers, but it’s not organized in any manner that is meaningful.  In terms of our political power, Pennsylvania is one of the few states where as soon as you walk out the prison door and go to a halfway house or home, you’re eligible to vote …

But many folks don’t vote, many don’t even know they can vote – they are even under the misconception that they can’t – and they’re often disenchanted with the system, they are tired of authority in any way, shape, or form – so for them to think in terms of voting, election process, education – it’s just not high on their radar.  They’re more focused on the immediate needs of finding a job, finding housing, reuniting with their family, and moving forward in a manner that would not have them be incarcerated at some later date.  

And that is important – you need to take care of your short term needs, that’s essential.  Without that, you’ve got no foundation to move forward.   But along with your micro needs, you have to look at the macro.  You have to look at where you want to be not only as a person and a family, but as a community, as a cultural group – or you might say, subcultural group.  Because returning citizens are actually their own culture.  We have a shared culture that is unlike many other cultures.  Yes, many of us are African-American, many of us are in urban areas.  But the experience of criminal behavior, the legal and court system, and incarceration creates a sense of shared experiences and a culture that is unlike other groups.  Many people when they are released from prison want to put all that behind them and either act like it never happened or recover from the after effects of it.  

TCRC’s position is “embrace your past.”  Embrace the experience that you have gone through.  Use the pain and the struggle and the effort that got you to this point to empower you to higher things.  Don’t try to push that aside like it never happened, because that causes all sorts of psychological or stressful situations.  We can rise above our circumstances and move forward in an organized manner, and it’s much easier to do that when you’re sharing that experience and that process with those who are going through the same thing.  

So when we speak to our clients who come through, we speak on a level they can understand because we’ve been in a halfway house, we’ve dealt with a girlfriend or a wife or a loved one who has suffered along with you – because mass incarceration is not just the incarceration of those who are still in prison, it’s a system that affects kids, parents, siblings, extended family members, anybody who loved or cared about you.  And it also affects the victims of that: when you have murders, you have two family groups.  You have the family group of the murdered, and the family group of the murderer.  Both of these family groups are impacted in tremendous ways.  The one family group has lost the life of someone who they love, and that affects everybody in the family.  The other family group has lost the freedom of someone they love.  

Regardless of the moral connotations of the killer and the murderer, the result on the family is very, very similar.  That father who died no longer can no longer impact his children and family.  The shooter is doing a life sentence and he’s in effect dead to society and dead to his family in any meaningful way, in terms of being on the street taking care of them, playing the role of a parent.  It’s extremely difficult to parent from inside.  I taught a parenting class and one of the first things I say is that it’s impossible to be a good father while you’re incarcerated, but we’ll show you how to be the best possible father that you can be given the circumstances.

So I think that what TCRC does in addition to employment, in addition to housing, in addition to case management where we’re connecting folks to the necessary services to move forward, is to create a culture of shared experiences, a culture of sharing, a culture of achievement and struggle.  That’s important.  Without struggle, no human endeavor is going to be successful.  We are trying to move others forward and at the same time we’re trying to move ourselves forward.  

As we assist persons with their transition, we’re assisting our own transition.  As you help people and become a role model, and do necessary things in the community to elevate the community, you raise your chances of success, you raise your life expectancy, you create an environment that benefits those around you.  And that’s powerful.  Folks who really get involved in TCRC and activities like what TCRC is promoting are far less likely to fall into the trap of recidivism.  It just doesn’t happen, because you’re too busy doing good things to be involved in doing wrong things.  

God moving through you: On the role of Quakerism

MSG: What spiritual tradition, or traditions, have you identified with over the course of your life?

JJH: When I was very young, my family was Baptist.  When I was about five years old, my mother converted to Jehovah’s Witness ... When I was incarcerated, I came to Rastafarianism.  I’ve been a Rastafarian for many years.  When I became a Quaker I saw no conflict between the principles I’d embraced as a Rastafarian and the principles that are espoused by Quakers.  In fact, a lot of Quakers probably don’t realize this, but the concepts and the principles – aside from the divinity of Haile Selassie and some other historical things – are very close. 

Rastafarians believe in universal truth, they believe that the individual doctrines or dogmas of a religious structure is not the important aspect of that reality, but that what you do, how you interact in the world, what your actions are and how they impact those around you, is the most important manifestation of what we believe in.  And that I think comes very close to the concept of walking in the spirit: what you do day-to-day is an indication of God moving through you.  I think that those principles are very close – in fact, I call myself a Rastafarian Quaker.  I’m probably one of the few, but that’s how I identify.

MSG: Where were you when you first encountered Quakerism, and how does Quakerism influence what you do?

JJH:  I was walking [by the Quaker meeting adjacent to the TCRC office] one day, and of course I’m nosy so I’m looking through the windows.  I’d never really seen a Quaker meeting, and I was struck by the fact that all the pews faced toward each other, and I didn’t see a podium.  So I asked about that weird configuration, and where’s your podium at?  Where does your preacher stand?  I was told that there’s no preacher, and about how meetings are structured.  That also is similar to Rastafarianism because, in the Nyabinghi tradition in which I was trained in, there is no intermediate between the individual and God or Jah – everyone has their own path to God and you interpret that path in your own way.  Being moved to speak in the spirit is similar to how Rastafarians identify with how Jah touches our life.  That was very familiar to me. 

So since [Tom Grabe, a local Quaker] had been inviting me, I said let me go here and see how it’s done.  I went and I really enjoyed the meeting.  I like the sense of shared meditation, I think that’s extremely powerful.  When you meditate by yourself, it’s a universal connection, but when you do it in the company of the spirit of others, it’s much deeper.  I really like the concept of not having someone who gives you information or streamlines their interpretation of what they believe or what they think God wants you to hear … I think that the meeting process is extremely powerful.  And the activism of Quakers in the history of Quakerism: the abolitionist movement and every major moral situation in the country, Quakers have for the most part been on the right side.

Stewards of a new vision: On Quaker testimonies

MSG: In what ways do you see your work as reflective of the Quaker testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, stewardship – any of them or all of them?

JJH:  Let’s take them one by one.  In terms of simplicity, I think the work that we’re doing is extremely simple in concept.  What we are saying is that there should be a fundamental change in the system of mass incarceration in this country.  Once a person is convicted of a crime, his incarceration should not be merely punitive.  It should be a system that seeks to redefine who he is as a person and help him to – if that is his desire – to transform himself into a better person.  This would be through education, through providing vocational opportunities, providing psychological and counseling services that could identify some of the root problems that many people labor under. 

In terms of peace, what we are doing at TCRC is promoting peace – and the Quaker concept of peace has broad connotations.  We’re looking at peace on an individual level: being a peaceful person, having a peaceful family.  Your home should be a refuge, it should be an oasis of peace in an otherwise maddening world.  You can promote peace in your community, and I think that TCRC is doing that through our at-risk youth program because many times problems start for people when they’re young, if they’re in an atmosphere of violence.  We want to help to alleviate that as much as possible. 

We have an initiative where returning citizens will be employed as peacemakers, as mentors, as role models in the community, and paid a living wage for doing that.  Many times it’s things we already do because we see it as our role, but we should be paid to do it.  Returning citizens should be assigned to different areas where they already live, where they already have influence – they could do so much to reduce the level of violence in the City of Philadelphia, and in cities all over the country, if they were employed properly.  Peace is a Quaker concept that is essential to what we are doing. 

I think that our workshop series and our philosophy speaks to integrity.  If you are going to promote a certain way of live, you have to live that life.  You have to not only be a role model, but all aspects of your life need to be focused on pushing forward that message in a real way.

Community is our main focus.  Family is the foundation stone of the community.  Returning citizens – our name denotes that.  We are returning to society, we are returning to community.  We’ve always been a citizen, we just lost some of our citizenship rights.  We want to embrace the concept of citizenship and community and show that we are worthy of that label.

We believe in equality across the board.  We are working to create a world where an employer would not be able to say, “I don’t employ returning citizens.”  In the same way in this world you can’t say “I don’t employ gay people.”  If you say that, what happens?  Lawsuits, bad publicity – it’s not allowed.  Because society has been forced to evolve to a point where the rights of a person to have their own sexuality and express it in the manner in which they choose is, if not universally respected, universally approved. 

I think the Quaker concept of stewardship speaks to community and equality.  Returning citizens have a responsibility to be stewards in the sense that we are trying to help young people not to repeat our experiences.  Trying to lessen the violence in our community by being life examples of what happens when you are involved in violence and crime and countercultural behavior and it destroys your life and injures the lives of those who love you and would otherwise support you.  We are the stewards of a new vision for not only returning citizens, but for our families and our communities. 

Helping to create a new life: On mobilizing Quakers against mass incarceration

MSG: If you could address all Quakers, what would you say?  What do you want Quakers to know about the prison system?

JJH: I would say that the system of mass incarceration has some very far-reaching effects on the lives of not only the prisoners but on the lives of their families and communities.  I think that the way that justice is dispensed in this country needs to be addressed on a fundamental level, and that could be achieved through organizations like Friends Committee on National Legislation or American Friends Service Committee ...  That could be very powerful in terms of Quakers using it to influence legislation that impacts mass incarceration.  I also think that individual Quaker meetings need to link up and identify grassroots organizations that are doing the real work in their areas, and support them ... 

Identifying the real work that needs to be done and supporting it is good.  Also just being receptive to new ideas and new concepts, and researching and learning.  It’s so important because people do things based on their understanding of the world around them.  If they understand what mass incarceration really does, the cost in human lives and lost hours and material and spiritual and psychic issues – this is the cost – they are much more likely to mobilize themselves and do things that help move our struggle forward. 

MSG: What would you like to see Quaker meetings doing?

JJH: In Quaker meetings we have a lot of mass incarceration committees, we have a Peace and Social Concerns committee.  I think that peace is not just in the Middle East, it’s not just some concept that we’d like to achieve on some international level, at some far-off time in the future.  Peace is what’s going on on your street, what’s going on in your neighborhood – or the neighborhood that you don’t live in.  Or in prisons that are right here in our community or far away in rural areas. 

Peace is what we aspire to as a society, but which we find very difficult to obtain, which is why they call us “Killadelphia.”  What are some of the social conditions that give birth to such a violent and antagonistic lifestyle among young urban blacks, and what can we do to address that?  If Quakers want to talk about community and equality and integrity and stewardship, they need to look at what more they can be doing to impact this on a real level, and not just talking about it.  Talking about things is very easy.  It’s very easy to have a mass incarceration committee.  What is harder is to identify specific things that need to be done and go out and do them. 

MSG: Anything else you’d like to say?

JJH: I go around to churches and meetings and do a commentary called The New Underground Railroad.  I contrast how the system of mass incarceration now is the descendant of Jim Crow and slavery.  We need to focus on how we can oppose this – how we can become conductors of the new underground railroad.  Back in the days of slavery, people assisted slaves to freedom, but also at the end of that journey there were people who assisted in helping them form a new life.  You’re no longer a slave, now you have a new life, you’ve successfully come North, now you’ve got to create a life that is different than what you had as a slave … 

Quakerism, the actual foundation of Quakerism and the role that we played in the abolitionist movement, mandates that we are leaders in the struggle against mass incarceration.  We wouldn’t be true to our history if we weren’t.  That’s something that Quakers need to focus on and consider.  

About the Author

Madeline is temporarily taking up the reins as the Friends Relations Associate.  Prior to AFSC, Madeline researched alternative economies in Philadelphia and worked with people returning from prison to organize against employment discrimination.  A lifelong Friend, Madeline is excited to rise with a new generation of Quaker social activists.

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