Rahim Buford spoke to us, at 9:00 a.m. Wednesday, from within his 3’ cage in the corner of the conference room. His poetry traced the path that led him to an unprotected place where his do-over childhood met our for-profit prison system. His 26 years in a cage began at age 18. For some of those years, he was cellmates with 3 of his brothers.
“2.4 million Americans are caged today, and yet, we are a nation of faith.”
Rahim was released in June 2015. A poet, restorative justice facilitator, advocate, organizer, and founder of Unheard Voices Outreach, his book: Save Your Own Life offers his reflections on how the conditioning and environmental influences in his youth prepared him to go to prison in the same way that other children are prepared to go to college.
Today, Rahim works for the Children’s Defense Fund, and is studying theology at American Baptist College. His work includes leading seminars to increase awareness of the pipeline to prison phenomenon in the United States. At its most simplistic, pipeline to prison refers to the system of punitive justice in the United States that hinges on money that is made when prisons are full. Put another way, because there are big financial returns to those in power in the United States, for every person who is incarcerated, our prisons are and will be kept full; Someone is going to fill the cages.
Inside the cage from where Rahim delivered his poem were two orange prison jumpsuits. The chicken-wire with which they were stuffed enabled the artists who created them to bend them, to represent prisoners. These generic orange bodies were formed in postures those of us who have never feared incarceration try to avoid: one lying on its side, stiff arms raised to block blows to the face; one kneeling, handless arms reaching to cup a face hung in despair.
As Rahim rhythmically recited Who Am I, he gripped the bars, alternately squatting down next to the jumpsuits, then pulling himself up, hand over hand as he described his grappling to understand who he was and how that was inconsistent with who he was created to be. In the end, he told us: “Because of where I had been, I needed to dedicate my life to liberation.”
Ndume Olatushani is the artist who designed the orange jumpsuit art. Ndume spent 28 years in prison, 20 on death row, for a crime he did not commit. In his case, those who sent him to prison knew that he was innocent. The authorities needed to put someone away for the crime, and they did not have the one who committed it.
Ndume was finally released in June 2012. He has educated groups in Norway, Switzerland, France and across the United States. Somewhere in a collection of news articles at home, I have the story from the day he was released, along with the stories of others whose life stories include this horrific chapter.
Olatusahni is an artist, a teacher, an organizer, and an advocate. He is explaining another orange jumpsuit sculpture in the middle of the room. This one contains no chicken-wire; it has no body; it is lifeless, deflated, seated in an old school desk. On the desk is a bible open to the book of Proverbs. The bible is torn, frayed, and latched to the top of the desk with handcuffs. It was created with input from incarcerated youth.
In the next few hours, we will gather around these phantom jumpsuits, discussing what they represent, and how their presence affects us. Three more leaders who were wrongly convicted or who received sentences well beyond what is reasonable for their crime will add their voices to our experience.
Noura Jackson is one of them. She spent 11 years in prison for a crime she did not commit. The Innocence Project is currently working on her exoneration. Noura tells us about “cupcake Christians,” that is, those who show up at prisons with cupcakes and happy words about Jesus that have absolutely no connection to the injustices suffered every day by those they visit. “They bring us cupcakes,” she said. “And then they can go home and feel good about checking off the Christian to do list: visit those in prison.”
It is not that the prisoners dislike the cupcakes; it is that the cupcakes are like putting a Band-Aid on a few, in a system in which thousands need major surgery.
The harder truth to swallow is that until well-meaning people begin to fight against the system that cages young men and women for convenience and profit, the cradle to prison pipeline will continue to systematically enslave children in a place we call the land of the free.
Cadeem Gibbs was first caged at age 12. He spent all of 2009 in solitary confinement. He is featured in a documentary about Riker’s Island that interested participants were given to take back and show their congregations. When we watched a brief clip from the film, I could feel the tension increase around all our leaders, and especially Cadeem.
At the end of the day, we asked specifically how we could help. Every former prisoner said the same thing:
Go and tell our stories. Use whatever platform you have. Join us in working on behalf of those still in the pipeline.
I looked at these beautiful, gifted teachers who had suffered through some of the worst that life can dish out, and who were sustained by the courage and persistence of a few committed people, and power well beyond this broken world, and I wrote:
- Schedule a screening of the documentary.
- Skip the cupcakes.
- Bring the Jesus who flips the tables and sets the prisoners free.