How Pa.’s incarcerated are doing their part to fight gun violence from the inside out | Opinion

Tens of thousands of Americans with criminal records are fighting to restore dignity to their communities

(Canva image/The Alaska Beacon)

By Tyson Smith

The rise in crime has renewed “tough on crime” rhetoric from many politicians. Political advertisements running during the midterm elections targeted crime and criminals—sometimes even characterizing people as “animals”—for political gain and often used racist themes to scare viewers.

A PAC named “Citizens for Sanity” ran outrageous, extreme appeals. But Pennsylvania’s Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz and other right-wing candidates also leveraged these fearful messages to gain political advantage.

Meanwhile, despite being incarcerated, tens of thousands of Americans with criminal records fight to do right in their communities and restore dignity to their communities.

At a Veterans Day ceremony inside SCI-Phoenix prison last week, I learned of a recent effort that veterans (and other groups of incarcerated residents) launched to improve their communities, support young people susceptible to violence, and set things right.

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This fall, a 16-year-old boy named Nicolas Elizalde was shot and killed at Philadelphia’s Roxborough High school. His death was horrific, yet dozens of children have been tragically killed in Philadelphia by guns this year. Many of these tragedies don’t necessarily even make headlines.

One such victim is Jeremy Wilcox, an eighth grader at Wagner Middle School who was killed in October. On top of the incredible loss suffered by his family, his mother, Jasmin Wilcox, was not in the position to pay for the funeral expenses.

Learning of this situation, several men at SCI-Phoenix organized fundraisers to pay for Jeremy Wilcox’s funeral expenses.

In just a few weeks, these men raised $2,300 for the funeral expenses. The money came from incarcerated people representing several different inside groups that include the Grey Panthers, Real Street Talk, LACEO, and FACT (Fathers and Children Together), Man-Up, and the NAACP chapter.

They are now engaged in raising funds for two additional efforts for Jeremy Wilcox’s school and community—shirts with inspiring messages and a delivery of cheesesteaks for every child at his school. Altogether, I was told their contributions would come to roughly $9,000.

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Raising money on the inside of prison requires a lot of collaboration and organization. Undoubtedly it requires a tremendous amount of actual labor from everyone who contributes. The pay on the inside of prison ranges from $0.19-$0.42 an hour. If a person has seniority, he might get 30 hours of work per week, but maximum pay adds up to $47-$56 per month. Needless to say, $9,000 is a massive amount of money when wages are so low. That’s an entire month’s worth of work from about 180 people pitching in all their wages.

The men in these groups recognize that some have played a part in street violence themselves and as they shared, “laid the groundwork for today’s violence in Philadelphia.”

Many do ongoing critical work on building community and relationships from the inside of prison. For example, Fathers and Children Together (FACT) has been doing this since 2012.

At fundraisers like softball tournaments and walkathons, I have seen incarcerated veterans from the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 466, raise thousands of dollars for charities like Bebashi, the National Alliance for Mental Illness, Toys for Tots, and the Fox Chase Cancer Center, to name a few.

On top of their fundraising efforts, they organize an “apology and forgiveness” summit. The men recognize they have a degree of responsibility, having been part of violence themselves or been absent from parenting due to their incarceration.

Samuel Brown, an African-American Army veteran who leads FACT, explained on Veterans Day how the African “it takes a village” proverb often leaves out the full story: “the child that doesn’t feel embraced, will return to burn down the village to feel its warmth.”

Far from the “criminal” behavior depicted in political ads, these men, despite the significant challenges of being confined behind prison walls, continue to work to make amends and fight for what’s needed on the outside. Despite being depicted as craven opportunists, they do many days of unheralded work to improve the lives of others. As Brown said on Veterans Day, “Let’s get this thing on the right track.”

Tyson Smith is a sociologist who does teaching, research, and advocacy for incarcerated people. He lives in Philadelphia. Readers may email him at [email protected].

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.