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interviews

Othering and its Consequences

by Philip Melendez
August 25, 2020

This interview with Philip Melendez was conducted and condensed by franknews

My name is Philip Melendez and I am the program manager at Re:Store Justice. I was formerly incarcerated. I served nearly 20 years and I've been home for nearly three years.

Can you tell me more about the work that Re:Store Justice does? 

Our focus at Re:Store Justice is to go from proximity to policy.

Before COVID, we did a lot of work inside of prisons. We brought survivors of crime, people who had lost loved ones to violence, district attorneys, legislators, people who just had an interest in criminal justice reform, into the prisons, and held events to give them a different perspective. We want to create a shift in the way people think about prisons, and about the transformation and rehabilitation that can happen on the inside.  

How has the work changed since COVID? What have your priorities become?

That work inside has much halted since we can not hold events inside. 

Initially, we started helping by donating PPE. We donated masks and gloves to some of the hardest-hit prisons where the outbreak started. We don't know what happened to the supplies, but obviously, with the numbers we are seeing now, it didn't help them enough. 

We recently started the Canteen Project, raising money to go directly to prisoners so they use that money in the commissary for food and other hygiene projects. I don’t know if you saw our post the other day, but the food that they are serving, during a pandemic, is abysmal. It’s like a piece of bread and some cornflakes. There is no nutrition, there is no holistic focus on health during a pandemic. 

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That reminds me of a quote from a previous interview. "The Department of Corrections has never prepared for a health crisis. They have one solution to a health crisis, and that is punishment." Like looking back, can you see mechanisms of that mindset? 

Definitely.

I have personally survived through an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease, multiple norovirus outbreaks, and H1N1. Punishment is absolutely looked to as the solution. 

I remember once when I was sick, I decided to tough it out and not leave my cell. I remember going to sleep and hoping that I would not die, hoping that I would wake up the next morning. Two or three days later, I was feeling better and asked the nurse for some lozenges. They asked what I had had and took my temperature.

It was just barely a high temperature, but they sent me to the hold, which is the same as solitary confinement. I had to sit in a solitary cell for a couple of days. And they stripped me of everything. They took all my belongings, which are everything when you are inside of the prison especially if you have pictures of loved ones. 

So is that the standard approach? You get sick, you get put in an isolated cell? 

Yeah. 

If there's something more severe, like Coronavirus, or if you needed surgery or if you were having a heart attack, they simply can't help you. As the quote said, they don't have anything in place. It's not a hospital. They can hold you until the helicopter comes. If people get stabbed, they don't get care. Hopefully, the helicopter gets there soon enough, and they'll do what they can, but they're just not prepared or, I don't think, educated enough to handle any major medical issues.

How has this crisis has forced us to look at the intersection between public health and prisons? 

Public health concerns are very much intertwined with what happens in prison. And that is not something that people ever really even gave a second thought before this crisis. But it is real. 

The spread is all on the prison staff - 100%. The guards, the kitchen staff, the maintenance staff, it's all on them. Once they bring a virus in and an outbreak starts, it's impossible to socially distance inside. Prisons are like incubators, and they are run like incubators - everything from food distribution, cross-contamination between cells, the cramped spaces, the terrible ventilation. All of it. And then prison staff comes in and out, every day, all over the state, and spreads it to their families, and it goes on and on. 

Our organization has been very active in talking about the San Quentin outbreak.

We have held many town halls speaking directly to the people of Marin, and tell them, look, your hospitals are going to be overrun with people from San Quentin. This is your county. These are your people. Even though you might think that there's a separation, our health is intertwined. 

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What are you asking for during this pandemic? 

The specific asks for San Quentin are to cut the population by 50%. The prison itself is overcapacity. Buildings made to house 400 people, house 800. The cells themselves are 4X10. They were originally one-man cells but they added bunks in these spaces. I used to be able to reach out and have both hands touching each wall. The windows are welded shut and the ventilation is horrible. Based on these horrific conditions, we have asked that San Quentin reduce the population to have a hope at social distancing. 

We want mass releases, and we don’t want there to be a distinction between release for violent and nonviolent offenders. We think that that is a horrible distinction that deems some people deserving and others not deserving. It's not considerate of data on recidivism rates, it doesn't consider violence as situational rather than indicative of a person's being.

Our organization has been very much involved with San Quentin. We have a team of seven, and three of us are formerly incarcerated and spent time together at San Quentin. We left a lot of good friends behind. A lot of people who have committed horrible crimes in their past, but have made very huge shifts in their personality and became people that we are very fond of and love.

Do you see prisons effectively implementing rehabilitative programs? 

San Quentin has been known as the “Ivy League school” of rehabilitation. I have been told that I have the “San Quentin privilege" largely because of where we are situated in Marin. We have all these very affluent, very progressive communities, and people around us. 

But San Quentin is an anomaly.

I have been in prisons in rural, conservative areas where I've seen people from the local community protest in front of the prison, saying that the fact that those of us on the inside were getting an education was unfair. 

But during my time in San Quentin, I learned a lot. I learned that I have emotions. I learned that I was taught toxic masculinity and to hide my emotions. I learned that I was hurt. I learned that I had traumas. I was a really sensitive kid. I realized that I went above and beyond to prove that I did belong.

I unpacked all of that during my time at San Quentin, but the way that the system is set up right now is just stupid. You are going to wait for us to kill somebody, to teach us how to not kill somebody, to teach us how to be okay with ourselves? That is backward. 

How do you think we should be thinking about crime as a society?

As situational. Poverty is one of the biggest drivers of crime. Crime not indicative of people's culture - that is one of the most ignorant and racist things that I hear. And the ethos of, “oh just pick your up by the bootstraps” is ridiculous. How can we pick ourselves up by our bootstraps when we have nothing, when we have all these disadvantages.

There are human needs at the root of crime - and not just physical needs, emotional needs are critical. Safety, security, and self-esteem are essential. Maslow's hierarchy is real. 

Otherization is a big thing as well. It stems from a natural fear - we don't trust outsiders. It sets the stage for xenophobia and tribalism, things that are being stoked on a national scale. But it also happens on a micro-scale- within gangs for example. In gangs, we almost always have derogatory terms for the opposition. We reduce them from a person to a thing. We do all that we can to dehumanize people so that we can then cause harm.

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How do you see that same mindset playing out within the courts? 

I had a DA come in and tell me, and I quote, “It's easy to put a monster away for life. It's easy to sentence a monster to death.” 

And I said, “Well, sir, you know, that is murderer logic.” That is a little something I learned from anger management class - our tendency to objectify and dehumanize people allows us to harm them. He was just speechless.

With law enforcement in general, there is a societal disconnect. The general mindset is that these people who come in are criminals, that our job, in the courts, is to uphold law and order, and we are righteous in our job. But in giving themselves that righteousness, they are implicitly saying to the people in front of them, you are not righteous. We are all humans, but with this mindset, they take away people's humanity and people's dignity. The courts lead to so many injustices, under the guise of the pursuit of justice. 

Many district attorneys that we work with come in with those biases, but when they see the humanity of the folks, their whole psyche is messed up. The goal of our programs is to have people in the system see the personhood of the people behind bars, and it works. I have had district attorneys themselves tell me, "I don't know how I'm going to do my job again." They work in an assembly line of sorts. They'll get a case, see gruesome photos, hear a horrible story, give conviction, move on, and never see what happens in the aftermath.

How do we make sure that this shift in our collective psyche is carried out beyond this moment? 

I mean, that's the big question of 2020. It ties together the Coronavirus outbreak, and the Black Lives Matter protests. These things are intertwined and this moment has exposed a lot of people to the horrors of the criminal justice system.

I hope we can keep these conversations going and keep the pressure on lawmakers. We need to keep the family members and advocates emboldened and passionate. We also need to continue to combat these negative narratives and this idea that everyone behind bars is a monster, that they are dangerous, and that we can’t let them back out into society.

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