“Rape, Riots, and Rotten Food”

Inmate Cardboard Standup_Where-Excuses-Go-to-DieRape, Riots, and Rotten Food – Relearning Life Behind Bars

The sooner the public learns that it’s been chumped by the media into thinking it knows what offenders look like, the sooner the heart and humanity that also exist behind bars can be tapped in an effort to redirect –not recycle– offenders. And whether it’s the people themselves that matter to you or the countless billions of taxpayer dollars we can save by fixing this problem, it’s about time we get started.

And what do I propose? As a former inmate of the California Department of Corrections myself, my mission is to help change the public’s misperception that all inmates are illiterate, tattooed, Nazi-worshiping, meth-mouthed man-rapists. This is what Where Excuses Go to Die is all about, defying the caricatures and stereotypes that make it easier for us to believe that incarcerating our way out of crime is viable.

John Espinosa Nelson_Where Excuses Go to Die_Photo by Katie FergusonI enjoy public speaking commitments tremendously because my message is irrefutable: Prison is no longer just for “those” people, not with the numbers of Americans incarcerated in this country. Nearly everyone has a family criminal offender or parolee these days  –or knows someone who does– so engaging with the public to demonstrate how little it takes to relate to that person is the first step in reframing our outdated picture. Taking them by surprise helps: audiences don’t expect to be entertained in a dialogue about prison, and they certainly don’t expect to laugh (the fact that California has built one university but 31 prisons since 1980 is hardly funny, after all). But helping people understand disturbing facts about the criminal justice system or about how their money is being spent requires some levity, so talking about what you really see in a prison shower helps to offset the otherwise dark and harrowing environment. I should know –it’s what got me and my family through the toughest four years of our lives.

And if we can change how regular folks recognize incarceration and the incarcerated, we can start to talk about why an emphasis on milestone-based education is a better investment than flushing public funds down an inefficient, constitutionally noncompliant toilet of a penal system.

You can help me get people’s attention. If you’re a California Librarian or CLA member, or if you know a California Librarian or CLA member, please consider either voting for my proposed 2015 California Library Association conference session or passing this on to a colleague or friend who might be interested in voting.

Thank you.

*Photo by the wonderfully generous and talented, Katie Ferguson @pocketofgreen