How Pa’s inmates are doing their part to fight gun violence from within | opinion

By Tyson Smith

The rise in crime has renewed the ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric of many politicians. Political ads that ran during the midterm elections targeted crime and criminals — sometimes even referring to humans as “animals” — for political gain, and often used racial themes to scare viewers.

A PAC called Citizens for Sanity made outrageous, extreme appeals. But Pennsylvania’s Republican nominee for the US Senate, Mehmet Oz, and other right-wing candidates also used these fearful messages to gain political advantage.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of criminally arrested Americans are fighting to do what is right in their communities and restore the dignity of their communities.

At a Veterans Day ceremony at SCI Phoenix Prison last week, I learned about a recent effort that veterans (and other incarcerated resident groups) have started to improve their communities, support young people vulnerable to violence, and make things right.

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This fall, a 16-year-old boy named Nicolas Elizalde was shot dead at Roxborough High School in Philadelphia. His death was horrific, but dozens of children were tragically killed by guns in Philadelphia that year. Many of these tragedies don’t necessarily make headlines.

One such victim is Jeremy Wilcox, an eighth grader at Wagner Middle School, who was killed in October. Adding to the incredible loss his family has endured, his mother Jasmine Wilcox was unable to pay for the funeral expenses.

Upon 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 towards funeral expenses. The money came from incarcerated individuals representing various internal groups including the Gray Panthers, Real Street Talk, LACEO and FACT (Fathers and Children Together), Man-Up and the NAACP chapter.

They are now busy raising funds for two other actions for Jeremy Wilcox’s school and community – t-shirts with inspirational messages and a delivery of cheesesteaks for every child at his school. In total, I was told that their contributions would total approximately $9,000.

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Raising money inside the prison requires a lot of cooperation and organization. Undoubtedly, it requires a tremendous amount of actual work from everyone who contributes. Pay inside the prison ranges from $0.19 to $0.42 per hour. If a person has seniority, they might get 30 hours of work per week, but the maximum pay is $47 to $56 per month. Needless to say, $9,000 is an enormous amount of money when wages are so low. That’s a whole month’s work for about 180 people who throw in all of their wages.

The men in these groups recognize that some themselves played a role in the violence on the streets, and by sharing with them, “they laid the foundation for the violence in Philadelphia today.”

Many continue to work critically at building community and relationships within the prison. Fathers and Children Together (FACT), for example, has been doing this since 2012.

I’ve seen incarcerated veterans from the community at fundraisers like softball tournaments and walkathons Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 466raise 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.

In addition to their fundraising efforts, they organize an “Apologies and Forgiveness” summit. The men acknowledge that they bear a degree of responsibility, having been a part of violence themselves or having been absent from parenthood due to their incarceration.

Samuel Brown, an African American Army veteran who runs FACT, explained on Veterans Day how the African proverb “It takes a village” often omits the whole story: “The child who does not feel embraced will come back to the village to burn down the village to feel its warmth.”

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

Tyson Smith is a sociologist who teaches, researches and advocates for inmates. He lives in Philly. Readers can email him at [email protected].