Photo by Philippe Leone on Unsplash

I always look forward to Monday mornings — the prospect of a new week nudging my 16-years-to-life sentence closer towards my loved ones in a not-too-distant future. This whimsical introspection keeps me hopeful. I look for meaning and purpose daily in opportunities, acts of kindness and community. With each new day I involve myself in activities that allow me to experience that which I seek: Above all, I just want to understand my place and yours.

At Green Haven Correctional Facility, where I was moved to a couple months ago, I’ve been assigned the same job I had at Sing Sing, helping guys prepare for re-entry to their respective communities. The work always requires a high level of cordiality with the men who live here, as well as with the officers and civilians who work here. Communication is often strategic and purposeful, but I find it to be an affirmation of our shared humanity.

Green Haven, and its hulking sandy gray walls, sits below picturesque green mountain plains on the border between Connecticut and New York right along the Interstate 84 corridor. Because of our location, my public radio station is out of Connecticut and the news is Connecticut-centric.

One Monday morning in my work area, I asked an officer, who happened to be White, about the spread of the delta variant in New York. I had not heard about our state’s rate of transmission recently. 

I felt like he was waiting for someone to ask that question. Instead of giving me a straight answer, he opined expansively about the disease being something cooked up in a bio-weapons lab and the vaccine being developed too quickly, making it as dangerous as the virus itself. 

We had a back and forth about vaccinations. I’m vaccinated. He wasn’t. I countered with what I thought were evidence-based perspectives about the disease and vaccines. My understanding was based on diverse sources from mainstream media outlets like CNN, NPR, ABC and PBS.  

He pointed out that I didn’t read or watch conservative media. I had to admit that he was right. I had to acknowledge my own biases about conservative perspectives. 

Many Black folks are conservative, especially when it comes to religion, gender identity, expression, and family values, but it is safe to say that few, if any, Black folks are right wing. Identity politics, Black or White, are exclusive clubs. Neither side tries to walk in the other’s shoes. 

The conversation with the officer ended up making me examine my own identity politics, something I had never given much thought to.

There has been a lot of discussion about the two Americas and the lack of meaningful dialog about the issues dividing us. America’s division is a red-lined truth. 

Our communication and exposure to “the Other” typically takes place in public spaces like government buildings, malls, entertainment venues, work settings or on transportation. In those spaces, our contact with each other consists of moving to, from, and away from each other. Rarely does it provide an opportunity to get to know each other. On the contrary, those encounters can be fraught with stereotypical biases, paranoia, and spontaneous violence.  

New York prisons are primarily populated with Black and Brown folks. The block I live in has 252 cells. I estimate the block is 85% full. There are less than 10 White guys in the cellblock. I mention this to illustrate my inability to have meaningful interaction with “the Other.”

The officer I spoke with had provided me with a rare, if jaundiced, opportunity for conversation with one of them.

The conversation with the officer meandered from the coronavirus to our former president and the current Republican party. 

He believes “the big lie” that Donald Trump won the presidency and supports the current iteration of the Republican party. I enumerated a host of critiques, including how “the big lie” has become the catalyst for dozens of states throughout the south creating laws restricting voting rights, banning protest and other conservative legislation designed to further disenfranchise already marginalized populations. I spoke about how cowardly it was that they pretend it’s about protecting values. 

His responses were non-committal at best, making me suspicious about what he truly thought or felt. We parsed my urban upbringing against his rural and suburban experience, a stark dichotomy. 

Given all that the officer expressed and its current cultural framings, it would have been easy for me to label him racist. But the fact of the matter is I have never heard him say or do anything remotely racist. He affords me all my rights and privileges here and extends to me the same civilities I extend to him. We even share a laugh now and again about the madness of this place. Our only difference is our experiences.

My Monday morning takeaway is that race and its constructs put us in boxes difficult to get out of. 

I didn’t listen to pop or country music until I was in my 40s because my upbringing told me that I was Black and pop and country music were White. For that reason, I denied myself the joy of listening to music outside my familiarity. 

How many other things outside my familiarity have I missed? The wall dividing the two Americas is an ossified barrier protecting thoughts and ideas, opinions, fears and paranoia, trapping us in the everyday of our mediocrity. 

There is something to be said for the unfamiliar.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Reginald Stephen

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.