A former inmate and a former corrections worker talk

Outdoor guide Joe Hackett, novelist Russell Banks, and outdoor reducator and former NYS inmate Brother Yusef Wasi talking at a John Brown lives event in Lake Placid, NY. Photo: Brian Mann

Outdoor guide Joe Hackett, novelist Russell Banks, and outdoor reducator and former NYS inmate Brother Yusef Wasi talking at a John Brown lives event in Lake Placid, NY. Photo: Brian Mann

We can now look back forty years and see that society was at a tipping point. A new chapter was being written.

The war on drugs was in its early days. The Rockefeller Laws were sending unprecedented numbers of people off to serve hard time, and New York was building more prisons to house those men and women.

That’s the forest, now here are the trees:

More than thirty years ago, Brother Yusef—who back then was called Joseph—was a young, black Vietnam vet from New York City with a drug addiction and a prison sentence.

Joe Hackett was a young white man from the Adirondacks, newly employed by the Department of Corrections as a “resource leader” at the minimum-security prison Camp Gabriels.

On paper, you could break down prisons in the north country — and across the US — along those two identities: a young black man from an urban area involved with drugs and a young white man from a rural area looking for good employment.

But in the case of Brother Yusef and Joe Hackett, their meeting actually changed how each saw himself.

Last week, Brother Yusef and Joe Hackett told their story to a room full of community members in New York’s Adirondack mountains. The conversation was moderated by novelist and activist Russell Banks – who wrote an award winning novel about abolitionist John Brown.

It was hosted by a group called John Brown Lives, part of a year-long conversation the organization has begun about prisons and mass-incarceration called The Correction.

Here’s each of them, talking about how and where they first came across each other.

Their conversation didn’t reveal a belly-deep, bear-hugging friendship. It was much more interesting, nuanced and complicated than that.

Joe and Brother Yusef are real people with a lot of unresolved questions about mass incarceration, crime, race and justice, and their own roles behind–and outside–the bars.

Here’s what made last night especially remarkable: that a group of people came together eagerly and openly to talk about what in other times or other places would have been nearly unspeakable.

A former corrections worker and a former inmate talking about their role in a system that transformed America.

It’s an example of the new conversations that are happening around the country, in living rooms, at public events, on the airwaves—-a conversation about our massive prison system that didn’t exist before.

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