Mass incarceration in the United States is a subject fraught with implications for who we are as a nation, who we are as North Americans, who we are as members of a global society, and who we are as inhabitants of a smallish planet in the Milky Way galaxy.
One activist is trying to reach hearts and minds on this subject through his creative talents. The result, a play called “The Oppression of the Oppressed” by Máximo Anguiano, will have a staged reading on September 19 in San Antonio, Texas.
I first came across Mr. Anguiano’s name while writing a blog post a year ago about the little-known (to white people) history of Latino lynchings. He had reviewed an article by Richard Delgado. I have since been following his Facebook posts.
At least since Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, came out a few years ago, the subject of mass incarceration in America and privatized prisons has been in the forefront of issues addressing discrimination against black and brown people.
How Mr. Anguiano came to the subject is perhaps different from most people.
“A few years back I was asked to assist with the Latino population inside of a state prison,” he said in an interview. “There were many disputes of gang warfare, intercultural fighting, and things of the like there. The purpose of my assistance was to help with a cultural program and to help cease much of the fighting. This event is what really opened my eyes to what was going on inside the prison walls. . .”
The main themes of his play address the war on drugs, mental health of prisoners/inmates, disproportionality of blacks and Latinos incarcerated, solitary confinement, capital punishment and privatization among others. The play is inspired by true events, Mr. Anguiano said, adding that he has spent about 100 hours in the last few months on the phone talking to people coming out of prison.
He points out the well-known and alarming statistics of incarceration in the US: With 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s prison population at a cost of more than $63 billion a year. There are almost seven million people imprisoned in the US, and the majority of them are people of color. We also know now, thanks to the Herculean efforts of people like Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, that many of them are innocent, are children sentenced under adult guidelines, and are even people who are languishing in prison without being charged of any crime and/or imprisoned for being too poor to pay a fine for something as insignificant as a traffic violation.
Does this not sound like Soviet stalags or what happened in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power? Donald Trump’s lunatic bellowings on immigration have empowered every racist in the country to show their true colors. (Note: I wrote this sentence two weeks ago. It is a main headline in the NYT of 9/13/15.)
The lead character in Mr. Anguiano’s play, he said, is loosely based on Hakim Nathaniel Crampton, who spent 15 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. “He was sentenced to life for murder and finally set free because of a false confession.” (You can read more about Mr. Crampton, a poet and activist, here: Convicted on false confession
But Mr. Anguiano does not sentimentalize the level of violence he witnessed in prisons. “Some of these men are savages,” he said. But, “were they that way before they were locked up?”
He also addressed privately owned prisons: “Private prisons are a business. They have to keep enrollment up.” Such prisons don’t address rehabilitation because they need the prisoners to turn a profit. And it’s not just the prisons themselves that need prisoners, but food, clothing, and linen vendors; anyone who supplies anything to a prison has a stake in mass incarceration.
Mr. Anguiano has been able to capture various audiences with outspoken perspectives and motivational expressions, crediting much of his work from the mind’s images, societal issues, the Hip Hop culture, and forgotten history. He often performs on stage theatrically and poetically, in addition to consulting educationally & politically. As a leader & trendsetter in fashion, athletics, and current events, Mr. Anguiano is a mobilizer for progressive ideas and awareness.
Where is the hope for Mr. Anguiano in the travesties of justice that mass incarceration lead to?
“We need to continue to have these voices cross over,” he said. “We need to get the information to people who aren’t in the chair. We need to keep open minds and communicate the humanity of prisoners.”
In the end, if we don’t address the societal ills that put people in prison, the poverty, the racial injustice, “we’re all going to pay for this together.”
Visit Mr. Anguiano’s RAW profile to see videos of his work: Independent Creative Services