The Hip Hop rapper known as Common is taking a different approach to prison reform. Never seeing the inside of a prison cell himself, the Hip Hop star, like many others, believed some of the things that people speculate in prison.
Many people believe that inmates are stabbing and fighting each other 24/7. But many of them are learning and studying things like coding, theology and getting degrees.
Common believes that people’s stories are not being told accurately. In October, the Chicago-born rapper performed live at correctional facilities in the Central Valley of California.
He met with groups of incarcerated men and women, some with violent crimes. The performer formerly known as Common Sense knows there is a deep desire among the incarcerated to change the public’s perception about prison.
It can also be a place of reconciliation, rehabilitation and inner peace.
America Tops the Charts with Its Number of Incarcerated
America leads other nations with over 2.3 million people incarcerated. Mass incarceration policies make it harder for inmates to have access to therapy, education and job training making it likely that they would return to the facility.
This adds to the recidivism rate in the US.
Common wants to encourage incarcerated people toward their transformations while supporting the work of activists who do in-reach programs. The Hip Hop artist launched his Hope and Redemption Tour in 2017 organized by his non-profit Imagine Justice.
He partnered up with Scott Budnick (producer of the Hangover franchise). Budnick serves on an advisory board that promotes rehabilitation run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
CDCR has more than 128,000 women and men incarcerated within their walls, with 66% returning within a 3-year period. The California prisons are overcrowded, sometimes, eight to a cell.
Sam Lewis, a formerly incarcerated reform advocate, believes the state needs to have robust rehabilitative programming. He notes that people in prison are broken and need the programs inside the Department of Corrections.
Also, there are barriers that need to be removed on the outside that prevent the formerly incarcerated from becoming entrepreneurs or finding gainful employment.
For example, they can take cosmetology and barber classes on the inside, but are denied the licenses once out due to a felony record. Or the women and men who fight fires in California but denied the opportunities to become firefighters when released from prisons.
Common wants to highlight that not every person on the inside is a bad person, they are simply people who have made bad choices. In prison, there are many people who are doing the work to actually better themselves.
The First Step Act: Will It Help or Make Things Worse?
The First Step Act has passed the House and is waiting on Senate approval. This bill promotes prisoner participation in:
- Vocational training
- Educational coursework
- Faith-based programs
There is even a plan to relocate inmates closer to their families. This is not the plans that Common has nor advocates for at this time.
Celebrity endorsement is big with helping the First Act, including Kanye and Kim Kardashian who have spoken to the President.
Kim has helped by lobbying clemency for Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year old first-time nonviolent offender sentenced to life. This approach doesn’t interest Common. He has no belief in Donald Trump or his history and has a different idea.
Corcoran State Prison Substance Abuse and Treatment Facility is 63 miles from the nearest big city. The institution has a sign-in book that is tattered and underused. Not many visits, not many can.
There is a Blue Lives Matter Banner hanging in the guard booth. This was the first stop on the Hope and Redemption Tour. Staff and residence stressed the importance of resident-led rehabilitation programs.
They have Gang Members Anonymous and studies that discourage violence and crime inside prisons with positive decision-making tools.
CDCR has a Youthful Offender Program, which is a small mentorship program meant to keep impressionable youth from prison gangs. One mentor is Alberto Tolento. He’s a former gang member who found rehabilitation programs helpful in his journey to leave gangs alone.
The program has graduated over 90 participants so far.
Common’s prison concert was the first Hip Hop concert that many in the audience had ever attended. Many behind bars do not have the opportunity to get out. But even behind the walls, they feel free in their spirit and in their minds.
In the end, Common has plans to make changes. Yet, he has no faith whatsoever in the First Step Act.
What Are Commons Motives for Performing in CDCR Prisons?
Common wants those behind bars to create a new story for themselves… stories that have new narratives for those behind bars to tell together.
He wants to encourage incarcerated people toward their transformations while supporting the work that activists who do in-reach programs in prisons.
The man born as Lonnie Corant Jaman Shuka Rashid Lynn wants to:
- Change the thought that inmates are hardened by prison stays and show that they are educated inside
- Inspire inmates and to shatter myths about what’s happening behind bars.
- Show that inmates are human beings who need to be heard
- Show light to the stories of why people got behind bars
Many are stories of those who were trying to do anything to take care of their families or homeless people who became addicts.
Can Proposition 57 Make a Difference in California Prisons?
Proposition 57 is part of this solution. It provides rehabilitation and gives prisoners opportunities to go home and stay home. Many of those inside prison walls want to go home and none of them want to come back.
Common wanted to hear from the ones inside to learn what they needed so they can get these programs to help them. He wants to create programs that adhere to the needs of the incarcerated and rehabilitate those with long sentences, especially those given life sentences at young ages.
These programs give hope and give them positive outlooks on life. But we have to give them a chance when they get home. It feels good for them to know that people with power behind their name care and are fighting for them.
Common knows that everyone is not going to visit a prison. But he wants to show the world what he sees. His message is simple:
No matter who you are or what you have done, you deserve a second chance.
He ended his concert at SATF with the song “It’s Your World” with lyrics that explore possibilities when overcoming adversity. The rap ends with:
Be ammended 5/5ths, be ammended 5/5ths human
Be the owner of more land than is set aside for wild life
Be cupid, to world government
Be found among the truth, lost tribe
Be at full strength when walking through the valley
Be not foolish as tender 18 of the mountain tops
Be a brilliant soul, sparkling in the galaxy while walking on earth
Be loved by God as much as God loved Gandhi and Martin Luther King
Be that last one of 144, 000, be the resident of that twelfth house
Common wants the world to help. And we should.
Many people have someone they love in prison. They deserve to be treated as people, and not a number. It’s not just about the guards who work at the prisons. But it’s about the:
- Sentences that are given
- Conditions of the prison facilities
- Efforts made to reduce recidivism
We need to expose that the prison system is a money maker built on the exposure of those who have made mistakes. These are still people.
They are people who have families, who have children and who have a right to make things right in their lives. We have a responsibility to change the way those inside are viewed, the way those who come out are handled and the chances that they are given to them.
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