There are some beautiful lessons that can be taken from Harriet’s life and applied to how we
conceptualize prison reform. Overall reform is a slow grind with inherent flaws, like abolition was. For example, the effort to abolish slavery, while valiant, did nothing to address the idea that Black people were equal humans deserving equal rights. That required a fight that lasted over a 100 years after the 13th Amendment was passed – and to many, that fight continues.
While the idea of prison reform plods forward, it missteps at the idea of giving relief only to non-violent offenders, and in a general sense, there is not much thought given to the fact that ex-cons should be given opportunities to reclaim normal lives.
Harriet’s paradigm addressed the snail-speed of abolition: she escaped. Instead of reveling in the freedom she audaciously seized for herself, she became the bodhisattva and went back to lead others to nirvana.
For inmates and the Returned alike, Harriet’s paradigm means that the onus is on them to speed reform along by escaping the system on their own whim. This means reforming one’s life to abstain from criminality as best as possible. It means seeking therapy and counseling for mental health and addiction issues. It means seeking employment and wealth through avenues like entrepreneurship. It means having the audacious attitude to reject societal expectations that stereotype Returned people as having to live lives where supervision is an everyday aspect of their life. That they should only seek certain jobs – often menial ones, and struggle perpetually at the poverty line. Instead, Tubman’s paradigm means we should aspire to the heights of our community, becoming influencers, policy makers, even holding political offices.
It also means that when caught up in the system, countering the status quo of how courts work. No more waiving rights to the full process of proceedings, such as preliminary evidence hearings, in order to secure a favorable plea bargain. Even a slight increase in people demanding they actually be proven guilty will force DAs to stop prosecuting frivolous and/or questionable cases.
Harriet Tubman’s paradigm also instructs on the idea of “coming back” and providing inspiration and assistance – even in a small way to the next wave of people facing incarceration and re-entry. People are always looking for examples of success, as well as resources – and expertise that only former inmates have – to help them on their own path to freedom and impactful living. With all the hype surrounding the recent movie about her life, Harriet’s real legacy teaches that freedom ultimately is born by personal responsibility – not a collective epiphany. This lesson must be at the forefront of any mission for criminal justice reform to have any success or real meaning.
This piece was written by Forgive Everyone Co. Contributor, Taj Ashaheed
Taj Ashaheed is a community activist, writer, speaker, Muslim and Interfaith advocate. In 1989, at the age of 19, Taj was incarcerated for robbery, sentenced to serve 16 years in prison. After serving 7 years, Taj was released in 1996, completing his sentence on parole.Taj subsequently worked extensively with strategy and communications firms, working for clients ranging from President Bill Clinton to then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama. In 2013, Taj was re-incarcerated for spurious domestic violence related charges, serving a 4 year sentence. In his spare time, Taj can be found training and competing in jujitsu and MMA, writing, and performing spoken word poetry. Taj is a past columnist to the Denver Post and maintains a blog at www.brothertaj.blogspot.com