Minnesota’s prison system is often described using numbers:
9,607: The total prison population as of July 2019.
93.1 versus 6.9: The percentage of males versus females in the prison population.
$611,119,000: The annual budget of the Department of Corrections.
These statistics have a significant impact on policy decisions, but they also overlook the individual stories each person carries into their sentence – and it’s those personal stories that often shed light on the underlying challenges the system faces as a whole.
In an effort to better understand the individuals behind the numbers, Almanac recently partnered with America From Scratch host Toussaint Morrison to conduct a series of extended interviews with Minnesotans who have served time. These interviews are intended to explore the challenges people face before, during and after they answer for their crimes, and, as you’ll see, several common drivers quickly emerge – substance abuse, poverty, mental health issues, family struggles and systemic racism. Taken together, these challenges greatly restrict the choices available to the men Toussaint interviewed.
Rather than edit these interviews for time, we’re sharing them in an extended format.
JONATHAN FLOWERS, aka “Inspiration”
Jonathan Flowers grew up poor, and selling drugs provided a path to money and status. What he didn’t realize until later in life was that dealing drugs would prevent him from achieving what he really wanted – a stable life. His criminal record kept him from entering the legal workforce, and he was repeatedly forced back into a lifestyle he wanted to escape. Today, he’s renamed himself ‘Inspiration,’ a reflection of his commitment to provide a new generation of young people with a different set of choices.
Drugs and alcohol entered Marlin Meszaros’ life early, and it took him four decades to escape a debilitating pattern of substance abuse and arrests. After returning to prison four times, he decided he didn’t want the second half of his life to look like the first, so he turned to faith and recovery programs to create a new future. He now advocates for voting rights for formerly incarcerated Minnesotas and, in doing so, has developed a new relationship with a system he once viewed as the enemy.
HAMP TOWNSELL IV
Hamp Townsell lost his parents when he was only a teenager, an experience that forced him to move into an abandoned home with a group of similarly challenged friends. This lifestyle pushed him into an unstable orbit of gangs and drugs. He knew it was a world he didn’t want to enter, but it became a support structure he depended on for survival. While serving a sentence for a firearm possession charge, he began to see a way out – an escape that depended on the creation of a new sense of self. As a new father separated from his family, he committed himself to fulfilling that mission, and today he’s focused on shifting the family patterns that defined his childhood.
Each of these conversations covers a wide range of topics, and our hope is that they’ll introduce you to perspectives you don’t often have the opportunity to encounter. After you dive in, we would love to hear your reactions – so please share them in a comment.
On Tuesday, December 10th, join David Gillette, Sheletta Brundidge and Kedar Hickman at Twin Cities PBS for a conversation with thought leaders, academics and those who have experienced the system personally about how we ‘rethink prison’ in Minnesota. RSVP for this free event.
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