Transcript

Judy Woodruff: Prison can, of course, be brutal. It can also be the scene of remarkable change.

Jorge Antonio Renaud spent 27 year behind bars, where he discovered the power of poetry. He is now national criminal justice director at Latino Justice, where he advocates for reform in Texas and beyond.

Tonight, he gives his Brief But Spectacular take on reimagining incarceration.

It’s part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jorge Antonio Renaud: I don’t describe myself as a poet. I think you let other people do that. But yes, I love poetry. And it will always be a piece of me, I think.

This time, I will not scream. Sleep folds its flames around me. Ashes fill my cheeks. This time, I welcome the jailer’s keys. They soothe with a well-known exactness the sound of my surrender.

I first went to prison when I was 20 years old, and I’d been drinking. And I was stopped. And as I am wont to do, I got a little mouthy with a police officer.And they arrested me. They put me in the county jail. And they put me in a tank of men who had already been convicted of crimes and were awaiting transfer to TDCJ, which is the Texas prison system. And I was drunk and I was young and I was strong and I was a boxer.

And none of that mattered. I was attacked. And I was beaten. And I was raped. I didn’t know who I was. I was lost. I was in this sense of shock and just — and I ended up — two weeks later, I took my father’s 30/06, and I walked into a Church’s Fried Chicken there in Beeville and I robbed it.

And I received a five-year sentence for that. It doesn’t get any easier to talk about getting raped. I don’t think it ever does to anybody. Never really addressed, never really talked to anybody about what had happened. I wasn’t going to admit it. I was a young, strong Chicano. I mean, I’m a man. You don’t — there was obviously something wrong with me, and I was weak.

And I ended up getting into drugs, and went back in September of 1980 on — with a 28-year sentence for aggravated robbery.

I adjusted to prison life by immediately asserting my willingness to commit violence. Yet I was also one of the few guys on the wing who was going to college. I was helping people write their appeals. And I would help them write letters to their families.

I have often said that we are where we are in our criminal justice system because we have failed to imagine anything other than what has been presented to us throughout our history, right? And that has been punishment.

By having conversations with individuals about the concept of rehabilitation and what that actually means, you say, OK, what would happen if the programs that you think are so necessary for someone to come out of prison rehabilitated were offered to that person before that person went to prison?

Wouldn’t the value of those programs adhere to that individual? Wouldn’t they learn something from them? And at that point, if they say yes, well, then what’s the point of prison?

The demonstrable harm that happens to people who are in cages, we know what that is. We have become enamored of the idea that there are certain individuals who are just crime-prone. And then you marry that to the idea that the only recourse is to, one, call the cops, two, have them arrested, three, have them convicted, and, four, have them incarcerated.

I mean, you get to where we are now.

This time, I will not quarrel with chains. I have no room for scars, and I will feed my bones to their bracelets.

My name is Jorge Antonio Renaud, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on reimagining incarceration.

Judy Woodruff: Very powerful.

And you can watch all of you can watch all our Brief But Spectacular episodes at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief