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From a Picture Grew Thousands of Words

Thus inspired, he wrote a poem called All I Know About Prison Shanks. The first line is “It doesn’t have to look strong; it has to be strong.” Missing his former artistic acquaintances, he wrote Soth, a fellow Minnesotan. Receiving the letter, Soth’s initial thought was, “Oh, that’s interesting” and wrote back.

So began a pen-pal relationship, which eventually spawned the book The Parameters of Our Cage. Profits from the book’s sales will go to support the Minnesota Prison Writers Workshop.

Many valuable, enlightened concepts about prisoners, prisons and criminal justice reform that could only have originated from a prisoner are showcased in Parameters. Cabrera points out that one of the main reasons for the tight control of information coming out of prisons is due to the fact that “damn near every prison in the country could be taken over by inmates at any time due to sheer volume and numbers.” Another explanation might be the abysmal conditions to which American prisoners are subjected and the brutality and corruption of many prison and jail employees. He states this does not happen because the vast majority of prisoners understand their imprisonment is their societal debt. Or perhaps the vast majority of American prisoners are functionally illiterate, mentally ill and kept in cages by armed guards. Politically, the book seems to be pretty mainstream in its analysis which illustrates the poverty of critical analysis of criminal justice issues these days.

Another of his concepts is including prisoners in the ongoing quest to achieve true, meaningful prison and criminal justice reform. In his words, “Just as the recovering/recovered addict plays an invaluable role in confronting treatment protocol, so should the true experts of incarceration be included moving forward. There are many who’ve spent decades refining their character in the harshest environments…. It’s about purpose, value and the role of each shareholder in restoring justice.” While correctly pointing out that the current concept of “corrections” is little more than “retributively keeping people in cages while expecting them to stop acting like animals.” But little seems to be coming out that is not a shared world view with the people who currently run the system of mass incarceration.

These are not the ideas and words of an animal. They are the well-considered, reasoned and intelligent concepts of a human being, even if he is caged like an animal. They are words well worth heeding. 


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