BAYPORT, Minn. – Maybe, inside the prison here, an inmate could break some major national news.
“I was wondering,” the man began as he approached St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter. “I know it’s early, but in the future, you ever think about running for president?”
He couldn’t help but ask Friday after Carter finished rousing a group of 75 inmates gathered at the Stillwater prison to hear from three black elected officials and public safety leaders for an event that linked the occasion of Black History Month with the recent influx of black Minnesotans in key leadership roles in the state.
The truth was, Carter said, he didn’t know. But he wanted to stay mayor for at least the next 8 to 12 years because “I like being in the action.”
Carter had just described how the city eliminated library late fees to encourage more reading, and how the recent story of a St. Paul woman serving a 40-year probation sentence moved him to speak on changing probation laws and restoring voting rights to felons.
The mayor joined Attorney General Keith Ellison and Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington on Friday in delivering messages emphasizing the importance of valuing black culture and history, and each speaker punctuated their remarks with hope for a brighter future.
Participants in the prison’s writing workshops also took the stage for spoken word performances, including men like Lavon Johnson, who borrowed from an Alicia Keys song for his piece: “You don’t know my name. I swear it feels like I don’t exist. My name is not ‘offender.’ It is Lavon Johnson.”
After each performance, the room erupted in applause. New Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell and the prison’s warden, Eddie Miles, were among those to leave their seats for standing ovations.
‘Not the definition of you’
At one point, Carter told the room that they would never hear him describe them “as a convict or an inmate” — “that’s not the definition of you in my opinion,” he said.
“Thank you … for being someone in a leadership role recognizing us as human beings,” one man later replied.
Ellison meanwhile expressed his support for joining Maine and Vermont in never stripping voting rights, even when people are incarcerated. Minnesota only restores voting rights after the completion of probation, something some lawmakers are trying to change this session.
“Politicians … like to demagogue about crime and I’ll tell you why we do it, it’s because you can’t do nothing about it,” Ellison said.
Harrington described the nonprofit Ujamaa Place he founded in 2010 to help young black men navigate the criminal justice system or other issues related to poverty and inequality. He said the program has worked with 4,000 young men so far, with just five re-entering the justice system.
Officer Antonio Espinoza, a veteran at the prison, organized the event as part of a series of Black History Month gatherings inside the prison. He closed with a poem he wrote early one morning as he planned the gathering. In it, he told the audience that they could be a “teacher or even a preacher” and urged them to “let your test become your testimony.”
“This is the most important thing I’ve done here in 17 years,” Espinoza said Friday.