: Bypassing the default world for returning citizens and the formerly incarcerated
“It’s funny to appreciate a city from a jail bus, because it’s that very city that’s sending you away. And I mean all of it is sending you away — from the disciplinarians that fancy themselves educators, to the bullshit jobs that treat you like a crook from the first day, to the police who menace you everywhere you go. The city taught me the survival mechanisms it would ultimately punish me for. There’s no other way to understand it.” — Steven Powers, Facing Time.
Creating windows where there were once walls
For the last few years, the Embassy community has been deeply and beautifully entangled with a community that is traditionally kept in socially far places. The building that houses the embassy intentional community is a large Victorian mansion. It is home to 14 humans, with a unusually high ratio of common to private space, and as such, one of the ways that we are able give back is to offer our space to less represented communities for their specific need and events. One of the outcomes of this is that our space provides a platform and hub for crossed paths and blank slates where we get to forge deep connections with groups that society generally keeps apart. Through this, we get to understand our shared strengths and values, and crucially, what is missing in society.
Two years ago we started to run a DnD game with formerly incarcerated people in the Embassy dining room, and from there a myriad of bonds and collaborations were born. This group have all served life sentences in California. Years later, this community had seen enough about how intentional living works with all its quirks and wonders, and now felt ready to live that way themselves. And so the hunt began, for an intentional community built specifically around the needs of lifers on parole.
Mass incarceration, the lifer plight and what comes next
Around 162,000 humans are serving a life sentence in US prisons. That is one out of every nine people in prison (according to a new report issued by the Sentencing Project). And California has the the highest percentage of prisoners serving life. There are currently around 35,000 prisoners serving life sentences in California prisons, representing a quarter of the state’s prison population. Under Governor Jerry Brown, nearly 3,500 lifers have been released from the California prisons in the last five years, a record number. These are humans who have served abominably long sentences, often having entered the system as children. Not only are their recidivism rates extremely low, but they have often studied extensively and done extreme transformational work on themselves. To be blunt, but to call out the common misconception, this group are both low risk and also deeply valuable members of society. On their return however, housing is scarce. Perhaps more dangerous is the fact that they are returning to a society where a fifth of people report being socially isolated, two-thirds or more say they have just a few or no relatives or friends living nearby who they can rely on for support. This is a world where social isolation (not to be confused with loneliness) is the next health epidemic, leading to a 29% increased risk of death. For us, we are less about creating housing and more about creating ‘home’ and the community that comes with this, which are fundamental parts of survival and empowerment.
One of the things that I commonly hear from returning citizens in our support circles, is that they have dreamt of freedom for so long, and now they are here, it’s deeply lonely. That we live in invisible cages. No one talks to each other. Society is segregated. There is so much struggle that strangers can’t look after each other. If you leave home without our wallet and ask a stranger for help, you get looks of fear instead of the aid that you need. And hell, they are not wrong. San Francisco has undergone an influx of young elites and it can be a tough place to fit in for anyone that doesn’t fit the visual or cultural mold.
Structurally, the odds are also extremely difficult. They have fought for decades to survive, against a system that sets people up to fail. And then they return only to find themselves tied to living in the most expensive city in the world (a term of parole is that they must to live 50 miles inside the city limit for the duration of parole). A city where the most privileged and charismatic people struggle to find housing. I recently tried to go and see an 8 bedroom place for a Second Life community house, where the broker casually informed me that every tenant in the building would have to be able to show that they earned 2x the rent on the entire building. That would have been $22,0000 a month. I don’t even know anyone who earns that much money, and certainly that is galaxies away for this group. The screening and the stigma of living with formerly incarcerated humans makes housing and home almost impossible. And in a world where we need each other, this is terribly unjust; as we have seen, social isolation is deadly (those who live alone have a 32 percent increased risk of death).
Beyond this even, for me, creating intentional communities with former lifers isn’t just about creating housing, or home, or even community. Housing is necessary but not sufficient. It’s widely understood that mass incarceration in the US, to a large degree reflects the criminalization of poverty, and of trauma (Wolff, N., & Shi 2012, Jäggi,et al, 2016). For me then, a wider goal is to ensure that returning citizens are not returning to the same world that let them down in the first place, but into a different society, centered around solidarity, mutual emancipation and collective power. I wanted to make sure that this group could bypass the dominant themes of domination, competition, individualism that predominates, and come straight into the commons (I really have a larger goal, but I’ll keep that quiet for now). As I have previously said, the commons and all that it offers must be open to all who wish to participate, care for and contribute to them.
Getting the ball rolling
We asked and the community provided. We started a fundraiser to which 106 people donated, and 41 people shared and within a few days we have enough to start looking for a house. But it was not that simple. San Francisco housing makes this very hard. We put offers in on multiple houses, but landlords have the right to ask anything about their potential tenants, and landlords tend to be averse to anything that even looks mildly different from the status quo. Landlords commonly ask for your LinkedIn profile (as if only professionals are welcome), they want background checks of all kinds, not just credit checks. Whilst all of these requests might seem harmless, they are subtle motions that lead to discrimination. Nonetheless, and mostly due to the support and unending kindness of some community members, In February this year we got a 5 bedroom place. It is just a couple of blocks from the Embassy and we have been busy cleaning, painting and communing!
The name for our community house is Sigil
Sigil, // pronounced ‘sid-jill’ // is a fictional city at the center of the multiverse, with portals to every plane and every reality, and inhabitants from all realms. The city of Sigil is a paradox: it touches all planes at once, yet ultimately belongs to none; it is the City of Doors.
Sigil is home to our Second Life community — an autonomous, self-determined intentional community, built around transformation and empowerment, with and for the formerly incarcerated community, manifesting alternative justices approaches and values.
There is almost nowhere else in this city where you will encounter such a diverse mix of humans. We have a wonderful mix of racial backgrounds, ages, gender presentations, wildly varying socioeconomic backgrounds and dizzying life experiences and skills. Sometimes it boggles my mind to have such a mix all nesting under one roof, all baking cakes, painting walls and plotting the future together.
Three months in and things have been eventful, peaceful for the most part but we are learning our way through complex issues for sure. We have passed all our parole and probation visits and have good relationships with both sets of officers. We are all up to speed on parole terms, what is risky for parolees, and ways that we can share our constitutional rights. We talk a lot about relationships, scarcity, how to get away from scarcity and how we all recover. We are all working on freeing ourselves. Not all of us have been incarcerated, but all of are seeking emancipation. “Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are but to refuse what we are”, and this is a collective emancipation that we work on together.
Structurally things are going swimmingly. We have a shared bank account and a shared debit card that lives in the kitchen. Anyone can order food for the house on the card, we have decentralized ordering and spending. There are no designated chores, but the house looks clean and sparkling. I think we owe a lot of this to the experience that many of us gained in other community houses, such as the Embassy and The Red Victorian. We have a gripes & gratitudes session at each meeting, where there is space to tell people the things that are driving you up the wall that are easy for them to fix or adapt to :) we have collectively saved up a little money that we get to decide what to do with soon. The hope is that each house will be able to financially support the beginning of the next house, and that way we scale our freedom.
The Embassy Network is about the creation, maintenance, experimentation and diversification of the commons. For me Sigil, is the manifestation of many of these qualities and more. We hope to open a second house this year to allow the skills of more returning citizens to flourish. If you want to live with us, or if you are a landlord in San Francisco and you want to rent your building to us, please get in touch. We promise that we will leave you and your building, better than we found it.
This is dedicated to all those people who helped us get this place set up ❤
Wolff, N., & Shi, J. (2012). Childhood and adult trauma experiences of incarcerated persons and their relationship to adult behavioral health problems and treatment. International journal of environmental research and public health, 9(5), 1908–1926. doi:10.3390/ijerph9051908
Jäggi, L. J., Mezuk, B., Watkins, D. C., & Jackson, J. S. (2016). The Relationship between Trauma, Arrest, and Incarceration History among Black Americans: Findings from the National Survey of American Life. Society and mental health, 6(3), 187–206. doi:10.1177/2156869316641730