December 1, 2022
Artist and activist Jesse Krimes joins Jameela to share his powerful story. He describes his experience being incarcerated, discusses how solitary confinement was used as a manipulation tactic, explains the ways that prison is both violent and human, shares the way the prisoners were manipulated, details the racism which pervades the system, and explores how art saved his life in more ways than one.
Check out Jesse Krimes’ documentary – ART & Krimes by Krimes – now streaming on Paramount+
You can find transcripts for this episode on the Earwolf website.
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139 — Art and Prison Reform with Jesse Krimes
Jameela [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to another episode of I Weigh with Jameela Jamil. I hope you’re well and I hope you’re ready because this is a fucking bonkers chat. My guest is so impressive that I was left in shock for a few hours after talking to him because his story is not only really inspiring, but is deeply, deeply humbling. What he’s been able to do with so much trauma just decades of trauma, how he’s been able to turn them into social justice work and advocacy. It’s very rare that anyone is ever able to be able to pull themselves back from truly the depths of hell and then go on to be able to try to save others. And the work that he’s doing is potentially going to change millions and millions and millions of people’s lives. His name is Jesse Krimes. He’s a Philadelphia based artist, curator, advocate and the co-founder of Right of Return USA. Now, in 2009, after a traumatic childhood that left him on the wrong side of the tracks, he ended up dealing drugs and going to jail. He breaks down to me in this episode, the whole U.S. justice system, because I as a Brit had a lot of questions, I only know the kind of most dramatized version from the movies. He tells me what it’s really like in jail. Not just literally, but also from an emotional point of view. He explains to me the struggles of inmates and how the system is truly designed not to rehabilitate, but to completely break and destroy and dehumanize those who live within those bars. How much like animals they are treated. And it’s such an important story to hear about because the media goes out of its way to encourage us to not think about these people, to discard them from our minds, to not really care about what happens to them afterwards and how difficult it is for them to rehabilitate themselves and rejoin society. He goes into all of that and he’s such a great communicator and it really painted a picture for me that I’d never heard before. Now, while he was in prison, the only thing that was able to kind of keep his mind straight and help him deal with that horrific circumstance was art. Something he’d loved doing as a child. He would use this art to communicate how he was feeling about the prison system, what he was learning about it, and he was managing to smuggle the art outside of the jail so that when he got released, which happened a few years ago, it was all there waiting for him. He turned that art into huge exhibitions which have been seen all over the world in some of the biggest galleries and has used it to start a massive conversation about the justice system and about creativity and about how we restore the human beings inside those jails and how we find them a path back to society, back to the person they were supposed to be before their lives took a dark turn. I don’t want to go into it too much more. I’ve kind of given you the lay of the land, but the way he explains it is way more interesting to me, and the whole story is just fucking illuminating and something that we just don’t get to hear very often. We rarely ever get to hear again from people who’ve been inside that system. And so to have someone who is able to restore their mental health enough to have gone through that trauma and come out and be able to so eloquently paint the whole. No pun intended, but paint the whole fucking picture for me was a true gift. And I cannot wait to hear what you think of this episode. Please enjoy the totally fucking brilliant Jesse Krimes. Jesse Krimes. Welcome to I Weigh. How are you?
Jesse [00:03:54] I’m good. How are you?
Jameela [00:03:56] I’m great. Thank you for being here. I’m so lucky to have been able to get some of your time. I know you’re so busy right now in a million different places and traveling all over the country. How are you feeling? How is your head and heart?
Jesse [00:04:09] I mean right now, I mean, today I’m feeling pretty good. I think, you know, the past couple of years have been interesting between COVID and the political landscape and everything kind of going on. But today, I actually feel pretty hopeful. I think we had some pretty good outcomes in the election. And so, you know, I’m kind of excited to get back to work.
Jameela [00:04:34] Fuckin hell. What a life you’ve had. I mean, you’re an artist who’s had an incredible, heartbreaking and like pretty harrowing journey. I mean, to have been imprisoned for five years after having been found with drugs in your possession and then while in prison, continued somehow to develop your artistic voice, to then go on to become the celebrated artist you are today, and use all of that to then go on to help other people within a completely broken justice system, which now I feel like you have such a unique perspective on. I’m just dying to learn about your experience. I think people need to understand the prison system because I think the whole thing is so kind of cloak and dagger. You know, I think we really started to see that during the pandemic where we were hearing sort of tales of COVID outbreaks in prisons, and we weren’t hearing what was happening for those people and they weren’t being vaccinated and they weren’t being given any care. And suddenly, like all news about that prison would, like, disappear and you wouldn’t be able to find any information on it. So there’s a kind of general understanding prison is terrible. The prison system is corrupt. The 13th Amendment in which slavery is allowed as long as someone is imprisoned, has committed a crime and therefore is in prison, then they can be slaves, all these different things. But I don’t think anyone really, truly understands. It’s a very it’s designed to break your spirit. Right? It’s designed to never rehabilitate you, but to completely debilitate you. And you’re treated like animals, right? Like the caged. Not like domesticated poodle, but life, though the most heinous ways in which we treat animals, we treat human beings the same in the prison system. Is that correct?
Jesse [00:06:14] Yeah, absolutely. And I think like a lot of people say, the prison system is broken. And in fact, it’s not like what you just touched on. It’s operating exactly the way it’s designed to operate, like it is designed to remove people from communities as a way to tear apart communities. And it is designed to disappear people, to erase people. And while they are being erased, they are placed in the farthest prisons that they can find. And behind walls they are very intentionally hidden. So no one has to see or think or feel anything about people who are in prison. And while they’re there, it’s just. It’s like storage right. There, there really is no no access to programs. The programing that exists or like the little bits of crumbs that they give you are just like really just to keep you complacent. Like, none of it is actually designed to help you advance or move through the world when you come home. None of it’s about rehabilitation.
Jameela [00:07:19] And they work, but they do like hours and hours and hours of really intense physical labor for $0.40 an hour. I think it said in your documentary, some of them were that’s the kind of earnings they were getting, which is just an unimaginable fee for how hard these people are.
Jesse [00:07:33] Yeah. It ranges from
Jameela [00:07:34] Working.
Jesse [00:07:34] 50 cents to like a dollar 20. That might be.
Jameela [00:07:37] Crazy. Absolutely crazy. And and something that I thought was really fascinating was you talking about entering, you know, one of the prisons you thought you were going to go into a sort of low security prison, but you were put into a medium security prison as far away from your home as possible. So you weren’t able to, like, access any of the people from your life. But you noticed when you went in that there were different racial groups who did not mix at all. And you explain in the documentary how that racial division is encouraged. Could you expand on that for my audience?
Jesse [00:08:15] Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, it’s again, it’s kind of interesting because before going into the federal system, I was in the state prison system in Pennsylvania and that that racial division didn’t exist like that. I mean, it existed to a degree, but it was much more minimal.
Jameela [00:08:33] And so state prison, what is the difference? Do you mind explaining to me state and federal prison?
Jesse [00:08:39] Yeah, I think I think it’s worth explaining because I think a lot of people don’t even get the basics where it’s like. So jails local jails are where people are sent when they are first arrested. Right. So a jail is different from a prison and a state prison is different from a federal prison.
Jameela [00:08:55] Okay.
Jesse [00:08:56] But jails are where people get sent pre-sentence. Once they are found guilty and sentenced, then they get sent to either a state prison or if it’s federal and it’s the United States government, you get sent to a federal prison and most of the people who are locked up in the country are locked up in state prisons. And so that’s what kind of makes it tricky when you talk about reforming the system, because it’s like every state has its own set of kind of policies and and bureaucratic nightmare that you have to deal with to try to assist in any of the laws to help people in prison or get them out. And so it’s state by state. It’s often county by county. But the federal prison system is the United States government. Right. And there’s probably I forget what the total number is. I think it’s around like 200,000 people who are locked up in the federal prison system. So it’s much smaller in comparison to the state. But the federal prison system is often like, at least in like popular imagination, it’s like thought of as where the worst of the worst go. Like these are the it’s as the head of the Paisas or like La eMe or like, you know, the Italian mafia is in the feds. It’s like it’s, it’s where all of the biggest organized crime from all gets placed. Right? And I mean, that’s partially true, but a large chunk of the people who are in there are actually, like many of whom are low level drug offenders who have their drug prices inflated to these these crazy numbers. But anyway, so so part of how they to answer the question of how they actually control the populations is that there is a place in Grand Prairie, Texas, always fucking Texas that knows where every single leader of every single gang and every single gang member exists within the Bureau of Prisons. And so they have control over, like, the whole network of every single person. And the clearest way that I can kind of illustrate this is like basically I was in a prison and all the shock callers who were the heads of, again, like the Latin Kings and La eMe and the Aryan Nation and like all these other, like racial gangs came in actually to the art room and had a conversation because they were trying to strip away our visiting rights. So we were typically allowed to get I think it was like maybe like there were five days a week where you could have your family come visit you. And they were trying to pare that back down to two. And then they were.
Jameela [00:11:46] Why?
Jesse [00:11:48] Just to be punitive.
Jameela [00:11:49] Oh, my God.
Jesse [00:11:50] And so they were also trying to take away the TVs and the washer and dryer machines.
Jameela [00:11:57] Mm hmm.
Jesse [00:11:58] Which are, like, sources of income for people in there. So, like, you pay the guy a couple of stamps, he does your laundry for you. It’s like a hustle. Everyone gets, like, a little hustle in prison it’s how they survive. It’s how they eat. And so, you know, they were going to take that away, take the TVs away. And the thing that really kind of set this meeting in motion was that people’s families drove up from, I think it was like Florida or something somewhere pretty far, the whole way up to New Jersey. And they arrived and got turned away. All right. So this this guy is waiting to see his family. It’s his wife. It’s his kids. They they they spend who knows how much time and money coming up there? Didn’t notify any of us. They just said we don’t do visits on these days anymore. So anyway, everyone got together and decided that we were going to do a strike, right? Like no one’s going to go to work. They’re not going to go to the chow hall and cook all of the meals and feed everyone. We’re not going to run the utilities office or do the recreation department or the education services and so organized this kind of mass strike. And immediately when they called everyone to work the next day, no one went right. Everyone just stayed in their cells. And they put us on lockdown and they started pulling people out of the cells one by one, interviewing people, and eventually found out who were the main leaders of kind of organizing the strike. And what they did is they shipped not only the leaders, but that entire gang out of the prison into another prison and brought in rival gang members that they know have been lingering in the streets. And as soon as they brought in all sorts of rival gang members and they have, like a lot of times they have, like to kill on sight orders. So like you can’t even live on the same compound. They know that, like if they put these people together, it’s a problem. And that’s what they do because they’re trying to create the problem. They’re trying to create that violence because that violence generates fear and it creates the division, again, into racial groups. Because if you are oh, like I’m a white guy, right? So like Aryan Nation was courting me hard, like I’d run the
Jameela [00:14:11] Aryan.
Jesse [00:14:13] Aryan Nation.
Jameela [00:14:14] I don’t I’m not familiar.
Jesse [00:14:16] They’re like it’s like an American white Nazi gang.
Jameela [00:14:19] Lovely.
Jesse [00:14:23] Yeah. Great people. And so I’d be like running the track and they just, like, come running up behind me, like, they were, like, working out with me. And so I would just, like, stop and walk off. But the point is.
Jameela [00:14:34] That must be really fucking scary. Like how you reject a gang that are trying to recruit you.
Jesse [00:14:40] I did it in the most polite way possible. There was a there was. The leader of that gang was called Scrappy. That was his prison name. And he came and sat with me at lunch. And then all of the other Aryan Nation came and sat around me, and I was like, Oh, fuck here we go. And I had already talked to him a number of times before this, just like I out on the track, around the compound because he was trying to get me to join.
Jameela [00:15:07] Like a woman being courted in a supermarket.
Jesse [00:15:10] Yeah.
Jameela [00:15:11] Go on.
Jesse [00:15:12] That sounds terrifying.
Jameela [00:15:14] Oh, it is. Go on.
Jesse [00:15:16] And so I would just politely kind of like decline his advances. And when he sat down and he was like talking to me and I was basically like, listen, like, I just I don’t agree with what you guys believe in. Like, I I’m not going to join you guys. And he said something to his friend sitting next to him. He’s like, you know, Krimes. He’ll always find the most polite way to insult you. And that’s actually how I did it. Is I just like.
Jameela [00:15:47] You’re fucking lucky. I mean, obviously not lucky in many ways, but and but there are some people who, when they have rejected, uh, joining a gang, that gang will put them in the line of danger to show that person why it is better to be protected rather than out on your own. Because there’s such immense, like sexual violence that men can face in these prisons, as well as a fear for their lives and all the other shit that you can get messed up in. And so I, I applaud you for making the correct, uh, decision that ultimately, you know, would have made you hopefully safer. I mean, you’re still here and still alive. You’re not mixed up in any of that. And you then had the freedom to be able to mix with whoever you liked. And you’ve made lifelong friends with people who that group would have rejected finally.
Jesse [00:16:35] Hands down. Yeah. But I mean, part of it is, like most people who do what I did do get put in harm’s way. Right. Like the exact scenario that you said is what often ends up playing out because people often join that group, even though they don’t really believe in any of that thing just for protection like that. But the thing, again, that kind of saved me is that by this point, I had already established. Well, it’s two things, actually, is that I treated every single person that I came across as a human being. Like, I tried my best not to put on the tough guy, like stand and posture and like belittle people like a lot of other people did. I did my best to, like, talk to them, ask them about their kids. Like, try to actually get to know them. And so I treated every single person I came across like a real human being and didn’t let that armour kind of get in the way.
Jameela [00:17:30] And do you have to strike that with a balance of like, I’m a really nice, humane man, but also, like, don’t fuck with me.
Jesse [00:17:36] Yeah. Pretty much like. And so it’s like a lot of it is performing right? And it’s like, you know, and you do have to get yourself in a mindset where it’s like if it goes down, like it’s going to go down. I’m not just going to let someone kill me. So you do actually have to mentally prepare for the worst, which is a tricky thing to try to balance. But but the other thing that kind of saved me was that already at this point, I had made friends through artwork, through making portraits, through doing tattoos for people with like the [unintelligible] from the Italian mafia or La eMe, who I did portraits of his kids that he sent back to Mexico. And it’s like by that point I had already established like a network of all the [unintelligible] pretty much across all the racial lines. Whereas like I was, weirdly protected.
Jameela [00:18:31] You become the raceless art man.
Jesse [00:18:33] Yes yeah.
Jameela [00:18:33] Where you almost become like a sort of either, like, extra human, subhuman. Either way, you’re being. You’re still considered sort of like a kind of untouchable. I’ve heard of that happening for guys who can sing, you know, in prison who people want them to entertain them. They’re like, don’t kill that man or fuck him up to the point where he can’t entertain us because we need we need this thing that he can do. And it’s the thing that not many other people can do. Like plenty of guys can maybe move stuff in jail for other people, but having a like a a healing talent or something that makes you, I don’t know, like, like reaches out to the inner child. Like, I think about this all the time when I think about the prison system is like all those people in there were all whenever I think of anyone like whether they’ve had a crime committed against them or they are the criminal themselves, I imagine them immediately as a toddler. And I’m like, fuck, there was a time where you were pure and you are untouched by your environment, and this could not be further from the life that you planned on. And so there’s something about, I think, art, the humaneness of it and the innocence of it, and like how early in our lives were normally exposed to like a crayon or something that I think reaches that inner child in someone where they’re at. They’re so jaded, but they’re able for a moment to be mystified because someone can draw them really well.
Jesse [00:19:52] I agree. I think I think that’s definitely part of it. I think the other part of it, too, is that, you know, being behind walls and removed from your family and your community, the only access that you actually get to people are through approved visit visitation days, which are very short and often kind of painful because of the guards and all of the stuff around or through these monitored phone calls, which are 15 minutes long and cost, you know, insane amount of dollars. It’s like 20 some dollars for a 15 minute call. But the only other person in that environment who can actually create something physical and tangible for you to give to your family members, to send your family members, your loved ones, your son, your daughter, it’s her birthday. Like, how do you actually express your love to someone? And you only have three options and it’s a visit, a phone call, or you get an artist to create a portrait of your daughter or your family together. And it’s like you can create entire worlds where it’s like you can do a portrait of of the father with the mother and the kids all together, where otherwise, like, that gap is just something you can’t fill. And so I think there’s something very powerful about being able to help people stay connected through the creation of of physical, tangible artworks.
Jameela [00:21:20] And it becomes something that a lot of these people then have in common. But also, I think, you know, just to finish off on that point of like why this division is exacerbated within the system is that you said in your documentary, and I think it’s a good allegory for what we’re seeing like out in the real world. You know, politics everywhere is that it is in the interests of the powerful. And in this system, let’s say that’s the government and the prison you know, the prison industry, it is an industry. It’s a company. It is in their benefit for everyone to turn on each other and for them to keep placing them in places where they will be constantly in turmoil and thinking about. Other inmates rather than everyone coming together. You know, as you suggested, with the kind of like strike organizing against the system, we see that in politics we see all these little groups that are kind of technically really on the same fucking side. So you’re all being treated like caged animals. You’re all in this sort of like fucked up zoo where you are having like your humanity further stripped from you, where like people go in as criminals and they come out as much more hardened criminals sometimes, and they’ve learned more criminal skills, weirdly, than they had before they entered. Like it hasn’t been this rehabilitating place that kind of, you know, I don’t think fear and shame and violence are ever the answer for everything. There are some people that I think do belong in prison because they are not safe to be out in our society. But when it comes to people who take the wrong road in life and make a fuck up based on not having more options in a broken society, it brings out like a rage that I can’t, even if it isn’t appropriate for me to bring to this podcast, but but considering the lack of mental health funding and to deny that that is part of this, is so wild.
Jesse [00:23:07] Yeah. And again, it’s like prison is just a microcosm of society, like the things that they do in prison. The same kind of techniques of power and control are the same exact things that they do out here in the world. They just do it through. It’s much it’s much harder to see. It’s much more veiled. Right. And they do it through funding, through starving people, even in a nonprofit space like they make organizations like fight for scraps for survival. And they spread it so thin across the country where it’s like, you know, and meanwhile, like these multibillionaires will drop, you know. Yeah, millions of dollars on some campaign race that is like just doesn’t even have a chance in hell. But they’re so willing to do that. Meanwhile, not fund anything that’s meaningful. Like mental health services have been completely stripped, like Reagan, just like completely decimated the mental health field and the people that you even talk about of like who are in prison that actually like need to be removed from society. The overwhelming majority of those folks are like have they have serious mental health issues. Serious mental.
Jameela [00:24:22] Oh yeah. I’m not saying treating them even like animals is helpful to anyone, including them.
Jesse [00:24:27] People who would normally be in a mental health facility. Right. And that’s only, I don’t know, maybe like two or 3% of the entire prison population. And so it’s really it’s really designed as a way to control populations.
Jameela [00:24:50] I keep forgetting that six years after being released from jail, you then go into like two and a half year pandemic. That must have been really interesting psychologically for you. It didn’t even occur to me when I was I was reading up on you earlier and thinking about this conversation as to how wild that must have been and wondering if you had found it easier than most or harder than most due to the fact that you’ve lived a solitary indoors experience before, to put it lightly. And so did that make this something that felt like almost familiar and comforting, or did it feel like, fuck, I’ve already spent so much of my life inside. I can’t believe this is happening again in a much different way, obviously.
Jesse [00:25:36] I think it was kind of a bit of both. I mean, overwhelmingly, it was definitely something that I wouldn’t say was comforting, but I mean, it was definitely something that I was used to. And I like I oddly think I produced the most work that I’ve ever produced outside of being in prison. But when I was incarcerated and there was definitely a lot of like parallels there where it’s like, you know, when all the kind of outside distractions stop, it’s almost like time stops operating in the same way, or it’s less linear and it becomes much more cyclical, which is again very similar to what happens in prison. And I don’t know, it’s like all of the distractions and everything that I was kind of focused on trying to build my career, the administrative stuff, all that stuff kind of like dissipated into the background. And I was able to just kind of focus on making work every single day, which is like the place that I actually like to be. It’s the place that actually provides me with the most kind of grounding and sanity. So in that way, it was, like, very beneficial.
Jameela [00:26:50] I, I had an experience where I broke my back when I was a teenager, and I was in bed for about a year and a half, and I feel like I did my big, overwhelming life change during that time. I’m in no way trying to compare this to your experience incarcerated, but I’m just saying that when the pandemic came around, I feel like a lot of the people I know went through a very similar, huge perspective shift as to what matters, what doesn’t matter how they wish to live their lives. And so when it happened, I didn’t feel like I’d gone through this huge emotional shift because I think you only get a few of those in life. I feel like I’d already been through mine. Was yours. When you were incarcerated, did you have another one during the pandemic or did you feel like you just settled? Do you know what I mean? What I mean is like, did you have a big epiphany or had you already epiphany epiphanied out during five years in jail?
Jesse [00:27:44] Yeah, I think I already epiphaned.
Jameela [00:27:46] Yeah.
Jesse [00:27:48] I you know, and again, it’s interesting because it’s like when I was when I was in prison for the six years, the first year of that, I was in solitary confinement.
Jameela [00:27:58] Mm hmm.
Jesse [00:27:59] And there were, like, unlike the pandemic. And this is the thing that was, like, a lot of pressure. There was so much uncertainty. And being in solitary because I was still pre-sentence at that time and so conceivably.
Jameela [00:28:15] Sorry so just to just to help me understand so I know absolutely fuck all about the prison system, especially the American one, because it’s a whole other capitalist beast over here. So you get put into solitary confinement for a year before your even sentenced. So you’ve just been charged at that point and then they leave you in for a year while they’re what, compiling evidence against you and you might be innocent and you might be you kept for that whole time, even though you might be innocent.
Jesse [00:28:44] Yeah, absolutely.
Jameela [00:28:45] And is that why they put you in solitary to not expose you to the dangers of prison? Because you’re not yet definitely someone who’s going to.
Jesse [00:28:51] Oh, no, no, no. That would be.
Jameela [00:28:52] Oh.
Jesse [00:28:53] That would be the more kind of humane explanation for why they would do it. And it’s definitely not anything that is a part of their repertoire or what they are intentional about.
Jameela [00:29:04] Right.
Jesse [00:29:05] They basically put me in solitary confinement for the simple fact that I wouldn’t snitch and cooperate on other people. And so when the police initially arrested me, they wanted me to turn federal evidence and tell on other people. And so when I refused to do that, they moved me from the jail that I was in to a different facility entirely from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to Harrisburg County, Pennsylvania. And that’s when they placed me in solitary confinement. And they do that as a tool to like apply pressure to me, right, to get me to cooperate. And when they kept coming back to me, my lawyer kept coming back to me. He’s like, You really need to think about this. You really need to cooperate. And I was like, Listen, I already told you, like, I’m not going to cooperate. And so then what they did on top of that is they not only put me in solitary confinement.
Jameela [00:29:57] They tripled your.
Jesse [00:29:58] They more than tripled. They increased my drug rates from 140 grams to four kilos. And that effectively raised my sentencing guideline range from, like, around 30 months to a mandatory minimum of 20 years to life.
Jameela [00:30:13] And their method of doing this was like fucking outrageous to me, where they just basically, via anecdotal evidence, tried to compile roughly how much you had ever moved. So going to people who were just saying, anecdotally, I bought this much of him, he had this much at this time and then accumulating all of that to claim that even though they only found 140 grams in your house, technically you had 50 kilos.
Jesse [00:30:37] Correct, yeah.
Jameela [00:30:38] Fucking out of control. And who do you turn to when it’s the justice system accusing you of that? You have no one you can go to say something corrupt is happening.
Jesse [00:30:46] Right. And they do this to everyone who is who is accused of drug crimes. Right. This is like just their kind of.
Jameela [00:30:53] Standard practice.
Jesse [00:30:54] Operate. And a lot of people actually end up getting that 20 year sentence, 30, 40 year sentence. Right. But the other thing I kind of want to circle back to this because it’s I think this is also like a really. Kind of fucked up thing that they do. But when they first arrested me. They sat me in this interrogation room and they when they were trying to get me to cooperate and I was I took responsibility for my own drugs. I was like, yes, that is mine. Like taking accountability. But they kept pushing me and they gave me this guy’s name who I didn’t even know. And they’re like, Are you sure you don’t know such and such? He lives here. He works with these people. And, you know, he’s he’s like, how did they say it? I don’t know, I’m messing up how they said it. But basically, like, you know, he’s Dominican. Like, they gave me all of his information that would have been so easy for me to just be like, Oh, yes, I know such and such. And he gave me this and that over this time period. And then that would have gotten attributed to him, and I would have had to testify against this guy that I had never met. And while they’re doing it to they, they even, like, throw in a little bit of racist salt and they’re like, we fucking hate Dominicans. We want to get them out of Lancaster.
Jameela [00:32:14] Oh, my God. Can I. Does it traumatize you to talk about prison and what prison was like?
Jesse [00:32:22] No.
Jameela [00:32:22] Can we can we talk about that? Because I don’t think people often hear the reality. It’s very rare that anyone is even rehabilitated back into society enough to be able to speak. And it’s been really cool to watch the platforms you’ve been able to acquire, be them like, you know, massive art institutions or podcasts or on the news or wherever. And your documentary Krimes. I, I would love to understand like what that must have been like to have your freedom stripped from you like that. Like what is that environment like? Because I can’t I cannot think of anything more terrifying. Especially weirdly, oddly for a man because of the increased violent tendency that we see in men.
Jesse [00:33:05] Yeah. I mean, it’s kind of like a very long, complicated experience, but. The thing. So there’s a couple of things. So it’s like before I went into prison, I had already kind of built up this armor, right? Like I already said something about. Like I had pretty low self-worth. And, like, my father was never a part of my life. And there’s, like, a part of, I think, like, how we form identity, which is, like, almost like a reflective equilibrium, right? Where, like, we get part of our identity, mainly from our parents and our and our immediate family. And so, like, I didn’t have a whole part of that. And I started like building our armor based off of what I saw in the media of like, what is the man supposed to be? How am I supposed to behave? How do I actually act and move through the world in a way that makes people like me, right, or respect me? And so, like so much of that had been built up by the time that I got into prison. I had that moment that you talked about earlier where it was like, Oh, fuck, okay. All of these things that I’ve been doing, these these like material objects that I’m trying to fill this hole with, these like friends that aren’t really even my friends and like moving through the world as a complete douche bag, honestly, was like, This is not who I am and this is not the way that I want to live my life. And it’s ended up it’s ended up bringing me here. So what do I need to do to not ever have to come back here again? And that forced me to do like a very deep kind of soul searching of like, who am I?
Jameela [00:34:59] Because it does, doesn’t it? Like, I had a lot of friends who are drug dealers in my life, especially because of how know how I grew up and the environment in which I grew up, as I’ve known a lot. And I know I remember watching almost all of them go from being someone unpopular and I dunno, socially irrelevant to suddenly being gifted. This very, very temporary moment of kind of like inner fame, you know, where within among certain circles everyone knows about you, everyone’s happy when they see you. You mean the party has begun. Like you suddenly get kind of, like, affiliated with fun, at least at first, especially when you’re dealing with the kind of softer drugs, like weed or something like that, you know, maybe a tiny bit of hope. As things start to escalate, things become serious and drug dealers start to pressure you to push more products. I noticed that like that. I know I could see like a darker and darker turn on those people where suddenly it became a much more dangerous situation as suddenly they were dealing in narcotics that had much more serious, you know, sentencing times and people around them started to get sick. You know, coke addiction or heroin addiction, all these different things that have started to see the same people that they used to bring fun to. They were now part of disintegrating their lives. It’s a really odd, emotional journey, but I can see how someone who felt a little bit lost and a little bit without community would be drawn towards that lifestyle.
Jesse [00:36:21] Yeah, absolutely. And I think the thing is like being in solitary for that first year, again, it was like these are not the things that make me who I am. And actually I used to kind of justify my my actions where it’s like, well, if I don’t sell drugs, someone else is just going to right? Like they’re going to. Drugs aren’t going away and they haven’t. But again, it’s like, why am I partaking in it? Like, why am I the person that is that is bringing damage to people? And so that was part of like my realization. But, but my bigger point is kind of like I think everyone who goes into the prison system, whether it’s solitary confinement or any part of that system, everybody has that self-reflective moment where they do the deep soul searching because no one wants to be in prison. It is a horrible, horrible, traumatic experience. And the problem that occurs is that you come to that realization, but then you are in an environment where you’re not actually allowed to be vulnerable at all, like in no way, shape or form. And so a lot of people, I think, come to that realization. But because that environment is so damaging, what they end up doing is rebuilding that armor even thicker and tougher. And that becomes even harder to kind of break down once people come home. Right. And again, it goes both ways. But I think, like, it’s hard to find a way to remain open and vulnerable in that environment.
Jameela [00:37:56] Yeah.
Jesse [00:37:57] Well, and designed for that to happen. And the one way that I was able to do that was by creating artwork that was like the only kind of safe space that I had to actually.
Jameela [00:38:09] Be able to yourself.
Jesse [00:38:11] Express myself, be vulnerable, maintain my sense of identity. Because, again, they wanted me to buy into that idea that I’m a criminal. Like, I’m a fuck up. I’m something other. I don’t belong with society. And a lot of people, unfortunately, actually buy into that kind of ideology that is forced upon them. And what I was able to do is be like, No, I’m not a fuck up. I’m not a criminal. I’m an artist. It gave me the solid grounding of like who I am. And I know that to my core because I would do that if I was making no money, if I wasn’t getting any shows. Like I made the decision, I’m literally going to make art work until the day that I die, whether anyone sees it or not. And at that time, even in solitary, I could have gotten 20 years easy. That was my mandatory minimum that I was looking at with a prior felony conviction. And so in my mind, I’m like I could snitch, come home in like maybe a year or I could not snitch, maintain my dignity and move through the world as I wish. But I might have to spend 20 years in prison. But that that sense of, like, new identity, a new positive identity was so powerful that it was just kind of a no brainer decision to me. Or it’s like I’m I’m doing the right thing because I’m never coming back here and I’m going to roll the dice. And if I get 20, I get 20.
Jameela [00:39:42] Was prison something you’d ever like considered? Has it changed your perspective of people who are incarcerated? Did you find that to be a huge shift?
Jesse [00:39:50] Oh, drastically. Yeah, because I when I first went in and when I first entered the prison system, when I turned 18, I was like pretty young. And in my mind, my conception of prison was like everything I’ve seen on TV. I was like, Oh, this is going to be like just an incredibly violent, like, experience. But the thing about being in there was like, while violence is very much a part of it. It is actually a very small part of your day to day. Like most of what happens in prison is fucking boredom and like trying to maintain your sanity just out of sheer boredom. And then there are, like, pockets of violence. Like, maybe in a year, there might be, like, one or two big events or maybe just one. Right? But it’s like that happens in a couple of hours and it’s over. And the rest of the time people are just people. And people are like caring, they’re thoughtful, like if you get sick, they will like pop the socket in the cell to like make you some tea to help you get better. And they don’t even know you. Right? And it’s like the level of humanity that I’ve actually kindness and humanity that I’ve experienced in prison far surpasses anything that I have experienced since I’ve come home, like by far. And that’s why I’m always, like, very careful when I talk about the violence in prison, because, again, it is real. It’s like very much part of the traumatic experience.
Jameela [00:41:27] But it’s more the fear of it than the actual it’s the anticipation of it rather than trying to avoid it, rather than actually constantly facing it. Really, it’s just the real violence is from the system. The real violence is from either the warden’s or the actual, just like the general system itself and how it dehumanizes you and takes away your access to just like, basic human rights. That’s the violence of the prison. And that’s why they always try to, I imagine, sensationalize the violence of the actual.
Jesse [00:41:53] Yeah.
Jameela [00:41:53] People in jail. Fuck.
Jesse [00:41:55] Yeah.
Jameela [00:41:56] Oh, my goodness. And so did that. Would you say, you know, like having grown up, I know you had a really, really fucking tricky childhood and you found out as a young child that your father was not actually your birth father. And then he died when he when you were very, very young and you were very, very close to him and he, you know, loved you to pieces that kind of began you being destabilized right in a way that. Left you vulnerable to making tricky decisions.
Jesse [00:42:27] Yeah. I mean, I think that was like the that was kind of the like culminating event that, like, led me into making very questionable decisions. Right. I would also say, like even before that, though, I mean, just growing up in poverty is like traumatic in its own way. Like, I already knew when I was much younger that I was very different from every single person that I went to school with. And this wasn’t like a privileged school. This was just like a very, like, working class school. But even compared to them, like, my home situation was kind of fucked up. Right. And, like, I wouldn’t want to bring people back because I was embarrassed to where I lived. But again, it’s like so so that it kind of exists. And I was already there, but, like, I wasn’t making I wasn’t doing anything, like, super shady or anything like that. And then once, once my yeah, once, once the guy that I considered to be my father killed himself. That was the moment where, like, I was like, Oh, well, fuck it. Like, what? What am I even doing? Like, I didn’t know how to process it. I mean, I was 13 years old. Right. And, like, no one at the school asked me anything about it. Not a single person ever asked me if I was like, okay, like, there are things. And so I, like, just ended up kind of starting to self-medicate, really, is what I was doing. So I like, start smoking pot. And then I figured out, Oh, I can sell pot so I can smoke for free. And like that was very successful and I was like, Oh fuck, I can actually like make money, which, and then I can afford to buy real clothes so then I can kind of be popular if I have nice clothes. And it just kind of like snowballed from there as a way to kind of get myself out of this, like. You know, very poverty stricken way of living and have some sense of like normality in society as I move through the world. But along the way, it was like train wreck after train wreck after train wreck, because none of that shit is real or actually effective in helping you process real trauma.
Jameela [00:44:37] No. And it’s it is vital to, like, bring up the conversation of the fact that you’re a young man growing up in a time where even now, growing up as a young man is so fucking impossible. But back then, you know, you and I are roughly the same age and there was no conversation around mental health. There was no conversation. It was very much like, Boys don’t cry. What that does to your brain. The different ways then you find to like lay off the stress that might be destructive or violent or self harming. It’s just like we didn’t have any of this fucking information when we were kids, so we just all sat there, like suppressing everything. And then you are in a completely forgotten about Echelon of America where we’re still not really having the conversation about poor white people. We talk about race, but we don’t talk about poor black people. We don’t talk about poor white people, poor Hispanic people. We always the conversation is very, very loud around race or gender or sexuality or, you know, feminism. But then suddenly when it gets to poverty, everyone shut the fuck up.
Jesse [00:45:36] That is the core and truth of it all.
Jameela [00:45:38] Because it’s like, well, what are you all going to give up to be able to equalize this, like sort this wealth gap? And also it’s just too hard and too complicated. And I think it makes people suddenly feel guilty because they can’t claim to be. They can’t claim I don’t know. I don’t want to be too much of a cunt here. I’m just trying to be careful. But, you know, I grew up very I grew up very poor. So I’ve got a lot of complicated feelings around the way that my own, you know, political kind of party handle that and how the conversation always stops there. And it’s a weird equalizer. Not to say it isn’t worse to be poor and of color than not. But it’s it’s it is a bigger equalizer than we’re willing to look at. And we’re not willing to help people.
Jesse [00:46:20] And again, I think that is like one of the. That is the only way that we’re actually going to fight back and win is if we actually talk about that. That is the only way. So like we can talk about race until we’re just like blue in the face, but it’s like until we actually start talking about poverty and class and how that is very intentionally being used as the main tool to divide all of us, like all of us. And that and it’s like the top 1% know that they they’ve worked this thing out to like I mean, it’s down to an exact science. And again, like I saw it play out in the prison system. Now it’s a different dynamic and a different set of kind of like technologies of power that they use. But out here it is it is all money. It is just money that creates everything. And so they very intentionally like I actually think people want the conversation to be about race and not about class. Like, I actually think it’s.
Jameela [00:47:28] Why?
Jesse [00:47:28] Because I think it’s one of those things that it’s like it’s easy to understand. But even if you start thinking about like if we start talking about all the kind of racial disparities and we start framing any kind of problem that we have as only pertaining to one group. Right. That I mean, it’s problematic in two ways. One, it makes it makes that group have full ownership of something that they should not have full ownership of. And like, if you’re talking about criminalization and incarceration, it’s like, oh, that’s a that’s a black people problem. Right. Are like, oh, that’s their problem. And it gives the whole other section of people who unfortunately, like people shouldn’t think like this. But like people do and it’s like, oh, well, that doesn’t impact me. I don’t have to worry about this problem. Right. And so it creates that immediate that immediate kind of separation. And I also think it does it on the other end where it’s like if if you if you think about that thing as just being a black issue or a white issue or whatever the issue. It ends up immediately separating you from anything else, and it can be in like a positive direction or a negative. But like that separation in and of itself is the problem, right? Because at the end of the day, we’re all just human beings. And I know that this issue primarily affects black and brown people, but at the same time, you can’t leave out its effects on the white population as well, because, again, it is just it’s poverty. It’s the same thing happening to both groups. One is just more targeted. But when you start leaving another group out again, you’re creating that. You’re actually playing into the system that works perfectly for the prison to divide races. And.
Jameela [00:49:22] The prison the prison complex system relies upon the poor because those are the people most likely to make the desperate situations that end up breaking our restrictive laws, you know, and so people make a shit ton and they make a shit ton of money. I have no idea. I’d never heard of anything like this until I got here. You know, I was just reading yesterday about a town I think it was a town or that were that voted to keep the prison. There was like a it was possible that they were going to deconstruct this prison and a town voted to keep it because so many of the people in the town were employed by the fucking prison and they made so much money as a town from that prison complex, from everything that was made within that prison complex for like beyond beyond beyond beyond the wildest imagination of minimum wage. It’s like, I don’t know what’s I don’t know what I’m seeing here. I can’t imagine what it’s like to find that. Were you this politically engaged and motivated before prison?
Jesse [00:50:22] No, not at all. I was philosophically engaged, right. Like I was very much into philosophy as like a general study. And I think I was like into that as a way to, like figure out my own shit and psychology. But like, going into prison is the thing that really kind of radicalized me politically. Nothing radical. It just opened my eyes politically to like how we are all a part of a system that is designed to basically fuck us over and take advantage of us. And how they actually pit people against other people that was just so apparently stripped bare in prison that it was like, there’s no way I could have come home. And just like, I guess there is, people do it all the time. But like for me personally, like I couldn’t just come home and just go through my life. Like, I hadn’t witnessed what I just witnessed. And so definitely like made me much more politically engaged, made me much more kind of intentional about the things that I researched and read and kind of studied up on. But also that going back to your to what you said about this this prison town. Right. Again, this is like this is another very intentional move that is both like facilitated by the Democrats and the Republicans by both parties. Right. They both want these things. We see that in New York with Rikers. They don’t really want to close Rikers. They just want to spend 10 billion more dollars to build new jails and keep Rikers because they know the tool that it provides them to keep people poor, keeps people from voting. It keeps people from having real democracies because we only have like 30 to 40% turnout. But anyway, it’s like these prisons when all the manufacturing companies basically went away. Right. And so that hit like the middle class very, very hard. And what politicians figured out very quickly is that if they built prisons to replace these manufacturing companies that have kind of deteriorated and went away, that they could provide jobs, which would then ensure votes for them in their district. And so they lobby very hard to build prisons, which employ usually half the town at very good pay rates funded by the federal government, often through U.S. like funds reserved for farming, which is also very weird. There’s all sorts of weird shit that they do. But anyway, the the people who work in those prisons are I mean, they’re shit jobs, they get paid well but they’re shit jobs. They’re basically incarcerated themselves and like the trauma and mental health that comes along with working that job because you’re expected to treat other human beings as like shit and see them as other and less human like.
Jameela [00:53:12] And they hate you, too.
Jesse [00:53:14] Yes. Well, it’s it’s but it’s so unnatural for people and it’s so damaging. Like every year I was in prison, no matter what prison I was in, there would be two or three prison guards who killed themselves, often in the parking lot outside of the prison, because we would go on lockdown. And it’s like that’s that’s not something that like we talk about where it’s like these prisons are being kind of billed as like great jobs and this sustainable way of kind of like making a living. But we don’t actually talk about the trauma that it’s actually inflicting on the people who work in these places as well. And so it’s like more and more we’re actually finding that people don’t want to work in prisons, so they’re building bigger prisons, but then they can’t staff them. And what they’re now creating are understaffed prisons with these massive populations. And they’re just like creating the environment for like some kind of, like, massive uprising.
Jameela [00:54:14] Now, I do want to talk about the incredibly uplifting thing that you have managed to find to kind of use to help others, but also to kind of save your own life, which, as we’ve touched on several times, like the art that you started as a child became an immediate savior to you. And you’re sort of like monk like practice from the minute you woke up to the minute you’ve passed out. You were just off in your room or off in an art room, just making making art, making art constantly finding different creative ways to get that art outside of the prisons, making friends, having these people work with you to source the materials to make that art. And now, having gotten that outside of the prison, you’ve been able to, upon release, come home, put it together and exhibit it around the world to showcase, and you used that art to tell the story, I guess, of what you were seeing inside.
Jesse [00:55:09] Yeah, absolutely.
Jameela [00:55:11] When you were making that art, was it with the hopes that other people would eventually see it, or was it just your lifeline to get it off your chest? Did you have a plan that one day I will take this?
Jesse [00:55:22] A bit of both.
Jameela [00:55:22] Okay, great.
Jesse [00:55:22] Both, yeah, I think, you know, very early on when I was in solitary and making those little soap pieces, what the image transfers the most of the work I made in solitary, it was very much just about like literally not losing my shit because I was in the cell like 24 hours a day. And so, like, that’s that’s a long time to be alone in a dark cell. And I think it’s like after like two weeks or a week or something, it’s considered torture, but like being in there for a year, making that artwork was very much just about like. Yeah. That kind of meditative practice of being immersed in something that allowed my brain and mind to kind of focus on and create, versus like getting lost in that environment and having a negative impact on my own, my mental health. But at the same time, I was also simultaneously thinking about like how I didn’t want to just do this kind of like mindless creation. And so I was like, how can I actually use these materials to have a specific conversation, even if I don’t make it home, like, say, I end up getting killed, right? Or something happens or I get a 40 year sentence or I get a life sentence, right? Like, how do I actually create work and utilize this time to better myself, but also like convey to the outside world this experience. And so it was, it was very intentional on my part using the soap which kind of references ideas of purification and what the prison is, you know, ideally purported to kind of do is like purify us of our sins and reform us so that we come out and we’re ready for the world and we’ve been forgiven. And so the soap kind of acts as that that material where I was transferring images of mug shots onto it. And then also the prison bedsheets. They are produced in this program called UniCore in the federal system, which again, like pays people next to nothing. But the sheets are like we literally used to kind of cover and hide the body. Right. And so they become it became a very interesting material for me to use to kind of put images on it, create artwork, send it out into the world because it could actually uncover and reveal this hidden system that was happening inside with prison labor, because they don’t just make the sheets. They also make like uniforms for the military and apparel and desks and solar panels. And there are call centers and they can see this huge, massive factory and operation where people get paid like $0.40 to a dollar an hour. And so the sheets were, again, a way for me to kind of signify or they served as like a symbol of that system. And so creating it helped maintain my sanity again, but it also helped convey a message on the outside as I was able to kind of smuggle them out over the duration of my time.
Jameela [00:58:30] They became your sort of journal, didn’t they, of what you’re experiencing, and you were able to tell your side of the story of what you were seeing about the system, about the way the world sees these people. Also, I guess kind of painting, no pun intended, but painting a picture of the racial disparity. One of the things that really hit me about your story was you talking about when you were sentenced, you were told by the judge. You know, he said that I see potential in you. Right. And he and he’d seen a guy earlier that day who had the same roughly the same quantity of drugs on him and he’d given him what kind of sentence?
Jesse [00:59:06] 22 years.
Jameela [00:59:07] And he gave you.
Jesse [00:59:09] Six.
Jameela [00:59:10] And you had been in the holding cell with that man beforehand. And the difference between you was.
Jesse [00:59:16] He was black.
Jameela [00:59:17] Mm hmm.
Jesse [00:59:18] Right. And not only did the judge give me six years, I was technically, after we argued the drug weight and all that, I was technically supposed to get, like eight and a half years. He departed downward, which is like unheard of in the federal thing, he departed downward like two, two and a half years to give me a six year sentence. So I didn’t even get the eight. And it’s like the amount of leniency that he showed me in comparison to the other guy that he gave 22 years to is like, I mean, that is a drastic kind of greed and difference of how you come to that decision.
Jameela [00:59:59] Yeah. And so you were able to expose a lot of this. Now, once he’d gotten out of solitary, you were put into a medium security prison that was, you know, like over the course of time through where you were shifting, you were able to access kind of artistic communities in jail. Again, something that we don’t ever hear about that I had never thought about or heard about before I’d seen your brilliant documentary. There you made great friends who became very invested. You became invested in helping each other create that work and leaning on each other. And so now, since you have gotten out, some of those people have also gone out.
Jesse [01:00:39] Yeah, all of them that are.
Jameela [01:00:41] Amazing.
Jesse [01:00:42] Being worked with during that time.
Jameela [01:00:44] And so as your work has become celebrated by massive galleries and and massive artistic institutions. It’s amazing to see that work is also coming up, you know, alongside yours.
Jesse [01:00:57] Yeah. I mean, it’s pretty incredible to think about that. We were all in like this little room the size of a, you know, a closet or a bathroom. And three of us who were in that little tiny room have all now come home and are having pretty significant success in the art world, which is like, I think pretty incredible to think about how broad the prison system is. And so, yeah, I feel very lucky to have met Gerardo and Gilberto Rivera when I was inside because they I mean, they’re like brothers to me and, and like sustained me through that time. And, you know, so I think it’s that’s also part of the reason why I go so hard now is like, I know what exists in the prison system. I know what we throw away and like don’t value. And like, I know what is possible when we actually start to value those things and like how do we actually create systems and structures to help people instead of hold them down?
Jameela [01:02:03] And so what are you doing now to be able to find and and feed that potential?
Jesse [01:02:13] So I mean, I came home in 2013 end of 2013. And shortly thereafter, in 2017, I co-founded The Right of Return USA fellowship, co-founded it with artist Russell Craig who’s another amazing formerly incarcerated artist. But basically we’ve built a fellowship that funds and supports formerly incarcerated artists across the country, and we provide them with grants and mentoring services and connect them to advocacy organizations always a way to kind of like support them as independent artists and help create a sustainable career for them, but also connect them to a much broader network of advocacy organizations working on whatever issue it is that they’re focused on. So it could be bail reform in Texas. And, you know, we will support an artist from Texas to partner with the Texas jail project to create some kind of project. And so it’s like very intentional about how we are not just supporting artists and people who come home from prison, but also connecting them into the broader advocacy movement and then connecting a more interconnected movement itself. And so that’s what we’ve been doing since 2017, but we’re actually expanding. And so we are building what is called the Art and Advocacy Society, and that’s basically like a three pronged approach. And so we’re going from just the fellowship to piloting a school at MoMA PS1, which is basically designed to work with much more kind of emerging, directly impacted people like right away when they first maybe have some kind of interaction with the law. So it’s like we’re not waiting until after prison necessarily. And then we’re also building a residency program that will be able to kind of service, I don’t know, maybe 2 to 300 people every year. And so thinking about like incarceration, major cities have been de-carcerating, but small cities and rural communities have been building bigger jails, incarcerating more people, higher racial disparities. And so part of what I see, the residency as is a gathering space for formerly incarcerated artists and advocates and people working on issues all across the country to actually come and gather almost like Grand Prairie, Texas, the place that, you know, controls all of the people in the prison. It’s like, how do we create the opposite of that and bring all the people who are working on these issues together to actually brainstorm and learn from what worked, what didn’t work, and like how to actually apply that knowledge across the country.
Jameela [01:05:09] Amazing. Fucking fucking outrageous. Outrageous. I’m so happy that you are out here and able to and rehabilitated enough to also have the mental and emotional capacity like I can’t. I imagine prison is incredibly traumatic. It sounds as though you had an unbelievably restorative experience in certain ways. I’m not saying you didn’t feel fucking traumatized because I can’t imagine how one can live like that. You talked about, you know, seeing your son properly, you know, for like the second ever time after you came out of jail and it was in a zoo. And what an awkward and uncomfortable and like I imagine quite traumatic experience that is because I mean, I’m very anti zoo in the same way that I’m anti-jail. It’s very rare that people come out of any kind of hugely traumatic situation, like the one that you’ve come out of and are able to even find the words or find the energy to be able to take on this fight. And I guess the thing that I want to ask you is. It’s one last huge question, but given everything you know, given everything you’ve been through, given all the healing you’ve managed to find through art, through community, the kindness you were able to find while within the prison system from those friends of yours who you’re still friends with. What is your big hope going forward? Is it just to be able to continue the work that you’re doing? Do you hope to be able to make an impact on the actual prison system itself, or is that too much of a behemoth to even take on?
Jesse [01:06:40] No, I don’t think it is. And I think that my realistic hope is that I’m basically trying to build a community that is so connected and so large that over time it’s going to be impossible to lose. And I see myself as an artist, as someone who can utilize artwork as a communal tool to bring people together to [inaudible], to have real conversations. And so my ultimate hope is that, yeah, we create a community of support and advocacy that is so broad that it has voting power, that it has veto power, and that as a community, we can start making much more serious demands rather than being siloed and kind of divided. And so my goal is to create that kind of unity and bring people together, create the spaces, the systems, the structures that actually bring people together. Because I think that is the only way that we actually have a chance.
Jameela [01:07:53] Yeah, I agree. And I, I’m saying this on the record that I open my eyes so massively through your documentary and also through this conversation that I please let me know how we can be involved, how I can be involved in helping with any of this. I’m aware I have absolutely no authority in this situation because I cannot relate, but I can be helpful. And and is there anywhere that my followers can go to support your cause? Is there any particular place where you would like us to go and follow and and learn?
Jesse [01:08:25] Yeah, I think I mean, there are two different places, but I would say you can definitely go to the right of return website and kind of see the work that we’re doing there and follow us as we grow. We’re not quite there yet, but like once these things are in place, there will be a lot of different resources and other advocacy organizations who we work with and there will be ways to actually support and kind of plug into them through the website. And the other thing I would say is just like it’s often very important, I think, for people to be engaged at the local level with whatever organizations are reputable, kind of doing the work around you. And I think just getting engaged in any kind of meaningful way goes a really long way because again, it’s like creating community. And so when you when you when you start making connections, even if it’s small, you actually strengthen the network because you never know who you’re really going to come across. And I just you know, I think the more that people understand that these aren’t just numbers that are missing, but these are people from our community. These are these are your neighbors. These are the people in your community who are being erased. And we start seeing them as people and as part of the community, which they very much still are. I think that, again, is like a shift in perception that will pay dividends down the road. And I think actually meeting people who have been directly impacted is the way to do that. And a lot of these organizations often work with directly impacted people.
Jameela [01:10:07] Well, as you say, it’s like there’s a reason why there are no windows. There’s a reason why they’re kind of like on the outskirts of society, and they’re kind of hidden from us because they want us all to forget that those people exist. And so it’s important that we all reengage. And I promise I will do that after today. Thank you so much for coming in talking to me. Before you go, I just have to ask you, what do you weigh?
Jesse [01:10:30] Hm. So I think I weigh. I weigh my weight in what I’m able to kind of provide in service. And I don’t know what that weight is yet. But I’m working towards it and hopefully it is a ton because I need to weigh a lot in order to get to where I’m going to in the future.
Jameela [01:10:56] Mm hmm.
Jesse [01:10:58] But if that makes any sense.
Jameela [01:10:59] It does make sense. It does make sense. And I can see what you are doing and what you have ahead of you. And it’s a mammoth undertaking. But I can’t think I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone more more ready and well positioned to do it. You’re honestly one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met. Thank you. I could talk to you for about 400 hours about this whole subject. I resent having to bring it to a close. Thank you. That’s been fucking fascinating. I really appreciate you, and I hope that we get to work together down the line.
Jesse [01:11:31] Absolutely. And thank you for having me on. You are brilliant. And I think this podcast is actually very, very powerful in bringing people together around real issues and actually getting to talk about the shit that no one ever gets to talk about.
Jameela [01:11:45] Yeah, well, thank you. Thank you. May this be the beginning of many, many chats, and I’d love to get involved. Have a lovely day.
Jesse [01:11:53] You too.
Jameela [01:11:56] Thank you so much for listening to this week’s episode. I Weigh with Jameela Jamil is produced and research by myself, Jameela Jamil, Erin Finnegan and Kimmie Gregory. It is edited by Andrew Carson. And the beautiful music you are hearing now is made by my boyfriend James Blake. If you haven’t already, please rate review and subscribe to the show. It’s a great way to show your support. We also have a bonus series exclusively on Stitcher Premium called Ask Jameela Anything. Check it out. You can get a free month, the Stitcher Premium by going to Stitcher.com/premium and using the promo code I Weigh. Lastly, over at I Weigh, we would love to hear from you and share what you weigh at the end of this podcast. You can leave us a voicemail at 18186605543. Or email us what you weigh at IWeighpodcast@gmail.com. And now we would love to pass the mic to one of our fabulous listeners.
Listener [01:12:48] I weigh being 22 and not having it figured out yet. I weigh being a daughter to both a mother and someone who is no longer around. I weigh being a sister. I weigh being a confidant. I weigh being a writer and a creator. Even if the creations aren’t always what other people expect them to be. I weigh, being an empath. I weigh my privilege and acknowledgment of that. I weigh my opinions. As Roxane Gay said, they take up a lot of my weight. I weigh being sober. I weigh transferring from the universities. And I weigh being still. Thank you.
September 21, 2023
Jameela is joined by campaigner and writer Gina Martin, and in this optimistic conversation about creating change for equal rights around the world, they discuss how anyone can show up and support activism (especially offline in real spaces) and what this activism work can look like.