The Danger of the Favored Person and the Gatekeeper Syndrome
A call for change.
When we speak in terms of liberation, we must consider the impact of being tokenized by our allies. To clarify, I am speaking of change and individual growth, and how perceptions of this can end up guiding the support certain allies. In their minds, they analyze growth and determine your change and level of accomplishments while incarcerated, and base on those results, they determine the level of support they will provide you – in your attempts to seek legal redresses, commutation of your sentence, or when applying for reentry. If you are the chosen, you receive a pathway of success. If you are deemed not ready, then you are abandoned and left to struggle. In fact, you are judged by the same network and community of people who claim to support you and others like you and these people thus join the ranks of the judges, the juries, the prosecutors, the police, members of the public, even some politicians. As a result of the lack of support and opportunities, recidivism becomes likely. While some allies fear supporting the wrong person, or who they believe to be the wrong person, they become fearful of the fact that they may commit to an individual or group of people that may not meet their expectations. They become fearful that they will lose credibility and will be unable to support others. While these fears are legitimate (but also short sighted), their result is to undermine the goals and needs of being an activist, especially for those claiming to be freedom fighters and defenders and warriors of equality. As activists and organizers, we all fight for: Justice, Justice, Justice!!! Equality, Equality, Equality!!! We fight and strive for those words as the foundation of our mission, but we find ourselves falling short of extending, or should I say practicing what we preach. When we pick and choose who to help, and only offer help to the ones that we favor, that doesn't only destroy the movement, it discourages the already disenfranchised people from seeking help and assistance, while making it harder to curve recidivism. If we continue the current favored person selection process, we will continue to liberate the few or none at all. With that being said, what about the many who are left behind that are without support? We should ask ourselves: Is our mission complete when we choose to only liberate the few as freedom fighters or human rights and social justice activists? Is our goal reached when many of our brothers and sisters are still in chains and facing disproportionate sentences? The last question is: Have we lived up to our own set standards of equality, fairness, and nondiscrimination? Or are we actually engaging in practices that contradict this? When we focus on the micro issues and the fear described above is involved, a person's likelihood of success is diminished, and we are then destined to fail. However, when we focus on the macro issues such as inequalities, injustices, human right abuses, how to help individuals grow and be successful, and stand-up against road blocks, then success is within our reach and achievable. We speak not to bring down the movement, but rather to build it up and bring it together. United we Stand, or Divided we Fall. The favored person syndrome or what can also be called the gatekeeper syndrome is a real thing. While there are real concerns about who allies/prison rights activists choose to get behind and support, there should be a priority by activists to network with as many different prisoner voices as possible. This is easier said than done. Of course, for any goal of importance to be accomplished there has to be self-discipline, there has to be order, and there has to be some structure to accomplish the goal. This is true, not only for individuals but also true for those working together for a common goal or working together as a collective. Although working together for a common good or goal as a collective can encompass many different areas (such as workers striving together at a job site, activists networking with different organizations, students studying together in school, or many other diverse examples), prisoners working together towards a unified goal comes with its own specific challenges. Not the least of which, of course, is the prison administration and the challenges and hindrances that they present. However, there are also challenges beyond what the prison administration represents that center around prisoners networking with the activist or civilian communities. There exists a favored person/favored status syndrome in which activists or others can become comfortable, mostly dealing with a single individual or a limited number of individuals in a prison setting. There can be good reasons for this. As mentioned earlier, order must exist for a common goal to be accomplished. There has to be structure or some mechanism by which a group can work together towards a common goal. This is all understandable. However, what happens far too often in a prison setting (and on the outside as well to a lesser degree) is that the activist/civilian community that works with prisoners will latch onto an individual or a few individuals that they deem trustworthy and/or articulate and that commands their respect and the respect of their peers.
The danger in this is that there may be voices that are part of the prison collective that could have very valuable or insightful thoughts or ideas but have never been heard from. In prison there is often a hierarchy that exists within prison organizations that network with activist and outside organizations. This in and of itself is not bad and no different than any other organization. However, what happens at times is that the individual(s) in prison who primarily deal with the outside activists or organizations may squash access by other prisoners to those very same outside activists or organizations. This can result in alternative ideas, perhaps even brilliant thoughts or ideas, not being heard by those outside activists. This is the gatekeeper syndrome where access is controlled. From the outside activist’s point of view (especially those who come physically into the prisons and work with prisoners inside of prisons), there is a level of comfortability dealing with certain individuals. There may be a structure that exists whereby the meeting or key points in the meeting only goes through a limited number of individuals. This may seem to make sense because the meetings seem to run smoothly this way. However, what the outside organizations/activists may not know is that outside of their presence, certain prisoners may have been told that their ideas do not matter, or they may feel pressured to not share their thoughts or told not to directly talk to these outside organizations/activists. In this sense the small number of prisoners, whom have the access and ear of outside organization/activists, can be a disservice to the collective good by acting as gatekeepers to profound thoughts or ideas that could actually move the collective goal forward. As mentioned earlier, there are good reasons why information would be funneled through a limited number of individuals. The chief reason being the maintaining of order. It is not possible or at least very unlikely that a group could actually have a constructive meeting without order. There must be some order. Most people know that we can't all talk or shout all at once and expect to get anything of value accomplished. This is true even when there are great ideas being espoused. There are times when a gatekeeper approach makes sense as long as there are safeguards in place that would ensure that the democratic inclusion of positive, alternative voices and ideas are at least reaching outside activists and groups. The issue with the structure of outside interests dealing with a very limited number of prisoners, is that it can lead to the favored person/gatekeeper syndrome, which can occur when a favored person (prisoner) is operating for the wrong reasons. Those wrong reasons may include false pride, perceived power, jealousy and/or conceit. So the question is, is it possible that outside activists and organizations can work through incarcerated individuals other than just those who may have favored person/gatekeeper status? This is a question that each outside activist or organization will have to answer for themselves. However, there are two suggestions that we have for organizations and activists (that work with prisoners or prison based organizations) to ensure that thoughts and ideas that come from the incarcerated do not only come from the incarcerated who have favored status. Suggestion #1: If you or your organization actually goes inside the prisons, it would be wise to consider that you may not be receiving feedback from all of the prisoners involved in the meeting (unless you absolutely know otherwise). There could be unknown power dynamics at play between the prison-based organization and their members (or incarcerated non-members) that you or your organization may be unaware of. A partial fix to the above problem is polling all the incarcerated at the meeting to see how they feel about any subject on (or off) the agenda. This is best accomplished by the outside organization/activists doing the polling themselves, because as mentioned earlier, there may be hidden power dynamics that will keep some prisoners from speaking up at the meeting unless they are addressed directly by the outside activists. This may seem like a simplistic solution. However, we have noticed that many times inside prison, prison-based organizations will have topics on the agenda which the outside organization/activists are aware of, but the outside activists/organizations may be less aware of how members of the prison group voted on these individual topics. If there is a prisoner or prisoners whom has 'favored person' status and acts as a gatekeeper, then the outside organization will not necessarily be aware of how most of the individual members of the prison group actually feel about any given topic. Suggestion #2: Even if the outside organization is willing to address members of the prison organization directly (whom do not have favored or gatekeeper status) some prisoners may not answer a direct question that comes from the outside organization because of the hidden prison power dynamics. In that case, the outside organization/activist can be present at meetings and propose a suggestion box where ideas and thoughts can be placed in either anonymously or signed. I would suggest the outside activist/organization be present for a suggestion box because the whole point is to bypass the 'gatekeeper' and hear from other voices that may not feel empowered to speak at meetings. Please, do not think that we are advocating for civilian control of prison-based organizations. We are not suggesting that! No one can better understand what the incarcerated go through than the incarcerated themselves. It is important that prison organizations/groups maintain their autonomy.
At the same time, we are keenly aware of the hidden power dynamics and hierarchies that exist in prison that at times can greatly prevent brilliant incarcerated people from speaking up or getting involved. Our suggestions are merely thoughts on how to better navigate or mine the fields for the hidden talent and wisdom of those incarcerated that exists within the prison-industrial-complex. Love, Justice and Truth, By: JoJo Deogracias Ejonga, and Wendell Clar JoJo Deogracias Ejonga. Aka. Jonathan Deogracias Ejonga-Lihau. Twitter@JoJoEjongaLihau. And Wendell Clar