One man’s crusade to change the lives of the formerly and currently incarcerated
“I had an idea in my head of what freedom would be,” said Kevin Reese, criminal justice director for Voices for Racial Justice (VRJ). ”I would sleep in my cell at night and would still wake up with joy and hope in my heart of what it would be to leave. I’d be free and all of the oppression, and barriers, and gates and things impeding me would be erased. I knew it wasn’t true, but at the time that’s what I had to tell myself.”
Hope is what helped Kevin survive a 14-year prison sentence.
It is also what helped him find his voice and convinced him to pick up a pen and begin rewriting his life. This self-discovery eventually led him to his career at VRJ where he runs The BRIDGE — a grassroots partnership between incarcerated leaders and their families.
The BRIDGE is one of the few initiatives that allows those impacted by the criminal justice system to reclaim their power by working to abolish mass incarceration and reform the justice system. The central idea is about humanity; about being able to see past one’s crime and figure out what circumstances led to the situation, so in the future, participants can be connected to the resources, people and opportunities they need to be successful.
The idea, and the name, of his initiative, came to Kevin in a dream.
“I created The BRIDGE while I was in prison,” said Kevin. “I named it that because I was lying in my cell, on my bunk and I asked God, ‘What is it that you’re working on in my life?’ And sure enough, he told me, ‘I want you to build a bridge of people and be a bridge through and with people.’”
“ I had an idea in my head of what freedom would be. I would sleep in my cell at night and would still wake up with joy and hope in my heart of what it would be to leave.”
Being a bridge and connector is important to Kevin. It’s his way of honoring people, specifically the people who have walked with him along his journey. Growing up, Kevin had a narrow view of community and self-value, but that broadened once he understood the power of relationships.
“Community was (limited to) my family,” Kevin said. “My concept of it was different. Relationships were disposable to me because I grew up in a world where I was disposable. At 33, I understand the importance of people and the importance of community."
The relationships Kevin has created have not only changed him, but allowed him to change the lives of others. His unique ability to relate to and connect with his peers has allowed him to instill values of self-agency, dignity and mental fortitude in others. Kevin sees the best in people, fostering in them a confidence that allows them to be more than their mistakes.
This skill is apparent in his interaction with Ronelle Loving, a friend currently serving time in Faribault prison. According to Kevin, Ronelle could have played college basketball if he hadn't gone to prison. For many of the inmates, Ronelle serves as their resident lawyer, helping them litigate and understand their cases.
“He’s a brilliant man, Ronelle Loving,” Kevin said. He’s been in prison since he was 19. The world needs his contribution.”
Ronelle’s talent is no different than many of the men Kevin surrounded himself with in prison to establish The BRIDGE. Their stories shape the work he does outside of those walls.
The BRIDGE Network
As an extension of The BRIDGE, Kevin plans to establish The BRIDGE Network — a space for incarcerated individuals and families to gather, connect and acclimate with the community. His goal is to provide a one-stop-shop for formerly incarcerated individuals to be amongst one another, seek counseling and find financial and legal assistance and other resources to support them in living successful lives.
“All of the rules, policies and initiatives will be informed by those that are currently incarcerated,” said Kevin. “As part of our resource toolkit, we connect the recently incarcerated and recently released to as many of our partners, organizers, organizations and legislators as possible to provide them with what they need with no caveats.”
The SEEN Project
It’s also because of Kevin’s relationships that he participated in the organization We Are All Criminals’ SEEN Project. SEEN is a prison portrait and poetry project that highlights the works of writers in Minnesota state prisons. In collaboration with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW) and its gifted writers, We Are Criminals strives to disrupt mass incarceration by creating pathways for the incarcerated to have their voices heard and their faces seen, in the hope to bring attention to the country’s inhuman practices.
The thought-provoking poetry and writing Kevin developed while a part of MPWW caught the eye of author and We Are All Criminals founder Emily Baxter, which soon led Kevin to a lifelong friendship and international exposure.
“Emily reached out to me in the summer of 2016,” Kevin said. “She said she had an organization called We Are All Criminals and asked, ‘Why don’t you read my transcript for a book I’m writing?’ I made a couple of edits and she was like, ‘Hey, what do you think about writing the foreword for the book?’”
For Kevin, his participation in the book planted seeds that are still bearing fruit.
In many ways, prison served as preparation for the life and career Kevin leads. Because of the nurtured relationships, he’s received from family and community, he’s grown into the man he believes he was meant to be.
Editor’s Note: Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we reached back out to Kevin Reese to get his opinion on how it affects individuals who are currently incarcerated. Here’s what he had to say:
“The COVID-19 [pandemic] to me is a manifestation of the neglect we have for our relationship to the earth. This pandemic has forced us all to reconsider the value we have to each other. In these times, we are forced to separate and isolate ourselves from one another. This forced isolation feels really familiar to me from being in prison; you are sentenced to isolation. Now that the world has to do the same, let's see if our desire is to rebuild with each other or build more walls of isolation.”
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