Listen to People Who Are Incarcerated

Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Jan 12, 2022
Photo by Jeanette Spicer.

Clyde Meikle was a founding mentor of the Truthfulness, Respectfulness, Understanding, and Elevating (T.R.U.E.) unit at Cheshire Correctional Institute in Connecticut. In his position, Meikle helped young adults grapple with incarceration and guided them along their transformation, and he became one of the unit’s most notable and influential leaders. T.R.U.E. was established through a partnership between the Connecticut Department of Corrections and Restoring Promise, an initiative led by the Vera Institute of Justice and the MILPA Collective. Meikle now works for Restoring Promise, which creates housing units grounded in dignity for young adults in prison, as the inaugural T.R.U.E. leadership associate.

Earlier this year, a Connecticut judge granted Meikle early release, noting that not only did he take advantage of all existing opportunities for education while incarcerated, but he also went on to create and lead such opportunities for others. He was released on May 25, 2021, after more than 26 years behind bars. The following day, he attended his graduation ceremony at Wesleyan University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Meikle aims to make stories like his own less rare.

Photo by Jeanette Spicer.

As a founding mentor in this program, what do you believe people should know about the young men who are involved?

I think that the greatest message is that you’ve got a lot of brothers in prison that could come out here and really change the world. People need to start going in prisons and making sure that when brothers come home, they have support. If they’re put into the right situations and conditions and have the right support that allows them to improvise and produce new things, they can create new kinds of arrangements that are conducive for justice. People at the so-called bottom need to be given opportunities because we have all these things inside of us that we need to get out.

When I was incarcerated, I was reading Fred Moten and Frank B. Wilderson and Saidiya Hartman and I learned that there is power in improvisation. I began to think about how Black people, since slavery—anytime we were allowed to improvise, we created something beautiful, right? There is something beautiful in our trauma and pain. If we are supported and allowed to flourish in the right kind of spaces, in the right kind of way, I believe that the world will look like a different place.

Brothers on the so-called bottom, sisters on the so-called bottom in these spaces—give them the tools, give them the space, and allow them to build relationships. From relationships, they can begin to create new things. I think that’s why the T.R.U.E. unit worked: it was the relationships, that was the critical thing—building those relationships and finding things in each other and bringing those things out of each other, like the young brothers brought out of me.

What did you learn from the young men that you mentored?

One thing they always reiterate is that people don’t listen to them. Nobody listens to what they have to say. If they tell you, “If I go home, I gotta go back to the streets,” the first thing people tell them is, “You ain’t got to go back to the streets,” instead of sitting down having a conversation with them; instead of saying, “Let’s walk through this.” When we are in a space together every day, if I'm sincere about sitting down and conversing with you, and if you see me sincerely dedicated to my own transformation, now you look at me like, “I can trust him.” So, I think that allowed us to learn from each other. And I think that the greatest thing that they gave me was, “Yo, people don’t listen to us. I’m in the streets, and I’m caught up. I really don’t have the tools to get out of this. I really don’t. You try to tell me that I have the tools, but I really don’t have the tools.” So, let’s find the tools together. Sometimes we can. Sometimes you can use a butter knife instead of a Phillips screwdriver. Sometimes you can use a spoon.

Photo by Jeanette Spicer.

You recently graduated from Wesleyan University, through a program that provides incarcerated people with the chance to pursue higher education. What about your college experience impacted you most, and why do you think it is important to provide these opportunities in prison?

I remember reading Thomas Hobbes and thinking about Leviathan and the idea that the state has a monopoly on violence. I couldn’t really grapple with philosophy because it was complicated and intricate, so I had to refer back to my experiences. And I realized that in the streets, this is what we were doing. This entity that had a monopoly on violence situated us where we weren’t part of society, we felt like we were outside of it. So, what we did, we created our own space where we had a monopoly on violence. This was the ’80s, and the drug era was about young people in the inner city, creating little spaces. We didn’t have protection from the state or didn’t feel like we had protection from the state. When I used to move around Hartford, I used to have to fight everywhere I went. I realized in prison, once I took those classes, that everybody was just as scared as me. For the people that didn’t fight, you didn’t get inside of the “in” crowd, but if you did fight you were part of the “in” crowd. Why they allowed you to become part of the “in” crowd is because now they knew that you’re somebody that will protect them.

So, looking at that and reading Thomas Hobbes, I began to take philosophy seriously, because I realized these complex abstractions were somehow leaking down to the people on the streets. And we were participating in these ideas in peculiar ways, trying to find our way. We were kind of reflecting and mimicking the entity that was supposed to protect us. We were trying to find security and certainty. College education really gave me that ability to look back at my experiences and find a language to really figure out not only what those experiences were, but what I was up against. Not having the ability to articulate your reality is a reason why, when you're dealing with that inner pain, you prefer to externalize it. And I think young brothers out here are dangerous because they don’t have the language, they don’t have the text, they don’t have the ability to articulate these complexities. They don't have the pedagogy—I’m not going to say education; they don't have the pedagogy. They don’t have people telling them that they can find value in trauma and pain; you don’t have to let that trauma and pain be all negative

What do you hope to accomplish next?

I’m really taking small steps. Today, I was walking down the street from my new residence, and I walked past the police station, and what I realized is that, “Yo, I’m just a different kind of person.” I would usually cross the street and feel uncomfortable walking past the police station, but I felt like, “Yo, I’m in the right.” I felt like, “I’m straight, I got this, I’m on the right path.” I want to be recognized as somebody that’s striving. Nobody’s perfect. But I want to be somebody that’s striving to continue to be on the right path. One of my brothers, when I got out, called me and said, “Clyde, use the same energy that you used to get out of here to succeed out there.” And what success means to me is, you know, just these little stages. But by the time I’m 75, I want to win the Nobel Peace Prize. That’s my goal. I know that’s a big thing. But it’s something to shoot for.