A Vibrant City and Its Ex-Incarcerated Population

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Nashville, like many American metropolises, turned its back on its river for years. Never mind that the Cumberland cut a deep and wide swath through the central city. Never mind that it was an inextricable part of the physical Nashville make-up, and that it would never leave us. Its geographic inevitability did not compel us to acknowledge it; to the contrary, its negative characteristics gave us every right, it seemed, to cast it into our unconscious, a shunned and disreputable monster in our midst but not in our minds.

But a fundamental shift occurred. A 180-degree turn, to be specific. We now face the river. We now embrace the river! The Nashville Riverfront has been transformed into a destination, a gathering spot, a central orientation for what’s good about our city. There is a Great Nashville Duck Race, with thousands of yellow rubber duckies drifting down the current to cheers and glee. Colorful dragon boats carve the water in corporate competitions annually. Public art graces the Cumberland River’s shores, and pedestrian bridges connect them. The river is a backdrop for Music City concerts and for a glimmering downtown on the rise. How — and, more importantly, why — did a blight become a blessing? How did we, as individuals and as a metropolitan collective, wheel around from shunning the beast to embracing the beauty?

Jon Meacham, the best-selling author of presidential biographies who recently penned Time Magazine’s “The South’s Red-Hot Town” about Nashville, keynoted the Nashville Chamber of Commerce 2014 Annual Meeting, and spoke about a town which turns its culture — the institutions which comprise its fabric — into commerce and prosperity, by nurturing those “organic advantages that are here”. Equality of opportunity, according to Jon, is an essential element. He highlighted Nashville’s music industry, health care industry, and its many and varied colleges and universities, and focused on how these institutions have been embraced, grown, and built upon.

Currently, our backs are turned on the prisons that are nestled within our city borders, and on the steady return of the ex-incarcerated to the streets and neighborhoods of Nashville. Our nation leads the world in skyrocketing incarceration rates, and Tennessee is a standout among states in this regard, with its trifecta of increased prison population (in contrast to most states which have decreased), increased crime rate, and one of the highest violent crime rates (#1 in 2012). In that hotbed, Nashville dominates, with four — four! — state penitentiaries within its borders, as well as an additional privately-run prison, a minimum security federal facility, and the burgeoning county jails. We are a locus for imprisonment, which makes us a destination for the people getting out of prison.

With the geographic inevitability of a deep and wide river, prisoners are released from Nashville prisons and others across Tennessee, and flow into our city by the hundreds and thousands each year. Just as there was nothing good in turning our back on the Cumberland, there is nothing to be gained from turning our back on these numerous Nashvillians. More than 95 percent of people who go to prison get out of prison. They need to succeed, and we need them to succeed. It is yet another aspect of our culture — as inevitable as the Cumberland River, and as inextricable as the other dominant industries of Nashville — which can be nurtured to the good.

As we fuel our city’s vibrancy with workforce, we all benefit from recognizing the great resource that emerges en masse from those prisons we’ve built and filled. Wheeling around to face those formerly incarcerated, in fact, we see some of the most motivated job seekers in our midst. A rising tide lifts all dragon boats!

The primary civic indicators of economic development and public safety are dually strengthened. In yet another way, our culture becomes our prosperity.

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