“I am a columnist, writing and publishing stories about a wide range of criminal justice reform issues.”

I’ve carved out an area in thought leadership, so my advocacy comes in challenging assumptions and encouraging people to think really hard about the issues that confront us as a movement.  For example, there is a clash of values between the Me Too movement and criminal justice reform; between accountability on the one hand, and redemption on the other.  Where do those two meet, and what are we willing to give up on either side to get any kind of consensus about how we should move forward?  I took an unpopular position in a piece I wrote for CNN about how it was not a great idea to recall the judge who sentenced Brock Turner, a Stanford student convicted of three counts of felony sexual assault, to a relatively short six month jail sentence.  I pointed out that if we’re serious about criminal justice reform it would be better to keep a liberal judge on the bench than to replace him with someone harsher.  I believe it’s vital to raise those hard questions.

It was never my goal to become a writer, but when I was in prison, I began to take notes for a book or a possible lawsuit against the Department of Corrections because I saw so many things that were horrific and abusive.  I took a writing class with the author Wally Lamb, and then my writing went into overdrive.  I submitted some articles to the New Haven Independent and they responded, “Why don’t we just let you write a regular column?”  That was the origin of my blog, “Prison Diaries” and since then I’ve published articles in   The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Elle, Forbes and many other outlets.

What’s at the top of my agenda now is my role as the new criminal justice columnist with Creators Syndicate. I’m excited that I will be included on a roster with nationally syndicated columnists like Mark Shields and Connie Schultz whose pieces appear in every state and in many big cities.  Any topic will be fair game.  I can write about individual cases, about laws, and about news stories that have to do with the way formerly incarcerated people are treated.  I can take on the big picture ideas, like who are prisons for?  I believe that 99 percent of the people currently incarcerated don’t belong there.  But after spending six years in a maximum security facility, I know that some people need to be removed from society and I would be lying if I said everyone could be let out tomorrow and we wouldn’t have any problems.  But I want to abolish the way we think about justice and transgression and accountability and put the focus on the root causes of behavior.  Bad choices and bad actions have roots in a person’s personal history.  The relationship between childhood trauma and incarceration is getting more attention today, but we also have to understand the daily trauma of poverty and trying to survive in the American economy.

My cohort was the first one to go through Leading with Conviction after our leader resigned, and grappling with that was a unique challenge.  It was also a gift because we had to figure out where we stood on issues of accountability and redemption.  I did worry about Glenn and about the movement and about members of my class.  On the other hand, we had some really important discussions about leadership and accepting the flaws of our heroes.  Going forward I will be working on co-authoring pieces with other JLUSA fellows and investing in their thought leadership.

Prison Diaries won the 2018 People’s Voice Webby Award and a number of other awards. Chandra is the Vice President of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and a Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. While she was incarcerated, Chandra published a book of poetry entitled “Up The River: An Anthology.”

“I am the Founder and Executive Director of Reentry Campus, a program to give people coming out of prison opportunities to access post-secondary education.”

I know from my own experience that there is a huge disconnect between the educational programming that happens behind the walls and what happens once you are outside. When I was in the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore, I accumulated 90 college credits, but when I was transferred up to Rhode Island, they didn’t want to accept my credits. I realized something needed to be done to make higher education more accessible and more affordable for currently and formerly incarcerated people.

The way Reentry Campus works is we prepare students for DSST and CLEP exams. They take a series of courses that we have built around these exams so they can earn transferrable college credits quickly and for free, saving thousands of dollars.  When people are released from prison they have different issues going into an educational environment than a 17-year-old does, so we provide them with support services so they can focus and concentrate on their studies. If they need housing, we help them find housing. If they need substance abuse counseling, we help them with that. Once a student gets through these introductory courses with us we register them with our partner institution, Roger Williams University, my alma mater, where 90 percent of them will be eligible for Pell Grants and Financial Aid. We’ve had about 50 students come through our program in our first year and attracting people hasn’t been a problem. In fact it’s been hard keeping up with demand.

I dropped out of school in the eighth grade and spent most of my adult life in and out of the penal system. During my last stretch, I decided enough was enough. I was working in the prison’s employment resource lab and the more I read the more I realized that without a post-secondary education you couldn’t get far in the new economy. I read an article that was pivotal for me about a man who was locked up in Rhode Island and went to Brown University when he was released and then got his law degree from Yale Law School. I couldn’t believe someone could get out of prison and go to Brown. That motivated me to get my GED and I got my Associate’s Degree in Psychology, with Honors, while I was still inside. When I got out, I got my Bachelor’s Degree in Community Development at Roger Williams University.

Education = more money = more freedom–not necessarily physical freedom but the freedom of choice that education brings. I have freedom now and I have multiple choices and it’s only right for me to want that for others. There was a guy who helped me get back into school when I was struggling. I asked, “Barry, what do I owe you, man?” He said, “You don’t owe me anything. Just make sure you do it for somebody else.” That is what Reentry Campus is all about.

The best thing I got from Leading with Conviction is I’m never alone. There’s always someone I can reach out to across the country.  I’m in Rhode Island where the population of people like me is small. So to go to New York and be around a lot of individuals who are like me and to have the support around the work I do is everything.

James Monteiro is the recipient of NAACP’s Joseph Lecount Award and is an Echoing Green Fellow. He was named was named as one of Rhode Island’s “15 to Watch” for his work in youth programs that address violence in the city and prepare the next generation of Providence leaders.

 

“I spent my childhood in foster care and I was in and out of the juvenile justice system from the time I was twelve years old, often because a more suitable placement couldn’t be found.”

The way children are pushed from foster care to juvenile and adult justice systems has not been given enough attention.  It’s very common to move youth between systems even though we know that spending even one night in the juvenile justice system exposes you to a multitude of harms.  When I exited my last placement, I was in the same position I had been in when I entered foster care.  I had no relationships with adults.  I was homeless. I had a juvenile record. I had no education.  I had moved so many times that I had never completed a single semester anywhere.  Most importantly, I didn’t have a vision for my future and I didn’t have the belief in myself that would be necessary to have or execute a dream.

My road from system involvement to lawyer and leader required supportive policies and programs and the investment of adults who cared. I went to Job Corps, received  my GED and was able to start at a community college. I had a teacher who became my mentor.  She was the first person who believed I had potential and could have an impact on the world around me.  She told me I could be anything I wanted to be.  I realized that what I really wanted to do  was to make sure that system-involved children had a different life than mine, and that those systems treated them like the special, unique and amazing potential leaders that they are.  I don’t have any siblings, but I consider all of the children who are living today in detention facilities, group homes and foster care to be my siblings. I wanted to be their advocate, so I went to law school and I received my law degree in 2004.

I have been working at the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center for 11 years, the last six as Executive Director.  We are a national organization and we’ve worked in 37 states and Washington, D.C.  Our advocacy is focused on system transformation, and the strategies we use are targeted to have the greatest  impact for children–litigation, policy reform, public education, technical assistance, and collaboration.  The problems and solutions we work on are identified by the children and families that are most affected and we integrate cutting edge research from other fields–brain science, child and adolescent development, and marketing and branding–into our work.  Our Quality Parenting Initiative is aimed at strengthening foster care. We’ve introduced it into close to 80 jurisdictions across the country.  We work to create opportunity for justice involved youth by prioritizing the relationships between parenting youth and their children (including fathers) in our Just Beginning Program, and work to build pathways between higher education and the juvenile justice system so that youth have the access, information and supports to attend and excel in college.   Most importantly, our goal is to  change the culture of these systems so that instead of seeing the youth in their care as a laundry list of the worst experiences and things they ever did, they see them as they were meant to be seen: as whole and valuable children who are worthy of love, who will be the parents of the next generation and as promising and inspiring leaders who will be neighbors, colleagues and friends.

I often tell people that I have learned the most about what children deserve and how much we need to transform the system from my 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.   Their job as teenagers is to take risks and challenge authority to become independent, and my job is not to punish them, but to protect them from harm and help them learn and use those experiences to launch themselves into the world.  The only way to do that is with love, compassion and in the context of family. That’s what our systems have to understand.

The Leading with Conviction training has been a life-changing experience.  When I look at the amount of growth I’ve experienced in my own work over the past year in the areas where I have been the most stuck, I am inspired that anything is possible. This is important, because the issues we are tackling are the hardest and can seem intractable. For us to lead the necessary transformation of policy, practice and culture, we  need the best possible leadership training, skills, and coaching, and that’s what we are receiving through JustLeadershipUSA.

“I am a Bishop Designate, an ordained Baptist minister, a psychologist, and a medically-retired marine warrant officer and combat veteran.”

I am also the National Director of Support Services for Healing Communities USA, a faith-based prison reentry initiative.   My work involves reaching back into the faith community to reengage them in the social justice movement, with a focus on criminal justice reform.  There are so many barriers that returning citizens have to overcome today—an estimated 40,000 laws and regulations nationwide that prevent people from finding jobs, homes, and educational opportunities.  It’s like someone taking a Polaroid picture of you at one moment in time and having that one moment define your entire life.

I help churches, synagogues and other places of worship set up reentry ministries so they can create supportive environments within their congregations for returning citizens and their families, and also for the people they harmed.   Our practice is based on the principles of restorative justice, a process that focuses on the rehabilitation of people through reconciliation with their victim and the community at large.  I have experienced restorative justice personally, as both a formerly incarcerated person and the family member of a victim of crime.  Twenty-three years ago, when I was emerging from my own addiction, my 14 year old son was killed in an act of street violence by another youth.  I know what it’s like to be standing in a morgue at 1:30 in the morning to identify your baby boy.  I felt a tremendous amount of guilt for not protecting my son.  The other boy, who was only 12 years old, was tried and sent to a juvenile facility.  A few years later, I was asked to preach at a facility in Maryland, and halfway through my sermon, I realized that the boy who killed my son was in the audience.   I wanted to do what any father would have done, but God tapped me on the shoulder and said, “That’s not what I brought you here for.”  I ended up telling him in front of the whole audience that I forgave him and we began a relationship and we’re still in contact today.  He lives in California with his family and he does anti-violence work with gangs in LA and we are still very much in contact.

I’ve always been able to see multiple sides of all the issues, and that allows me to speak to different audiences.   I’m a formerly incarcerated person with a military law enforcement background and I’m the father of a crime victim.  I’m a pastor and a practicing psychologist, and the integration of faith and treatment informs my life’s work.  I can speak from all those perspectives.  As Co-Chair of the Restorative Justice Committee of the Pennsylvania Reentry Council I recently had a positive interaction with a member of the committee who was constantly blocking consensus on everything we were trying to do.  So I took him out to lunch and asked him to tell me how he felt.  I just let him talk for 45 minutes and used techniques I’ve learned from Leading with Conviction—just listening and providing feedback in a way that made him feel that he was being heard.  Now we have a very different and much more constructive working relationship.

To be in a room with 30 other leaders has been literally life changing.  As powerful as each and every one of us is, we are more powerful together and we are forming lifelong relationships.  As a pastor, it’s refreshing to be with people who aren’t afraid to push back when I fall short.

“I served 14 years in New York State prisons, and it was while I was incarcerated in the Woodbourne Correctional Facility that I discovered my passion for learning and for activism.”

The year was 1996, and I met a group of older men who were lifers and long-termers.  They were involved with the New Prison Movement which was born out of the Attica rebellion of 1971, and had formed study groups called the Resurrection-Conciencia Study Groups.  They developed an analysis called The Non-Traditional Approach to Criminal and Social Justice that examined and explained the relationship between prisons and urban communities of color.  I became a student and then the facilitator of a study group and for the rest of my time inside I organized, I spoke, I read, I wrote, and I did advocacy from inside supporting some outside organizations like the Coalition for Parole Restoration.

Today I work as a Senior Intervention Manager for Common Justice.  Common Justice develops and advances solutions to violence that transform the lives of those harmed and foster racial equity without relying on incarceration.  Locally, we operate the first alternative to incarceration and victim service program in the US to focus on violent felonies in the adult courts.  Nationally, we leverage the lessons from our direct service to transform the justice system through partnerships, advocacy, and elevating the experience and power of those most impacted.  We build practical strategies to hold people accountable for harm, break cycles of violence, and secure safety, healing and justice for survivors and their communities.  As a Senior Intervention Manager, I work with responsible parties in our alternative-to-incarceration and victim-service program, a rigorous, cutting-edge response to serious felonies, including assault and robbery, based in restorative justice principles. If—and only if—the survivors of those crimes consent, Common Justice diverts the cases into a process designed to recognize the harm done, honor the needs and interests of those harmed, and develop responses to hold the responsible party accountable.  Those who successfully complete their commitments to those they harmed and the violence intervention curriculum don’t serve the jail or prison sentences.

Separate from my work at Common Justice, in my personal capacity, I am the Latino Affairs Producer/Co-host for “On The Count: The Prison and Criminal Justice Report,” a 60-minute talk, news, and interview program featuring criminal and social justice subjects on radio station WBAI, 99.5 FM.  It airs weekly on Saturdays from 11:00 am until 12 pm (ET).  I’ve produced several segments on solitary confinement, healthcare in prisons, the struggle to free Puerto Rican Political Prisoners, reentry, and the #CLOSErikers and #FREEnewyork campaigns, and moderated an all-Spanish language webinar on the #FREEnewyork and #JusticeLA campaigns.  I’m also member of Latino Justice PRLDEF, Justice Reform Collaborative which works to create a more just society by using and challenging the law to secure justice by empowering our community and by fostering leadership through advocacy and education. The Collaborative is dedicated to promoting fairness, rights restoration and safety by using litigation, advocacy, community engagement, policy analysis and narrative change to make the invisible, visible to all – the concomitant plight of Latinos under a broken and racialized criminal justice system in America. Our program focuses on rights restoration, as well as policing, sentencing, bail and drug policy reform.

It’s been humbling and inspiring to meet all these wonderful people in the Leading with Conviction trainings.     Being humble is something I aspire to; it’s been my nickname for many years.   I need to remain grounded and focused in my life no matter where I am. I know I’m still a human being and nothing that I have is better than anyone else’s.   I’m looking forward to staying in touch with my cohort and hearing about the amazing work they’re doing.

“I am the Vice Chair of the National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws (NARSOL) and the founder and president of Vivante Espero, the foundation that supports it.”

Our main focus is on reforming the incredibly onerous and punitive sexual offender registry laws that exist throughout the country. We are opposed to public registries in any form, but if the tool is going to be used, it should be used in such a way that comports with constitutional restraints, and today, that is not the case.  The registry laws vary from state to state, but one thing they all have in common is the absence of any kind of due process.  Our mission says it all:   “NARSOL envisions effective, fact-based sexual offense laws and policies which promote public safety, safeguard civil liberties, honor human dignity, and offer holistic prevention, healing, and restoration.”

Our strategy is three-fold.  First try to engage the public, which is difficult because of the stigma surrounding people charged with sexual offenses.  But in spite of the stigma, our support has grown since our first national conference in Boston in 2008.  Most of our support comes from family members, spouses and moms in particular.  These are folks who, if you’d met them before a family member got in trouble, they would have been in favor of the registry and totally supportive of everything it purports to achieve.  But after they deal with this upfront and personal, it’s a totally different reaction.  They see the damage, harm and destructive force of public registries.  Second and third are a combination of legislative lobbying and litigation.  We go into places where we as a team feel like the restrictions are so onerous that they’re probably low hanging fruit legally speaking.  And we work to build partnerships with other criminal justice reform organizations because unless we place some restrictions on this Pandora’s Box, states will start to use the registration tool to cover other categories of felonies, and that kind of mission creep is very dangerous.

While I was in prison I went through a massive transformation spiritually and practically.  Before prison I never had any concept of social justice and was a self-identified conservative Republican who grew up as a Southern Baptist.  In prison I converted to Catholicism because I saw where social justice fit in, and understood Christ’s teaching that whatever you’re doing to the most marginalized man or woman, you’re doing to me.  It was a dramatic, eye-opening experience, and I realized that I wanted to be a conduit for change.  It occurred to me that a lot of skills I developed during my previous life–managing campaigns, being involved in politics, direct mail copy writing, raising a lot of money for candidates—I could use to advocate for fair sexual offense laws.  After my release, I hit the ground running.

I am very pleased and honored to be part of the Leading with Conviction cohort.  I’ve learned a lot and look forward to using the tools and honing my skills to become a more effective leader and to raise up other leaders, because that’s what this is all about.

“I was paroled in 2001 after serving nineteen years in the Massachusetts correctional system and I was committed to being an asset to my community instead of a liability.”

By Reuben Jones, JLUSA’s Philadelphia Campaign Coordinator

The Philadelphia that I grew up in was a very tough place for its African American residents.  In the late 1960s-early 1970s Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, who famously said, “If the prisons are crowded, if we need more prisons, let’s build them,” ruled the Black community with an iron fist.  He gave his officers carte blanche to kick in doors and use their nightsticks at will, which they had no problem doing.  During his tenure as Mayor from 1972-1980 he continued his reign of terror, and young black men like myself viewed incarceration as practically inevitable.  Rizzo went after African American activists with a special vengeance. In 1970 he staged a raid on Black Panther headquarters and publicly stripped those who were there naked at gunpoint in order to humiliate them. He presided over the “MOVE” stand-off in 1978, which led to the 1985 MOVE standoff, which became the first and only time in American history that a city dropped a bomb on its own citizens, on a residential block. (Rizzo wasn’t Mayor at the time, but the anti MOVE sentiment he espoused and the reckless assault on Black lives was a carry-over from his regime and will forever be a part of his legacy).

Although Frank Rizzo has been gone for decades, his brand of policing lasted a very long time. The fact is that until now, it has been “normal” in Philadelphia for African Americans to be harassed, stereotyped, stopped and frisked, arrested, and incarcerated at phenomenally high rates.  According to a 2015 New York Times analysis, 36,000 black men are “missing” from Philadelphia primarily because of incarceration or early death. According to recent statistics, Philadelphia is not only one of the country’s most incarcerated cities, but Philadelphia also incarcerates black men and men of color at a high rate. Almost 90% of the people incarcerated in Philadelphia county jails are people of color. Philadelphia incarcerates people of color at a rate of almost 9 to 1 compared to the rate of incarceration for Caucasian men.  We are working hard to make sure that those days are coming to an end.

Today, Philadelphia’s decarceration movement is creating a “new normal” for our city—a criminal justice system that is fair, humane, and much, much smaller.  To get there it’s essential that we have a District Attorney who supports our vision.   We had a huge victory in November 2017 with the landslide election of civil rights attorney Larry Krasner who has promised a criminal justice revolution.  In February he issued his “New Policies” memo which, among other things, instructed prosecutors not to charge possession of marijuana, regardless of weight, to divert more people in order to avoid convictions, and to justify their sentencing recommendations, on the record, with a cost-benefit analysis that takes into account the safety benefits, the impact on victims, the interruption of the defendants’ connections to family, employment, and public benefits, and the actual financial cost of incarceration.  Krasner has also eliminated cash bail for a range of low level offenses.  And of critical importance he seeks community input and takes our recommendations seriously.

Because of mass incarceration, Philadelphia is home to five county jails, and one of our priorities is to close as many of them as possible.  Our first partial victory came swiftly.  In November 2017 we launched the #CLOSEthecreek Campaign targeting the House of Correction.  Known locally as “the Creek,” the building dates from 1874 and is a human rights disaster.   In April, Mayor Jim Kenny announced that the jail would be closed by 2020, and by June, it was completely empty.  But we’re not done with the Creek yet because the Mayor says he wants to continue maintaining it, at a cost of $700,000 per year, in case the jail population balloons at some point in the future.  We’re calling for the building’s demolition.  We should be building community, not throwing money at a landmark of oppression.

To create a new normal we have to push our elected leaders to think about change in broad strokes.  It will take bold leadership to turn Philadelphia from the most incarcerated large city in America to the “cradle of liberty” it’s supposed to be.  Two issues that I am laser focused on right now are the use of risk assessment tools and electronic monitoring.  The State Sentencing Commission is considering the use of risk assessment algorithms at the sentencing phase, and we are vigorously opposing their adoption.  The data points these tools use to calculate “risk” are racially biased—for example, whether or not you finished high school, if your father was formerly incarcerated, if there’s any kind of mental health concern in your family.   Their adoption would have a devastating impact on people of color in poor communities who come into contact with the criminal justice system.  The Sentencing Commission held public hearings in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, and we flooded the hearings with concerned citizens, lawyers, community activists, people with lived experience and business people.  We demanded that the Commission not implement such a Draconian measure.  Because of our opposition, the vote was postponed.  Now we need to get them to take it off the table completely.

The increasing use of GPS ankle bracelets to electronically monitor people on probation is a growing threat to individual privacy and it’s also intrusive for communities that are directly impacted.  The case of rapper Meek Mills put a spotlight on this issue.  When he was released from jail for an alleged probation violation, he was released to ankle monitoring.  We celebrated because at least he was out of jail.  But there are a thousand Meek Mills in jail across the city, and 60 percent of them are there as a result of violating probation, not because of a new crime.  If you have hundreds of people in a specific neighborhood who are monitored electronically, that means the community as a whole is under surveillance.  We are pushing back against the expansion of this technological “fix.” As the era of mass incarceration draws to a close, instead of concrete prisons we are going to end up with electronic prisons, or “E-carceration” if this trend continues. That’s something we draw a hard line on, and the city knows it.

On July 7th we got more good news when the City publicly shared its goal of reducing the incarcerated population by half over a period of five years.  This major victory is the direct result of the hard work and dedication of the #CLOSEtheCreek partners and grassroots organizers, including the No215 Jail Coalition, The Center for Returning Citizens (TCRC), The Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project (YASP), Decarcerate PA, the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, and the Coalition for a Just D.A. We applaud the administration and we believe that the rapid decarceration Philadelphia has achieved, indicates further decarceration – to no more than 3,000 people – is possible. We encourage all elected leaders in Philadelphia to work toward this goal.

For me, personally, I love the way our movement is charting the trajectory of criminal justice transformation for future generations.   I love the way we get to hold elected officials accountable, and that we get to show the world what democracy looks like, and what fair criminal justice policy looks like.  I love that we get to bring people home to their families and prevent them from sitting in a county jail for a year or two just because they can’t afford to buy their freedom. Or, because the system moves so slowly that they’re willing to pack people in like cattle and have them just wait, paving the way for a guilty plea simply to gain release.  A few days before Father’s Day, I had the great pleasure of posting bail for ten fathers, thanks our work at the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund.  A group of us greeted the men as they were being released and gave them toiletries, welcome home care packages, and a ride home. It was a real high to watch them being greeted by their families.  A few weeks later we held a Bail Fund Community Dinner at Calvary Church (48th & Baltimore), and some of the men spoke about their experience.  About fifty people came and it was one of the best Bail Fund Community Dinners we’ve had.  This is our new normal. We are about ending mass incarceration and building strong communities, and there’s no stopping us now.

 

I’ve been out of prison for fifteen years, but I have been reconvicted over and over again because of my criminal record. Over those years I received multiple job offers, but as soon as the employers did a background check, the offers were rescinded, one by one.

#CLOSEmsdf:  A Dispatch from the Field

By Sharyl McFarland, JLUSA Milwaukee Community Organizer

The #CLOSEmsdf Campaign is going strong, and we’ve only just begun.  The Wisconsin Department of Corrections is stubborn, but so are we!  On June 28th hundreds of community members, campaign partners and supporters will be gathering to celebrate the progress we have made since our launch in June of 2017.  We will also be bearing witness to the terrible suffering the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF) has brought down on our community.  We call it a special kind of dungeon: no sunlight, no fresh air, extreme heat, no outdoor recreation, no windows, 22 hours of lockdown a day, and no in-person visits.  I have heard about people being thrown into solitary for things like “aggressive eyeballing”—staring a CO in the eye.  Thousands have been tortured there, hundreds made sick, and in its 17 years of existence, 16 men and one woman have died there.

I have lived in Milwaukee all my life and many of the men in my extended family have been incarcerated in Wisconsin including in MSDF.  My own son spent three horrific weeks there when he was only seventeen years old.  This is not surprising because my family lives in or close to zip code 53206 which has the highest incarceration rate for Black males in the whole country.   My neighborhood is 95 percent African American, and an incredible 62 percent of men here have spent time in prison by the time they are 34.  Once they leave prison they are still under correctional supervision, and that’s where the MSDF comes in.  Close to 65,000 Wisconsinites, disproportionately people of color, are on probation or parole, and even the slightest violation of a rule, like missing an appointment with a parole officer, can lead to revocation.  That means being locked up in the MSDF, sometimes for months, waiting for a revocation hearing.  Once you are in the system, it’s almost impossible to stay out.   The majority of people locked up in the MSDF are there because of alleged crimeless rule violations. The right to due process is nonexistent. This has to stop!

Going up against an entrenched and powerful system like the Department of Corrections is hard work that can wear you down.  But all I need is a good night’s sleep and then I’m ready to go out and fight for justice..  Our campaign gets stronger every day.  On June 12th we held a press conference and revocations rally outside the probation and parole office and then marched to the MSDF to attend what had been described to us as a public meeting, open to the community.   But when we got there, only two of our members were allowed in.  Instead of folding up and going home, we stood our ground.  We held up our signs, passed out our leaflets, and staged a live Facebook video protesting the fact that we, the public, were not permitted to attend a public meeting.   We’re passionate, and we want people to know they’re not alone.  Last time I looked, close to 3,000 people had watched the video.

I am out there every day talking to people about the issues.  I go everywhere.  Imagine me walking down the street with my #CLOSEmsdf T-shirt on, holding up my clipboard that has the campaign logo on it.  I introduce myself to people as they pass by, and if they stop, I talk to them about MSDF and hand them a flier.  I’ll stop at a bus stop and talk to the folks waiting for a bus.  I’ll tell them their voice matters and hand out pledge cards and voter engagement fliers.  I’ll tell them they can canvas with us or come to our office and do data entry.  If they have a story about MSDF, and many many people do, I’ll encourage them to share it with the campaign.  We’re getting stronger, one person at a time.

I’m very optimistic that in the long run, we will win.  In the past, many Milwaukeans didn’t know what the initials MSDF stood for; now they do.  People are talking about how inhumane the conditions there are, and pressure is building to reform the parole and probation revocation system. Earlier this month  WISDOM, a Wisconsin faith-based social justice organization and #CLOSEmsdf partner, organized a gubernatorial forum. Close to 700 people were there to hear seven candidates for governor promise to end crimeless revocations and to shutter MSDF.  A year ago we weren’t on the public’s agenda.  Now we are.

Once #CLOSEmsdf is victorious, there will still be a lot of injustices to deal with.  Milwaukee is one of the worst places to live if you’re a Black person whether you’re looking at incarceration rates, home ownership, child poverty, unemployment, teenage pregnancy, or any other measure of a community’s well-being.[1]  That’ll keep me busy until the Lord calls me home!

[1] http://dollarsandsense.org/archives/2015/1115schneider.html

I’m the founder and president of the National Workforce Opportunity Network (NWON). We just launched in Philadelphia in January of this year.  We are a fully integrated workforce development and career placement for-profit agency serving individuals with barriers to gainful employment.

Vidal Guzman — #CLOSErikers organizer at JustLeadershipUSA and Harlem’s own — breaks down the trauma of gang raids, the lasting impact on communities, and why the NYPD gang database must be destroyed.

The #CLOSErikers Campaign, with its grassroots partners, continues to call on Mayor de Blasio to reduce the jail population and shutter the horrific jail complex on Rikers Island. Toward that end, communities have demanded that the Mayor end the criminalization of Black people, communities of color, immigrants, and marginalized neighborhoods that feed New York City’s jail crisis and the jails on Rikers. Mayor de Blasio must end mass criminalization, end broken windows policing, and dismantle the gang database.

For New York City, ending the gang database is simply a matter of political will, as cities such as Portland, OR have proven. This secret list is unaccountable and is used as a prime tool for racial profiling. People on the database are subjected to additional biases during the pretrial and trail processes as it can be used during plea bargaining, in bail negotiations, in trials, and even to subject people to longer sentences. It cannot be allowed to continue. 

Welcome to Vidal’s Corner.

On May 17th, the Louisiana State Legislature signed H.B.-265 restoring the right to vote to people on parole and probation, reversing a law on the books for over 40 years. The new law will impact the nearly 70,000 people now under community supervision. JLUSA Fair Hiring Project Coordinator Megan French-Marcelin sat down with Norris Henderson, founder and Executive director of the Voice of the Experienced (fondly called VOTE), whose advocacy led the movement to reform felony disenfranchisement in the state. The passage of this bill is a testament to the degree of change possible when directly impacted leadership is at the helm of a movement, not asking for but demanding their human rights.

MEGAN: This has been a lifetime fight for you to get to this point, this bill, what does the passage of this bill mean?

NORRIS: A lot of the people who have been foreclosed from participating in the voting process will be able to engage, especially around criminal justice issues. It goes back to folks who have been directly impacted and have more of a real sense of the harms of the system. They now have an opportunity to weigh in to that conversation. I can’t even think about the incredible value added because it changes people’s narrative around what they are willing to say now. They thought they could not say anything in reference to criminal justice issues without consequence. Folks had to be mindful of the audience that they were talking to, because it used to be that people couldn’t do anything about these issues, and now we understand that people are more sophisticated when it comes to these issues that are near and dear to our hearts.

MEGAN: You called this the sleeping giant project. Why?

NORRIS: This is the issue that has been sleeping for so long. The analogy is Rip Van Winkle – the day he woke up, that was game changer.

That sleeping giant wakes up and that sleeping giant has a lot to offer and can engage in ways that people never gave thought to. The greatest thing is supporting people as they are waking up to their own power. The other side of it is that there has been a lot of misinformation about who can and who couldn’t vote for years, now that will change that as well. There were people in the community who are formerly incarcerated that could vote but were still going by the urban legend that once you go to prison, you have to be out ten years before voting, or that you are disenfranchised for life, which was never the case. As it came to the 1974 constitution people believed they needed to get a full gubernatorial pardon to vote and some people only knew of that. So the educational work is waking those people up, who have the vote, but don’t know it.

And so when I say the giant wakes up, what that means in our state that leads the nation in incarceration – between 15,000 and 18,000 people a year are released in this state and now every one of those people will be able to vote. So just imagine what those numbers can do to our laws? Roughly 40 years of people being on supervision, some for that entire time, and if they have come off supervision, they certainly are not thinking about voting because they have been barred from the system for ten, twelve, almost fifteen years. Now all of the sudden, all these folks can vote. Hopefully we can get folks engaged in the process and educate them to take on those issues near and dear to them.

MEGAN: How important is that political education component?

NORRIS: It is the MOST important. If people are not educated, if people don’t have the knowledge, if they don’t fully understand the system, then they won’t participate. People need to know how to sign up, what the party system means, and the little nuances that people take for granted. You are free to choose, but there are consequences for every way we engage, or when we don’t.

MEGAN: What does it say about the future of criminal justice reform that the movement of this bill was led by VOTE, an organization founded and led by directly impacted leadership?

NORRIS: Well, no successful movement in this country has been successful without it being led by people directly impacted by the issue. If you look at the Poor People’s Movement, the LGBTQ movement, the immigration movement – all are led by people directly impacted. So this movement, the fight for the franchise, had to be led by folks who had been disenfranchised by the law. Everyone welcomed the allies and associates, but it would not have worked had it not been led by those directly impacted. And case in point, folks were quick to say, we support reentry of “returning citizens.” Our folks are not citizens until they have the right to vote. Some of our folks are comfortable with the language of “returning citizens” because they say, “oh it sounds better,” but it’s a false narrative to project if you cannot vote. If you tell me you are disenfranchised, I am going to stop and say, there is something not right about that because if you are in this country, the “freest country in the world,” and you don’t have the franchise something is wrong with that picture. It’s how we have this conversation among ourselves. For the mass of people across the country, the Floridians, folks in Mississippi and South Carolina, there is no right to vote upon return.

MEGAN: I have heard Daryl Atkinson say this phrase, “where the South goes, the country will.” What do you think the implications of the bill for places across the South?

NORRIS: I would hope that what is happening in Louisiana becomes inspirational to everyone and a call to action for everybody in the sense if we could do this in Louisiana, you can do it too. Louisiana is always the last in criminal justice reform and now we have forced a major step and people should see that as a way forward. When you look across the South, you need to be truth-tellers. The disenfranchisement laws across the South happened because people wanted to uphold white supremacy, this is why this happened. I think if people can be truth tellers, there would be voices that would begin to listen. And now I hope it becomes inspiration, that change can happen, and it can be done by those that are directly impacted by these laws.