Meet Chandra Bozelko & James Monteiro – 2018 Leading with Conviction Fellows

Posted November 20, 2018 by JustLeadershipUSA

“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.