Creating a “side” in the Police v. Community violence

Oh, the discomfort created by calling the police “racist,” after yet another slaying of people such as Eric Garner, Michael Brown and John Crawford. Some articles will provide the lists and reports that evoke the pattern of young Black men and boys. The list extends to White people and Black women as well, yet the pattern becomes abundantly clear.

The discomfort should not begin with calling government employees racist, it should begin with those government employees killing our neighbors while walking home or shopping at WalMart. Those officers wear badges that give them the legitimacy of their entire town. If someone can think of other systemic motivations other than racism that drive the shootings of so many unarmed Black boys and men, then everyone should be calling it out and rising up against it. We don’t see politicians leading marches for lack of training in their own police departments, or lack of mental health screening in their hiring practices, or demilitarizing their police forces. Instead the target communities are left on their own to respond, while many leaders will ask for “calm.

Business owners traditionally bear the brunt of community-wide frustration, thus positive police-community relations are in their best interest. In the larger picture, however, destruction of property becomes a less-violent method of blowing off steam amongst those calling for not only justice, but also revenge. Combustible material only needs a spark. Just like 9/11 sparked a multi-trillion dollar global combat and imperial initiative, Rodney King’s videotaped beating became merely the first (and Garner/Brown/Crawford the latest) spark for Americans to push back against domestic police violence.

Will we see organized actions at the homes of police chiefs in Staten Island, NY, Ferguson, Missouri, or Beavercreek, Ohio? Will the candlelight vigils be conducted while surrounding the police departments? There are many ways to demand change, and the hack-tivist group “Anonymous” has vowed to get involved. Ultimately, we all need to do something.

Some of the lessons drawn are that irrational people wielding guns cannot be trusted even when sober and on-duty. George Zimmerman made that clear in the killing of Trayvon Martin; how a man who feels so threatened and under siege can basically shoot anyone at any time as long as he positions himself close enough to the target. Yet how are we to teach our neighbors which police officers are irrational? Which ones leave the house in fear for their lives? Which ones enjoy the training simulations a little too much? Which ones have a racist tendency? Which ones have control issues and possibly have other violent incidents (at home or on the job) under their belts? Are we all subject to execution if we do not follow every command? (Those who would answer “yes” to that last question are admitting that we should live in a fascist nation where government rules the people, rather than people rule the government.)

Michael BrownIn Ferguson, Mike Brown did what anyone should do when facing an apparently crazy man with a gun: he ran. The officer apparently tracked him down and finished the job. The aftermath is almost as troubling, where the police respond to civil unrest with military force rather than employing a strategy of de-escalation.  Police refuse to report the name of the shooter.


Eric GarnerIn Staten Island, the police could not handle a man doing no more than children at a lemonade stand. Eric Garner was selling single cigarettes without a storefront or any sort of vendor’s license, and the disturbing video should make anyone uncomfortable that this could be a government response to such a “crime.”  Officer Daniel Pantaleo is suspended without his gun, while another officer and four EMT’s (who hardly responded) were suspended without pay.


Crawford and PD

In Beaverton, John Crawford was holding a BB gun, readily available in the BB gun aisle, at WalMart.  He was on the phone with his partner, and mother of his children, when she heard him say “it’s not real,” and then Sgt. David Darkow and Officer Sean Williams opened fire.  They are on administrative leave.  A woman running from the scene also collapsed and died. It is likely that the in-store cameras will shed a bit more light on the story, and it is ridiculous that the Walton Family has not quickly ordered that the video be provided to Crawford’s family.

Will the world of video force massive changes in how we deploy police in the community? Or will it make us all numb to overt violent control? Communities are already demanding officers wear cameras at all times, with strict liability for whenever the camera mysteriously doesn’t work. With today’s technology, we can stream the video of every officer back to a control panel and database. Knowing you’re being watched, knowing you need to be on your best behavior, works for everyone whether they are wearing a badge or not.

The most important thing to remember when lionizing or demonizing police officers is that they are just regular people, flaws and all. But we invest in them to be less-flawed, and skilled in conflict resolution. Our media, politicians, and society are very effective at ostracizing and punishing people who never wore a badge; it is amazing how much they all struggle once someone takes a job with the government and does similar things. What those defenders need to know is that they are creating a “side” in this scenario, and only reinforcing the beliefs that there is a dominant group who doesn’t care if Black people are murdered. Reinforce a belief enough, and it simply becomes the truth.

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Its not just what prison does to us. It’s You.

Recently reading a scholarly article regarding the negative impacts of prison conditions on people made me think about what really holds people back after we get out of prison.  The article focuses on the inhumanity and brutality of prisons, how we are kept apart from families and love while thrown into this lion’s den to survive among gladiators.  The mental illness spawned from spending hours and days and weeks and longer in solitary confinement, with nothing other than a wall and (maybe) a Bible.  The health care, unhealthy food, fear, hate, and all that which truly exists.

But that is not even the main thing.

When we get out, many of us are reborn.  The sun shines on our face in a new way, we start over, we feel blessed.  We want to believe we survived the punishment and it has come to an end.  But that is naive and foolish, as this is where the next phase begins.

After prison we enter a world where we are pariahs.  We are distrusted and hated and, at best, tolerated as long as we stay on our side of the street.  Some of us may be able to put on a suit or walk down the street undetected, but as soon as anything of consequence happens, like a job application, housing application, voting, or dating situation, we are found out.

In prison we are at least equal members of a society.  There is a societal structure and internal outcasts, of course, but the majority of us are average “citizens” behind bars.  We are unprepared for the negativity.  People have their personal opinions, and so too do the laws that enforce our lifetime of punishment.  Those of us who did a long time in prison, who think we completed a lifetime dosage of suffering, come out to a world of new walls.  Those of us who did short stints for petty offenses face this shunning as well.

Would you hire a person who had been in prison- and for what crimes could they be convicted?

Would you live with someone with a criminal record- and how long would you want them to have been out?

Would you let us sit on the nice furniture at home?

Would you allow us to marry your child?

I won’t speak for all formerly incarcerated people, but the affects of prison life don’t impact me in free society.  What holds me back are the people who fear me.  I get it.  I’m not even going to judge it- I never have.  I’m just calling it like it is.

Posted in Commentary, Prison Conditions | 1 Comment

What’s Next For Class of 2014 Transcending Prison Pasts?

IMG_2538What an amazing year to be part of the Class of 2014.   In Seattle, Shon Hopwood graduated from the University of Washington School of Law. In Miami, Desmond Meade graduated from Florida International University College of Law. In New York, Marty Tankleff graduated from Touro Law Center.   Their achievements help me put my own degree from Tulane University Law School in perspective. We collectively represent over forty-two years in prison, in cages to be more accurate, and now hold certification that we “officially” understand the fundamentals of the American legal system.

We aren’t the first people to go from being subjected to the law to ultimately navigate its corridors. The list is long and varied, every one unique, and each showing the diverse paths into (and out of) the most miserable space one could be stuck inside. These people, all public with their pasts, include Dan Manville (Antioch ’81), Chris Ochoa (U. Wisconsin ’06), Daryl Atkinson (St. Thomas ’07), Andres Idarraga (Yale, ’11), Noah Kilroy (Roger Williams, ’13), and soon to include Jarrett Adams (Loyola-Chicago, ’15) and Pete Martell (Wayne State ’16).  Some were proven innocent (Tankleff, Ochoa, Adams), but for much of their lives they were not treated as such. Many of us were practicing law while in prison as Jailhouse Lawyers, which is why I say we “officially” joined the ranks of those with a Juris Doctorate degree. I filed my first bail motion and memorandum when some of my classmates were in kindergarten and have over two decades of experience covering all aspects of the courts and prisons.

A guy in prison once told me that after I got out and made my millions of dollars, I would forget all about the past and people like him. After graduating last weekend, the guy’s point about staying grounded and not losing touch is as important as ever. Of course, I need not try hard to be reminded about who I am and where I come from. My life is overwhelmingly intertwined with the criminal justice system, and the people struggling to create healthier responses to social ills. We can’t cage everyone without a home or a job, we can’t lock up addiction, nor will a military-grade police force stop anger, greed, depression, and insanity.

Last week, I was reviewing scholarship applications for Transcending Through Education Foundation (TTEF). All of the applicants are currently incarcerated, and over half of them are teenagers trying to get some funding for a college education. One essay that truly left an impact upon me spoke about the success of getting rid of every “friend.” In his environment, all his peers were forging a negative path and success was to be entirely alone. Tragic, yet real.  I want to share with him there are more levels for him to achieve.

We need to empty the container, wash it out, and refill with something pure. Prison can serve this purpose and, as they say: “you know who your friends are when you go to prison.” Friends have been essential to my journey, including those from before, during, and after prison. Who can imagine writing someone for over a decade with no guarantee to ever see each other in the free world again? Who is bold and hopeful enough to talk about college educations, business proposals, and families from cage to cage? Who is strong enough to stand by you when their loved ones are begging them to stay away? Friends are.


Bruce with Andres Idarraga (L), Norris Henderson (R), and Kira Love.

People who have been in prison face all sorts of hurdles, regardless of whether they are “deserved” or not.  I applied to over thirty law schools.  One Dean of Admissions met me at a forum in New York City: Susan Krinsky.  She was the only person willing to put her neck on the line and admit me.  Every other school declined.  As the negative media would later play out, about a “convicted murderer in law school,” her courage should never be forgotten.  The vaunted NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (NAACP-LDF), founded by none other than Thurgood Marshall, also made a decision to accept me into their family, and that too has been an honor.  Similarly, two professors at Tulane (Jancy Hoeffel and Katherine Mattes) helped me through those early months of adversity along with dozens of amazing new friends who were also just trying to focus on their homework.  And ultimately, being part of an organization, Voice of the Ex-Offender, (VOTE) was crucial to my keeping my footing when people try their damnedest to dislodge me.  We need each other, whether you have been in prison or not.


Artwork by Steven Parkhurst.

I was at Andres Idarraga’s graduations from both Brown and Yale. Many states have rules barring parolees and probationers from interacting with any convicted felon. I also gave him framed artwork from an incarcerated friend, Steven Parkhurst. Last week, when I walked the aisle with my daughter, it would have been incomplete if Andres were not there, along with two other men exonerated in Louisiana, Norris Henderson and Calvin Duncan. When Andres gave me a picture Steve made for me, the tears started to flow. The journey can be overwhelming at times- both the pain and the joy of it all.

Recently, an artist remarked how he was afraid that by me going to law school, the social justice community would lose me into the corporate morass of money-making lawyers. It surprised me that anyone would think this way. As Glenn Martin, another formerly incarcerated man, once told me: ‘Success isn’t when everyone gets out of prison and becomes a full-time advocate against the current criminal justice system. We need to be successful across the entire spectrum of society.’ To a certain degree, we possibly already are; but that’s because most people aren’t “Out” in their daily lives.

I am the last of the three TTEF founders to earn a law degree Andres in 2011 and Noah in 2013. We all came to this path from a different route and perspective. It is interesting to consider we have different ethnic backgrounds, served different stretches of time in prison, and for different crimes. Our friendship, along with others who were incarcerated with us, serves to ground and guide our paths. My twenty years of legal advocacy started with a bail motion for another prisoner and extends to all aspects of policy change across the country. This part of my work will remain whether I open a café, launch a film production company, or work for a non-profit.

In the words of Tyler Durdin, “We are not our jobs.” Our work may provide us with an opportunity to do good things, whether on the job or while off duty. Or we may need to take some stepping stones—especially for those of us not sitting on a family fortune or a vast network prepared to support an endeavor. If Jay-Z calls tomorrow and says I need you to negotiate sneaker deals for his new NBA players, that would be a gateway not a finish line. Besides, I can use a new pair of sneakers myself.

Despite the headlines, only a small part of the legal realm is criminal law. I never wanted to be a criminal defense attorney (I know plenty of great ones) and there wasn’t much more for me to learn in that area. I concentrated my studies on intellectual property (copyright, patent, and trademark) and the Internet. The future of our legal system might actually  be summarized by Monsanto, Net Neutrality and Edward Snowden, as we struggle to determine who and what is under control. My contributions are likely to come with projects I do in my spare time, as we are in an age of hostility towards controversial people in academia. This has been the pattern of my entire life, as I have generally paid my bills with jobs outside the legal/policy realm.

I’m sure Shon, Desmond, and Marty get hit with the same question I get: “So what’s next?” I’m guessing they have better answers than myself. Shon is a published author with some highly esteemed supporters. Desmond has been a leading figure in the Florida re-enfranchisement campaign and found considerable support for his inspiring journey. Marty now has no criminal record and is a member of the Innocence Project network. Some of us, however, have histories that are more challenging to digest.  Those who only hear about the successes are simply not privy to all the rejections, and to those who simply ignore us.

This is not the year for me to try taking the Bar and being a licensed attorney, for reasons I have previously written. Those who push me do not realize that it is the one aspect of my life where I am forced to be pessimistic, particularly as I am still on felony probation. That status alone would likely suspend someone’s law license until it were finished, therefore it is difficult to imagine even the most forgiving panel finding me morally fit to practice law. Those who know me will realize that I’ve only made it this far due to an undaunted diet of hope and optimism, and I would rather dream about other things.  I still can’t vote in Louisiana and there are many jobs I’m legally barred from holding, but I’m used to a low percentage of success.  People like us just have to try more doors and spend more time doing it.

IMG_2553I am currently working on a book about the criminal justice system and a screenplay about wrongful convictions in New Orleans. I’m open to part-time and project work, and would like to get myself “artsy” again. I can’t speak for Shon, Desmond, and Marty but the conversation need not always be about “What’s Next” in life.  Sometimes we need to pause and recognize what we just did.  Who’da thunk it?

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Who Will Stand Up To Racism and The “-isms?”

Los Angeles Clippers v CSKA MoscowListening to L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling talk to his ex-mistress about race made me think, “Hey Bill Clinton, here’s that conversation about race our nation never had.”  We hear a white Jewish billionaire attorney real estate mogul not only talk about his own beliefs, but he attributes those beliefs to his entire social and professional circle.  ‘What will the Joneses think if I’m associated with Black people?’

Larry JohnsonWelcome to reality.  And it is time for the Joneses to step up or get called out.  Many of our families and circles are closed to some sort of other.  For some it is race, others it is class, and oftentimes one can sense it without anyone even speaking it.  How prescient does Larry Johnson sound now when he famously referred to himself as a “slave” even though he was earning millions of dollars in the NBA.

People with criminal convictions in their past are often told outright that we are not wanted.  Bold signs and fine print bracket our days.  Even learning that a college professor was pushed out, based on the University buckling amidst some public scrutiny of his activities decades ago (of which they were aware), makes one wonder if any of us can be accepted anywhere.

We know what they say behind our backs, and know that many people can’t be seen in public with us- can’t be on the Instagram feed.  Or to a certain extent.  Just like the joke about the “one Black friend” required to add some color to the beer commercial or wedding photos, it must be nice to have the “one ex-con friend” for great stories at cocktail parties.  But in the end, that person will never get to sleep in the main house and never marry into the family without declaring blasphemy.  Mixing with our ilk is the miscegenation of our time, requiring not just love but courage and defiance to make mixed-marriages work.

Some have criticized his former mistress, V. Stiviano, a Black and Mexican woman, for being a gold-digger who hung out with this guy for years.  But what I like about her is the ability to simply combat his racist statements and expose him as an anachronistic idiot who has no logic appropriate for society.  She didn’t need a degree in Post-Colonial Racial Conflict Theory from a fancy school.  She is an example of how any of us can understand this issue and speak truth to power.

Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali

Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali

Most of us impacted by the -isms have no voice, no microphone, and no money.  But some do.  Some will look like the discriminated folks, and others will act out of solidarity and repudiate those who express bigotry.  Muhammed Ali has no equal in sports, and possibly professional life, for giving up boxing in his prime because he believed that war was wrong, and an imperialist war was downright evil.  In the end he was vindicated, but was despised at the time for his color, his religion, and cultural beliefs.

Clippers All-Star Chris Paul is president of the NBA Players Association.  It requires far less courage to stand up to his boss, Donald Sterling, than Muhammed Ali had when standing up to American foreign policy and saying “No.”  If NBA superstar Blake Griffin refused to play, he would receive accolades from most corners of the media.  Many attorneys would trip over themselves to defend any lawsuit Sterling could bring regarding a Clippers player, or even a Golden State Warrior, who refuses to play.  After all, Sterling said not to bring Black people to the games.

nba_g_nbpa01jr_300If the players’ union does nothing, they will have defeated their whole purpose of unifying: to create a balance of power with the owners.  Individually, any one of them can be replaced- even Lebron James.  Collectively, there is no NBA, and no income for anybody.  They are each sitting on millions of dollars- millions more than 95% of America and 99% of Black America.  They each have a fan base and the power of an instant press conference.  The owners may indeed take collective action to eject Sterling from the league (with a 75% vote), but the players are the ones with the true stopping power.

The Golden State Warriors will be in Los Angeles to face the Clippers tonight.  Warriors coach Mark Jackson has called for a fan boycott, to not put any money in Sterling’s pocket.  Jackson is a former NBA All Star himself, a tough dude from NYC, who could retire five times over.  We shall see if that is all he has to say on the matter.

Ultimately, few of us are in a morally and financially safe place to make a stand- and the rest of us pray for (or demand) them to do so.



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Bruce Reilly Testifies on the Historical Racism Leading to Felon Disenfranchisement

0197.1Bruce Reilly speaks to the National Voting Rights Commission during their national tour to speak to the constitutional history of Louisiana’s disenfranchisement of African Americans since emancipation.  

His testimony is part of a forthcoming publication: “To Purify the Ballot: The Racial History of Felon Disenfranchisement in Louisiana.”

Listen to it here.

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Oscar-nominated “Prison Terminal” exposes the other American death penalty

1012056_634876503241069_971098256_nIf there is one thing a documentary film should strive for, it is exposing people to a little-known aspect of life. This is precisely what filmmaker Edgar Barens has done with his Oscar nominated film, “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall.” It premieres on HBO, on March 31st, and is poised to stir up some substantial changes in America, the global incarceration leader, where approximately 250,000 aging people are behind bars.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 2001 and 2011, cancer and heart disease were the leading causes of over 3000 annual deaths in state prisons. Another 1000 people die every year in local jails, often with little or no health care.

I met Edgar Barens in 2009, when he had 300 hours of footage from the Iowa State Penitentiary’s hospice unit, shot over six months in 2006-2007.  Prison administrators invited him to do a story after seeing his previous documentary Angola Prison Hospice.  This latest product is a forty-minute film nominated for an Academy Award. Coincidentally, Prison Terminal is about the death of Jack Hall, a World War II POW survivor, while the winning film was about the last survivor of the Holocaust.

Jack Hall is proud of his military service, yet remains haunted by the hundreds of farm boys, tradesmen, and regular folks he killed while wearing the uniform.  It is interesting that the government awarded medals for these killings, but sentenced him to die in prison for killing the man who sold drugs to his son. The latter was probably the only time he had a genuine motivation to end someone’s life, but Jack’s story here is not about that homicide.  The story is deeper, taking us to a crossroad of multiple dilemmas in America’s criminal justice system.


Pvt. Jack Hall.

The Disposable Heroes

Incarcerated veterans are vastly growing in number, as they historically do after every war, with estimates ranging from 140,000 to 250,000 currently behind bars.  It should come as no surprise that Jack Hall’s experience of killing, seeing friends die, and being held in an enemy prison might leave more than a few scars. It is understandable that any such person might seek to suppress their thoughts with alcohol or drugs, and may also have a hard time holding down a regular job.  This PTSD and effects, and effects of effects, helps explain the record high disposable heroes currently locked up in prison after their Iraq and/or Afghanistan tours.  It is only amplified by America’s shortcomings in soldier reentry and rehabilitation (words typically used for prisoners returning home, but soldiers’ experiences can be frighteningly similar).

At the heart of Prison Terminal is a hospice program, where fellow inmates are serving as the volunteers and providing end-of-life care.  In another twist on presumptions, Jack is a former Segregationist who found himself living in the most intense racial experiment throughout history. The viewer doesn’t experience Jack’s evolution over the previous years, but what we see is the shared love and humility of two primary caretakers in action: “Herky,” and “Love,” both Black men.  Both also convicted of killing someone and will apparently also die behind bars. As they see it, what they do for Jack will hopefully be done for them when the time comes.

Many members of the general public develop their views of prisons through television shows such as Oz, Orange Is The New Black, and LockUp.  Furthermore, most documentaries focus on a wronged situation, such as exonerations, drug war casualties, and political prisoners. Prison Terminal defies stereotypes and presents a familiar world to those who have been incarcerated, and their families.  Herky and Love are like hundreds of people I know: just waiting for a burning car on the side of the road so they can save some kids. It will never erase the terrible things that gets someone into prison, but will at least make looking in the mirror a little easier by creating a counter-narrative, about helping humanity rather than hurting.  Not to imply that everyone in prison is an angel, nor even that the majority are there for something terrible, but the number of lifelong malicious and selfish people in prisons is a far smaller than most would ever imagine.


Herky, a hospice worker featured in the film.

It should not come as a massive surprise that the majority of hospice workers in Iowa are Black.  As examined in the book, “Mothering in Prison,” some communities unfortunately have learned to expect travesties. Coming up out of slavery and through a challenging American history, Black people have had to adapt to survive, and take care of their wounded family.  Here, Jack Hall is part of this family regardless of his color. And to Jack’s credit, healing his previously-strained relationship with the son who turned him in is a core part of the dying process.

Prisoner health care: an oxymoron

Prison health care in America primarily consists of popping pills, and scant staffs struggling with sparse budgets. If they are going to take control of someone’s body, the government has a legal and moral duty to take care of it.  However, not every person enters prison with a clean bill of health.  They go in with cancer, diabetes, HIV, and every other ailment afflicting the general public.  Perhaps on the outside they had a job, insurance, or even coverage under the Affordable Care Act. And then they are sent into this jungle. The diet is terrible and, at times, the exercise non-existent.  Leave someone in prison long enough and they will certainly contract any ailment one would expect on the outside.

The growth of American prisons over time is creatively illustrated below.

There are only 75 hospices in the thousands of American jails and prisons, and only twenty are staffed with prisoner volunteers. People should die with their families, especially the ones closest to their hearts.  Iowa’s hospice program struggled since the film was made, as a new director was not as passionate about the program. This signals the need for specific policies to be in place, to survive turnover and attitude. The program costs absolutely nothing, with everything donated (including hospital beds) or made by prisoners. Hospice actually saves money by weaning people off costly medications and treatments in their final days.

Some states have responded to the medical crisis by building multi-million dollar medical facilities that will need to be staffed and maintained over the years.  This also creates more overall beds in the system; beds to be filled. Every prison should instead convert space already in place, and consider Medical Parole whenever possible. Not everyone has somewhere to go in the final years, and granting homelessness to sick people is not providing dignified deaths.

Edgar Barens is taking Prison Terminal on a tour that will include dozens of prisons throughout the nation.  This film should be seen. A five-minute version should be screened for politicians.  Hopefully they, like Iowa, will recognize that it is possible to do better. They can respect families and religions, and make a considerable reform within this terrible phenomenon of mass incarceration.  Furthermore, the Veterans Affairs administrators can watch this film and reconsider the final crime in Jack’s case: the VA would not allow him to be buried with honors due to the “Timothy McVeigh” rule, barring people convicted of capital crimes from a final acknowledgment of their service.  Jack’s final respite, despite fears his service would send him to Hell, was to be buried as a soldier.  Instead, the prison fingerprinted and disposed of him, his life, and death.

Pvt. Jack Hall escaped from a POW camp, yet could not escape that one moment of rage as an unwilling soldier in the War on Drugs.

Find out more at


Posted in Death Penalty, Prison Conditions, Prisoner Health, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sen. Whitehouse will need more than bipartisanship for prison reform in America

senateToday a group of people sat down in Providence to talk with Senator Whitehouse about his bill to create a federal parole system.

The bill is hailed as a “prison reform bill,” and passed the Senate Judiciary Committee; a clear indication of the shifting tide on political ideology over the past few years.  This ebbing of the ‘Tough on Crime’ rhetoric includes many people who were bipartisan architects of the prison industry itself, and jibes with Attorney General Eric Holder’s public desire to make the system “more just.”  Of course, this indicates he believes it is currently less just than it should be.  The voices you have heard over the past several years talking “reform” are the result of those of us who have been peeing in the pool long enough to warm it up so everybody can get in.  Even if just a toe, they’re getting in.

lockedup_pieThis prison reform bill is quite overstated however, and falls well short of what the public is truly calling for- something Senator Whitehouse appeared to be going for with his former bill to create a commission of experts that would propose a national overhaul.

The Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act of 2014 will have no impact on state prisoners, where six times more men, women and children are serving prison terms than under federal law.  Furthermore, it will have no impact on the 722,000 people currently sitting in a local jail- a snapshot of the 12 million who cycle through that system [see the graphic above].  Its not easy for the feds to control state crime and punishment under the law, but like anything else: the feds could put strings attached to all the financial subsidies of a bursting prison industry.

What’s in it for anybody?

The bill will impact tens of thousands of people nationally who will now gain an opportunity at parole, but what the bill now deems “Prerelease Custody.”  They can do this by engaging in what we once considered educational and rehabilitative programming, but the bill deems “Recidivism Reduction” programming.  This wordsmithing is no different than calling oneself a “Pre-Owned Car Dealer” (which is what they do, these days).  To assess the merits, it is important not to be distracted by shiny new things.

The Good Time credits earned by federal inmates are not available to everybody, and they are not time off one’s sentence the way they commonly are applied to state custody. (The time can be converted to parole time).  Furthermore, parolees in halfway houses and on electronic monitoring pay for their own incarceration, sometimes to their own financial ruin.  Thus, this is not a handout by any means yet does pose a possibility for the prison system to generate additional revenues from the predominantly low-income and struggling families trying to rebuild a life after prison.

Slavery by another name: Prison Labor

The bill prioritizes an expansion of prison labor, viewed as a form of rehabilitation and method of reducing recidivism.  It is impossible to discount the value of having a prison job for the prisoner, even at 12 cents per hour of income.  However, it is difficult not to think of one ominous phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” infamously posted over Camp Auschwitz.  Work makes you free.  A prison worker gets time off their sentence, and this bill calls for the Bureau of Prisons to review in what ways the prison labor force can be used to make goods currently manufactured overseas, so as not to cut into the free labor pool.

The use of prison labor is controversial, to say the least.  Some critics have called for a repeal of the 13th Amendment, which provides for slavery of anyone convicted of a crime.  This provision allowed for the massive “convict lease labor” that built a considerable amount of American infrastructure after slavery was abolished.  The legal framework that is said to have freed Black America also allowed for people to be rounded up and placed, fundamentally, back where, essentially, Black America had been liberated from.

Today, prison labor exploiters capitalize upon incarcerated people’s desire to stay busy rather than sit on a bunk all day.  This sort of macro-management does not take into account the relevance of a worker’s feelings.  People in the system are treated with the callousness of lab rats, which may be all fine in the punishment phase, yet counterproductive when doing anti-recidivism, rehabilitative, or reentry programming.  Does Johnny have a job, a home, or health care?  Check.  The assessments never ask if Johnny is happy.

Reentry programming still being run by those who have never reentered

The Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act also focuses on reviewing current reentry programs and developing federal pilot programs based on the best practices.  This is an admirable goal and an obvious step to take.  The challenge is to correctly assess best practices, and then implement what might feel controversial.  For example, many policies prevent formerly incarcerated people (FIP) from affiliating with one another, and yet this bill references mentorships.  It is likely that the drafters visualized a well-intentioned citizen with no criminal involvement and demonstrated success showing the way to someone getting out of prison.  Yet such a person has very little to offer in the sense of mentorship.  An FIP often grows frustrated with social workers, mentors, and probation officers who feign to understand the pressures of post-prison life.  The best mentors are role models, and in this scenario will be FIPs.

This legislation also puts a considerable focus on risk assessment models, as though they are a new pathway to success.  However, these tools have been in use for decades, and nowhere in the bill is there a call to study their individual accuracies.  Several states, for example, uses the LSI-R scoring system.  The irony of in-custody assessments, that take all of forty five minutes to conduct, then a few minutes per year to update, are how a high-risk prisoner can be a low-risk free person.  Conformity in prison does not translate to the attributes required for successful living in free society.  Furthermore, an antagonistic interviewer will likely invoke anti-social responses from a someone, thus along with their past criminal activity, setting the foundation for an entire course of reentry opportunity.

The fundamental flaw in many prison-related programs, particularly after the Bush Administration’s Second Chance Act, is the lack of involvement of affected people.  The Senator’s roundtable consists primarily of law enforcement and some non-profit workers with no conviction history.   The stakeholder list is upside down.  Law enforcement does not have a stake in my successful reentry.  In fact, they have a stake in my failed reentry- so yes, they are a stakeholder, but in a perverse manner.  After being punished by a group of people, be it months or decades, there is no trust in place for the punisher to then be the healer.  For the government to believe otherwise only underscores these misconceptions and miscommunications of trying to reposition the pawns on the board.

Apparently there were two affected people at the table.  Rhode Island is a very small place with few affected policy experts and activists.  Curiously, however, none of those were invited- and most were unaware until they saw the Senator’s press release.

It is not for law enforcement, politicians, or nonprofits to decide the leaders, or the participants, from any group.  That task is left to those constituencies, be they in a foreign nation, laborers, or families with conviction histories.  An American democracy needs to maintain respect for, and support, democratic principles within communities.

The second class citizens

No public defenders, and hardly any nonprofits, are run by people who have “been there, done that.”  When efforts like this use those agencies to speak for a disempowered population, it only further delegitimizes people with criminal histories, only furthers the second-class citizenship, and continues to render us without a voice.  Rather than confronting any counter-narrative an FIP presents to policy reform, we are often disregarded as unruly, unmanageable, or uncivilized.  Yet we are the ones seeing our selves and our family members dropping off the map, figuratively and literally, every day.  Reducing recidivism and increasing public safety can only be done by a full restoration of people to being equal and valued members of society, especially the overwhelming number who are (on paper) “citizens” of America.

Efforts like these are akin to watching someone fish without bait.  As expensive a boat, pole, and hook they use… they just don’t realize why the fish don’t simply leap onto the hook.


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