For those attending the FICPFM conference this coming week, check here for the conference program and schedule.
For those attending the FICPFM conference this coming week, check here for the conference program and schedule.
At a time when 100 million Americans are trying to move on from their criminal records, hundreds (and possibly thousands) of people will gather in Oakland, California to address their common struggle with an oppressive criminal justice system. The Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People and Families Movement (FICPFM) is made up of the directly impacted families and communities confronting a system of control; a system that has, itself, grown out of control. This two day conference (Sept. 9-10) is the latest of many historical markers in the Civil Rights movement, and represents the courageous individual and collective journeys among every organizer and participant.
The FICPFM is a natural result of mass incarceration, as thousands of people annually enter a criminal justice system that is used as our national program to address substance use, addiction, mental illness, unemployment, conflict resolution, and homelessness. Mass incarceration is a program overwhelming reserved for people from low-income communities, overwhelmingly imposed upon Communities of Color. It is interwoven with our school systems, and provides cradle-to-grave interaction that people of wealth and/or connections can opt out of. After decades of skimming people from our communities, of people returning to those same communities, our efforts to reclaim our lives and seek healthier options for our children, have led to our own national gatherings.
People can register for the conference by clicking this link here. The FICPFM organizers have been raising funds for travel support, for directly impacted people all over the nation to get help attending, and the registration allows for people to request funding (Click Here). With commitments from roughly two dozen states so far, priority will be given for organizational representatives, and the goal of having someone from all 50 states in Oakland.
The first FICPFM gathering came five years ago, in Selma, Alabama. We walked backwards over the Edmund Pettis Bridge to mark a restoration of the historic Civil Rights Movement, a movement that lost its way under the rhetoric of drugs and crime that invested heavily into a gulag of cages to theoretically make community problems go away. Yet the War on America known as the “War on Drugs” most effective result was to destabilize and weaken the same communities that were previously organizing for political power, justice, and equality.
In Watts, California, the FICPFM ratified a 14-Point Platform. Since that time, we have continued to progress through individuals, organizations, and collaborations. In 2016, we see an American culture that has had enough of mass incarceration. These voices come from both political parties and from no party. This frustration is present in rural White America as well as concentrated urban communities of Color. Ultimately, a small group of insulated people have been providing “solutions” for us that they would never provide for their own families. And although 6 million of us can not vote, many millions more can. Our families, friends and allies combine with us for the largest single-issue population in America. An issue that these politicians will strain, yet again, to ignore this election season.
The conference will include workshops and strategy sessions with highly acclaimed advocates from all parts of America. Several special guests are scheduled to attend, so check back on the conference page for updated information as the schedule is modified.
People seeking more information are encouraged to contact the FICPFM here.
Today Ban the Box, tomorrow Voting Rights. The Louisiana House of Representatives has heard about prisons and prisoners quite a bit in recent years, and now they are also getting an earful about rehabilitation, reentry, recidivism, probation and parole; about people living in the community and facing the policies of exclusion.
Today, the House passed a bill to Ban the Box on state job applications, 53-39, setting an example for the Senate, the Governor, and employers across the state that we need to be more encouraging for people looking for work, especially when work can be hard to find.
Tomorrow, this same chamber will vote on allowing voting rights to our community members trying to assimilate and exercise our most fundamental mark of citizenship: voting. The bill, HB 598, passed out of committee without opposition. VOTE and other advocates made the calls, provided the testimonies, and provided ample reasons for legislators to support the integration of people following convictions, an issue Governor Jon Bel Edwards has agreed is of critical importance.
We need your full support, now, at this critical time we are reducing open discrimination on employment and housing. We need you to make the following calls and emails:
Speaker of the House Taylor Barras
Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger, III (D-91New Orleans)
Governor John Bel Edwards
(225)342-0991 or (844)860-1413
Let these key people and your own representative know that you support voting rights for people living in our community on probation parole, to please use their positions of power to guide the House members to pass HB 598, and send a message every individual in Louisiana is still a member of our families, our communities, and our state. We need to encourage positive behavior, such as voting, and not deny the efforts of people who want to do positive things.
When anyone calls us “Returning Citizens,” correct them. They mean well, but the response is “not yet.” Not until the 70,000 people on Louisiana, some who “returned” from prison while most were processed through the jail, are restored with the most fundamental and basic right of citizenship: voting.
The Epicenter of Race, Voting, and Mass Incarceration
New Orleans has always been a national news story. Northern parts of America probably understood the Free People of Color, prior to the Civil War, as much as they could understand contemporary bounce queen Big Freedia’s shoutouts on the latest Beyonce song. From Reconstruction to Katrina, New Orleans carries a unique past, present, and future. Within that uniqueness, including historically violent racial oppression, we find some answers to how Louisiana far and away leads the nation in every incarceration statistic.
The crime and safety statistics of New Orleans, the most incarcerated city in America, is practically unremarkable. While still having one of the higher crime rates among 100 cities, and a bloated murder rate, it does not make anyone’s “Top 10 Most Dangerous Cities” listings. Despite this, the answer to nearly every social or public health problem is a cage, tasking the likes of our District Attorney, Sheriff, judges and public defenders with solving addiction, homelessness, mental illness, lack of education, and unemployment. It is no mystery why these solutions systemically elude us.
Prior to the Civil War, there was no need for convict labor for large public projects such as the levee system. There was also no need to disenfranchise massive numbers of people when elections came down to contests between wealthy white men. The slave system maintained the status quo for as long as historically possible. Too long, of course. And where power is threatened, the powerful will generally take action to assure threats are eliminated.
In 1868, Louisiana expanded the class of convicted people who were denied voting rights. It went from the white men who were convicted of forgery, bribery, and perjury to barring all men (Black or white) who were “under order of imprisonment.” Meanwhile, the labor force continued nearly uninterrupted because the 13th Amendment allowed slavery to continue as long as people were convicted of crimes. As one plantation owner famously remarked, “before we used to own them. Now we just rent them.”
The equation is simple:
This arrangement went largely untouched for 150 years. Along the way, Louisiana became the most notoriously creative in ways to suppress Black voting while also building up the disproportionately largest gulag in the world. Poll Tax, Grandfather Clause, Understandings Clause, and outright murder were some of the most well known tactics to maintain power, but people should recognize that Louisiana is one of only two states that allow a non-unanimous jury for convictions.
The Fear of a Modern Slave Rebellion
When Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace, and Robert King were organizing in the early 1970s to ease the oppression of legally enslaved people at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, when they were organizing under the most logical banner of the Black Panthers, their demise was practically assured by history. Surprisingly, they were not outright murdered and joined a long lineage of activists that did not begin with Dr. King, Malcolm X, or Fred Hampton. And just as surprisingly, they survived the initial backlash to a wrongful accusation of killing a prison guard, unlike Emmit Till, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, or Tamir Rice (none of whom were accused of killing a law enforcement officer). Miraculously, they overcame horrid conditions of oppressive incarceration, unlike Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Gynnya McMillen- none of whom, mysteriously, even made it past the police station. It is amazing that they were not gunned down in the prison yard like George Jackson, a Black Panther incarcerated in California, that led to the 1971 Attica Prison Riot in New York.
Every part of the Angola 3 achieving delayed justice, and release, defies gravity in America- especially in Louisiana. The release of Albert Woodfox, following King and Wallace, is a testament to their bond of purpose, their will to persevere, and the growing public intolerance of injustice.
The Right to Defend Against Government Accusations
Those wondering why the ACLU is suing the Orleans Public Defender and the state body that funds the public defenders need to realize it is actually a person denied counsel who is suing. Such a person is the only one with a right to sue, as the right attaches to the person accused of a crime. As it happens, this plaintiff’s claim impacts us all. Will we get a lawyer? Will the 300 people, whose childhood sentences of Life Without Parole were recently thrown out, get lawyers? Would Woodfox have gotten a proper team appointed for a third trial? One way to keep the equation going is to overwork the defense side and continue the conviction system as originally designed. But it is not all static, of course. Slave labor may not be the needed outcome of the equation anymore, as it has some new variables:
(Accusation – Funded Defense Team) +
The public defender has no “right to defend,” thus a demand made upon them, to be passed along to the state budget crunchers, must come from the people with constitutional rights: defendants. While Louisiana struggles with a budget crisis, they can think about the multiple millions of dollars spent trying to maintain the wrongful convictions of the Angola 3 (and many others), and the cellblocks dedicated to wrongful convictions, think of the children sentenced to die in prison, along with Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizaro and Jefferson Sheriff Newell Normand’s recent comments: about how easing marijuana possession enforcement will basically send New Orleans into a murderous crime spree. Rather than tie marijuana to Doritos, as most Americans do, these out-of-touch elected leaders tie this drug (legalized in several states) to guns.
Marijuana is a “gateway drug,” but not to some realm of intoxicated violence and the bloody business of unregulated commerce. It is a gateway drug to the criminal justice system, where someone gets a “strike” or probation status that forever erodes future constitutional rights.
Peeling Back 150 Years of Construction
Louisiana, Minnesota, and Florida are currently moving towards a citizenship dilemma that will never go away until resolved: When will people living in our communities, on probation or parole, have voting rights- the most basic element of citizenship and democracy. Until this mass of people (over 70,000 in Louisiana) have this tenet of citizenship we will always feel excluded, and be excluded. This exclusion extends to our children, into our friendships, and impacts our workplaces.
Maryland’s legislature recently voted to override their governor’s veto, restoring citizenship to all people who are outside of prison and living in the community. Kentucky, however, has restored then reversed voting rights by executive orders; proving the tenuous nature some view this fundamental cornerstone of democracy.
Those who oppose voting rights don’t believe in democracy.
While very fundamental questions linger about allowing people back into the community from where we come, some make moves on reducing punishments. It is not possible for the 80 million convicted Americans to undergo the brutality, including decades in torturous solitary confinement, suffered by the Angola 3. The taxpayers cannot afford it, the communities cannot absorb it, and the individual families cannot survive it.
President Obama recently eliminated solitary confinement for children in federal custody. Acknowledging that sensory deprivation amounts to torture is a significant moment in mainstream political history, and hopefully our leaders will soon recognize that torture should not be tolerable on our adults. Hopefully state leaders will follow federal leaders, who should be incentivizing such reductions in brutality in the same way federal dollars contributed to the massive spending boom required to build mass incarceration as we know it.
The federal government is close to passing a sentencing reform act that would apply to their federal prisoners. It is important for people to understand that such federal initiatives DO NOT apply to people in state custody, as each state has its own set of independent state laws that are only limited by the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of “cruel and unusual punishment” and protected rights of defendants.
Those who wonder what each of the latest federal bills “will do,” they should be asking the interpretations by impacted people- those who have a stake in the actual success of the litigation beyond claiming victory in its passage. As one would expect, federal legislation often doesn’t begin by asking for too much and typically gets watered down further in the process. If a bill has a modest, but genuine, impact it should be embraced as such rather than over-hyped in a manner that leads people to wash their hands and proclaim a job “well done.”
The federal Fair Sentencing Act will immediately impact some people, and represent a downward trend in sentencing laws, but will not go much further in producing lasting reductions in mass incarceration. Reducing the mandatory minimum on 1kg of heroin / 5kg of cocaine / 280g crack / 50g meth (from ten years to five) will only help the few people who may be serving under ten years for such a major amount of hard drugs. Similarly, the reduction on 100g of heroin / 500g of cocaine / 28g of crack / 100 marijuana plants / 5g of meth (five years minimum to two) will only help those few people where the judge would have given them less.
Doing What You Can, Where You Can
Welcome home Albert Woodfox.
Rest in power, Herman Wallace.
May your spirit guide us along the arc of humanity, the one that bends towards justice.
Keep fighting for justice, Robert King.
May you grow ever stronger through vindication.
During the holiday season when big box stores rake in the profits as Santa’s middle man, Best Buy has climbed atop the Grinch’s mountain and potentially seizing the title from traditional villains Walmart and Target. It remains to be seen if Best Buy’s discriminatory employment practices hit them where it hurts in the short run, but they will likely learn (as Target did) they are on the wrong side of history to discriminate against the 80 million Americans with criminal histories.
After Best Buy’s corporate offices discovered that Thomas Herndon, their Farmington, New Mexico store’s general manager, had hired a man with a bank robbery conviction: they fired him. The general manager. Despite the fact that Herndon subjected the prospective employee to a background check, drug test, and heard agreement from other employees, the corporate managers felt this was a “questionable hiring decision, without partnering with appropriate leadership, that could have put the company at risk.” Best Buy has no policy mandating their general managers partner with “appropriate leadership” (whoever that may be), and apparently does not trust someone who they have hired in a managerial role.
Best Buy may be violating the EEOC Guidelines of 2012
The lawyers among us can bicker about what sort of claims Herndon may or may not have, but the court of public opinion sways market forces more than judges ever have. In this case, Herndon sued for a retaliatory firing and argued that employers have an obligation not to discriminate under New Mexico state law. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (and the lower federal court) disagreed however, and ruled that the law only applies to state employment. This is a prime example of why “Ban the Box” laws need to extend out to all workplaces.
Ban the Box is a movement started by All of Us or None over a decade ago in California’s Bay Area, demanding that people not be asked to “check the box” if convicted of a crime. Through networks of directly impacted people, this argument against blanket bans has gone viral. Although over 100 jurisdictions have banned the box in some form or another, only Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, and Rhode Island have extended it to private employers. [Last I checked, none of these states have fallen off the map.]
The national network pushing for Ban the Box (and other reforms) has merged into the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People and Families Movement (FICPFM). Through a recent partnership with John Legend and Color of Change, FICPFM put 130,000 petition signatures on President Obama’s desk. A week later he announced an executive order to ensure a least discriminatory hiring process for federal job applications. To be clear, a decent process won’t end all discrimination in people’s hearts and does not guarantee a single job. What it does is allow an applicant to get a fair shot in an interview, perhaps at Best Buy. It gives him a chance to explain him or herself to a general manager, perhaps in Farmington, New Mexico. It allows someone a chance to start earning a paycheck and build up a life after serving their time in a cage.
Anti-Discrimination needs enforcement, not tolerance
President Obama needs to go a step further and require all government contractors to submit their hiring policies for Ban the Box review. Those with discriminatory policies, or reported discriminatory practices, will not get the contract. Any Congressional action, such as The Fair Chance Act (H.R. 3470 / S. 2021), needs to follow a similar route. Furthermore, Congress clearly must address injustices such as the one committed by Best Buy, who feel they can judge an employment application without ever meeting the applicant- this is precisely the reason hundreds of thousands of people have mobilized over the years to democratically call for changes.
Best Buy might be wise enough to learn from Target, who had blanket hiring bans against people with criminal convictions, despite also exploiting the labor of incarcerated people in Minnesota. When grassroots people, led by Take Action Minnesota and others, filled the streets and filed litigation, the corporation reformed their ways. Ironically, Best Buy’s corporate headquarters is one town over from Target, in Richfield, Minnesota.
As a member of FICPFM, grassroots author of the Rhode Island Ban the Box law, and father of a girl who has been wanting the “Descendants” movie on DVD: I certainly won’t be buying it from the Grinch who steals jobs from people who believe in rehabilitation, reentry and one interconnected community.
Last week was celebrated for President Obama’s encouragement for America to reduce employment discrimination against people with past records, and his own executive action to ban the box on federal job applications. The heart of that story is how directly impacted people, particularly people from the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People, and Families Movement (FICPFM) have been organizing and advocating on this issue from the local, state, and federal levels. This is empowerment, as FICPFM has veteran organizers, strategists, and lawyers within the coalition. Although this Ban the Box symbol from the White House has a long way to go for genuine structural progress, it was the next step for a conservative political class.
Something else happened in Washington, D.C. that may ultimately hold greater civil rights implications than this Ban the Box announcement: the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued a notice that will reduce discrimination against families who have contact with the criminal justice system. This, too, is an issue FICPFM has advocated since their 2013 report, “Communities, Evictions, and Criminal Convictions.”
HUD pointed out what is already obvious in the policy, yet one wouldn’t know it by the practice: the One-Strike Policy, evicting people based on a single brush with the law, is not mandatory. When the federal government enacted a policy at the height of the drug war, the 1988 Anti Drug Abuse Act, it allowed public housing authorities to do just that. When evicted elderly tenants took this issue to court, the Supreme Court ultimately decided that the rule was constitutional. That case, HUD v. Rucker, is often mischaracterized as the court creating the eviction law. In reality, if the policy changes, the Court would likely also support any such new policy.
Because something is permitted, doesn’t mean it must be done. For years, however, public housing authorities have used and abused that permission to evict people from their homes and from the voucher program, and kept them from returning. Today, however, that exclusion model has passed its peak, as 80 million Americans are subject to the one systematic legal discrimination: the mark of a criminal record. Furthermore, there is no indication that supporting instability and homelessness has had any effect in reducing drug abuse.
The other major announcement by HUD last week is the announcement that an arrest, on its own, does not count as criminal activity worthy of eviction or denial of admission. Arrest records are unreliable, and people maintain a legal presumption of innocence. However, the fact that public housing authorities (all of whom have attorneys on staff) have been utilizing arrest records to exclude people is yet another example of how thorough the discrimination has become. It starts in grade school and chases one to the grave.
Here in Louisiana, we have two million people in our criminal records database, in a state of only 4.6 million people. Although some of these people have passed on, the vast majority of that two million have been convicted over the past four decades. With the Drug War fueling the militarization and deployment of police, they have descended on poor people and communities of Color. Although the highest concentration of drug use is on college campuses where students are often given a pass (and definitely not subjected to Stop and Frisk profiling), the police concentrate otherwise- in places where people are often not given a pass, who have few if any connections to the power structure, who cannot afford lawyers, where people of Color will statistically receive longer sentences than white people, where they will have less support for parole reviews, where they will have fewer options once released, and where they will face a lifetime of judgment and re-judgment until we get rid of this burgeoning world of Haves and Have-Nots.
Criminal records have proven to not only be a racial proxy for those who would like to discriminate due to race, but this highly effective form of discrimination is widely acknowledged as a based on a system that disproportionately impacts people of Color. When the Ninth Circuit confronted voting disenfranchisement based on criminal records, the facts were clear- the only argument was over intent. They ruled that because the racially skewed system doesn’t intend to be racist, its racist outcomes are not unconstitutional. In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission went a step further (consistent with civil rights law) and issued guidelines reinforcing that it’s the impact that is important, not the intent, thus employers should not have blanket policies excluding people based on their criminal records.
This week HUD has moved forward in honing and advancing their imperative to Affirmatively Further Fair Housing (AFFH). This means they need to be on the offense, to be aggressive, in order to be affirmative. We live in a nation where practically every landlord conducts a criminal background check, and often passes this cost ($10-$50) on to the applicant. That highly publicized background check is a chilling effect on renters. Some will flat deny anyone with any record. Perhaps home loan lenders have similar discriminatory maneuvers that need investigation.
It is encouraging to see HUD and others nibbling around the edges of a central dilemma among Americans who need affordable, and fair, housing to survive in our economy where (for example) banks can repossess homes, watch them become blighted, then write it off on their taxes while a family searches for shelter. It is imperative that HUD be jumpstarted to become a civil rights champion rather than a target for criticism, and ideally the follow-up to “Communities, Evictions, and Criminal Convictions,” will outline significant structural improvements.
Unless we reunite as one nation, we will divide and dissolve under two economies and two subdivisions. Family members of the second-class citizens will be forced to choose which class to be in, and flags flying over businesses will need to signify which nation they support. America can be better than that, however, and will be when we develop affordable housing with the same vigorous building boom, with the same easy occupancy, as we did for prison cells.