Troy, Hunger Strikes, and Law School: The Movement for Self Empowerment

These are busy times in the era of mass incarceration.  The execution of Troy Davis sparked the largest public opposition to the death penalty in American history.  Vigils and protests arose throughout the nation, horrified that someone can be put to death without any physical evidence, particularly where witnesses recanted their testimony and pointed to police pressure for what they said in 1989.  (Read about his flawed hearing last year).  People were not calling out for mercy, they were calling for Davis’ release.  Among the opposition were formerly incarcerated people who were on death row for years before proving their innocence.  They are living proof to the thin line separating actual innocence and an execution.  One lying witness, one bad test, one missed filing deadline and an innocent person can be put to death by a system that spent years in premeditation and deliberation.

Meanwhile, 3000 miles away in California, broken promises to reform prison conditions have led people locked in solitary confinement to resume their hunger strike.  This strike similarly galvanized anti-incarceration activists around the nation during three weeks in July.  One member of the negotiation team is Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (San Francisco), and a founding steering committee member of both Critical Resistance and the Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People’s Movement.  His experience of a decade in prison combines with his organizer and mediation skills to provide a trusted voice in any discussion on incarceration.  It is no small accomplishment to have served time and then risen to direct a community law project.

And finally, media began a frenzy when one former prisoner (who happens to be me) decided to get an education.  Considering that school is generally a job training program, and education is a major factor in stopping recidivism, it is interesting to see the apparent lack of support.  Granted, only about 1% of the 700,000 people released this year will have committed a homicide, be it Manslaughter or 1st Degree Murder, so it’s understandable that people (in all parts of the community) don’t have the experience to know where they stand in this scenario, for what I did at age 19 was no petty crime at all.  But 1% would be 7,000.  In the six years I have been out there are tens of thousands (who are the not the non-violent first time offenders everyone supports) returning home who also need access to job training or a means of survival.  In lieu of that, they could do what a man in Texas just did: burn down a building so he could return to prison.

Education is the primary method of self-empowerment.  Whether it is teaching someone how to fish, how to build fishing poles, or how to practice law, it provides independence over oneself.  The alternatives are menial jobs, and a competition for menial jobs that pay below a living wage.  Working below a living wage requires someone to work two jobs just to get by, leaving no time for education or raising a family.  Lack of education is a primary way of devolution, and intentional denial of education is a method of oppression.  Formerly (and currently) incarcerated people are often trained for data entry, food preparation, and other menial jobs.  Those who remain in this status, either because the chasm is too wide or for lack of motivation, will likely remain as “clients.”  Those who dare to empower themselves to be self-sufficient can be met with animosity or walls.

What is the message to current, or recently released, prisoners when media rises up to challenge someone’s right to an education?  It is a discouraging one, to say the least.  It is interesting that the man who burned down the house was met with less controversy than my paying a university for the right to sit in a classroom.

On November 2nd, hundreds if not thousands of anti-incarceration activists will gather in Los Angeles to coalesce a Movement of self-empowerment.  (Click Here to Register).  Communities are losing many of their best and brightest before they even make it to higher education; they are losing fathers, grandfathers, and mentors.  Anyone who wishes ill will on communities of color would prefer that those once cast out remain as outcasts to their neighbors.  However, critical mass has been reached and the systemic problem cannot be ignored.  The full day event in Los Angeles, developed by the Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People’s Movement, will host many of these family members and committed activists- combined with those whose academic expertise on the issue is reinforced by their experience and skill within the community.

Whether someone served one year for a small crime or 20 years for a large one, a society that excludes them (us) will force a need for self-empowerment.  For some, this means selling drugs on the corner.  For others, it means getting an advanced degree, possibly a law degree like myself.  Will I be able to prevent an innocent man from execution?  Will I be able to convince the U.S. Supreme Court that prison conditions are inhumane- as they recently ruled in California?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  My question to the Department of Justice, regarding the latest Orleans Parish Prison controversy, was simple: Which version of reform do you want?  Do you want hunger strikes, riots, deaths and court cases?  Are the only guardians of the 8th Amendment those Jailhouse Lawyers who risk their own safety to expose the conditions around them?  Or will they respond to the community, their stories, and their demands?

The Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People’s Movement (FICPM) national platform has been released, after months of development by dozens of former prisoners from across the country.  Much of the platform can be heard from the mouths of fiscal conservatives, academics, politicians, and human rights advocates because it is no longer being “soft on crime” to recognize the path of American incarceration is unsustainable- both morally and financially.

Regarding my experience as a litmus test of second chances, I have found that all of those who know me have supported me.  Many who do not know me have sent messages of support or personally let me know they believe in forgiveness or the basic concept of trusting the system that released me.  And if they can forgive me, what of the 99% of others who did something much less serious than I?  All indications are that American society is much less condemning than the media and the criminal justice system as designed by politicians.  Those politicians might want to listen to the People rather than the media, and realize that one is not always reflected in the other.

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About Bruce Reilly

Bruce Reilly is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender in New Orleans, LA. He is a graduate of Tulane Law School and author of NewJack's Guide to the Big House. Much of his writing can be found on www.Unprison.org.
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