A Three -Sided Power Shift on Prison Reform

MA-1037In recent days we have seen several indications that a non-partisan wave of momentum is reaching critical mass. And like any wave, it travels as a ripple beneath the surface for miles.. and suddenly rising up in a brief crescendo before crashing on the beach. Once the wave hits, nothing can be the same again.

The momentum for a movement requires education, leadership, and catalyzing events. In isolation, these elements simply add up.  In combination, they multiply.  Instead of 1 + 1 + 1 = 3, we get 3 x 3 = 9.

Education on the Rise

The historical bipartisan focus on total retribution towards people convicted of crimes has resulted in isolation and destruction of entire families. In turn, this has decimated entire communities. Whereas intense policing tactics target these communities, overwhelmingly communities of Color, the problem exacerbates. And since 1994, the educational pathway to rebuild an individual (and by extension: a family and a community) was practically eliminated by ending Pell Grant eligibility for people in prison. Without a base level of funding, educational programs and partnerships folded. A few individuals persevered with formal educations through distance learning and a limited number of programs, but education much reach critical mass to create a cultural standard.

This past week, a story was published about three unlikely scholarship donors (including myself). We each earned our educations, informally while incarcerated, then formally post-incarceration, while it was hardest to find employment in the face of discrimination, poverty, scant networks, and no credentials. Years after our releases, we started Transcending Through Education Foundation and put up our own money to help people like we used to be. It isn’t just the money that matters, as we know how important it is to connect with mentors and workshops. Now we are in the process of expanding to other states.

President Obama, following his own political timing, has responded to the same demands that Clinton and Bush ignored: restoring Pell Grant eligibility. This week he announced a pilot program of eligibility, several months after announcing that juveniles would be eligible. The latter proposal faced criticism because very few incarcerated teenagers are admitted to college, as it requires the credentials, access, admission, and serving enough time to sort it out. The latest proposal faces both a backlash from some in Congress (and they control the nation’s pocketbook), and those of us who dubiously say, “tell me more about this pilot program.”

I’m cautiously optimistic about the immediate results, but the wave begins to swell nonetheless.

Leaders rise from within, they are never installed

President Clinton recently remarked that the “tough on crime” policies of his eight-year term were wrong and counterproductive. Some question his sincerity and timing, and how it fits into his wife’s campaign strategies. But as for leadership, this mea culpa is an expression that he failed to lead tens of millions of people negatively impacted by a police and prisons approach to social problems. As a man of massive wealth and global political power, his announcement could have been accompanied by deeds to reverse the course. He might have also acknowledged those who were right, in hindsight, who have been sidelined as “radicals” for decades. Mr. Clinton might instruct the nation to turn towards such people and organizations now, when we need new ideas and actions to build healthy communities and stop building an industry of oppression.

The Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People’s Movement came together when seasoned activists and acknowledged leaders began collaborating. People like Dorsey Nunn (CA), Susan Burton (CA), Steve Huerta (TX), Norris Henderson (LA), and Daryl Atkinson(NC) have all been in recent dialogue with federal agencies, sharing experiences and ideas from all parts of the nation. For decades, it is to the impacted leadership our communities have turned, and not to the government that has stripped our citizenship away. We are the ones who find the devil in the details, particularly along all those roads paved with good intentions.

A recent article by Vivian Nixon expresses an important point regarding the President’s focus (like so many others’ focus) on the classic “first time nonviolent offender.” She asks so what of the rest of us? Are we then to be thrown away? Steps to help the low-hanging fruit, where ‘tough on crime’ backlash is the least, is actually the least effective. It is the older people, who have spent longer in prison, that are most prepared to start a new life; and we have the lowest rates of continued criminal activity. Yet starting a new life that includes an official job and an official home can literally be impossible for some.

Rather than building jetpacks to get over walls, we need to just tear down the walls. Since writing FICPM’s inaugural report on public housing and criminal convictions, our shifting the “Ban the Box” movement has built momentum in many parts of the country. Of course, just as Clinton’s HUD made sweeping restrictions on families accessing subsidized housing, Obama’s HUD could make sweeping changes in the other direction.

This week, the Obama Administration made one move that should reap immense dividends, by naming Daryl Atkinson the Department of Justice’s inaugural Second Chance Fellow. In this role, he will consult with and advise the Federal Interagency Reentry Council. Whether someone considers an American with a criminal conviction to be the “enemy” or a member of their own community (there are 80 million of us), they should all agree that high-capacity people with such experience need to be at the table. We need our own leaders crafting the way out of an internal demolition of America through the use of  criminalization. In our community, a few corporate sponsorships won’t make you a leader- you need to come up through the crucible, proving your heart, mind and soul is one with The People.

The end of an era is now

People like Glen Martin, Mary Heinen, Jazz Hayden, Tina Reynolds and Yusef Shakur (and countless others) have been laboring for years in the face of adversity to build a foundation for elected leaders to embrace changing course. This change needs to include stated priorities and actual funding. For example, if 500 jail detainees are acutely mentally ill and continually arrested for acting out of this condition: simply take the $50,000/day to incarcerate them and invest in a mental health facility staffed by proper professionals.

Events such as the president’s big week (e.g. pardoning 46 people as a symbol of the repressive drug war, discussing Ban the Box, the Pell Grant pilot program) are part of a broad landscape that includes every police brutalization of a civilian, including actually recorded homicides by cops. People want an ounce of forgiveness for civilians who commit crimes, and a pound of accountability for trained government agents who do the same. What has been said for years is increasingly obvious to those who manage to insulate themselves, and a new collective consciousness is cultivating.

The wave has not yet hit the shore. Each of us, however, should be prepared. Just as Abolition was not a peaceful process, our leaders must be prepared for the level of violence some will produce in the name of racial superiority or a simple rung above in the economic pecking order. We are moving out of the New Jim Crow, inching closer to the New Reconstruction. We are here, in this time, and need to create the unified nation this place was meant to be.

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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