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.


Posted in Legislation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When Candidates Oppose the Right to Vote

Sheriff candidates“Citizenship means standing up for everyone’s right to vote,” Obama said.  But does he, and other politicians truly mean it?  At a recent forum featuring four candidates for the New Orleans sheriff election, I asked a question regarding voting rights to understand their views on democracy.  I wanted to know if any candidates sought support from all people in the city.  From their responses, it seemed that none were accurately aware that 7000 of their neighbors, including me, are disenfranchised.

Louisiana has approximately 45,000 people living in the community on probation and parole, with 7000 being supervised in New Orleans.  These people live in every district, pay taxes, work, raise families, and are denied the most fundamental right of democracy: voting.  It is the most basic right of citizenship, as recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court and the United Nations.  Those denied the right to vote are essentially “stateless persons” or internally displaced refugees.  They, arguably, have fewer rights than a foreign citizen.

None of the candidates appeared overly familiar with the issue, and they presented little analysis or rationale other than the understandable instinct that stripping someone of all their rights is an acceptable punishment for crime.  Only one candidate, Ira Thomas, was available to speak with me.  After explaining a few basic elements of the situation, he expressed a willingness to work on the issue and truly encourage people to act like, and be, full citizens of the city.  He is also the only candidate who has not overseen part of 40 years of failure, corruption, and death at the Orleans Parish Prison.

Most people on probation never went to prison.  Most of them committed lesser crimes, or served their time, which is the only way they are able to be out in the community.  The judge released them from court with a caveat: stay out of trouble for a while, and you can escape the Sword of Damocles that is suspended over you.  Judges and probation officers expect people to hold an honest job or go to school, and live in peace.  No judge ever sentenced a person to stop voting, or to be homeless and unemployed.

The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) recently agreed to ease their policy on excluding entire families where one person has a criminal record.  This change stemmed from the organizing efforts and technical expertise of Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE) and Stand With Dignity.  Similarly, Mayor Landrieu has decided to “Ban the Box” for the city, allowing people with criminal histories a realistic chance to apply for a job by holding back those questions until the interview.  These moves are a direct response to the nationwide over-criminalization of people during the previous three decades.

People who are encouraged to be part of the community are more likely to abide by the law.  People with jobs are less likely to need illegal activity to pay the bills.  Ultimately those who are doing the right thing are those who want to show up and cast a vote.  But this isn’t even about criminal justice policy, rehabilitation, and reentry.  It is about democracy, and more nefariously: about policies crafted to counteract Black Suffrage, and have now created a class of “unworthy” people, no different than the Black, Native American and female people who came before us.

My question for candidates is this: what is their message to me and my 7000 neighbors: Get involved with New Orleans, stay in the shadows, or simply leave?

Bruce Reilly is a law student at Tulane University.  He is denied voting rights after moving to Louisiana, although he drafted the constitutional amendment that restored his rights in Rhode Island.  

Posted in Commentary, Politics, Race, Rehabilitation, Voting Rights | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Are Schools Violating the American With Disabilities Act Every Time a Kid Goes to Court?

Illustration by Chris Buzelli

Illustration by Chris Buzelli

Are you looking for a new approach to dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline?  The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act bar any federal program, or institutions receiving federal grants (such as schools), from discriminating against people due to their physical or mental disability.  A school is not allowed to keep students from participation due to their physical or mental disability.

The most obvious federal grant money going to schools, in this scenario, is the federal program COPS in Schools (CIS).  According to the Department of Justice, CIS has provided over $753 million in federal dollars to subsidize the police deployment in schools.  Most, if not all, schools are tasked with educating children who have diagnosed mental illnesses and disabilities.  Many of these students have Individual Education Plans (IEPs) that account for their particular medical challenges.

When a school fails to provide for the IEP, which may necessitate particular counseling or an individualized setting, they may be violating the ADA.  When a student manifests their illness (“acting out”), and are then dealt with punitively: they are likely violating the ADA.  When the school police arrest them, especially for non-criminal conduct such as “creating a disturbance,” they are not only likely violating the ADA but also drawing in the juvenile justice system for complicity.  This means that judges, sheriffs, district attorneys and others may all be in violation of the ADA when the manifestation of a mental illness causes a denial of program activity.

Kids will act up, we know this.  Some kids have particular issues that are not being addressed which in turn heightens the child’s illness and practically induces the behavior that any psychologist would have anticipated.  Naming a child’s case as “difficult” does not release school officials from their responsibilities.  The worst case scenarios (expulsions and prisons) are happening on a daily basis following non-criminal behavior.

Creative attorneys may want to closely read the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Juvenile defenders may want to sit down with their friends who do education, health care, and class action cases.  This has gone on for far too long.

Posted in Courts, Education, Mental Health, prison economics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Confession of a Drug Dealer

marijuana-in-bag-big-hemp-beach-tv-hbtvThere is a whole lotta shaking going on in Colorado, Washington, and Uruguay these days. And it’s all about weed. Even a conservative columnist had to chime in about the big bad scary weed, as if he can revive the Reefer Madness and shockin Aww that made a rather benign plant very valuable, and very illegal for almost a century. I’m reminded of a discussion I once had at a parole hearing.

“If we release you on parole, what do you see yourself doing with your life?”

I responded to the chairman of the Board that we are in the middle of a war. Wars can only be resolved when the opposing parties come to the table and negotiate a peace. These terms need to acknowledge past harms and future relations must allow all people to survive and thrive. The chairman was a bit confused until I used the phrase “Drug War,” officially declared as the Vietnam War ended.

My vision for post-prison was to help negotiate the peace. It is not a war on drugs, but a war against people. As we see the “peace” developing through medical-use marijuana, then turning possession into a municipal fine, and now full-scale legalization, I am still yet to see much of the so-called “enemy” in the drug war invited to the negotiating table. Instead, the government will try a unilateral solution. I once went to a legislative hearing, where many people in suits and uniforms declared their positions and statistics about marijuana. It was clear that some legislators really didn’t know much about selling or smoking pot. It was rather funny.

“But why an ounce? Why are we considering ‘an ounce or less’ for decriminalization? Why not less, or more?”

reefermadnessaffichefilmNobody had an answer for this arbitrary weight, or even why the preexisting laws around the country are based on any particular weights. When I testified, I announced myself as a former weed dealer, from small bags to large ones, in several different states. I sold my first bag in middle school, when I realized that if I bought an ounce for $200, I could sell eight bags to my buddies for $5 cheaper than they were already paying, and I could smoke for free. And then it took off from there. My testimony then, or in similar circumstances, aren’t about my historical credentials or knowledge of current drug industry players. I, too, share legal and statistical analysis- but I provide context for the issue.

I asked the legislator how much milk he buys when he goes to the store. A gallon? Two? A quart? Basically, we get a week’s worth of milk at the store. We buy the size containers available, whether at the corner bodega or the Winn-Dixie. An ounce of weed is about how much a steady smoker will buy until the next time. They may share some with friends, but a real merchant will buy more than an ounce… unless you’re counting twelve year old kids with the equivalent of a lemonade stand as a “dealer.” Having several small bags of marijuana can be the equivalent of having two gallons of milk for the family; there is no “intent to distribute” the other gallon. Yet drug laws have always presumed that one physical bag might be for a single user, and any second bag must be for sale.

This isn’t my “confession,” in case you were wondering (i.e. the title of this post). My confession is that I should never have quit selling marijuana.

I drank the kool-aid and believed that it was wrong. I used my business savvy and people skills to climb to the top of the heap, as a pot dealer. And then I would quit, as my real dream was never to be a drug lord, but to play football at Harvard and study political science. I dreamed of a dorm room and a meal card, and I could just blend in with the rest of the kids- and nobody had to know the dysfunction I was born into, or that I had nowhere to go on holidays. I never worshipped “Scarface,” or any other drug game fantasy. People around me had no idea of my secret ambitions, and were more accustomed to hearing dreams of a night club and a beach house with parties every night.

So I would quit, go to school, play sports, try out for the school play and not steal anything. Unfortunately, on several occasions, when the security of drug money dried up I wasn’t able to absorb any of the typical challenges I would later realize beset many people in poverty, even as adults. So I would return, penniless and at the bottom. After climbing to the top of modest heaps, I would bemoan being on the wrong heap… again. And fall for the rhetoric that being a “drug dealer” is so terrible.

When it came time to go to college (at Boston University rather than Harvard), it was difficult to fill out the financial aid paperwork because it wasn’t about me, but parents who were not in my life. I didn’t even know that one of them was already dead. I didn’t have a list of people to help sort out “normal” life, despite my ability to deftly deal with the underground economy and social structures. Unfortunately, I had no stack of cash either.

“None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.”

Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey Into Night

I’ll push back on my fellow playwright and say I haven’t lost my true self forever. However, a series of events can amazingly take an entirely different direction based on what may seem like the simplest choices. And sometimes, that choice may not always appear as the “right” choice.

Mi confesión.

Posted in Commentary, Drug Policy | 1 Comment

Did Zimmerman’s Girlfriend Attack Him?

041312-national-george-zimmerman-arrested-in-courtThere he was, Standing his Ground again…  As has been reported, George Zimmerman was arrested for domestic violence charges.  Again.  The police are reporting that his girlfriend claims, “at one point during a verbal altercation he grabbed a shotgun and pointed it at her, broke a glass table and pushed her out the door.”  But can she be telling the truth?

His girlfriend suffered no injuries during the incident.  The last person Zimmerman pointed a gun at didn’t live to tell the story.  Pictures of the kid he killed went viral on the  Internet, with allegations that the boy was a thug, or a pot smoker, or may have even skipped some classes.  Did anyone ever apologize for such disrespect of the deceased?

What will happen with his girlfriend?  Will we be bombarded with photos of her holding a beer on Bourbon Street, saying how wild and crazy and aggressive she is?  Will we see photos of scratch marks she gave him?  Will we have visuals of her height and weight because, after all, Zimmerman is pretty short.  And we know how much short people are disadvantaged in a fight.

Sarcasm aside, people would be pilloried for suggesting that his girlfriend had it coming.  That she is a “thug.”  And yet to say that about young Trayvon Martin was perfectly normal course of debate- whether he was one of “those” Black kids, or one of the “good” ones.  Zimmerman’s defenders were willing, around the nation, to throw a young Black male under the bus to make a point about packing heat and using it.  Some Americans felt this is the cowboy way.

None of Zimmerman’s defenders are likely to take on 51% of America (women) and a highly organized group of people scaling back the problem of domestic violence.  When one examines the bedfellows that come out of a public controversy, the subtle motivators are often quite clear.  Particularly in a scenario where we have one guy with a gun, two different people on the other end.

I am not one to convict someone after a single news story.  As far as I know, she did attack him, or made up the whole thing in an extortion plot, or any number of possible scenarios.  But what it looks like is that George Zimmerman can kill all the Black teenagers he wants, just as long as he doesn’t hurt a woman.  That jury in his last case left many of us feeling cynical, jaded, and dumbfounded.  If people don’t want the Zimmerman double-standard to look like a textbook example of structural racism, they need to do something to change that appearance.  

Posted in Commentary, Race | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Stop and Frisk: Dispelling the Myth of NYPD Victory

Seal of the United States Court of Appeals for...

Seal of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently put the brakes on the victory won by civil rights and social justice groups in Floyd v. City of New York.  Many New Yorkers had been condemning the NYPD’s policy of stopping young Black and Latino men, and frisking them, without probable cause.  The trial ended in May and the Judge ordered the appointment of a Monitor who would work with local groups to create reforms in police practices, including a pilot-program use of body-worn cameras in each borough’s most highly stopped precinct.  A summary of the ruling can be read here.

The myth is that Commissioner Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg “won,” and the trial is overturned.  

This did not happen.  The Second Circuit merely put a hold on the judge’s orders until the appeal is heard in the appellate court.  The Second Circuit also chastised the trial judge for speaking in the media regarding the case.  This may signal a key technicality for the City of New York to pursue on appeal, because the statistics and substance don’t lie.  As the plaintiffs’ attorneys (Center for Constitutional Rights) amply proved in the trial: it is unconstitutional to basically stop everyone of a certain age and ethnicity figuring that, mathematically, the police are bound to catch someone doing something illegal.

Ironically, as it turns out: the White people who were stopped had a higher rate of illegal behavior.  What supporters of the policy don’t seem to realize is that it would not matter which ethnicity had a statistically higher probability of, for example, having a bag of cocaine in their pocket- this sort of ‘catch-and-release’ fishing expedition is a violation of the Fourth Amendment right to be free of illegal search and seizures, along with the Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law.

What will the new Mayor do?

How vigorously will the city pursue this case under everyone’s expected new mayor, Bill de Blasio, will be interesting.  He has publicly opposed Stop and Frisk.  The City attorneys could spend millions of dollars further litigating this case, or simply withdraw the appeal and comply with a very modest and reasonable court order.  The removal of original trial Justice Shira Scheindlin means that any re-trial would be assigned to a different judge.  Oddly enough, the City did not object to Scheindlin’s original appointment, and she was the proper judge considering that the Floyd case stems from the NYPD’s failure to comply with a prior case (Daniels).  Anyone who read her lengthy pre-trial ruling on whether expert testimony would be admitted was put on notice that the City had a serious bit of explaining to do, as the evidence of racial bias was quite glaring.

The Second Circuit creates more opportunities to organize the community.

Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) has unified many grassroots and advocacy organizations throughout the City.  This organizing includes bringing together people victimized by harassing police frisks, and pushing the City Council to appoint an Inspector General over the NYPD (and overriding Mayor Bloomberg’s veto).  Certainly the City, and the NYPD, realize that a second trial would just keep them on the front page of the New York Times.  The public advocacy effort has been so thorough, that a recent lecture by Commissioner Kelly on “community policing tactics” was protested at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.  After a decade of Kelly explaining these unconstitutional tactics, even students and activists outside the City would like him to listen, rather than lecture.

The NYPD’s “Stop and Frisk” issue includes egregious high profile police killings such as Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, RaMarley Graham, and Shantel Davis and more.  The nation’s largest police force is at a crossroads of whether it becomes more constructive and controlled by the community, or whether it exerts more control over the community; or as it has been historically, more supportive some sub-communities, while more controlling over others.

Most people would not disagree that a neighborhood would benefit by having a helper, a referee, and a bouncer on the corner.  One that is respectful and trained in conflict resolution, who is trained to interact with mentally ill people, and has a large scale understanding of complex social problems.  People want and deserve highly trained and highly effective individuals being constructive in the community.  This means more than simply training police as soldiers.  We don’t need anymore war in America.

Posted in Courts, Police | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Formerly Incarcerated Dog Part of World Series Honor (Seriously)

Rescue in Fenway

Rescue (lower right) is trained to assist people with disabilities.

Today I got a call from a friend in prison, asking if I saw his old cellmate in Fenway Park during the 7th Inning Stretch.  You might have missed it, during the World Series tribute to the Boston Marathon bombing victims.  There were plenty of people, smiling and waving, and James Taylor singing “God Bless America.”  A standing ovation.  I didn’t see his cellie.

If you look closely, there is “Rescue,” a black lab alongside a person who was wounded in the bombing.  Rescue is a NEADS dog, specially trained for months to assist people with disabilities.  He was trained by Steven Parkhurst, a man incarcerated in Rhode Island’s medium security facility.  He has trained several dogs like Rescue and taken solace in them going out to help people.  Steven is also pursuing a M.B.A. through correspondence with Adams State University, having been aided by scholarships from Transcending Through Education Foundation and the Davis Putter Scholarship Fund.

Steve told me that “The Joint went off,” when Rescue walked onto the lush green of Fenway Park.  This means the place went wild like fans watching a Big Papi grand slam.  It isn’t every day when you can turn on the TV and say, ‘Hey, I know that dude- he lived on my tier,’ or ‘that’s my old cellie!’  But there they were: a few hundred guys, mostly Sox fans, checking out Rescue’s major league debut.  It is a rare and precious feeling to be part of something so momentous, particularly for people in prison getting an opportunity to help others.

Rescue and Steve

Steve Parkhurst with Rescue, in front of the visiting room wall he painted.

Its a little over an hour to drive from the prison in Cranston, Rhode Island to Fenway Park.  And during the 7th inning of Game 2, it got a whole lot shorter than that.

Posted in Commentary, Education, Rehabilitation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Do Prosecutors Fail to Understand About Defense Counsel?

121752412_Letters_383033cAround the nation there are prosecutors who are tasked with an overwhelming number of cases.  Occasionally they may have a serious felony, such as rape or murder, but what bogs them down is the immense number of simple possession charges and “broken windows” crimes as a result of police focusing on the petty, hoping to clear the streets of anyone who might commit the serious.  Even children who are merely being disruptive in school (without committing a crime) have begun to clog juvenile courts.  Like a waiter slammed with a lunch-hour rush, these prosecutors need to keep the assembly line moving just to keep their heads above water.

Prosecutors live and die by the plea bargain, or “The Deal.”  Nationally, over 95% of all criminal charges are resolved without trial; in some places the number can be even higher.

In courtrooms and holding cells, statements can be heard such as “The judge doesn’t like it when you file motions.”  This comes from marshals, prosecutors, bailiffs, and even defense counsel.  The judge is also trying to keep their head above water and get through their docket.  And this is how evidence is rarely challenged, witnesses are rarely needed, and experts are rarely provided.

Prosecutors can get emotional, like anyone else, and take it personally if defense counsel does something like… defend their client vigorously.

Court employees need to understand the job of the defense counsel is to work for the client.  They are obligated, by law and oath, to provide enough information to the defendants so they can make their own informed choices.  Defense counsel is not allowed to make decisions for the client, nor allowed to manipulate them.  If so, those lawyers could be professionally sanctioned, and even kicked out of the practice.

Do prosecutors not understand the role of defense counsel?  Perhaps because prosecutors have no client, and can act autonomously in the vague name of “the State,” they forget how the adversarial system is designed to work.  Realistically, if the State can’t be bothered to have their evidence scrutinized, or don’t think its worth the time to actually serve as “lawyers” (utilizing the Rules of Evidence and Procedure, along with case precedent), then the logical thing to do is to drop the charges.

Defense counsel does not work for the State, and should not be taking “advice” from the opposition any more than the coach of a team should be taking advice from the coach of their opponent.  And they certainly shouldn’t need to concern themselves with what the referees think about the length of the game, or how opposing players feel about the matchup.   Any opponent who is offended that their advice wasn’t heeded should just look in the mirror and ask how they would receive such advice.  What if it were the defense attorneys who approached the prosecutors, after an arrest, and offered the Plea Bargain?

“Listen, my client would like to get in this treatment facility and attend community college, but you will need to drop these charges.  She will agree to urine tests, however.  That’s the Deal- you should take it.”

Prosecutors should know that they hold the cards as to whether the case goes forward or is dismissed.  Naturally, low line prosecutors have less discretion, and are probably facing a ton of pressure to get convictions for an elected boss.  District Attorneys and Attorneys General are political positions, and few have had the courage or the persuasion to get elected on anything other than “Tougher on Crime” via increased convictions and punishment.

Defense counsels who stand up to the pressures of “The Deal” should be applauded for their courage to withstand what amounts to harassment in the workplace.  If they (or their clients) are given discriminatory treatment for asserting their constitutionally protected rights (including the 7th Amendment right to a jury trial), then perhaps a federal §1983 civil rights lawsuit is in order.

Dear Prosecutors: Don’t hate the players.  Hate the game.

Posted in Commentary, Courts | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Herman Wallace: “Get Me The F#@k Outta Here.”

Herman-Wallace-April-2013.jpg.pagespeed.ce.Qd11zs4y_rThose are the timeless words reportedly uttered by Angola 3 member Herman Wallace, who was finally released from Angola State Penitentiary after over 40 years.  “Get me the f#@k outta here.”  Most of his time had been spent in solitary confinement.  A surprise judicial order, issued this morning, explains what a gross injustice has been done to Herman.  Trials with no evidence, yet plenty of racial hatred, serve to do what a lynch mob formerly did: find someone, anyone, to be punished for a crime.

Tonight is not about who actually killed a prison guard decades ago.  Tonight is about the resolve of more than one man.  It is about the fortitude of a community who would never relent in the pursuit of justice.  The text I received from a young law school graduate, about where we could greet Herman’s ambulance, came from someone who was inspired to attend law school because of Herman Wallace.  The tears of joy flowed amongst a hastily assembled crowd of roughly 50 supporters cheering raucously in the rain.

“Ain’t no power like the Power of People, ‘cause the Power of People don’t stop!”

Anxious supporters await Herman Wallace in New Orleans.

Anxious supporters await Herman Wallace in New Orleans.

Among the group were members of the Angola 3 Support Committee, including Parnell Herbert, a fellow Black Panther who wrote a play titled “Angola 3.”  Also present were former prisoners, attorneys, and activists, as well as Jackie Sumell, an artist who created “Herman’s House.”  This endeavor was a collaboration between Jackie and Herman, transforming the lives of the creators and revealing a spark of humanity to us all.

1266711_10101261942668626_902647562_oWe all live within these powerful stories.  We can choose what role we play.  Will we be the humanitarian prison guard or the one who is ruthless and vindictive?  Will we be the judge who keeps a keen eye over equal justice or the one who rubber stamps a charade?  Neighbors who stand united or those who retreat divided?  So many people played a role in the saga of Herman Wallace, and these people certainly will follow the call of Jackie Summell tonight: to strengthen the resolve to see Albert Woodfox also free.  Robert King’s case was overturned.  Herman’s case was overturned, and it took two orders (including a threat of being held in contempt) before the prison officials would release him.  Albert’s case was also overturned, and the state is appealing, as Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell cements his role in this powerful story.

I’m reminded of Kenny Waters, a wrongfully convicted Massachusetts man who won his freedom after his sister Betty Ann went to law school and overturned his case.  He served 18 years.  At the premiere of the movie “Conviction,” starring Sam Rockwell and Hillary Swank, someone asked Betty Ann Waters the million dollar question: “Where is Kenny now?”  Over half the theatre must have cringed.  Kenny died a few months after his release.  Yet as Betty Ann told the crowd, “He died innocent.  And he died free.”

"Who is Herman Wallace" - geograph.o...

Herman Wallace is in the end stages of cancer.  He is soon to be transferred into a proper hospice care, where I’m guessing he will be his own warden of his own house.  Herman’s House.  He has lived many years, and like all of us will die.  And fortunately he will die like he was born: Free.  But that is a chapter yet to be written.  For now, the antiseptic hospital air smells like a fine woman’s perfume, as reality replaces fantasy, and the cold dank penitentiary air is a page of the past.

Welcome home, Herman Wallace.  The Saints are 4-0.  Who Dat?!

Posted in Actions, Arts, Commentary, Courts, Innocence, Political Prisoners | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

On Finishing Law School for the Education- Not the Law License

Bruce with FICPM members at a recent retreat. Dorsey Nunn (Legal Services for Prisoners with Children), Pastor Kenneth Glasgow (T.O.P.S.), TTEF Board member Tina Reynolds (WORTH), and Daryl Atkinson (Southern Coalition for Social Justice).

Bruce with FICPM members at a recent retreat. Dorsey Nunn (Legal Services for Prisoners with Children), Pastor Kenneth Glasgow (T.O.P.S.), TTEF Board member Tina Reynolds (WORTH), and Daryl Atkinson (Southern Coalition for Social Justice).

With only a few more months of law school, it is time to contemplate what to do next.  I know that I won’t take the Bar exam and won’t be a lawyer.  “Why,” you ask?  I knew before I started that the state Bar associations hold the power to deny membership of those who lack proper “character and fitness.” Based on my research and personal experiences, I respect the fact that it is logical to believe I lack the proper trustworthiness to enter the field, and/or I should not be given such a privilege.  Some have wondered why I chose to pursue a course of study and not be licensed in that profession.  But a proper education provides far more than eligibility to be licensed.

I could not have gotten into this situation if not for the amazing partnerships and supporters that have entered my life over the previous years.  My hope is that those people celebrate the opportunity I am gaining to help others, rather than belabor the inability for me to practice law in a courtroom.  Considering I am still serving my punishment on probation, limitations on life are to be expected and accepted.

People around me can’t understand why I would hesitate at taking the Bar.  They don’t view me as any different than anyone else.  What they are missing is how strangers can perceive me, especially when initially confronted by my criminal record.  Those of us who go through the processes are familiar with these roadblocks.  We anticipate them, and have to decide in each particular situation if this is where we push for equal treatment.  People who stand as gatekeepers hold various political, philosophical, and spiritual views; yet they all typically avoid risk.  It can be easy for anyone to fall into the trap of stereotypes.

Many people convicted of crimes have no victim to consider, although their actions and punishments may be part of decimating their families and neighborhoods.  Very few of us will ever get out after committing a truly violent crime.  I know from experience that we are often looking for chances to “make it right,” even if we never succeed.  We try to make up for it as best we can, lacking spaces to talk about how we might, and overwhelmingly lacking guidance or role models.  I can’t fully relate to those incarcerated for drug offenses, political crimes, or the exonerated people.  Even if we outwardly are doing similar things, inwardly we are going through a different experience.

If not a lawyer, why get the education? 

Education is an amazing equalizer.  It is a combination of knowledge, opportunity, and connections that instills confidence and energy.  I started law school with nearly two decades of legal study, knowledge that I freely shared with my community whenever I could.  Unlike many others in law school, my neighbors, friends, and family typically lack close connections that are lawyers.  We don’t have easy access to knowledge about our legal system, including the financial realm, and we are constantly facing exploitation of this ignorance.

My knowledge before school, however, was confined to criminal law and its close cousins.  Now it extends to intellectual property (copyright, patent, and trademark) on the Internet and internationally.  This has been my focus in school because I believe information, and its flow, is essential to developing a democracy and advocating for freedom.  Issues such as labeling genetically modified foods, Wikileaks, and Internet Neutrality are prime examples of this tension.

Proving Our Worth

When I first went to work at Liberty Rentals, just a few days out of prison, the owner took me to coffee and said, from what he heard, I was “way overqualified” for cleaning chairs, hauling tables, and hammering in tent spikes.  The owner of Liberty Rentals, Frank Jenestreet, still took a chance that I could fit in with his team.  My resume has filled up since then, and yet perhaps my most prideful day of work came on that job, when I hammered in 24 of the 48 stakes to a tent.  A strong work ethic and positive attitude are the only things any of us can truly control, and they are (in my opinion) leading indicators of success.

For several years after prison, I was still unproven in many people’s eyes.  I expected to be a pariah for what I had done, but had no choice but to keep knocking on doors. I mistakenly believed I could get a paralegal job with an attorney.  I was a grown man with too much baggage and not enough credentials, like many others striving to get a chance.  Even some organizations that work on behalf of people like me appeared hesitant to let me in, so I volunteered wherever and whenever I was allowed- it kept me energized and hopeful.

The only thing I ever wanted for myself was a chance to make it right just a little bit.  It motivates my work to stop discrimination on voting, housing, and employment rights.  Anyone in a situation like mine should expect negative things to be said in the media.  We cannot change that, nor can we change our current behavior in any way that alters the criticism.  We must continue to live our lives as best we can.  I’m encouraged by messages received by those who have drawn hope and strength from this journey.  Whether they just got out, are parents of an incarcerated child, or are still inside: they are the ones who will not let me just go back to writing fiction and plays.  I feel a duty to them, to families struggling to succeed, and families struggling to overcome violence.  I came to law school to pursue a meaningful life that helps others.

Giving back is how we move forward.

Education is about connections, above all else.  Motivated people can learn, by themselves, 99% of the academic knowledge.  An educational institution, however, creates a pathway into the world that otherwise wouldn’t exist.  It is a common ground where people meet each other, build friendships and explore interests.  I’ve met amazing people at Tulane, in New Orleans, and beyond due to my educational journey.  This is how we change our situation in life, by finding places to convene with productivity on our minds.  It is also an opportunity for them to learn from us, to provide another perspective on the legal system that is poised to become their life’s work.

For every ten supporters I can get involved with our college scholarship program, we can give someone a jumpstart, and guidance, along their own educational journey.  I look forward to being part of a community where rebuilding lives after serving punishment is normal.  Where people with resources can help others receive an education.  Where formerly incarcerated people have college degrees and can become people with resources.  Where workplaces have people from a variety of backgrounds, including highly-policed communities and prisons.  When this is the norm, people can collectively approach the questions as to why so many get arrested and go to jail; we can transform the criminal justice system.  We can transform our societies in a preventive manner and reduce the causes of substance abuse, an underground economy, and violence.  Transcending Through Education Foundation is not just about an individual transcending their own circumstance, it is about an entire nation transcending a system that can only thrive when people of all varieties are engaged in it.

Stepping into the unknown

I’m seeking opportunities to teach college, yet recognize that this path may also be foreclosed.  I would like to sell my screenplays, but realize I may never get to make a pitch.  I have many ideas that may never see the light of day no matter the merits or the timing.  I recognize the potential for failure, which is why the journey itself must also be meaningful.

I am comfortable working on criminal justice policy and rebuilding communities in turmoil from a misguided drug war, waged over 40 years.  Community-based organizations in Providence and New Orleans taught me so much about life itself, as we merge both the perpetrators and victims of crime, working to move forward with positive responses.  It is for them that I continue to research, write, and build with other people.  Creativity, law, and culture serve as daily ingredients for the mix of tasks I tend to take on.  I’m trying to think ahead, connect the dots, to see evolution in a rational and equitable manner.  I may say something you never thought about before, and that is my goal: to have people thinking in new ways.

Maybe someday I will try to get a law license.  Maybe someday I will feel like my chances justify the expense of time, money, and negativity.  But in the meantime I will take the time to appreciate the moment, with my daughter, as we earn our first college diploma.  I will feel the strength of many people who, like I once did, have little more than a hope that they can find a chance to get a new opportunity.

This article first appeared on

Bruce Reilly is a third year law student at Tulane University and co-founder of TTEF.  Bruce serves New Orleans through Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE), and is a co-founder of Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People’s Movement (FICPM), a coalition of organizations working to rebuild healthy communities.  He is a parent and writer, including his book “The NewJack’s Guide to the Big House,” and his blog,

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