Advocacy group after a day of presenting their position as part of the Formerly Incarcerated Quest for Democracy: Voices and Faces event, Sacramento, 2015.
FAMILIES AND RETURNING CITIZENS DRIVING THE CHANGE
Every day, across the nation, activists and advocates are going to State capitol’s and presenting arguments against the implementation (sometimes blind implementation) of laws that hamper the abilities of prisoners and formerly incarcerated to realistically turn their lives around. In California, many groups such as California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), The Ella Baker Center, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC) and many more.
Commonly, these groups are made up of the family members of prisoners or people who were formerly incarcerated. They carry a knowledge about the draconian, obstructive and overly-punitive criminal justice system that most others in privileged and comfortable living circumstances do not. They are activists by necessity.
It goes without saying that knowing these activists’ experiences and knowing them will only help in bringing us all (California residents or otherwise) to an understanding of what is happening beyond our sight-lines, but in our name, in our prisons.
Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC) held its annual Formerly Incarcerated Quest for Democracy: Voices and Faces last week. It is a day on which advocates get to educate each other and elected politicians about legislation relevant to formerly incarcerated people and our communities.
Group photo of participants at the Formerly Incarcerated Quest for Democracy: Voices and Faces
LSPC co-ordinated more than 250 advocates, organised into 30 teams to intervene in the business as usual operations of Sacramento. Some legislators met with activists. Senator Holly Mitchell as well as Assembly-members Reginald Jones-Sawyer and Autumn Burke addressed participants.
I cannot know if politicians and their staffers are moved by the personal testimonies of those impacted by the prison system, but I was. And I deeply admire LSPC’s strategic focus on these stories as a way to drive the day of organising, but also to reach secondary audiences such as myself … and yourselves.
With permission of LSPC, I’m reposting its recap of the day, replete with the words of advocates.
Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of LSPC, reminds us why these faces and voices are the most important:
“It is the drive for greater recognition of a class of people for whom democracy looks a lot different. We don’t have a guaranteed right to vote [in California] – if we move to another state we could easily lose it. We’re still struggling for the fundamental rights of citizenship, such as the right to sit on juries,” says Dorsey. “We’re fighting for all who don’t have political power. We’re crying for justice for the youth – torturing them by locking them in solitary confinement is beyond reprehensible. We’re crying for justice for our elders – locked up so far beyond any pretense of public safety, it simply becomes irrational revenge.”
Crucially, LSPC included a list of the state bills it and its allies are backing. Please scroll to the bottom of this post to inform yourselves about those upcoming bills. Their adoption will mean incremental, positive change for communities who have suffered over policing and over-criminalisation for too long.
And now, the words of those for whom democracy look very different.
VOICES AND FACES
“I’m a formerly incarcerated person myself. I support a lot of the bills we’re talking about today, but especially the housing bill, AB 1056. I’ve been out for 15 months and could afford my own place but I’ve been turned down over and over again because of my record. If you come out and don’t have a safe place to live, what are your options? I’ve applied to be a security guard, and I have a team of seven people backing me up. They all gave recommendations as to my good character, and I was still turned down. The reason they cited was ‘insufficient rehabilitation.’ What does it take?” — Kevin, Oakland.
“It’s very ironic that we’re here on a quest for democracy in the land of so-called democracy. I’m a youth organizer with Fathers and Families of San Joaquin, and I’m here to support the voice of those who can’t be heard.” — Tariq Muhammad, Stockton.
Multi-generational Quest for Democracy participants role play an advocacy meeting with a legislative aide.
“Who are we? We are PEOPLE. We want to go in and blow all their stereotypes about who we are.” — Vonya Quarles, All Of Us Or None (Riverside Chapter) and Starting Over, Inc.
“I’m here because I have friends and family still locked up. I want to be a voice for them.” – Ruben, Oakland.
“I’m formerly incarcerated, and feel it’s important to participate. I would like to be a facilitator at some point, so I’m here today to see how that works. I support SB 504. Even as an adult those ‘juvenile’ records can be held against you. It’s a double-edged sword – you get out and try to change, but they hold it against you and you can’t get a job.” — Leon, Riverside.
Dorsey Nunn (left) asking Assembly-member Reggie Jones-Sawyer (right) for his support on an executive order to Ban the Box. He gave his support, and further agreed to ask the Congressional Black Caucus for theirs.
“I’m an AB 109 resource specialist for Fathers and Families of San Joaquin. As a formerly incarcerated person myself I have a direct empathy for people coming out. Any way we can assist, I’m on the bus. I think AB 1351, allowing pre-plea diversions so crimes are never entered onto a person’s record, is an important bill. With that we can avoid Prop 47 altogether.” — Jagada Chambers, Stockton.
“I’m here because I have a commitment to formerly incarcerated people being treated like human beings. I’ve always felt that way, but a couple of things really solidified that for me. One is my nephew being incarcerated, and the other is witnessing the extreme trauma of my friend’s family over her son’s incarceration. My friend’s young daughter is still traumatized by the years of prison visits to her brother.” — Victoria M.
Alex Berliner (far left) facilitated an advocacy group of Project WHAT members. Project WHAT is an organization for children of incarcerated parents.
“I’m here because I like the fact that we’re working to change laws that could affect our family members. I’m most interested in the bills for sealing ‘juvenile’ records and getting our elders out on parole.” — Jada Layne, Project WHAT, high school student.
“I’m an organizer and I’m here to be around beautiful people, and to let legislators know that people like myself, formerly incarcerated people, have a stake and a say in the direction of how things are going. I want to advance policies that advance the lives of formerly incarcerated people and also those who aren’t incarcerated but are impacted by it, the larger community that is dealing with poor schools, lack of infrastructure, etc. Too often they want to focus on individuals and not really look at the impact on communities.” — Darris Young, Oakland
Briefing inside the capitol hearing about proposed bills (see more in table below) from representatives of co-sponsoring organizations.
“I marched with Martin Luther King, and since then, I have to say, I have not seen enough of a change. I was active in the Tyisha Miller case down in Riverside. The police shot and killed her. After two years of constant protesting the police finally got fired, but no charges were pressed, and one of them was rehired right away in another county. I’m also interested in prison reform, because I have three incarcerated family members – one in juvenile and two others who are in prison and are mentally ill. We have to get better treatment for incarcerated people, because prisons are an extension of our community.” — Gloria Willis, All Of Us Or None (Riverside Chapter).
“I run a house similar to a Catholic Worker’s house for formerly incarcerated men in Fruitvale. I’m another white person trying to be in solidarity as best I can. I do believe that mass incarceration is the defining obscenity of our time, just as slavery was in another era.” — Nicholas Routledge, Oakland.
“I work at Planting Justice in Oakland, and also have my own business. Planting Justice is a permaculture skills training program currently in San Quentin and Solano prisons, and we want to get our program into Mule Creek and Folsom prisons. I’m here to speak in support of the bills providing housing funds for formerly incarcerated people and preventing discrimination based on conviction history. This is important to expanding our program – we teach people permaculture so they can have a job when they get out, but how can they have a job if they don’t have housing?” — Anthony Forrest, Oakland.
“My first arrest was for theft, and I got ‘juvenile’ probation for a year. But what I didn’t get were any resources, for employment or education or housing. I wound up back in detention and had an epileptic seizure. The guards accused me of lying and put me into solitary confinement. I remember it being so cold, and it felt like I was going crazy.” — Devon Williams, Los Angeles.
Emily Harris, along with Deirdre Wilson and Hafsah Al-Amin from California Coalition for Women Prisoners Sharina Chavis, San Bernardino.
“I’m formerly incarcerated myself. I was doing a six year term and then my daughter came to the same prison. While I was inside my mom also passed. When I got out my biggest worry was where to live, and I was fortunate to get accepted into A Time for Change in San Bernardino. After being in prison, so many people have low self-esteem, and really need help. I’m a big advocate for Ban the Box. It’s really powerful to be here today!” — Sharina Chavis, San Bernadino.
“I’m a formerly incarcerated person. I work at Amity Foundation, and I’m here for the solitary confinement bill. I spent time in and out of solitary when I was inside, and I know what it does to you both mentally and physically.” — Ernest, Los Angeles
Bills Supported by Quest For Democracy Advocacy
Listed by number, proposal, sponsoring legislator.
AB 1056 – Gives housing funding for people exiting prison (Atkins)
AB 1351 – Prevents deportation by allowing pretrial diversion (Eggman)
AB 1352 – Withdraws plea after successful diversion program (Eggman)
AB 256 – Expands crime of falsifying evidence to include digital video and photo evidence (Jones-Sawyer)
AB 267 – Provides that judges must inform defendants of collateral consequences of convictions (Jones-Sawyer)
AB 324 – Allows people with felonies to serve on juries (Jones-Sawyer)
AB 396 – Ends housing discrimination based on convictions (Jones-Sawyer)
AB 512 – Expands Milestone Program credit incentives to shorten sentences from 6 weeks to 18 weeks (Stone)
AB 829 – Gives people the right to appeal their gang database status (Nazarian)
AB 891 – Decriminalizes fare evasion for school transit (Campos)
AB 926 – Shortens parole terms based on compliance (Jones-Sawyer)
SB 124 – Ends juvenile solitary confinement (Leno)
SB 224 – Gives elder parole program to people over 50 (Liu)
SB 405 – Stops suspending drivers licenses for owing court debt (Hertzberg)
SB 504 – Enacts free sealing of youth records (Lara)
SB 759 – Gives good time credits to prisoners in solitary confinement (Anderson)