Mr. Morrison, a 67-year-old Black man, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison at age 17. After serving 40 years, he is eligible for parole.
Five other VOTE interns and I learn this as we sit in a small room in a Baton Rouge courthouse. There are four rows of chairs on either side of the room, and a monitor hanging on the wall in the middle of them. On the other side of the monitor sits Mr. Morrison, who’s in another small room at Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola. The Warden and another woman sit to his left, and a few people sit behind him. The quality of the monitor isn’t perfect, so I can’t quite see Morrison’s facial expression, but I imagine it is solemn.
Though there are five people sitting in front of us, only two are allowed to speak. One man, Morrison’s mentee from Angola, gives a heartfelt and compelling speech about his friend. He emphasizes how influential Morrison was in helping him to get to the successful place he is now—working as a law clerk with a law degree. There’s a job waiting for Morrison at the firm if he gets out.
“I don’t have room for error in my life anymore,” says Morrison, echoing the sentiments of his mentee.
Ultimately, though, he is denied parole because of a homemade weapon that was found in his cell last February. He claims it wasn’t his, but that doesn’t matter to the parole board, only one of whom votes in favor of his release. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, one of the other interns takes my hand. We all look at each other with rage and sadness.
Don’t cry right now, I tell myself.
Later, one of the other interns told me that she felt it wasn’t her place to cry, naming my own feelings in that moment. So I don’t allow myself to cry, despite listening to a Southern white man tell a 67-year-old Black man that he wishes him luck as he denies him his freedom.
Why is the solution for a teenager who commits a crime to lock them up for their entire life? I ask myself as I watch Mr. Brent, another Black man in his 60s, enter the room on the monitor.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath, one of the other interns takes my hand. We all look at each other with rage and sadness.
Like Morrison, Brent has also served a little over 40 years in prison. Unlike Morrison, however, Brent has family members sitting in the same room as us or with him at Angola. They are all wearing shirts with Brent’s face on it. There is a tonal shift as one of the board members, the same older white Southern man who wished Morrison good luck, begins cracking jokes. He was quite strict during Morrison’s case, but now he cautions Brent’s daughter to not mess up her speech, implying that her father’s parole is already guaranteed. He mixes up important numbers, like the year Brent was convicted and his risk assessment score. He jokes about how bad his math is.
“You already know how I’m going to vote,” he says.
The room simultaneously fills with nervous laughter and a sense of gravity. Although it is a relief to hear the board member make such a claim, his jokes are making light of Brent’s fate.
Brent is granted parole, and his family bursts into tears and a series of “amen.” There is not a dry eye in the room, including my own and those of the other interns.
Though Morrison was denied parole, it seems clear to me that both he and Brent deserve to be free. I cannot say the same for the third case, Mr. Parent.
Parent, a 56-year-old white man, has multiple convictions for various counts including intimidating a witness, simple burglary and extortion, among others. The Warden expresses how well he’s done in various programs that he has been a part of, and Parent himself expresses remorse, apologizing to the victims of his crime. He claims he has found God, that he has changed due to his new devotion to Christianity. In front of me, five white men nod along with his words. One of these men is Senator Danny Martiny (R - District 10), who speaks on Parent’s behalf. Where was the senator to speak on Morrison or Brent’s behalf? Parent clearly had powerful connections that protected him and provided him with an unfair advantage. This is reinforced when the prosecutor mentions Parent’s multiple D.U.I.’s that he never received any penalty for.
I see firsthand what I had learned long before: that the cyclical nature of this system is so pervasive and internalized in everyone.
Unlike the other two hearings, Parent’s victim sits across from us with two lawyers and family members. Ms. Blanco, the mother of the victim, speaks first. With anger in her voice, she explains the fear that she and her daughter felt when Parent called them with death threats. She claims that Parent’s religiosity means nothing, that he is still a danger to her and her daughter.
Ms. Lambert, Parent’s victim, eventually approaches the podium. Her voice shakes as she tells the board that if Parent were to get out, she and her son would not be safe. She points to the group of white men sitting in front of me and says that they are the same people who have always protected him. Senator Martiny looks up from his phone to shake his head and whisper something to a woman sitting next to him. I could feel the fear in her testimony, and the contrast between testimonies is unsettling.
Despite Parent’s display of power and white privilege, his parole is denied. Ms. Lambert and Ms. Blanco, along with their lawyers, exit the room almost immediately. The group of Parent’s supporters stay behind. I learn later they are required to wait a certain period of time to allow for the victims to leave. I watch as they approach the board members and shake their hands familiarly, smiling and making jokes with one another. The whole scene leaves me confused. Although I don’t believe anybody should stay incarcerated, and I wish there was a better option for Parent, the victims’ testimonies also had me questioning the idea of Parent’s release.
After listening to all three cases I was most bothered by the idea that both Morrison and Parent are considered dangers to society, yet the contrast between them could not be more stark. It was was very clear to me that if Morrison was released he would peacefully live the rest of his life. At almost 70 years old he seemed so far removed from his conviction, and I could tell that he was simply exhausted. I wondered what it would have taken to convince the parole board of the thoughts that I was having. Was it really just his violation and subsequent lockdown that made them consider him a danger and deny his parole? Was it the color of his skin? In this moment I remember that mass incarceration is an extension of slavery. I remember that I am fed narratives of white supremacy and of Black incarceration daily. I see firsthand what I had learned long before: that the cyclical nature of this system is so pervasive and internalized in everyone. Suddenly, I’m once again confused and enraged.
Each unanswered question and frustrating feeling motivates me to use my voice as a white ally to spread awareness and speak out against this system. Knowledge is power, and although at times I felt uncomfortable during the hearings, I am grateful for the opportunity to now pass on what I learned.
Stella Frank interned with VOTE this summer. She is a student at Bard College.
Thanks to the help of many VOTE members and allies, Senate Bill 243, which requires unanimous verdicts in felony cases, passed through the Louisiana Legislature this past session. Half the battle has been won, but now the decision to repeal this Jim Crow-era law is in the hands of Louisiana voters.
On November 6, 2018, the election ballot will ask people, “Do you support an amendment to require a unanimous jury verdict in all noncapital felony cases for offenses that are committed on or after January 1, 2019?” And we need them to vote YES.
Louisiana is one of two states that allow non-unanimous verdicts in jury trials and is the only state to allow non-unanimous verdicts (requiring only 10 out of 12 votes) for murder cases and crimes carrying sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury law was put in place in 1880 as an effort to minimize the influence Black jurors could have in criminal trials. The silencing that results from this non-unanimous jury system has resulted in over-incarceration, reduced deliberation and has dramatically increased wrongful convictions. It has also created rightful community distrust of the justice system, which directly undermines why the jury system exists in the first place. In theory, juries bring the voices of the community to the table and allow people to feel confident about an ethical justice system. A non-unanimous jury system is antithetical to this.
The legislative win was due in large part to the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (LACDL) and the Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI), specifically Ben Cohen and Calvin Duncan. People like Duncan, whose expertise developed while he was in prison, have been essential to the efforts to litigate, legislate and educate Louisiana on this issue.
The constitutional amendment has many additional supporters. One, the ACLU of Louisiana, calls the current law “archaic and racist.” The Black Caucus of Louisiana has co-sponsored it. Representative Sherman Mack, who admits to supporting legislation on behalf of prosecutors, supports the amendment, expressing that it’s time for Louisiana , “to do the right thing” and join the rest of the United States. Representative Ted James (D - East Baton Rouge) stated that this amendment will give “the people of Louisiana have the opportunity to right a 138-year wrong.” Governor Edwards also recently expressed his support and promised to encourage Louisiana to vote in favor of the amendment this fall. Even the Louisiana GOP has endorsed the amendment, supporting this change.
The people of Louisiana have the opportunity to right a 138-year wrong -- Rep. Ted James
Despite much bipartisan support, the amendment also has opponents. Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier is not in favor. During the legislative session he said “it is what it is,” in response to the fact that this law is a remnant of slavery. His quote can now be found on billboards throughout the Lake Charles area.
While DeRosier is one of numerous district attorneys throughout the state that tried to put an end to the bill, he Louisiana District Attorneys Association ultimately went from an oppositional to neutral position prior to its passage. Senator J.P. Morrell, who sponsored Senate Bill 243, believes that the likelihood of the amendment passing in November depends on the “continuation of the coalition that backed the change during the session” to educate voters and remain united. “Very seldom do we have something of this magnitude, this historic, that has enjoyed such bipartisan support,” he said during the session.
This ballot initiative is an opportunity to dramatically advance criminal justice reform in Louisiana. Combined with a relaxation on felon disenfranchisement (effective March 1st, 2019), the non-unanimous jury issue can help alter the legacy of slavery and white supremacy in the South and nationwide. Yet this win won’t be possible simply with the passage of time. The time to organize, educate, and mobilize an ever-growing group of people directly impacted by the criminal justice system is now.
We must strengthen our collective voice claiming our rightful space in society, and craft a criminal justice system that actually creates public safety and healthy communities.
As November quickly approaches, it is essential that we’re hitting the ground running, which means tireless door knocking, canvassing, and spreading the word about this ballot initiative. Get involved by: 1. Registering to vote and 2. Volunteering to help us pass the unanimous jury law!
How is your heart today? More than 100 people coming together for the first time sat quietly in the room, meditating on this question. How is your heart today, the facilitator repeated before asking participants to get in pairs and share their responses. A moment later, incarcerated people doing time at Angola State Penitentiary and individuals on the outside who had come to the prison for the second Day of Compassion were sharing what was on their hearts. For one rare day, people who generally spend their days locked in a cage--sometimes for up to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement--sat side by side with people who had never been inside prison walls. Together they told their stories and co-birthed ideas and visions for a better criminal justice system.
The Day of Compassion is the brainchild of Lara Naughton, a white woman who experienced a kidnapping and sexual assault while traveling. She now uses writing, acting and mindfulness as tools to heal from her experiences, and teaches these tools to others. In her writing, she names compassion as the most powerful force that enabled her survival. Over time, she forged a relationship with the Department of Corrections, and that ultimately allowed her to create an 8-week Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT). The training, which explores how to create a culture of compassion, is available to currently incarcerated people, and culminates in the special day that brings together incarcerated and non-incarcerated people.
While only incarcerated people who had gone through the CCT program attended yesterday’s event, the whole day was videotaped for the almost 6,000 people held at Angola prison to watch later. Participants broke bread together and discussed one of three topics: victim-offender intentional dialogue, sentencing reform or community reentry.
“As a victim, what would you want from me?” asked Keith, a CCT participant who is currently serving a life sentence for murdering someone when he was 18 years old. Respondents talked about the importance of a sincere apology, a commitment to change patterns and behavior, and an opportunity to truly understand why he did what he did. Keith talked about his frustration with the justice system strongly encouraging victims of crime to be punitive, even if they don’t want that themselves. He has a desire to talk to the family of the person he killed more than 20 years ago, but in Louisiana, it is illegal for the offender to reach out to the victim.
“I have a parole hearing in September,” he said. “Even though I feel completely rehabilitated and other people in here [the prison] know that, I can’t show that to the victim’s family.” Victims are allowed to come to offenders’ parole hearings, and many times their opinion strongly informs the ultimate decision, regardless of how much and in what ways offenders may have changed.
Several VOTE staff members--some who have been incarcerated and some who haven’t--were present yesterday.
“The day was a heartwarming and inspiring experience,” says Anna Sacks, VOTE’s Communications Associate. “At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel sad about the other 5,000 incarcerated people who weren’t in the room.” Sacks and other staff members exchanged information with some incarcerated individuals, and have plans to become penpals with them.
While the day is no silver bullet solution to a more compassionate criminal justice system, the experiences and conversations shared will continue to have a profound impact on both sides of prison walls.
Click here to learn more about the Compassion Institute and upcoming events.
Watch the full video of us filing the application for our lawsuit at the Louisiana Supreme Court here!
On Friday, we filed our application to the Louisiana Supreme Court on VOTE v. Louisiana, which seeks to end Louisiana’s unconstitutional disenfranchisement of citizens on probation or parole. With this filing – and with Advancement Project’s national office serving as national counsel – this historic case is officially in the hands of the Louisiana Supreme Court. The application urges the Supreme Court to hear this case due to its serious constitutional implications for tens of thousands of citizens on probation and parole in the state and to affirm the fundamental right to vote for all Louisianans.
“This filing marks one more milestone for VOTE, our members, and everyone resisting against an out-of-control criminal ‘justice’ system,” said Norris Henderson, Executive Director of VOTE. “We envisioned this case while some of us were incarcerated. After organizing, growing, and building power for years, today we affirm our political voice before the Louisiana Supreme Court. The state needs to make good on the promise of the right to vote we have based on the Constitution.”
“The judges seeing this case so far are upholding a law that we know is unconstitutional,” said Bruce Reilly, Deputy Director of VOTE. “The Louisiana Supreme Court is best positioned to correct this, and proclaim once and for all that the Louisiana Constitution guarantees the right to vote, and that voting can only be suspended during, not after, incarceration.”
This historic law is made possible by the historic years-long efforts of hundreds of formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones coming together to urge state representatives to defend democracy.
In a March 2017 ruling granting summary judgment to the state in this case, 19th Judicial District Judge Tim Kelley said that, even though he was ruling against plaintiffs, he thought this was unfair. VOTE appealed the ruling to the First Circuit Court of Appeal, arguing that the Constitution explicitly guarantees the right to vote to all people who are not “under an order of imprisonment,” including those on probation and parole. With a partial dissent, the appeals court sided with the district court, clearing the way for today’s appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
“People should be given second chances, maintain their political voice and the opportunity to choose those who represents them,” said Judith Browne Dianis, Executive Director of Advancement Project’s national office. “Because of organizations like VOTE, we are seeing broad, sweeping criminal justice reform across the country. Still, too often the voting rights of people ensnared by the criminal justice system are left behind. People on probation and parole should have their right to vote restored. Louisiana’s constitution, unlike the Federal Constitution, affirms an explicit fundamental right to vote. The court below failed to give weight to this fundamental right, and that is why we take our case to the Supreme Court today.”
The claim to the right to vote made in VOTE v. Louisiana enjoys overwhelming support from influential voices who have filed amicus briefs in the case. Legal scholars from every law school in Louisiana have expressed their support for the merits of the lawsuit. Historians from Louisiana added incisive historical analysis showing that recognizing the right to vote is long overdue. Importantly, the American Probation and Parole Association, which represents 700 probation and parole officers in Louisiana alone, is strongly in favor of recognizing the right to vote as claimed by VOTE. Whalen Gibbs, a longtime Louisiana public servant, probation officer, and a former assistant secretary with the Louisiana Department of Corrections who oversaw reentry work, publicly expressed his support through an op-ed in the Times-Picayune. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), The Sentencing Project and the Southern Poverty Law Center have supported the case with important racial, historical and legal context that cannot be separated from what this case means to the community.
VOTE secured a key victory just last month via the ratification of Act 636, which restores voting rights sooner to some people on probation and parole. While a significant step forward, the law is also only a partial restoration – tens of thousands of parolees and probationers are estimated to remain disenfranchised even the new law goes into effect next year.
Through VOTE v. Louisiana, VOTE seeks to affirm the right to vote for more than 70,000 people who are not incarcerated, but living under community supervision (i.e. probation and parole) as our neighbors, family members, and co-workers.
Louisiana denies the right to vote to people behind bars. It also bars from voting 40,000 people on probation, along with 30,000 citizens who have returned to their communities on parole. Each year, thousands of people are removed from this list while thousands more take their place, as Louisiana has more police and prisons per capita than anywhere in the nation.
Key legal documents and pleadings available here:
Writ application available here: http://nationalrighttovote.org/vote-lasc-writ/
Last Thursday, Governor John Bel Edwards signed House Bill 265 into law. This historic victory was made possible by the leadership of formerly incarcerated people as well as Representative Patricia Smith (Baton Rouge) and hundreds of supporting families and allies. “This is a win of our lifetime, and also one of many to come,” says Executive Director Norris Henderson, who will now be able to vote. “It wouldn’t have been possible without the voice of those who have been to prison. We know that those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”
The new law will go into effect on March 1, 2019 and is estimated to reach at least 43,000 people--40,000 on probation and 3,000 on parole--throughout the state in the first year. Find out more about the eligibility details below.
Whose voting rights can Louisiana suspend? 110,000 people.
The 1974 Louisiana constitution guarantees all resident citizens, over 18, the right to vote. However, it carves out the option to suspend the right while someone is under an order of imprisonment for a felony conviction. The phrase “under order of imprisonment,” was first defined in 1976, and expanded in 1977. The state may suspend the rights of people in prison, on parole, or on probation for a felony.
Whose voting rights will not be suspended after a criminal conviction?
Whose rights did HB 265 restore?
The operative part of the new law carves out a group of people who will not be impacted by the state’s choice to suspend voting rights. This group is anyone, under order of imprisonment: “who has not been incarcerated pursuant to the order within the last five years.”
The incarceration must be “pursuant” (or after) the order of imprisonment, parole, or probation.
At any given time, roughly 40,000 Louisiana citizens are on probation. All of them left the courthouse, and went home, following the judicial order. None of their voting rights will be suspended until after they are incarcerated, if ever. While many finish their probation terms with no incident, others do not. Upon violation, and sentence to incarceration, they will have their voting rights suspended. Because probation terms are under 5 years, such person will not have that right restored until they complete the probation (which is likely to be under 5 years), and are no longer “under an order.” At that point, all past incarcerations become irrelevant.
People on parole who have been out for five years will be able to vote. The DOC estimates about 3,000 of the roughly 30,000 people currently on parole would have their right un-suspended. The majority of people finish parole in shorter than five years, thus HB 265 would not apply to them. Nearly half of people on parole return to prison for a violation, nearly all of those people do that within the first year of release, under the pressure of finding food, clothing, shelter, a job, and happiness.
Download a 1-pager of the voting eligibility under HB 265.
Introducing Kiana Calloway: the latest fellow in the Movement for Black Lives' Electoral Justice League
Kiana Calloway is experiencing a rebirth. When he was just 16 years old, he began a 17-year-long incarceration for a crime he didn’t commit. Today, he’s one of 12 fellows in the Movement for Black Lives’ Electoral Justice League. While a lot had to happen to get him to this point, Calloway has his eyes focused on the future, on the work that still needs to be done. With his new phoenix wings in tow, he’s teaming up with VOTE and others around the country to become a steadfast “voice for the voiceless.” For the next year, he and the other fellows will work together to advance the liberation of formerly incarcerated people through the restoration of voting rights and other key civil and human rights. Learn more about this budding leader below:
VOTE: What are you bringing to the table right now?
KC: I’m bringing excitement and experience--knowledge, insider knowledge. I’m bringing a sense of knowing how tragic being discriminated against is, especially with my current housing situation. I’m bringing a community push, passion, and a lot of dedication to the work that’s being done.
VOTE: Yes! Dedication is what we’re all about. So how did it feel to find out you got the fellowship?
KC: I’m grateful to accept this responsibility. We’re trying to change a lot of lives in the state of Louisiana, mainly New Orleans. So I’m anxious but ready to add more pressure nationally.
VOTE: So are we! What do you think is going to be your biggest learning curve in this fellowship?
I’m actually completely comfortable with the task at hand, about the issues that we’re attacking. I have a big team supporting me. My uncomfortable task is asking for help, but I’m breaking it now because I’ve been calling for help every day. I’m excited. I can’t wait to meet up with the other fellows.
VOTE: Awesome. So the project is about building political power through voting rights. What ideas do you have stewing for that?
KC: By seeing and being a part of the work that VOTE has accomplished over the years that I’ve been here, I know that the power actually lies in the hands of the people. And from being in a position to where I can’t vote to being in one where I can, it proves that laws can be changed.
VOTE: Absolutely they can.
KC: Yeah, so right now the short-term goal around changing laws and policies is definitely changing the way that housing is being seen as optional for people of my class. I’ve been home since 2011 and I’ve been working since my second day home, paying taxes, getting up like a normal citizen does, and I still can’t get housing. I’ve had more than 10 housing applications denied. That’s a very, very firm case of discrimination and it needs to be changed. Just last week I gave a person renting a 9-by-10 studio $30 cash for a background check and when it came back, I got denied because I’m on parole. That’s not right.
VOTE: No, it’s not. We’ve been working on housing justice with local partners for many years now and we’re not stopping anytime soon. Speaking of working tirelessly, what would you say has been your most defining moment as an organizer so far?
KC: Regaining voting rights for formerly incarcerated people! That is a major feat, a major victory, because it doesn’t affect only me, it affects 43,000 people right now. By 2021, it might affect another 43,000. Hopefully we can get to a point where we’re registering people inside of the prison!
We’ve accomplished a lot since I’ve been at VOTE. I’ve done OPPRC reform, I’ve campaigned for [Mayor LaToya] Cantrell, the Ban the Box initiative, a lot of things. I’ve canvassed, knocked on doors, done phone banking, and licked envelopes, thousands of envelopes. And not one time I ever thought that we would lose at anything. Because that was the energy that was coming through the building--like, man, we gonna win! Winners never quit, and quitters never win. .
The doors of criminal justice reform are busting open at this point. We have some real strong activists, and I commend everyone. And when people call me to do the work, I never come alone, I always bring three, four guys with me. The guys I’m mentoring see me walking the talk. We’re gracefully climbing the hill, one step at a time.
VOTE: Yeah we are! So you are a mentor to many guys--showing them how to avoid incarceration and pave a better path--but who are your mentors, your heroes?
KC: First and foremost, my mother is my Number One, being that she stood in my corner for all those years. She is a breast cancer survivor. She travels every two weeks to Chicago for treatment. She put so much strength inside of me while I was in prison while she was still battling her own illness. She was my rock, my seclusion, my comfort.
VOTE: She sounds amazing. Are there others, too?
KC: The Black Panther Party, with Huey P. Newton and all those guys. Knowing that they walked on the state capitol with rifles demanding change changed me. They were willing to die for the rights that are offered to me. Now we don’t have to go on the capitol with rifles. Our rifles are our voice, our camaraderie, our people.
Also, VOTE leaders like Norris Henderson, Checo Yancy, Ms. Dolfinette Martin, Robert [Goodman], and Bruce [Reilly]--I see how dedicated they are to their work and it really pumps more fuel in me. Norris is always saying he’s gotta pass it down to somebody, and it’s been like that since I knew him while I was in prison. He told me, “Find your case [in the prison law library] and then come back to talk to me.” That was the evolution of Kiana right there. I was only 17 years old, understanding that I gotta do it for myself because nobody’s gonna do it for me.
MLK’s assassination also had a big impact on me. Just seven days later the Fair Housing Act was passed, and it included seven crucial categories, but one of them isn’t formerly incarcerated people. So now in 2018 hopefully we can stamp people returning home from incarceration into that.
VOTE: We definitely believe that’s possible with the right leaders. What is your leadership style?
KC: I’d say ‘unconventional’ because I have a knack of meeting people where they are. My clock is not 24 hours, it’s maybe 36, 42. I’m a hard worker, I’m dedicated to the mission, and I really work well with others.
VOTE: We can vouch for that. And we know that requires respecting the dignity, morality and humanity of all beings, which is something the fellowship talks about. What do those words mean to you?
KC: I think of individuality--believing in yourself and respecting others. I think of having a universal range of respect and being true to yourself at the same time because can’t nobody tell a story like you can tell a story, especially if you’ve survived a story and are able to tell it. A lot of people run from the truth and I think that this [fair housing] campaign, by bringing together testimonies and real people’s stories, is bringing the truth. Like oil and water, something has to come to the top, and the truth is going to come to the top.
VOTE: Beautiful. So as you’re speaking these truths and fighting the good fight, what do you do to take care of yourself?
KC: I love the outdoors. I love the lake, I love City Park. It brings me to place of tranquility where I can do a personal inventory on myself and characterize the most important to the least important things I have to work on. I go to City Park two or three times a week and just pull up, put my headphones in, look out on the water, and reminiscence on where I came from to where I’m at and where I’m going. I really make time for that. Sometimes I turn my phone off and just sit and contemplate, self-reflect on what am I doing right, what am I doing wrong, and how to improve.
I also do a lot of journaling and keep my notebook with me at all times. And I place myself with positive people. The people I work with are young--18 to 24--and at-risk or formerly incarcerated, so I want to rub off of them, not have them rub off on me. Because once you see God working through somebody else, you got to step it up a little more. You see those smiles from ear-to-ear and say, “Ok, I gotta be like that every day.”
VOTE: You are so inspiring! So, speaking of taking a moment, let’s close our eyes and dream about a world of total liberation. What would that feel like, look like, taste like, smell like and sound like to you?
KC: The music I’m hearing is Happy Feelings by Frankie Beverly and Maze. The food I’m tasting--red beans, red beans and rice. Fried fish. The air is rich, the soil is soft, the people are mentally normal and breathing positive vibes. The atmosphere is loving. I don’t see color. I see smiles, I see liberation. I feel free. There’s education, life-altering education, rich education. There’s knowledge of self-worth.
VOTE: Wow, thank you. Anything else you want to add?
KC: As a Black man I was taught that you are either gonna die a hero or live long enough to be the villain. And I want to defy those odds, I want to live long enough to be a hero, to actually live the dream that I’m fighting for right now. I want to be the replica of Malcolm X, the MLK. I want to start the fight, live through the fight, and live after the fight. And my passion comes through my pores--it’s inevitable. This is my mission, this is definitely my mission.
Yes, we finally made it happen. House Bill 265 is on its way to the Governor's desk, which means thousands of formerly incarcerated people throughout the state, including many of our staff members, are getting their voting rights back! We truly could not have achieved this victory without the unwavering support of so many people, including YOU! THANK YOU! Though in many ways this historic win has been five years in the making, your calls, emails, tweets and relentless commitment to contacting our state representatives over the past few weeks really sealed the deal. This is what people power looks like, and it's just the beginning. "The idea that you’re gonna support or oppose people’s voting rights based on who they are, what they are, what they think, is just totally antithetical to democracy," says our Deputy Director Bruce Reilly, who will now be able to vote again. "We’ve come a long way [and] I can't wait to vote."
We can't continue to do this work without your help. Donate to help us move this important work forward.
Want to learn more? Read the full, in-depth story by our ally Natalie Yahr.
After five years of advocacy and organizing, Rep. Patricia Smith's bill to restore voting rights for people under community supervision passed the Louisiana House of Representatives, 61 to 39. The members of Voice of the Experienced (VOTE) rejoice today while continuing the work required to move this bill through the Senate, and to the desk of Gov. John Bel Edwards before the close of the legislative session.
"This shows the value of showing up," says Norris Henderson, Executive Director of VOTE, who began focusing on civic engagement while confined in Angola State Penitentiary decades ago. "We built a coalition, and the people we brought in brought in more people, more organizations, more political leaders. This final vote was a credit to the hard work of so many people, especially Representative Smith."
Just a few weeks ago, HB 265 lost 35-51, a disappointingly similar count to the loss in 2016. After calling for a reconsideration, the bill won a majority (51-41), yet failed to gain the 53 votes needed to pass. After getting a surprising third vote, the legislature had nearly flipped entirely.
On Monday morning at 9am, we move on to the next step, a committee hearing in Senate Government Affairs (join us). If it passes there, then it could take a few days to get through the Senate Floor. The bill still restricts some people released from prison, but represents a massive change in Louisiana's direction, considering that it is America's incarceration leader.
VOTE's policy team is led by Checo Yancy, one of VOTE's founding members, and Will Harrell, Senior Policy Counsel. They have been in the Statehouse every day during the legislative session.
"We all just people at the end of the day," says Yancy. "And we've managed to connect with these politicians, and remind them about something that some folks take for granted: our vote, our citizenship, and what that means to ourselves and our families."
VOTE is also a plaintiff in litigation to declare the disenfranchisement statutes unconstitutional. That case, VOTE v. Louisiana, should be heard in the Louisiana Supreme Court around the end of the year.
"If the legislature took the laws right off the books, our lawsuit would be a moot issue," says Bruce Reilly, VOTE's Deputy Director, a plaintiff and member of the legal team. "But as long as they are disenfranchising anyone under community supervision, even for a limited period after incarceration, it is violating the clear intent of the 1974 state constitution."
Our Voting Rights bill (HB 265) infamously failed to pass the House of Representatives last week because several supporters had gone home for the day. To get the bill reconsidered (for the 2nd time), we needed someone who voted against it last week to make a motion to reconsider. A few jaws dropped when that person was Rep. Sherman Mack, chairman of the criminal justice committee. Rep. Mack has been a major hurdle for many criminal justice reforms. This does not mean he will champion the bill, or vote for it, but it does get us a re-vote on Thursday! Please call your Representatives TODAY and ask them to vote YES on HB 265!
With only a few weeks left in the legislative session, lets recap a few things happening that you may have missed. Also, be sure to check out which bills are moving on VOTE’s Bill Tracker.
Contact VOTE to find out more.
Final stops on the way to the Governor:
Bills passing one chamber (House or Senate), and then another committee, and now on the floor of the other chamber. It is always important to follow the amendments to bills, as they can ultimately pass an entirely different law than was proposed a month ago.
Bills focused on incarcerated women are moving through the system:
VOTE has been fighting for years to create parole opportunities for people since the beginnings of the organization, when a group of civic-minded men confined for long periods in Angola (some confined until death) worked with legislators to create the “20/45 Law.” While the state amended that law to not apply to most people serving virtual death sentences, this year a “30/50 Law” seemed poised to allow people with 30 years served, over 50 years old, could see the parole board. Legislators wanted to pull the most serious crimes out from eligibility, despite the fact that one typically needs to have committed a serious crime (often as a teenager) to be over 50 years old in prison with no end in sight. Similarly, the chance to amend armed robbery sentences and end the virtual death sentences, failed to pass. The writing is on the wall, for now. Like everything else VOTE and our allies do: we will be back.
Follow our Bill Tracker, our social media, and our e-newsletter to stay engaged!
Ariel’s story is the first of a short series we’ll be doing in the coming days to honor the women of color who are leading the movement to end mass incarceration. If you feel inspired by these women’s stories, please help us reach our goal of raising $2,000 for formerly and currently incarcerated women and girls this #GiveNOLADay.
After Hurricane Katrina, Ariel Jeanjacques frequently traveled between New Orleans, her home, and Texas, where her mom lived. On one weekend visit when she was 25 years old, she went out with her sisters, just hoping to blow off some steam. Instead, they were assaulted by a group of strangers who fled quickly thereafter. She called the police, expecting them to uphold their duty to protect and serve, but when they arrived on scene, they only escalated the violence. “They told me I was going to jail and tried to put me in handcuffs,” she says. “But they wouldn’t tell me why.” She later learned that the reason was an unpaid speeding ticket she was unaware she had. “The officer was manhandling me, grabbing me, pushing me, cursing me, and not telling me where I was going.” Nervous, confused, and traumatized from all the violence, Ariel tried to defend herself. “I was tired and scratched his hand, and because of that I was sentenced to 10 years.”
Because she had been involved in local activism through organizations such as The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, Ariel had a group of people supporting her and speaking out against the injustice she faced. After 4 years of court dates back and forth, they helped her reduce her sentence to 4 months in prison and 6 years of probation. Though Ariel felt immense gratitude for her community, she also knew that she was one of few people who had that kind of support.
Today, Ariel uses this experience and many others to fuel her work as the Program Coordinator for the New Orleans chapter of the Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice national network. Every day, she helps countless survivors try to find healing and justice for the senseless crimes they experience. In the process, she reminds both herself and other survivors of assault that, despite how often it happens, it is never ok to be punished for trying to defend yourself. She learns and re-learns a lesson we often come back to at VOTE, which is that punishment does not work. Ariel’s work with VOTE completes the circle of relationships between those who experience a crime, those who carry out a crime, and the many family members and friends in between who are affected by the incident. She speaks on behalf of all parties involved in a crime when she says that “clearly incarceration is not making us any safer--it is just not the answer.”
From day to day, Ariel plays many roles. When a violent crime happens in one of the many communities her work touches, she arrives on scene and advocates not only for survivors but many times for alternatives to incarceration. She mediates between the actual wants and needs of survivors and the systems telling them to respond in certain ways. She offers ideas for rehabilitation, healing and recovery, not for jails and prisons. And like the other organizers at VOTE, she goes back into the neighborhoods she’s from and rallies others willing and eager to join the movement for restorative justice. She teaches them the ropes and connects them to a larger network of people doing this work throughout the nation. Earlier this month, she did that by traveling with four other survivors to the 5th Annual Survivors Speak Conference in Sacramento, California.
Held every year during National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, which falls during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Survivors Speak convenes survivors from across the country. Hundreds of attendees hail from communities adversely affected by multiple forms of violence, including state violence, street violence and interpersonal violence that happens in the homes, at workplaces, and everywhere in between. They gather together to share their stories, honor those who have passed and are behind bars, and advance agendas for policies and programs that actually help everyone who has experienced violence. They mourn the prevalence of violence and celebrate the strength of their ever-growing group of passionate changemakers.
This year, more than 700 people attended the 3-day conference, and Ariel was floored. Between breakout sessions where lead organizers like herself introduced their chapters and what they were working on in the states they came from, Ariel and her crew visited healing rooms complete with stress-relieving activities, got massages hosted by the conference, and indulged in the ice cream that was handed out. “Some the survivors had never had a massage in their life and they really needed one,” she says, smiling. “And when survivors from around the country stood in front of the audience and told their stories for the first time ever, that moment touched me a lot and made me really emotional. Especially to a room full of hundreds of people--that’s really powerful.” The power of those moments was not lost on Ariel. “That’s the first step to healing,” she says. “Telling your story.”
Since her return, Ariel has been feeling really inspired to keep pushing the work forth. She’s speaking truth to power by telling the stories of the many survivors in her communities, and interrupting the narratives shared by those who don’t live there. “Hurt people are the ones that hurt people,” says Ariel, sharing a mantra we talk about often at VOTE. “You know, if those people are not hurt--not hurting--they have no reason to go out and hurt other people. If they don’t experience hurt, [hurting others] won’t be the solution to their problems.”
Ariel has seen firsthand that when people have the tools and resources they need to not just survive, but thrive, they are able to help interrupt cycles of hurt, abuse and violence. One of these people is Ms. Marilyn Shaw, a survivor from Avondale who lives through not only the murder of her only son in January 2015, but the continued violence of so-called detectives who put false charges on her and refuse to investigate his murder. Ms. Shaw was one of the survivors Ariel brought with her to Sacramento.
“Survivors Speak was just an overwhelming experience for her,” she recalls. “It was her first time traveling outside of New Orleans, her first time flying. She cried. For her to connect with people who were in the same situation as her, who lost their only child due to gun violence, she felt really motivated. The conference lifted her spirit, gave her a sense of power and also motivation to keep going because she was at a point of wanting to give up.”
Ms. Shaw is one of the many survivors on Ariel’s heart right now. These powerful survivors, along with her 2-year-old son Wylae, are her inspiration. Some of them are behind bars serving time for simply trying to defend themselves, while others are marching alongside her at events like our first annual Formerly and Currently Incarcerated Women and Girls Day last December. No matter where they currently are, together they are building a future where healing, truth, safety, justice and freedom abound.
Ariel’s story is the first of a short series we’ll be doing in the coming days to honor the women of color who are leading the movement to end mass incarceration. If you feel inspired by these women’s stories, please help us reach our goal of raising $2,000 for formerly and currently incarcerated women and girls this #GiveNOLADay.