What do you really know about me?
What do you know about four brick walls,
and 15-minute collect phone calls?
What do you know about 20-foot-high wire fences?
What do you know about
getting screamed at
and told what to do,
by an ‘authority’ figure
who couldn't walk a day in your shoes?
What do you know about having nothing to call your own?
What do you know about having a four-foot cell with a pisser in it,
and nothing to call home?
What do you know about having everything stripped from your life,
and praying you don't get stabbed when you try to sleep at night?
Before you pass judgement and say I chose my own path,
let me take a second and give you some insight into my past.
What do you know about growing up below the poverty line?
What do you know about your mother being gone for days,
and you don't have no idea where she went?
What do you know about freezing in the winter because they've turned off the power?
What do you know about going next door to the neighbor's house
just to get something to eat?
What do you know about getting kicked out when you're 16 years old?
What do you know about being forced to sleep in the back of a van,
or on the streets,
because you have nowhere else to go?
So, before you pass judgement about a man you've never seen,
What do you REALLY know about ME?
If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to email@example.com and we'll be in touch! We'll share the content on social media and always give credit to the artist(s) involved. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Aaron G. Kitzler is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penitentiary.
Last Friday VOTE gathered alongside other justice reform advocates the inaugural Underground Railroad to Justice Summit hosted by Southern University Law Center. The day’s sessions spanned from current policy strategies to attracting media attention, but the resounding message from the summit was unified: our movement is strong, and it must keep growing in order to keep winning.
More than 25 Louisiana justice organizations came to the summit, proving the unstoppable power of our movement. Together we reiterated the importance of holding every part of the system that has locked us up and locked us out accountable.
East Baton Rouge Parish Prison (EBRPP), for example, has a death rate twice the national average. A large contributing factor is that this jail, like many across the country, are treated as a mental health facility. For this reason the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition focuses on proper mental healthcare and eliminating pretrial detention. “People are often taken to pretrial detention in moments of [mental health] crisis,” says coalition member Rev. Anderson, a long-time advocate for mental health. “And the excuse is always the same, ‘there’s no other option.’” But we know there is another option, which is why many people and organizations—including our Baton Rouge chapter—have joined the coalition. The next step is to demand that the local sherriff investigate the unnecessary and sky-high number of deaths in his jail.
People can also hold the system accountable as individuals. Deidra Howard felt like a true citizen when she served jury duty several years ago. Like many jurors, she thought that she took in all of the facts of the case before she sentenced the man on trial to life in prison. But afterward Howard realized that the court had only given the jurors some of the evidence, leaving other pieces out. She felt betrayed by our (in)justice system--as if they had tricked her into sentencing an innocent man. She wanted to change her vote. She wrote to every lawyer and judge involved in the case many times over the course of that next year, but no one seemed to care. The system communicated that it was too late--the indictment was irreversible.
A year later, she found out that the man she and the other jurors had sentenced was being released from prison. While Howard can’t say that her letters were the first cause of his release, she has a hunch that speaking out helped. Now, she and her sister are working on legislation to create a juror’s bill of rights so that all jurors know that not all of the evidence is always presented at trial. Now that the unanimous jury law we championed is in effect, jurors have more power to be like Howard. Since formerly incarcerated people cannot yet serve on juries in Louisiana, we encourage all jurors to ask as many questions as needed, and consider as many factors as possible.
Another effective way to get in where you fit in is by simply sharing your story. Social media makes this easier than ever before, in addition to more traditional outlets like writing a letter to the editor or calling into a radio show. That’s how Gary Chambers, founder of the Black media outlet The Rouge Collection, got his start. Chambers saw how no news outlets were reporting on local police brutality or deaths he was seeing in Baton Rouge’s parish prison. So he did it himself. He wrote blog posts and op-eds on the topic, doing his own reporting along the way. Slowly but steadily his social media following increased. Chambers began using his voice to hold people like elected officials and police officers accountable. At the summit, he taught attendees how to write our own press releases, submit a letter to the editor, and build relationships with reporters. If you see an injustice happening and everyone else is ignoring it, Chambers told us, you can bring it to light with truthful storytelling.
The summit reminded us that there’s room for everyone in this fight, including those still behind bars. Keynote speaker Calvin Duncan, who was wrongfully convicted and sat on death row for 28 years, says that he found his love for legal studies while incarcerated. “I love that the law gives me the power to help poor people who can’t help themselves,” he says. “Through [knowing the law], I have power like Superman. I want you all have that power, too.”
This year’s legislative session begins in a few weeks, so now is the time to harness our individual and collective superpowers. Some VOTE members are very good at connecting people, always bringing two new friends to our monthly meetings. Some of us are super-storytellers, moving crowds of people into action. Some of us are the hope-bearers, keeping our spirits up during trying times. The best leaders among us are all of these at once.
Share your superpower with our movement by signing up for our newsletter. Every other week we send out the latest updates on justice reform, as well as upcoming events, actions and opportunities.
Spending all my time,
I'm looking for that perfection;
I dare not stop for anything less...
Spending all my time,
traveling the world for reflection;
I dare not pause for anything else...
I'm looking for that perfect book,
the one with the perfect rhyme;
I'm looking for that perfect look,
the complete and the sublime...
Spending all my time,
I'm looking for the perfect smile;
the one to fill my heart...
Spending all my time,
looking for beauty worthwhile,
a face defined as art...
I'm looking for that perfect song,
the one with the perfect tune;
I've been looking for you all along,
the perfect woman to swoon...
I've spent all my time,
all my time, looking blue,
But I still have a lot more left,
to spend with silly little you...
Won't you spend yours as well searching?
Let's get to know each other;
let's ride across the universe,
from one star to another...
Let's spend all our time
together as much as we can.
Even as sunshine falls and stars appear,
we shall dance, we shall dance...Searching
If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll be in touch! We'll share the content on social media and always give credit to the artist(s) involved. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Jeremy Smith is currently incarcerated at Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola).
In prison, the average cost of a doctor’s visit is $3. The average wage of an incarcerated worker, however, is a mere two cents per hour. That means in order for someone to access basic health needs while in prison, they have to work 150 hours first. Even the best paid workers, who make 20 cents per hour, still have to work 15 hours to get medical help. If that doesn’t dissuade incarcerated people from exercising their medical rights, a long list of other reasons--including provider negligence, ineffective medications, and a resistance to the money-making scheme between institutions and Big Pharma--will. As an antidote to this, VOTE began a partnership with the Tulane School of Medicine in 2015. Together we established the Formerly Incarcerated Transitions (FIT) Clinic, a place where returning citizens can go to get access to quality, affordable and safe medical treatment. Now, five years later, we’ve brought two community health workers, Danielle Metz and Haki Sekou, on board. As formerly incarcerated leaders, both have experienced these medical injustices firsthand, and as such have big visions for where VOTE and Tulane will be taking this work. Check out what they have to say.
VOTE: Let's start with an easy one. How did you come into the VOTE family?
Haki Sekou (HS): Norris was my motivating factor in becoming involved. The major thing I like about VOTE is the fight we got. If there’s an issue, we address it, and I like that more than anything else. It’s not just one person being recognized, it’s an organization being reckoned with.
Danielle Metz (DM): I’ve been a VOTE member since I came home in 2016. My favorite memory was when we went to Orlando [for the FICPFM gathering] and knocked on formerly incarcerated people’s doors to deliver the message that they could vote.
VOTE: As our community health workers, how do you define health?
DM: Health is defined as mind, body and soul. You have to be physically healthy, mentally prepared, and spiritually prepared.
VOTE: Tell us about accessing medical care on the inside.
HS: It was about who you knew. If the doctor knew you and liked you, you got services. Then people started getting cancers and other illnesses, but they were given a huge stack of pills, so a lot of people wouldn’t take their medication. They didn’t trust the doctors unless they knew them. A lot of people also didn’t take them because they thought it was all about the dollar--about people making capital off of them taking the pills.
DM: I watched about 10 women die in prison, or a week after they came home. They would have cervical cancer or something like that but [the doctors] thought it was fibroids. So a lot of stuff went untreated. You know you’re looking forward to your next life, your freedom, and you never get to see it because of the neglect of the system.”
VOTE: That’s horrific, and not surprising. So now that you are both home and in your role as community health workers with VOTE, how are you helping FIP on the outside?
DM: We are the liaison between a physician and a person coming back into society. We are the most trusted person because when you’re coming out, because of the inadequate care you received while in prison, it’s kind of hard to trust anyone. But when we tell them that we’ve been to prison, too, it breaks down that barrier and makes them want to open up. Sometimes I go to the court house. Sometimes I stand on the corner in areas where I know people go, and I explain to them what we offer. I let them know we have dental, and a lot of people want to get their teeth done. Now we’re even enrolling people on the inside.
HS: I also go to the people--to parole board hearings, to the institution--we’re just out in the community. People can come to us to talk about things that they wouldn’t talk about with their doctors. It’s a bond. So like Danielle said, we’re the buffer zone between the doctors and the formerly incarcerated community. We ask the doctors the questions that they may not know how to ask.
VOTE: And if they tell you that they don’t trust or feel comfortable going to the doctor, how do you approach that?
HS: Keep working with the person, meeting them where they’re at. Accepting them where they’re at, moving at their pace, taking the time and patience to be with them. You’ll win their trust, most of the time. You have to really care about people to be in this role.
DM: Yeah, sometimes I even have to go to their houses and bring them to the appointment.
VOTE: That’s right in line with one of our main expressions: help is what I need, not what you want to give me. So we’re very excited to build out this part of our work! What is your overall goal?
DM: We want everyone coming out of prison to receive adequate healthcare--Medicaid, Medicare, and any kind of healthcare that they can because health is very important. And we also want to reduce the stigma. We are people who need access to healthcare. Don’t define us as ‘inmates’ or ‘ex-offenders’, we’re a patient. As so whatever we need, we should get adequate attention.
HS: I’ve heard of some doctors who don’t treat people the same once they find out they are such and such [i.e. formerly incarcerated]. I want to start by investigating who are these doctors? Where are they practicing?
VOTE: Yes, we know that Louisiana has a long and embarrassing history of malpractice within facilities.
DM: Right and that’s why we need to take these issues into legislation. When we’re sitting in meetings and telling people that they’re still practicing on the inside with a suspended [medical] license, people are like ‘huh?’ I never knew that.’ So we have to expose it for what it is, and that way people can get the proper healthcare that they need.
VOTE: Yes! And that’s where our organizing and policy teams come in. Let’s talk about mental health for a minute. How is that being treated and what do you all intend to do about it?
HS: You know a lot of mental institutions shut down, and they just took the baggage from that and sent it straight into the [prison].
DM: Right, instead of getting it treated. And, with my incarceration, when you send a 26-year-old person to three life sentences plus 20 years in prison, I think right hten and there it should be mandated that I see some kind of psychiatrist, you know talk to somebody once a week, twice a week if possible. But there’s no one there to help you with those type of problems.
HS: Yeah and when you go to the Parole and Pardon Board, they ask you about a job, and if you have a place to live, but they never mention the syndromes, the post-[incarceration] syndromes. You go through 41 years of prison, you see a man killed...that’s still on your head, but they act like nothing happened. So they want you to be ‘normal’ in an abnormal environment.
VOTE: So it goes without saying that this work, these experiences, are very challenging. What is something you like to do to take care of yourself?
DM: I like to read because it’s like a great escape. I can travel anywhere in the world through a book when I can’t even leave this state because I’m on probation. And that’s what I used to do on the inside, too. Right now I’m reading Hope Against Hope against the charter school system takeover here in Louisiana.
HS: I’m reading Prison Without Walls, which is about the psychological effects of prison, drugs, money. It’s a holistic approach to psychology. I also like exercise. I do a whole routine, work the whole body Monday through Friday, then I take the weekend off. As far as eating healthy I like fruits, vegetables, fish, chicken.
VOTE: Ok, now let’s go way into the future. Can we build a world without prisons?
HS: I don’t think prison as we know it today will last forever. I do think they will have some form of corrections, enough to keep order.
DM: I was just reading this morning that 500 people got clemency because they did a sentencing reclassification. Where this happened, they don’t even get time anymore for marijuana and I was like ‘that’s amazing.’ Because you have a lot of people in prison for a lengthy time for petty crime. So if there is going to be a world without prison, I hope it don’t take another 400 years. They say ‘once upon a time,’ meaning right now. You know, now is the time.
VOTE: Indeed it is! To close us out, tell us when you feel the most free?
DM: I feel the most free when I get up in the morning, I’m lying in my bed and I see that ceiling fan going around and around and around and I’m like ‘I’m here.’ I can jump in the car and just go where I want to go. I’m also in school and I love going to school. It gives me a sense of belonging, a sense of being empowered that I can do it, even at this age.
HS: I feel the most free when I go to jummah...at the mosque. I’m in prayer...I’m focused on the Creator. I think I’m the most free at that point than any other time.
The FIT Clinic is located at 2222 Simon Bolivar Ave, New Orleans, LA. Walk-ins are welcome, but appointments can be made at 504-475-3784. Those without insurance are also welcome. Learn more here.
Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 91 this week. He left behind a lasting legacy of how to fight for justice. He graced countless freedom fights with his words, which have since become guiding of our movement. One of his many lessons is that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” As an ever-growing local, state, and national network of formerly incarcerated leaders, we can’t stay silent. Instead, we help people from all walks of life understand our experience, especially as public support for justice reform grows.
MLK is the reason we have classes of people that are protected against housing discrimination today. In 1968, one week after MLK was assassinated, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Federal Fair Housing Act into law. This made it unlawful for any private or public landlord to discriminate on the basis of: color, disability, familial status (i.e., having children under 18 in a household, including pregnant women), national origin, race, religion, or sex. While this has had a tremendously positive impact in ensuring the human rights of many, the fruits of MLK’s labor have not yet been fully realized. These laws have not included people with convictions like us.
Because we are not yet considered a protected class, the 7 million Americans with a record can be legally denied housing based on their conviction history.
VOTE’s Fair Housing Now! Campaign, led by our Housing Justice Organizer Kiana Calloway, seeks to rectify this. As the above introductory video explains, our goal is to ban the box (i.e. remove the question about conviction history) from all private and public rental applications in both Orleans and Jefferson Parish. We hope to do this by the end of 2020.
Like all of our work, the campaign operates from a coalition model that seeks to involve as many players as possible. When the campaign began last year, most of our partners were fellow non-profit organizations working for housing justice, as well as concerned citizens and community activists. This year, we’re seeking to expand our reach to include policymakers at every tier of government, all types of businesses from small mom-and-pop shops to national corporations, and--perhaps the toughest audience--private landlords.
“We need to open up the hearts and minds of not only our local leaders, but also the private landlords who have a heavy hand in playing out this discrimination,” says Calloway.
In addition to fighting for policy changes, we’re focused on shifting the cultural perceptions of people with convictions.
“We need a shift to where it becomes almost childish for someone to view me simply as a formerly incarcerated person [FIP] instead of a stand-up man in my community,” Calloway continues. “If they can’t view [formerly incarcerated people] as productive members of our community, then we’ll never be in agreement. What we’re really fighting for is safe, healthy and stable families. Who is really going to be against families? It’s not a good look for them.”
As the people in the above video explain, getting a job and finding housing as a returning citizen is not as easy as it sounds, even though these two things have been proven crucial in order to break the cycle of recidivism. Legal discrimination from property owners, combined with a lack of affordable rentals, push FIP out of the housing market. The same kind of discrimination from employers pushes them out of the job market. As a result, FIP are ten times more likely to be homeless than non-FIP.
Calloway is one of the few FIP he knows that has been gainfully and steadily employed since coming home. Despite this, he still has a hard time finding stable housing. This is one of the many reasons he’s on the frontlines of our campaign.
“The public needs to know that even those of us that have a decent education, a good job and cash in hand still face massive discrimination, exclusion and predation when trying to find a place to live.”
He reminds us that many reentry programs are not created and informed by FIP, and as such do not successfully help participants find a house and a job. “It is my duty to expose the ridiculousness of so-called reentry support programs that simultaneously exclude FIP from civil and economic life once they complete the programs. The current reentry mechanisms have no real bottom, so people continue to fall through.”
With the presidential election in November, justice reform--including housing justice for people with convictions--must be put into the national spotlight as the crisis that it is.
We begin to do that by starting right where we are. Last week, Calloway organized a rapid-fire action in which more than 70 New Orleanians used their lunch break to call their city councilmembers and demand that they push forward our work to ban the box. And this action is just the beginning, with more forums, rallies and meetings coming up soon.
“We win when the majority of our city councilmembers can say comfortably that New Orleans has 100,000 people with criminal records--which means that over half of our city’s families are dealing with a lifetime of punishment,” Calloway explains. “We win when they publicly acknowledge that these families are suffering in silence, and when they commit to doing something about it.”
Help us carry forth MLK’s legacy by getting involved in this fight today. Email Kiana directly at email@example.com.
Today is the first day of the year 2020. Last year--2019--marked 400 years since the arrival of the first slave ship to what we now know as the Americas. With the new year comes new beginnings, but as the old African symbol of the Sankofa bird reminds us, we can’t see where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been.
Mass incarceration is a direct result of the transatlantic slave trade. Because the festering wounds from this collective trauma went unhealed, over the past 400 years we’ve seen the progression from slavery, to Jim Crow, to a public health crisis so severe that it affects one in every two American families.
Though these historic periods all share the intention of subjugating, controlling and profiting from Black people, people from all walks of life have become the collateral consequences of the system.
In other words, seeing the demise of mass incarceration is a struggle for everyone. And that’s what we have our eyes set on for 2020 and beyond.
At our last New Orleans chapter meeting of 2019, we asked our members to step back into what 400 years ago may have felt like. We asked them to reflect on what their ancestors may have been eating, smelling, and hearing; what horrors or moments of hope they may have witnessed; and who they may have been fighting alongside.
Then we asked them to take a look around the room at the freedom fighters of the present. Our membership includes everyone from Black leaders whose families have been in New Orleans for centuries, to Latinx and Asian activists whose families have experienced parallel horrors of mass deportation, to white organizers who were given the task of coming to one meeting a long time ago as a freshman college student, and then never left. Everyone is healing and fighting for freedom in distinct ways, but together we are a united front.
Finally, we asked our members to step 400 years into the future, to the year 2419. We heard what they want to see at this time, 800 years after the beginning of slavery.
They had a variety of hopeful answers, including that we’ll be flying, and so will our vehicles. Because there will be no need for highways, “everything will be all expansive,” says Darlene Jones. “We’ll have futuristic buildings and second-lines winding all over.”
In addition to creating major infrastructural innovations, our members know our society will also be more emotionally evolved.
“We’ll have multiple families living together with no conflicts,” says longtime VOTE member Kim.
“Justice will not be blind,” echoes Verelin, another longtime member. “She will not have blindfolds on.”
In a similar vein, “everyone will be equal,” Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice member Terell shares. “And we’ll have presidents of different races--a bunch of women presidents.”
Wendy, a newer but rapidly-growing member-leader whose son is incarcerated at Angola, chimes in. “We’ll live in a society where we will embrace our neighbors and grow together,” she says.
Our newest staff member, Community Health Worker Haki Sekou, had a more dystopian outlook on the future, postulating that mass incarceration would come in the form of chips implanted into people’s bodies.
His words serve as a warning for what could be if we don’t stick together and fight the system as we know it.
The VOTE staff took heed to his and everyone else's visions as we went into strategic planning at the end of December. While we didn’t plan for the next 400 years, we did take a serious look at the next decade.
In the imminent future, we have the 2020 elections on our mind, including the race for District Attorney and some local judges. We are also developing more opportunities for transitional housing, as more people than ever before are coming home. Finally, and as always, we have plans to strengthen our local, state and national coalitions, so that together we are unstoppable.
“I don’t have 10 years to wait,” says our Executive Director Norris Henderson. “The world changes when people, money and ideas get organized. And all of those things are sitting right here in our shop.”
To be so much,
To be a sunrise,
a first thought of morning.
To be a star,
a guiding thought in eve.
To be an anthem,
a song of celebration.
To be a page,
a gentle turn of history.
To be loved,
If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll be in touch! We'll share the content on social media and always give credit to the artist(s) involved. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Angelo D. Golatt is currently incarcerated at David Wade Correctional Center.
This was a big year for VOTE, from our large-scale policy wins, to the personal wins from each of our members. In 2019, we saw yet again that our organization is powered by the perseverance, hope, and vision of hundreds of members, dozens of partner organizations, and about 20 staffers. Here’s what this unstoppable cohort of changemakers considers to be our top 10 wins of this year:
1. Our loved ones came home
Several VOTE members or their loved ones got out of prison this year. Some of them had been locked up for more than 40 years. “I’m blessed,” says VOTE member Cornell Hood who recently came home after doing many years of a life sentence. “Being able to be free and work a stable job [is] my win.”
2. We improved our health
Getting healthy was many of our members’ top win this year. “I’m thankful to be alive and free,” says one VOTE member. We know a healthy body and mind are necessary to do this work. That’s why we partner with Tulane University to run the Formerly Incarcerated Transitions (FIT) Clinic, which provides formerly incarcerated people with quality healthcare after they come home. We’re proud to say that in the past year we’ve hired two full-time, formerly incarcerated community health workers who will be bridging the gap between FIP medical needs and the services available!
3. We had policy wins
Every fall, we work to elect the right people so that our policy proposals get into the right hands. This year we had some notable wins, like “taking a bite out of the habitual offender [three-strikes] statute,” as one VOTE member described it. We’ll come back stronger next year, with the goal of taking two or more bigger bites. Another win was the enactment of a unanimous jury requirement for sentencing someone who’s being charged with a felony, which began on the 1st of January. “I felt this win personally,” shares member Darlene Jones, who sat on a jury that ended up convicting someone for murder with only 10 out of 12 votes. She felt that “the prosecution hadn’t even proven the case.” Non-unanimous jury convictions like the one that Darlene witnessed are no longer possible as of January 1, 2019. People still awaiting trial on arrests that happened before Jan. 1 and those already incarcerated on split juries do not get the benefits of this newfound justice. In other words, our fight to make the unanimous jury law retroactive still continues.
4. We voted for the first time!
Thanks to our legislative victory last year, Act 636 went into effect on March 1 of this year. This meant that this year was the first time many people with convictions were able to register and then vote! Voting as FIP marks the restoration of one of our core civil rights. “My high moment was the fact that I was able to vote for the very first time,” says VOTE member Donald Arbuthnot. “That blew me away.”
5. Then we got out the vote
In addition to voting for the first time, countless members of the VOTE family also joined forces in canvassing, registering, and poll monitoring to make sure Louisianans voted in the fall elections. “It was a win to see young people from 21 to 23 as well as older people ages 50 and up getting involved,” one VOTE member says. “Age didn’t matter. The one goal was to get people out to vote. It’s important.” As a result, we re-elected many candidates who we believe are best suited to push justice reform with us in 2020 and beyond!
6. We re-discovered our power
As we dove into our get out the vote efforts, many VOTE members also gained a deeper understanding of what political power means, including what seats are elected, how each position works for us, and how we can hold them to what they promise to do for our communities. As our fearless leader Norris Henderson says, “I vote because I understand the accountability that comes with it.” This year, more members than ever before also testified in front of elected officials, whether in the chambers of New Orleans City Council or in halls of the Louisiana State Capitol. “I spoke in front of both the City Planning Committee and the City Council for the first time to voice my opposition to the expansion of Orleans Parish Prison,” says our member Lauren Nguyen. “VOTE was the reason for that.” Elected officials are listening more intently than ever, too, and it shows. As one example, both the City Planning Committee and City Council voted unanimously to decrease the number of people allowed to be locked up in OPP. As one VOTE member reminds us, this year we earned an official nickname among legislators: the blue shirts.
7. We strengthened our partnerships
Social movements can’t happen in silos. That’s why almost everything we do is with at least one partner organization that shares our values and visions. Our members are the weavers between partner organizations, strengthening the fabric of our entire movement. For example, VOTE member Wan Qi Kong participated in the 9th Annual NOLA to Angola bike ride this fall. “Completing the ride deepened my commitment to justice reform work,” she says. “It was a beautiful and moving experience.” Other members have brought new partnerships into our fold by running a toy drive for children with incarcerated parents and starting a prison ministry called Abolition Apostles--a few of many examples.
8. We grew
Our statewide network has more members now than we’ve ever had before. “I learned about VOTE this past summer from a friend and made it my mission to get more involved,” a New Orleans member told us. Another said that they felt inspired to come back after many years away. In addition to the growth of our main chapter in New Orleans, we’ve seen the same in our three other chapters in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Shreveport. In the new year and beyond, we’re committed to developing these three other chapters, and one way we’ve already done that is by hiring four more full-time organizers. Additionally, our partner organization Voters Organized to Educate, which can lobby, endorse candidates, and get closer to political issues in the movement, hired its first full-time staff. We’re excited to work with all of the growing branches in our ever-expanding tree!
9. We deepened friendships
Our organization was started by several friends who had the shared experience of being incarcerated and were committed to changing their fate. Relationships are what keep this movement united, and we’re proud to be the reasons that many VOTE members became fast friends. “I was able to meet new friends this year who share the same passion as myself--fighting for justice,” says one VOTE member. These friendships remind us that what we’re building is a movement based on love.
10. We committed to gaining more wins
One VOTE member had a poignant message for us to remember as we celebrate this past year. “I’m waiting to receive my win,” he says, reminding us that there’s always more work to do, and more wins to be had. As we move into 2020 and beyond, these truths will echo in our ears.
These wins prove that VOTE is on the up and up. And they would not have been possible without the continued support of our community. Please consider us in your year-end giving. Make a donation here. Just like our wins, no donation is too big or small.
I ask this question, to all who’ve known me.
And still I get no answer to this question.
Why I can't see, the things that are right in front of my face?
As I try to see my life for what it really is
It makes me sick to my stomach.
Sometimes I know things as if I have already seen them.
I try to understand why my mind sees things before they happen?
I can't explain this.
Sometimes I lay on my rack
Thinking bad things about people that are good to me.
Sometimes my mind rows to and fro,
but it never stops thinking.
I have asked God what this means and I get no answer!
So, I try not to think this way,
But the bad outweighs the good sometimes.
I love all people,
But sometimes I just think about killing them all.
I know this is not good,
so I ask God to please stop these thoughts.
I snap back to the same question I asked in the beginning of this.
Why I can't see that that is right in front of my face?
I sometimes feel that I'm blind to it,
It makes me lost to know where I'm not at sometimes!
As I ask for directions to help me on this path,
God has no time for me or anything that I'm asking.
I lose my whole train of thought and have to start all over again.
I really hate it when this happens!
I say to myself: ‘God please fix my silly mind and bring me back.’
Back to where I understand,
Where I know what's going on.
I have tons of crap going through my mind in seconds.
This makes for a bad headache,
So I again cry out to God and ask the same question.
Why can't I see?
Still He has no time for my answer.
God, Lord. Help me in this time of need for Your Son is lost and confused.
Straighten out my path so that I may understand where my mind catches up with my body!
Lord I just want for all this to stop.
Allow me to see what's in front of my face
So that when I ask “why can't I see?"
I see what’s always been right there!
God allow my mind to focus on the simple things
And allow it to get back on the right path of trusting in the best things I need.
That I may finally see what it is that you have for me O Lord.
Sometimes the easiest things are the hardest things to overcome.
I just would like to see!
God thanks for all You do and all that You are going to do,
to me and others in my life.
Lord forgive me for I'm not the best apple in the basket,
But I try to be what You want me to be Lord.
Allow me to keep pushing towards the mark, Father.
Please make me better in every way Lord.
Allow me to be brighter than I've ever been, Father.
I just need this in my life, O God.
Strengthen me where I'm broken,
and straighten out my mind in ways that I may be normal.
Now I can see what I was looking for,
It was there all along.
It was You, God!
In Jesus’ name:
I Love, Love You Lord...
If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to email@example.com and we'll be in touch! We'll share the content on social media and always give credit to the artist(s) involved. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Aaron Kitzler is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penitentiary.
Mass incarceration and access to healthcare are both subjects in the national spotlight, but not many people are talking about the connection between the two. We know firsthand that this intersection can’t be overlooked. It’s what drove us to partner with Tulane University to open the Formerly Incarcerated Transition (FIT) Clinic, a place for formerly incarcerated people (FIP) to go get quality healthcare as they transition into life on the outside. Now we’re expanding our work on medical rights via an exciting new opportunity. Last month, our Deputy Director Bruce Reilly (BR), Andrea Armstrong (AA), Professor of Law at Loyola University New Orleans, and Ashley Wennerstrom (AW) with the Center for Healthcare, Value, and Equity at LSU Health Sciences Center won a research fellowship from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). For the next three years, they’ll work together to lift up the medical needs of directly impacted people by taking a complete look at medical treatment (or lack thereof) within prison walls, reviewing the transition services currently available to people in Louisiana, and evaluating the effectiveness of Louisiana’s Medicaid expansion to include people with convictions. We sat down with this incredible research team to learn about why FIP-centered research is so crucial at this moment, what excites them about this opportunity, and more.
VOTE: How are you doing today? What’s something on your heart that you’re bringing with you here?
BR: Awesome. I’m thinking about the love of my daughter who’s in town!
VOTE: How did it feel when you found out you received the fellowship?
AA: Disbelief. We had just been dreaming about what the project could be like and worked on the application for so long, so when we got the email that we’d been selected it was unreal.
VOTE: How did you become interested in the intersection of incarceration and healthcare?
AA: The focus of all my research is on jail and prison conditions. It’s always been really clear to me that medical care is the leading cause of death in prison and jails, so to prevent these deaths is a really exciting possibility.
AW: My involvement started many years ago. I had a dear friend who was locked up for about 44 years, and he got cancer while incarcerated. It started as Hepatitis C, which went untreated and turned into liver cancer. It was awful to watch him go through that. His conviction was overturned, and he was released just a few days before he died. He came home with me, some friends and family. I saw firsthand the consequences of someone not getting care while incarcerated. His name was Herman Wallace, of The Angola 3.
BR: I saw so many people suffering from mental and physical health issues on the inside, as well as the real gaps in treatment and the dubiousness with which healthcare “professionals” treat people who are complaining of symptoms. When I learned about the legal standards of care, I saw the challenges with them, the failure to meet them, When I got out, I saw it’s not just a symptom of incarceration, but also a symptom of poverty.
VOTE: What are your goals for the fellowship?
AW: More broadly, [a goal is to shift] thinking about criminal justice as a public health issue, and help reframe the narrative about why it’s so important for us to care about people who are and were incarcerated.
BR: [We also want to] build awareness that this is an issue. It’s not until you start talking about it. Then people go, “oh yeah, I’ve never thought about that.” There are a lot of issues that people never thought of until some currently incarcerated people started shaking the tree a little bit.
AA: We’ll have a chance to document in a systematic way all of the different ways that people are not receiving constitutionally proper healthcare. I don’t think there’s very much that’s known about how healthcare is delivered in jails and prisons. So this is a small project that provides the opportunity for deeper work. What comes out the end of these years will lay stronger foundations for future study. The ultimate goal is to improve conditions with better healthcare with Louisiana prisons primarily, but hopefully also jails. We hope to develop strong policy changes and recommendations to put forward.
VOTE: What role do you think academia and research have in reforming our carceral system?
AA: It’s about creating a story. Academia builds a data-focused, broader story. Ashley and I in different ways are contributing the analytical data that supports and confirms the stories that we hear from VOTE members and provides the foundation to advocate for improvements.
AW: I think that in order for that research to be effective, though, it needs to be done in partnership with people who are directly impacted. This is why we’re so excited to work with VOTE.
BR: When we have these silos and researchers who “know better,” that’s when things run off course. I think we all really benefit from the connection and dedication with the community that good researchers have. The real heart and soul that they put into their work, and why they do it, what motivates them, are all the best qualities that we hope for all members of our community. Sometimes you get people who are really smart [and] they may fight to win, but they’re not really in it for the right reasons, and they’re not going to stick around when the fight is over. So we try to build with people who are in it to win it and in it to the limit.
VOTE: Why is access to Medicaid is important for people who are just getting out?
AA: Overwhelmingly nationwide, we tend to incarcerate people who are marginalized through their income, their race, gender, disability and/or mental health status. So the people who are being released are those who were treated as second-class members of the country before they even went to prison. When they’re released, they’re likely leaving more traumatized than they came in with. [We’ll analyze] Medicaid data [for] the types of services [FIP] access when they get out and ask if the use is different from the general population. If it is, the question is why? Our hypothesis is that the use would be different because they may not have received constitutionally adequate healthcare on the inside.
AW: Medicaid [access] is absolutely critical. We know that people are at an increased risk of death right when they get out. For two weeks after being released from prison, people are 12 times more likely to die than others in society.
VOTE: Can you describe what the community engagement aspect of this research will look like?
AW: Our partnership is rooted not just in collaboration, but in friendship. Bruce and I have been doing this kind of work together for about five years already. My highest desire is whatever the directly impacted community wants. Right now, we intend to do focus groups with formerly incarcerated people about their needs that weren’t met [while they were on the inside]. Though it will be difficult, we’re also going to try to do interviews and/or focus groups with people who are currently incarcerated. [Throughout the research], we’ll keep directly impacted communities and transition services updated on what we’re finding, and check in with VOTE staff and members to be sure we’re asking the right questions and doing the research the right way. If the community says there’s something we’ve missed, by all means, we can make adjustments as we go.
VOTE: What do you hope the long-term impact of your study will be?
BR: This fellowship is another brick in the wall, another step in the journey towards giving people the healthcare they deserve. If you’re going to take over someone’s body, and not give them the option to take care of their own body, then you have to take care of that body until you no longer have control over them. No one should live in a world where their family members go to prison and aren’t able to get preventative medications or to treat things that are treatable, and suddenly have them dumped back on your door.
AA: In many ways, jails and prisons are seen as isolated “behind the walls” spaces where society and family members don’t have access, and [therefore can’t be] involved. Instead, I want us to think about them as public health spaces. Jails and prisons are part of our social fabric. What happens in these facilities doesn’t stay contained in these walls, but spills out in lots of different ways--in incarcerated people’s relationships with their families, their ability to get a job. When we think about these spaces as public health spaces our practices radically change.
AW: We have this idea that people who are in prison are “bad people”, so while they’re there whatever happens to them is not really our concern. We hope to bring some compassion to this issue. Regardless of whether someone is incarcerated, they still have the right to respect and dignity. Poor health should not be part of the punishment.
VOTE: Beyond this fellowship, what do you hope to see for the future of healthy communities?
AA: First, I’d like to see people leave no worse off than when they entered [jail or prison]. Confinement and separation are punishment enough. We have people who are being held captive to a healthcare system that doesn’t keep them healthy. Health takes lots of forms. In healthy communities, mental health is addressed, people can get acute and preventative care when they need it--not just when it’s an emergency--and when people come home they don’t have lots of obstacles.
AW: When we think about reentry, [sometimes it] sounds like we’re trying to check boxes of getting someone housing or a job. We forget to talk about people’s wellness and mental health. We don’t think about restoring and establishing relationships that have been damaged [or prevented] while people were incarcerated. How do we help this person become a full member of society in the same way that we do for those of us who haven’t been incarcerated?
BR: Part of this is about access, part of it is about availability. Those are two different things. It’s kind of like having voting rights and not having them. Just because you have them doesn’t mean you can use them. If you’re going to have a program that’s providing, let’s say, medication treatment for addiction, but at the same time isn’t going to test people for diabetes, it’s a little bit half-hearted and may defeat the whole purpose. Why am I going to keep you alive if I’m going to let you die of something else? I want to see a world where the medical professionals are as engaged with our community of currently and formerly incarcerated people as they are with other communities. There’s no reason for that division. If you’re in jail in New Orleans, you’re within half a mile of three hospitals. There’s no reason to build a barrier and say “we don’t do healthcare across the wall.”