Now Ïz the t’yme to open our eyez
And realÏze our own demÏse
WE MUST RÏSE!
The lÏmÏt Ïz the sky;
As we strÏve to survÏve
We the people must unÏte
Put pryde to the sÏde.
Now Ïz the tyme
Tú konneck wÏth our kreator
B’kum a Ïnnovator,
Not no ÏnstÏgator,
And Ïnkrease lÏke an elevator.
Now Ïz the tyme
Water our vÏnes
Keep relatÏons DÏvÏne
And embrance the sÏgns
as the chose’n people.
Now Ïz the t’yme
Tú make a choÏce
And have a voÏce,
ExercÏse yo lÏbetÏes
ExhÏbÏt yo dÏgnÏtÏes,
And stand fÏrm
LÏke the Statue of LÏberty.
Cislah Smoot is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penitentiary. 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! Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! We'll share the content with our network and always give credit to the artist(s) involved.
Over the weekend, VOTE and the Power Coalition officially launched our fall Get out the Vote (GOTV) efforts. Now, canvassers are hitting the streets, knocking on doors to encourage people to vote. At the same time, VOTE staff members continue to coordinate with probation and parole offices across the state, making sure everyone is up to speed with the Act 636, the new law that restored voting rights to at least 40,000 Louisianans on March 1.
The key to our efforts is helping each player help themselves, whether they are a volunteer, a probation and parole office employee, or a formerly incarcerated person trying to get registered. Our Shreveport Chapter Organizer Felicia Smith went to support Ms. Jessie, a volunteer from Lighthouse Ministry, who was doing voter registration at the local probation and parole office. Initially, the probation and parole staff were saying "we aren't clerical" and would not print out any Voter Eligibility Forms, which is the key piece of paperwork that people registering under Act 636 need. Eventually, Felicia convinced the staff to help. "Make a list, and we will get the forms to people," they told her. About an hour later, Mr. Nolan, the probation and parole office supervisor, showed up and got the forms. Of the 25 people listed, 13 were eligible, and they all got their paperwork completed that one day. Felicia is staying in close contact with Ms. Jessie, who has been back several times to register even more people.
Over in uptown New Orleans, on Thursday night our superstar member Earl Hagans will lead a meeting at 6pm at Rosenwald Recreation Center, 1120 S. Broad St. Earl's goal is to listen to the local needs of his community, and engage them in his own GOTV efforts.
Though our work has not been without administrative problems--raising crucial concerns about voter suppression--we will keep moving forward. In addition to our canvassing initiative, we have yard signs posted in neutral grounds, billboards in prominent intersections throughout the greater New Orleans area, and a how-to registration video that is being shared far and wide.
Our amazing teams in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Shreveport are going full force just in time for the upcoming voter registration deadlines. In order to vote in Louisiana's Oct. 12 super-election, where many positions that directly affect the fate of mass incarceration are open, people have to register in person by the end of TOMORROW! While the online deadline to register isn't until Sept. 21, we encourage anyone with a conviction to register in person since there is additional paperwork to submit. Call us at 504-571-9599 for help, or email us at email@example.com.
Who am I to demand justice?
I have no rights.
I'm just an inmate.
Human rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, animal rights,
What am I to expect?
Oh! what the heck,
I'm just an inmate.
I trusted justice and received conviction without evidence.
I became the property of the state,
I'm just an inmate.
No control over any part of my life, yet I exist.
Damn, I'm pissed!
The power of the D.A.'s office and the court system to have me jailed,
With erroneous testimonies,
the verdict was hailed,
Make him an inmate.
I pray to God and have great faith,
and yes,I'm still the property of the state.
I'm just an inmate.
The faith that I have, in the power of prayer and of my God,
I'm confident and trust in my Lord.
Truth and justice will prevail;
I know this down in my soul's core.
My faith and fighting to show my innocence,
I know soon,
I will be an inmate no more.
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! Michael Videau is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penetentiary.
Approximately six million Americans are denied the right to vote because they have a conviction. This is called felony disenfranchisement and it is one of the many tactics of systemic racism. For many years, formerly incarcerated people--like the majority of us at VOTE-- have been stripped of our right to vote, which is essentially the right to speak up and see true justice. Without our voting rights, we’ve had to watch as people who don’t understand or care about us make decisions for our future. But, as of March 1, many of us no longer have to watch from the sidelines. Thanks to the dedication and successes of formerly incarcerated leaders, on that day about 40,000 Louisianans with convictions became eligible to vote. Under this new law--Act 636--anyone who: is off probation and parole, is on probation, or has been on parole for at least 5 years can vote. Now that many of us have our voting rights back, we need to hit the polls. We need to vote on behalf of those who still can’t, who are still behind bars. We need to be modern-day mythbusters, knocking down every argument we hear about why voting doesn’t matter. Because it really, truly does. By voting, we can elect leaders who will help us create a world without mass incarceration.
Louisiana has a super-election in less than 60 days. In addition to local elections for sheriffs and judges, we have elections for the Governor, Attorney General, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Treasurer, all 105 State Representatives, all 39 State Senators, and more. Every one of these positions has a say in the fate of mass incarceration in our state. In other words, the time to use your vote to help us fight the criminal (in)justice system is Oct. 12. The deadline to register in person is Sept. 11--less than a month away--and the online deadline is close behind on Sept. 21. Please vote because the system will only work for us if we change it to be that way.
1. “My vote is just one vote, so it’s not significant enough to matter.”
This is an excuse that almost all of us have heard. It's understandable that people might feel this way, but it couldn't be further from the truth. There have been many times in history that a single vote was the deciding factor in a major election. In 2016, a House Representative from Wyoming won by just one vote, 583 to 582. In 2008, Republican Rep. Mike Kelly won re-election by a vote of 5,018 to 5,017 over Democratic challenger Karl Kassel. Four years later, Representative Stacey Newman of Missouri won 1,823 to 1,822--just one vote more than her opponent. Now how can you tell us that just one vote can't change the course of the future?
2. “There are no good options, none of them stand for what I truly believe in.”
No candidate is perfect, and that fact shouldn’t discourage us from voting for the one who most closely aligns with our beliefs. It’s better to have someone in office who agrees with two or three of the core issues we are working to reform, rather than someone who will actively support mass incarceration. Choosing someone who checks off some of our boxes is still a step in the right direction.
3. “No candidate truly cares about us.”
It can be hard for us to trust candidates who say they care about us when we’ve been taken advantage of or completely disregarded by the government for centuries. But, there are candidates who do really care about us. For example, Louisiana House Representative Patricia Smith is not shy in showing how she cares about her people in Louisiana, especially those of us with convictions. Smith helped us pass House Bill 265, which restored voting rights to 40,000 formerly incarcerated Louisianans on March 1. When she’s not in her office working on legislation, she is out in her community. On a Sunday, she came out to a Black Voters Matter voter registration event we were hosting, and a few weeks later attended several women’s parole hearings to show her support for bringing them home. She is an elected official who is not in it for the money or the power, and she’s not the only one. Royce Duplessis is another Louisiana House Representative who has come to our meetings, asking his community for feedback about what he can do better--an action that is sometimes ignored by our politicians. These politicians were elected by people like us, and just imagine how we could elect more leaders like them if we all voted.
4. “The government system is corrupt. It’s broken beyond repair at this point.”
The criminal (in)justice system we’re living under isn't broken, it works perfectly. It does exactly what it was made to do. But the way it’s made is not for our people. What makes our system work this way one might ask? People. People are the ones who create and maintain the system. A way to change the system is to change the people who influence the system, and that’s where voting comes in. We need to vote for the people who make sure the system is in our best interest, and not vote for the people who perpetuate corruption.
5. “The Electoral College system is rigged. Hilary got more votes than Trump, but he won.”
The Electoral College only applies to presidential elections, which are every 4 years. There are so many other important elections between then, however, that affect our daily lives and do not use the Electoral College. Local and state elections are based on a simple popular vote win and influence issues closer to home, such as housing, employment, reproductive rights, and criminal (in)justice reform. Our votes have even more power locally than they do at the federal level because, on average, far less people vote locally than they do nationally. Because the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Treasurer, all 105 House Representatives, and all 39 State Senators have their seats open on Oct. 12, Louisiana has a chance to “reset” the state on that day. In other words, we can elect officials who will create and change laws and policies that directly affect us.
6. “I have so much on my plate right now, so voting is not a priority.”
When we are just trying to make ends meet day by day--which is even harder for people with convictions--it’s easy to push voting to the side. Voting can seem very disconnected from the challenges we face everyday, but it can actually release those stresses. The minimum wage we receive, the healthcare we have or don’t have, and whether or not we’re able to access housing with the stamp of incarceration on our backs are all a function of the government. By voting, we are making our voices heard and let the government know how it should be taking care of us.
7. “The polls are not easily accessible for me.”
Voting takes less than 15 minutes on average, whereas the issues and people we’re voting on will affect us for the rest of our lives. While many states require employers to give employees paid time off to go vote, unfortunately Louisiana isn’t one of them. But if we all go vote, we can change this and add our state to that list! In the meantime, you can pack a lunch for work and head to the polls during your break or early before your day starts. Most polls are open as early as 7am and as late as 8pm. Find your polling location hours here. If transportation to the polls is an issue, there are options such as getting a free ride through Vote Riders or a Carpool Network if you’re in New Orleans. If it’s still not possible for you to get to the polls on Election Day, you can vote early during the Early Voting period (Sept. 28 through Oct. 5 for the upcoming Oct. 12 election). Or you can submit an absentee ballot as long as you plan ahead so that it will get to the Registrar’s Office in time for the election.
8. “I don’t think I’m eligible to vote.”
As of March 1, if you are off probation or parole; have been on parole for at least five years; or on probation, you CAN vote! If you’ve been to jail but never received a conviction, you can vote, too. Finally, if you have a misdemeanor charge, you never lost your voting rights! Disenfranchisement is only based on felony convictions, and we fight to end this practice every day. Don’t assume you or your loved ones can’t vote! If you’re unsure, please call us at 504-571-9599 or email us at email@example.com. There are a lot of myths out there about who can and can’t vote and what you need to do to get registered, but we’re here to help you figure it all out.
9. “I don’t want to be called for jury duty.”
Juries are the cornerstone of democracy in America. Juries decide if we are innocent or guilty. As such, our lives can be in the palm of their hands. Juries were created to be a representative sample of the person on trial’s peers, yet in Louisiana, on average only two of the 12 jurors are people of color. Worse, until January 1 of this year, Louisiana was one of only two states that allowed people to be convicted on a non-unanimous jury. In other words, this Jim Crow-era law made it possible for 10 white jurors to convict someone who they thought was guilty, even if the remaining two jurors thought he was innocent. This led to the wrongful conviction of many Black Louisianans, including our own leader, Norris Henderson. Today, thanks to Norris’ leadership, non-unanimous juries are no longer legal in Louisiana. But that doesn’t change the racial makeup of juries, so it’s as important as ever for those who care about ending mass incarceration to show up for jury duty. This gives us the power to make fair and just decisions on behalf of those in our communities whose lives and circumstances may be a lot like ours.
10. “I don’t vote because it’s not part of my norm. I have never been surrounded by people who vote.”
Now is the time to break the cycle of avoiding civic engagement. Many of us have lived our lives without understanding the importance of voting, whether it be because our parents never voted or our social circle never talked about politics. But our ancestors didn’t fight for our rights--including the right to cast a ballot--just for us to dismiss them and ignore the chance to create change. We owe it to them to never miss an election day and to show the next generation the importance of exercising the right to vote. If everyone participated in voting, our whole government could be rid of injustices. We need to wake up the sleeping giant by having our voices be heard at the election polls.
If we haven’t convinced you by now to vote, we won’t stop trying. With less than 80 days until the Oct. 12 election and so many seats up for election, there is a lot more work to be done. If you or someone you know is interested in helping us register people to vote, call us at 504-571-9599 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get you set up. Geaux vote!
The force moved me.
A powerful one beyond my conscious control--it pushed me through the torrential rainstorm darkening the landscape of my consciousness. Walk upstairs, the force compelled. Turn right. Three shadowy, indistinguishable figures were to my right, standing just outside of my mom’s apartment door. Go inside. Another dark figure inside--keep moving. Somehow, someway, as I moved past the figure inside, a slurry jumble of sounds coalesced into a recognizable expression: “What’s up, Rico?” But I was powerless to respond to it. Keep moving. Then all of a sudden, as if teleported, I found myself standing at the foot of my mother’s bed, trembling uncontrollably as I looked down at her napping. About two feet to the left of her head, a night stand held a small, rectangular alarm clock. In red, computerized digits, the clock read 2:53 p.m.
Just an hour earlier, I had been playing Nintendo at my friend Kevin’s house.
“I’m tired of beating you,” I said to Kevin, playfully.
“It’s three-to-one,” he responded. “You said the same thing last time and I came back on you.”
We were playing a Nintendo basketball game called Double Dribble. Kevin, who was fourteen, thought he was always supposed to beat me in any competition since he was a year older than I was.
“Let’s go by Lil Robert’s house and shoot a game of twenty-one. I might let you win a game,” I said.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Lil Robert was a friend of ours who lived in a section of our neighborhood called ‘’Cross The Canal.’ To get to his house, we’d literally have to cross over a canal that divided The Loop--our neighborhood--into two almost symmetrical sections. The canal divided The Loop in other ways as well. ‘Cross the Canal was the more crime ridden section of The Loop. Once happy homes where large family gatherings had taken place, where childish squeals had erupted from little kids playing hide-and-seek, where love, laughter, and life had vibrated like a pleasant hum, soothing and welcoming--most of those homes ‘Cross The Canal had been reduced to barely habitable dwellings. Some were crackhouses in front of which stood any number of drugs dealers plying their trade. Sometimes when we’d pass them, the younger ones close to our age--Kevin and mine--would stare at us with provocative intensity, daring either of us to respond to their unspoken challenge. Beware, their eyes said to us in warning. Beware!
Nevertheless, whenever we wanted to play basketball, we’d go to Lil Robert’s. His house was a refuge of sorts ‘Cross The Canal. His dad had bought him an adjustable basketball goal for his thirteenth birthday and set it up in their driveway to keep Lil Robert close to home and out of trouble. All of the neighborhood kids loved to play ball over there since they could adjust the goal to its lowest notch and mimic the slam dunks of their favorite basketball players.
The sun hugged me when I stepped outside of Kevin’s house. I greeted it with me eyes closed, smiling as it delicately embraced me with its warmth, a sensation which reminded me of the loving, good-bye hugs my mother gave to me just before she’d send me off to stay with my dad for the holidays. A lot of people will be there today, I thought, as Kevin and I skipped down the street. In our neighborhood, everybody liked to play basketball on beautiful summer days.
But to my surprise, when we made it to Lil Robert’s house, Shane was the only person there. Shane was another friend of ours who lived ‘Cross The Canal. We often played basketball with him whenever we met up at Lil Robert’s house. You could count on him being there any time the sun was out.
“Where’s everyone at?” Kevin asked him.
“I don’t know,” Shane replied. “I was just sitting here waiting for somebody to show up so I could beat ‘em in a game of twenty-one,” he added tauntingly.
“Take out,” I said.
Shane took off a black backpack that he always carried with him and laid it in the grass right beside the driveway. Then he took the ball out.
Just as he usually did, Shane completely dominated the game. He was sixteen years old, five feet ten inches tall, athletic, and very strong. He was also very aggressive. Neither Kevin (standing at about five feet even) nor I (standing slightly under that) could compete against his physical or athletic advantages. We tried though.
One play during the second game, as Shane drove hard to the basket, Kevin, laughing, jumped on his back to prevent him from dunking. After shaking Kevin off his back, Shane immediately spun around. His presence had completely transformed; it radiated with violent energy. It was there like atomic energy, present but not visible, unstable and highly charged--explosive.
“What did you do that for?” he yelled angrily at Kevin . Then he grabbed the basketball with both hands and slammed it into Kevin’s face. Kevin staggered backwards, stunned. Shane then turned and glowered at me. “You want some, nigga?” he asked and started in my direction. At his approach, my reality seemed to speed into a streaking almost imperceptible blur: adrenaline rushed; time zoomed; sound muted. The minutes earlier screech… screech… screech… of athletic shoes gripping on concrete pavement; the loud CLANG of a vibrating rim; Kevin’s gleeful, childish exclaims of “Michael Jordan”--all of those 'summertime in The Loop' sounds--transformed into tragic silence seconds after I looked away from Shane’s stare and ran towards his black backpack where I knew he always kept a loaded handgun.
* * *
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but at some point I raced home from ’cross the canal, shock subjugating my conscious thought, turning instead to instinctual drive. So it was with a vague sense of puzzlement that I read the time--2:53 p.m.--on the alarm clock beside my mother’s bed. After standing at the foot of her bed for a few seconds, my mind cleared up suddenly, like someone had blown a layer of settled dust from the surface of an old record. “Ma! Ma, wake up! Ma, wake up!” The words nervously rushed out of my mouth. I was just about to reach down and shake her, but she turned on her side and groggily looked up at me. I was her only child, her innocent, precious and only son. “I think I just killed Shane!” she heard me say in a panic.
Before that day, I didn’t know that taking someone’s life was something to be proud of. I had been a normal thirteen-year-old kid who loved to hang out with his friends and play videogames. Nor did I know that I was supposed to idolize the neighborhood drug dealers, gangsters, and killers; no one had ever taught me that what they did was a route to success. I certainly used to listen to gangsta rap music, but only because I liked the sound--before that day, I had not interpreted its messages as tutorials on how to live. But years later, after I had served two years and eight months in a juvenile prison, I had been reprogrammed to travel life in accordance to the rules of a new value system. I had crossed the canal.
Jirrico McKee is currently incarcerated at Raymond LaBorde Correctional Center (RLCC).
f 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!
Albert Woodfox spent almost 45 years in a 6-by-9-foot cell for 23 hours a day. Despite this, he says that his mind was free, in large part because he still had access to books. In other words, reading is freedom, and can help us see a pathway out of our current reality. Whether you’re new to the issue of mass incarceration, or directly impacted by it, our summer reading list has a book or two for you! From the racist history of modern-day slavery to the possibilities of a world without prisons, this list will take you from past, to present, to future. Can you finish this list before the summer is over? Challenge on!
This book should really be in the #1 spot, but we are starting this list with books that teach us how mass incarceration became a system of racial control and its impacts today. Alexander challenges the notion that the election of Barack Obama created a new era of colorblindness, arguing that "we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it." This is a must read for those who haven’t read this book before or are new to the issue. And, if you have already read this book, it’s a book worth reading again!
We love this book not only because it is written by a formerly incarcerated person, but also because Curtis used to co-lead our Shreveport chapter of VOTE (and is now using his talents as a certified paralegal at the Southern Poverty Law Center). Our leader Norris Henderson often says that “ those closest to the issue are closest to the solution,” and Curtis is a great example of this kind of leadership. Through a collection of essays and articles, Curtis illustrates the current state of the Louisiana criminal (in)justice system and its failures. Through his first (and likely not last) publication, he answers such questions as: how did Louisiana become the state with the highest incarceration rate? Why are more than 80 percent of Louisiana prisoners of African descent? We’ll give you a hint: it has to do with white supremacy and enslavement by design.
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” says Bryan Stevenson, Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a feature on the Netflix movie, 13th. Stevenson shows how the current issues of the criminal (in)justice system by sharing his experience of working as a civil rights lawyer fighting for the rights of death row prisoners. This inspiring and powerful book about defending those who are incarcerated includes stories of those who are still on the inside. Stevenson epitomizes how one person can change many lives.
Woodfox, the aforementioned survivor of solitary confinement, is a Native New Orleanian who spent almost five decades in lockdown for a crime he did not commit. One would think that this experience would push him to be defeated, but those harsh years of enduring violence and deprivation have instead inspired him to demand an end to this form of torture. As part of the Louisiana Stop Solitary Coalition, last month we hosted a press conference where Woodfox and other survivors of solitary spoke about their experiences. Their words align with a groundbreaking new report that includes testimonies from more than 700 people currently on lockdown--the largest ever of its kind. Watch the whole conference here, then come to our next coalition meeting!
We know that racial discrimination is one of the root causes of criminal (in)justice system. The Hate U Give is narrated by a 16-year-old girl whose life becomes public on a national level when she witnesses a white police officer fatally shoot her childhood friend, Khali, who is a Black teen. She is the only one who can share what really happened that night Khali was shot, and what she says has an effect on her community. Through fiction, this book attempts to teach readers what life is like for a young Black person in America.
The story of five young boys who were wrongfully convicted has been brought in the spotlight again by Ava DuVernay’s new series, When They See Us. Whether or not you have already seen the series, this book is a must-read to understand the deep-rooted race and class divisions in New York City at the time of the conviction, and how this case could've easily been in Louisiana, too. Sarah Burns tells the full story of this historic case as a microcosm of the ongoing criminal (in)justice system in America. This is a thought-provoking summer read for those who want to learn more about institutional racism and the challenges that young men of color face from arrest to sentencing and beyond. While this book and those before it have painted a picture of mass incarceration today and how it came to be, we also know that we need resources that can help us imagine a world without incarceration. The next books on this list will take you on that very journey into the future.
One out of every 7 people in prison in the United States is currently serving a life sentence. The Meaning of Life advocates for the end of life sentences, as well as reducing all sentences to 20 years or less. The authors explain how most incarcerated people age out of crime and once they are in their 40s, meaning that from then on they are at a very low risk of recidivism. This is a book for those who hunger for compassion and justice.
Imagine a world without prisons, a world more focused on healing and rehabilitation than punishment. Are Prisons Obsolete? advocates for the end of incarceration. Longtime prison abolitionist Angela Davis describes how prisons perpetuate racism and sexism, and imprison Black and Latinx individuals for capitalistic reasons. For generations of Americans, people thought the abolishment of slavery was not attainable, but it was. People thought segregation would last a lifetime, but it did not. Now we are asking you to believe in a world without mass incarceration. This book is a must read for those who are ready to take on the case for the complete abolition of all prisons.
Danielle Sered is a good friend of VOTE’s, but that’s not the only reason we chose this book for our list. Sered helps us see the possible future by offering insight into how we can address violence without relying on the inhumanity of mass incarceration. This book centers not just the stories, but also the desires of survivors of violence in terms of healing, accountability and interacting with the people who hurt them. She shows that people who commit violent crimes can accept responsibility and make meaningful amends to those they have hurt--something that the current process of trials, sentencing and incarceration doesn’t allow for.
Last but not least, this book discusses one of VOTE’s most important values: community. This book influenced Woodfox, the author of Solitary (which is earlier on this list), to believe that one man can make a difference. The Different Drum describes what community means, how it can be developed on the principles of love and tolerance, and how it transforms our lives. Peck addresses the stages of spiritual growth and shows how the weaknesses of human nature and lack of true community in the world have led to some of the world’s most pressing problems. This book is for those who seek to learn how to be authentically part of communities and how, together, we have the solution.
They grew next to my grandparents' house
When I was a kid
Papa planted them to cover an old well
My sister once fell in
And I remember them well.
I caught my first baseball
Under their watchful eyes
I learned to play football
While they cheered from the sidelines
They may have even gasped
When I broke my wrist
I remember them well.
Their leaves seemed as big as
Papa's cowboy hat,
To my little brown eyes
Their stalks like pine trees
Tall and slender and strong
Their proud blossoms flamed bright
Like torches sent to ignite the night
I remember them so well.
The small cluster that was a wild jungle
During a game of hide and seek
The perfect place to find ladybugs and caterpillars
Even when sorrow visited our home
There they were standing tall and courageous
By our side.
Every calla lily I see today
Takes me back to that place
Where a little boy caught his first baseball
And busted his nose
Where he dug up worms
To scare his Big Mama
Where honeysuckle dances on the breeze
And blackberries grow wild and free
Where a bike is the first invitation to freedom
Where Papa surprises everyone with juicy red watermelons
(and a yellow one for my Momma, his "Jo Baby")
Where summer is sugar cane juice dripping off your chin
As you pedal through town looking for adventure
Where grown ups sit on the porch and shuck corn and shell peas
And laugh like pain never existed
I remember them well
Where innocence is lost
And redemption is found
Where tears are shed and secrets are told
Where food seems to always be in abundance
And meals are loud and long
Where love lives in every heart
Where generations gather
And stand tall, strong, and proud
Like orange calla lilies.
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.
From slavery, to Jim Crow, to, now, mass incarceration, America has tied Black people's hands behind their backs, refusing to let them practice basic rights, including the right to vote. For those of us with convictions, this is called felony disenfranchisement, and it prevents millions from being able to have their voice heard in the political process. On March 1 of this year, Act 636 restored voting rights to: formerly incarcerated people (FIP) who are off probation or parole; those who have been on parole for at least five years; and those who are on probation and haven’t received a new conviction. From June 30 to July 3, VOTE and Black Voters Matter drove across Louisiana to register anyone eligible under this new law. We learned and were reminded of many things on the road, such as the unstoppable power of the people, the importance of directly impacted leadership, and the depth of love and strength in our communities. Between now and the fall elections, we’ll be taking the following lessons with us as we register even more FIP to vote.
1. The South is rising.
Before we started the tour, we faced some pushback about what we were doing. That pushback promised that the old South is being rattled. For years, southern states have been called ‘backwards,’ ‘slow,’ and ‘not progressive.’ These are excuses for the racism and oppression that happens in these states. Our bus tour dispelled these narratives, showing all involved that the South is not stuck in its racist history. Loud and proud, we drove a giant bus that read “Black Voters Matter” in big letters across the very southern state of Louisiana. This is the new South. Just as the Freedom Riders drove interstate buses into the segregated South to create change, we also rode a bus that challenged the narrative of the old South.
2. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
A core principle of VOTE’s work is that those who are directly impacted by oppression need to be the leaders of liberation work. In other words, the ones closest to the problem are closest to the solution, as our great leader Norris Henderson often reminds us. Black Voters Matter, our co-hosts on the tour, is led by people of color who live the reality of racism every day. At each stop, they got off the bus and started a dance party to James Brown’s Say it loud! I'm Black and I'm proud. As leaders whose experiences matched those of the people attending our tour events, they knew what to talk about, rally around, and chant for. They energized fellow Black communities across the state in both rural and urban areas, proving that having leaders who truly represent us can power up lasting change.
3. No matter the size of a community, the strength it holds can make a difference.
We thought the smallest towns would have the least turnout, but we were proved wrong. Monroe has a population under 50,000, but more than 100 people came out to greet our bus. It felt as though the whole town of Monroe has been waiting decades for a moment like this to happen, reminding us that we can’t leave anyone behind. By being acknowledged and reminded of their power to change the way things are, the people of Monroe became an army ready to restore rights back to their formerly incarcerated community members.
4. One person, one vote can make a difference.
At the end of our first day of the tour, everyone was on the bus ready to leave Baton Rouge and get some rest before continuing on. Before we could leave, though, Louisiana House Representative Patricia Smith--who was instrumental in helping us pass Act 636--needed to give us a pep talk. “You really have the chance to make a difference in your state,” Smith said as she explained why voting is so important. As someone who represents the positive power of the system, her words encouraged us for the rest of the tour. But she wasn’t the only one! Throughout the tour, folks from all over Louisiana showed us that they vote because the know that their voice matters!
5. Voting can help us change our reality.
Even though the majority of people we met along the road wanted to vote, we also meet people every day who don’t make voting a priority because they are struggling to get their basic needs met. As an organization that is led by formerly incarcerated people who have struggled and continue to struggle for their basic needs in some ways, we do not minimize how hard it is to find a job or housing, for example, with a conviction on your back. By electing people who care about us into office, however, we can work with them to end these hardships.
6. Voting can save lives.
After our first stop in Baton Rouge, we took a detour to the corner store where Alton Sterling was shot by the police to pay our respects. On the day he was murdered, Sterling was selling CD’s as he normally did, trying to make some money to support himself. What happened that day is an example of anti-Black violence and the abusive power of the state that allows it to continue. After we parked, everyone got off the bus in silence. Then, immersed in emotions, we held hands in a circle. The sobering moment reminded us how deep the abusive power in this country is, and why we need to do the work that we are doing. People are murdered by state violence every day in this country, and the only way we are going to stop it is if we stop the people behind it. That’s where voting comes in. Who’s in charge of the state? The people we elect. Sterling was murdered because we have elected people who not only tolerate, but support anti-Black violence. But we have the power to elect people who support Black liberation, instead, especially this fall. In other words, our votes can save lives like the one of Alton Sterling.
7. The system is not on our side as much as they need to be.
Because anyone who is newly eligible to vote under Act 636 needs to get paperwork from their local probation and parole office confirming their eligibility, we need cooperation from those offices. In many locations they did support us by showing up and helping smooth the registration process, but their help was not enough, and we learned that most acutely in Shreveport.
There, we held the voter registration right in front of the parole and probation office. Jimmy Taylor, a person we were helping to register, had filled out the registration form and obtained the necessary eligibility paper from the probation and parole office. Since he already had a valid license, he had all three pieces that he needed to finally register. In other words, that moment that should have represented joy and hopefulness. Instead it turned into frustration and disappointment when we realized that the paper that the parole office gave him was for a person named Wendell Sessions, who lived all the way across the state in Metairie.
If we did not catch that mistake, Mr. Taylor could have easily been reincarcerated for voter fraud. The parole and probation office should have been trained enough on voter registration to make sure a mistake like this would not happen, as the registration process is already hard enough for our people as-is. In other words, we can’t be the only ones to make sure people have everything they need, and are getting registered to vote properly. The system, such as the Secretary of State’s office, needs to do their part. We can help along the way, but there is only so much we can do as a small organization.
8. It is going to be a long fight, but a fight that’s worth fighting for.
“No surrender, no retreat” was a popular rally chant throughout the bus tour, reminding us that, despite the administrative setbacks, we’ll keep fighting. Persistence through hardships always wins. For example, though we received a lot of press coverage of the bus tour, not every outlet spoke about us in the most humanizing ways, reducing us to “convicted felons” and the like. These degrading labels paint us as ‘criminals’ who are being ‘let back into society.’ Narratives like these make it harder for people to change their mindset, which is the first and most important step in creating change. Changing the way people think is hard, but not impossible, and for that reason we will not give up.
9. It’s not just about getting people their voting rights back, it’s about making our communities whole.
This tour was bigger than just getting people to register to vote--it was to affirm our humanity. This was clear when a woman in Baton Rouge pulled her car in front of the bus to stop us in our tracks, find out what we were about, and share her story with us. The woman, Patricia Richard, explained to us how she herself is formerly incarcerated. Though she had been arrested 22 times and struggled with substance abuse, she overcame those hardships and has been clean for 15 years. Even better, she now runs her own organization that gives back to the community, and is a registered voter. She fights on behalf of her brother, who is currently incarcerated at Angola, and doesn’t let her obstacles define her destiny. Her story reminds us that we are people who are more than our past. We deserve to be treated as full human beings. We deserve to practice our freedom by taking actions that better ourselves, our families and our communities.
10. Love conquers all.
Martin Luther King Jr. told us that “power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” In other words, love is a powerful tool to create the change we want to see. Love is actionable. It is a force of social justice that brings us together and builds people power.
During the bus tour, we made sure to let people know that we wee not just here to register people to vote. We were also there to spread love. “We love you,” LaTosha Brown, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter, told the crowd at one stop. “And sometimes we don't hear that. We don't see that. We don't believe that. But we drove all the way down here to tell y'all we love you.” And we felt the love in return. At each stop, we were welcomed with big hugs and warm smiles. We didn’t know most of these people and most of us hadn't set foot in any of these towns before, but their love radiated all over and we instantly felt like a part of their community.
We want to create a world where people feel loved and cared for, especially those who have suffered under the prison system. Voting is an expression of love, an expression of caring for ourselves and others. And this fall Louisiana has a huge chance to completely change the political climate and elect people who really care about us. ALL 144 State Representatives and Senators, as well as the Governor, Attorney General and Secretary of State will be up for election on October 12. In order to vote, the deadline to register in person is September 11th, and the online registration deadline is September 21st.
If you (or anyone you know) are eligible to vote under the Act 636, this is your time to change the course of your future! You can still ‘hop on the bus’ by contacting us to help you register to vote, and making sure everyone you know is ready to vote this fall!
Due process of the law was written for the rich and fools the poor.
If you look into the judicial system you will find:
When a poor man commits a crime of violence he dies in a penitentiary,
But when a rich man commits the same crime they always set him free;
Now, America, it’s not hard to see, due process of law is in jeopardy.
It’s funny how due process of law has changed,
Or perhaps, it’s only dollars being rearranged.
The lawmakers of old placed their names ever so bold,
On a piece of paper so old for the rights that we hold,
But now, due process seems to be no more.
America, better wake up and try to make this country what it used to be,
For the rights that we lost were paid for at such a high cost.
What does it take to make you people understand?
A revolution in America is close at hand.
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! Drew Pizzo is currently incarcerated at Rayburn Correctional Center.
On June 19, Fox Rich (left), a formerly incarcerated woman turned freedom fighter, delivered some real talk to a large crowd that had gathered to celebrate Juneteenth, the day commemorating the emancipation of slaves in the former Confederate States of America. “We’re free, and we’re still not free,” she said, alluding to the 6.6 million people who are currently being controlled under slavery’s modern sibling: mass incarceration. Her words are spot on, as anyone who is fighting for the end of the criminal (in)justice system can tell you that it is a world full of contradictions. While we may be free of physical shackles, we are not always free in our minds. While we may have been released from prison gates, there are so many others who are still behind bars. If we believe that our liberation is intertwined, that we cannot be free until the other is, then it is true that we are both free and unfree at the same time. Luckily, our network is full of leaders who have been directly impacted by mass incarceration and are fired up and ready to go. Though the list of freedom fighters in our movement is long, for this Independence Day we’re focusing on the leadership and visions of Fox (FR) of Rich Family Ministries, Mike Biggs (MB), who is the new National Organizer of the Formerly Incarcerated Convicted Peoples and Families’ Movement, and our Lafayette Chapter Organizer Consuela Gaines (CG).
VOTE: How are you feeling today?
CG: Great, because I’m living my purpose, and not very many people can say that honestly. For many years I used to pray, asking what I was born for, and then my purpose was born out of my pain, my struggle, my incarceration, my separation from my family and society.
I actually knew my purpose was to help other formerly incarcerated people (FIP) before I even got out, I just didn’t know how I was going to do it. A few months later I met VOTE’s New Orleans Chapter Organizer Robert Goodman, and from that point on I’ve been living my purpose every day. I am so excited for the voter registration tour we’re doing with Black Voters Matter, because I know how much power is in our vote.
VOTE: Our votes, our voices! Who is one person on your heart right now?
MB: My late grandmother, Mattie Hankins. She always believed in me and kept me out of trouble. It was always positive growing up with her.
CG: Gloria Dean “Mama Glo” Williams, Louisiana’s longest-serving incarcerated woman. When I went to prison, Mama Glo was the first person to take me under her wing. She was a mentor, a mother, a role model to me. Anytime I had issues or problems, I would go to her. She always pretty much kept her door open. Sometimes she could just look at my face and knew that something was wrong. She would say, “Come on and talk to me, what’s going on.” If she needed to chew me out for some crazy thoughts or wanting to quit, she would do that, too. She has a really raspy type of voice, almost like she’s whispering [laughs]. She was always so encouraging--always motivating me and applauding me when I accomplished things. Always letting me know how proud she was of me.
Since I’ve been home, I’ve taken her with me daily because she was there with me for 22 years. Fox and I have been working hard on #FreeMamaGlo, a campaign for her release. Her hearing date is coming up on July 22 [download, print and mail your #FreeMamaGlo postcard TODAY]. I’ve always wanted to be able to say that I helped bring her home, that’s major for me.
FR: I have my fall partner on my mind, my nephew Ontario. I got a JPay [prison system email] from him yesterday that said “hearing from you makes me feel content and full of hope.” I had sent him a Father’s Day card because he’s a father of 3.
VOTE: What would the opposite of a fall partner be to you, Fox?
FR: Well, when you fall into the system, your fall partner is the person with you. They fell along with you when you hit the tragic landing at the bottom. The opposite is my movement family. We fell together, we rise together--from fall partners to movement family. Everything I do [in this work] is with my husband, Rob, too. We’re a team. We work together because it’s about showing the world that we can fight the system as a family.
VOTE: Yes, that’s why we say FIP and their families in our mission. What’s a recent moment that brought you joy?
MB: I was recently in Dothan, Alabama with Kenny Glasgow’s organization, TOPS, The Ordinary People’s Society. They have a summer youth program geared towards kids with ADHD called ‘ADHD Ain’t Me’. My youngest, who is 10 now, was diagnosed with ADHD at three. We’ve had to do different things we’ve had to do over the years like therapies, etc. It was moving to see that TOPS is invested in the kids and working with them at such a young age. Beyond that, I’m loving working FIP and their families.
VOTE: We love it too, clearly! What does the word freedom mean to you?
CG: It means being able to wake up every day and make your own decisions. For 22 years I had to wake up and play by somebody else’s rules--what time to wake up, what to wear, what to eat, what time to go to work, what time to get off work--everything was so controlled. So to me, freedom is having the ability to make your decisions and not have somebody else controlling every decision that you make.
MB: Freedom to me is one’s ability to live in a way that enables them to both feel safe in their environment while freely moving around and exercising their rights and desires. It’s about not being worried about persecution.
FR: Freedom is being able to live one’s life unrestricted. It’s being at liberty, which is a whole other level of freedom. Like my husband, he is physically free outside of prisons, but because he is on parole for the next 40 years, he’s not at liberty to travel around as he wants to. He has to call his PO [parole officer], get paperwork, etc. just to travel. Also, if you don’t have any money, you are financially restricted from liberty.
VOTE: A lack of freedom is one of the worst experiences in the world. How do you handle feeling disheartened?
MB: Music primarily, especially old school rhythm and soul, r&b, and motown. It keeps me grounded, focused and productive. And eating. Southern soul food, seafood, and creole/cajun foods, especially. Gumbo is one of the favorites anywhere I go.
CG: My dad would tell me “never let them see you sweat,” which means don't let them see your weakness, don’t let them know you’re down. So if I get to that point, I just pull on that inner strength and hear my dad. I also think about where I’ve been. I think about people who would love to be in my shoes, because I remember being one of those people, wishing I could walk around in the so-called “free world” where nothing is free. That reminds me how blessed I am. I’ve been able to accomplish so much in the past 2.5 years.
FR: I never get low, honestly. I may get mad, and want to fight the system even more, but not low. I have a freakish addiction to dismantling this mass system of incarceration and nothing about the work could get me down. Frustrated, maybe, but never low. I am honored to do my part in abolishing slavery in America.
VOTE: YES! And you’re so good at it. Speaking of, what qualities do you think make a good leader?
FR: Love. I’m a fanatic of it. I’ve tried it, it works. God is Love, Love is God, and if we just follow Love, we’re doing it right. As long as our intentions are of Love, it’ll lead us the right way. Love is the pinnacle. It’s the most divine chemical in the universe, and it dissolves everything that is not itself. Love is what allowed us to maintain our family for 21 years while my husband was in prison and never lose hope that he was coming home even on a life sentence. Sew love into the hearts of those that are working in service with you.
MB: Being a good listener is tantamount. You have to have empathy for people. Some of the most effective leaders are most of the time adored by the people that they’re leading. Obviously you can lead through fear, too, but in order to be effective you have to be a good listener. You also have to be willing to take risks--to be a good strategist and thinker.
CG: A leader is someone who doesn’t mind switching and following. To me that is probably one of the best qualities a leader can have, one who doesn’t feel the need or desire to always be out front. Someone who doesn’t mind passing the baton and saying here, your turn, you can do it. One who stays humble at all times. That’s why Norris Henderson is the epitome of a good leader.
VOTE: It’s true, we’re so lucky he’s our leader! So, for yourself as a leader, what’s your greatest dream?
MB: That my kids, and maybe grandkids, encounter a world that is much freer, much more fair, much more justice-oriented and -driven than the one that my grandparents, my parents, and I am in right now. All the money and material things are great, but if you can’t live in a society that values you and treats you as equal to everyone else, it’s just a matter of time before all that goes away.
FR: I want a nobel peace prize for changing the criminal justice system. I need someone to write Switzerland and tell them what I’ve done. If I can do this work in the worst place of incarceration in the world, that’s a pretty great job.
CG: Since I was incarcerated I’ve had a big dream, and I know one day it’ll be a reality. That dream is to open up a transitional house for women here in Lafayette because there are so few that are up and running and can actually accommodate the women. They really just have nowhere to go coming out of prison. That’s a sure way to end up back in prison. If I came home and didn’t have the family and support that I had, I don’t know where I would be at this point. There’s nowhere for these women to lay her head other than the shelter. That’s something that I want to help correct in this city, and I will do it. In fact, more than likely operating under that same roof will be my re-entry center. All these different organizations providing different services are spread out all over the city. I want to have a one-stop shop for someone coming home from prison. Right now they have to run all over the city to all these different organizations providing different services. They don’t even have transportation, and sometimes they don’t even know where to go.
VOTE: That sounds amazing, and so important. We can’t wait to see it happen. So when these dreams come true, when there’s freedom and justice for all, what are you seeing, feeling, smelling, hearing and tasting?
CG: I see the world in its natural state. Trees, mountains. There are no buildings--just us and nature. I smell magnolias, the dust from the Earth, that fresh smell when it’s just starting to rain. It’s hot, but there’s a breeze. No truck, car, or siren noises, just birds chirping. It’s peaceful, really peaceful.
MB: I see a lot of green spaces. Trees and grass by the water. Bright sunlight and the wind. I smell the flowers, and everything is unpolluted, unfettered. I’m drinking cold lemonade, watching people enjoying themselves and their surroundings. There’s laughter, splashing, running. I feel happy. Fulfilled. Excited.
FR: There’s fresh air coming off the ocean. There’s an abundance of healthy foods. Fresh breads and fruits and desserts. The flaky layers of my mother’s pound cake that melt in your mouth and make you ask for a second piece. And in my world there’d be no calories, so I can have two slices [laughs]. I hear music that edifies love, that edifies peace, that glorifies prosperity. The sounds of the drums resonating within the hearts of the human souls. I feel frisky. I feel a cleanliness about society, a well-cared for society that takes care of the place it calls home, whether that be by recycling, or clean water, or adequate vegetation that minimizes pollution. Children are well cared for, whole and complete and loved. Intelligentsia abounds. People are thinking about their highest selves and best lives, and they are in pursuit of them. And they fully understand in that pursuit that they are their sisters’ and brothers’ keeper.
VOTE is premised on that very idea--that we are each other's keepers. When we started from within prison walls in the late 1980s, our goal was to advocate for our collective freedom. Today, almost 40 years later, that hasn’t changed. Between July 18 and August 26, five women in our network who are currently incarcerated have pardon or parole hearings. In other words, they have a chance to walk free, and we want to help make that happen. Please download, print, and mail these postcards urging the Louisiana Parole Board to release these women, all of who have left behind family as they’ve sat behind bars for more than 20 years. Can’t print them on your own? Come to our next New Orleans monthly meeting on July 10 from 6-8pm at 2022 St. Bernard Ave. We will have pre-stamped cards for you to sign. Spread the word!