As the legislative session winds down, it has become very clear that this is not just an emergency session for Covid-related bills. The final week of this session looks like any other, with bills covering a wide range of topics.
ACTION ALERT: HB 643, HB 529 all need to get a hearing in Senate Judiciary C this week! Call and email Chairman Franklin Foil asking him to put the bills on the agenda TODAY! 225-342-6777 / email@example.com
Here are some of the bills we’ve been following this session, covering Prison Conditions, Supervision and Discrimination, and Medical Marijuana:
Council on the Children of Incarcerated Parents (CIP): HB729 (Rep. Marcelle). Under the leadership of Daughters Beyond Incarceration (DBI), this entirely new council, to be in the Office of the Governor, would have 17 members (including a representative each from DBI and VOTE, three people who were children when their parents were incarcerated, and one FIP parent). Unlike most councils and commissions about our people, the CIP smartly only has two members of DOC, one representative from the Sheriffs association and one District Attorney.
Medical Services in Jails and Prisons Study: HCR 91 (Rep. Mandie Landry). This resolution will ask VOTE, LSU Health Sciences Center, Loyola Law, and the FIT Clinic to study medical services for the incarcerated, including the impact of COVID-19, and report to the legislature in 2021. This resolution passed the House (80-19), and needs to be heard in the Senate Committee this week.
End Solitary Confinement for pregnant women: HB 344 (Rep. Mandie Landry). This bill originally ended solitary confinement for pregnant women and people with mental illness, but amendments limited its scope to just pregnant women. Still, this bill marks the first time Solitary has been barred in any way, and hopefully future efforts will expand the ban on this inhumane practice.
Veteran’s Mentorship Program: SB 407 (Sen. Kenny Cox). This bill is a “clean up” to our prior expansion of the program, allowing the DOC to actually fulfill the intent of the law and ensure powerful vet mentors are able to help their fellow vets.. It passed through the Senate and House committee with no opposition, and onto the House Floor today for final passage.
Community Supervision and Post-Conviction Discrimination
Parole conditions cap at 5 years: HB 643 (Rep. Jones). This bill would help a few thousand people who have proven to successfully overcome the many obstacles to assimilation after prison, and place them on unsupervised parole. It has made it through the House will be heard this week in Senate Judiciary C.
Proving your incarceration term: HB 529 (Rep. Duplessis). This bill allows people to get documentation regarding their sentence (past or present) from their local Probation and Parole Office. People have previously gone to great lengths trying to prove they have finished the term, to prove identity theft, or qualify for a program.
Voter registration for people on probation: A bill to streamline voter registration (HB 454), which was worked out with the Secretary of State, DOC, and Rep. Sam Jenkins will need to wait on next week’s Special Session.
Studying the barriers to reintegration: HCR 14 The Louisiana Dept. of Health and Dept. of Education will study some of the barriers to reintegration. This is part of a broader movement to really understand why “success” is so difficult, and develop new strategies that work. – Passed the House and heads to the Senate floor this week.
Medical Marijuana: HB 819 Allows any doctor in good standing to recommend marijuana when “in the sincere judgment of the physician, therapeutic cannabis may be helpful to the patient's condition or symptoms.” This should finally allow Louisiana to fully benefit from medical marijuana the way that most other states in America can. The House passed it 77 – 15, and it is up for the full Senate today. Another medical marijuana bill (HB 455) passed the House 80 - 10, and is on the Senate floor. The bill would allow therapeutic marijuana for people in hospice or palliative care. The progress of these bills indicate a major shift on this subject.
Parole eligibility for all juveniles at 25 years: HB 173. The next step after ending mandatory juvenile life w/o parole was creating a parole eligibility at 25 years. This bill would extend that eligibility to every child serving a lengthy adult sentence. It passed the House 68 – 22, and is now in Senate Judiciary B.
Fines and fees--the saga continues: HCR 2 and HCR 3 serve to continue pushing off the JRI Reform that grants people “Ability to Pay” hearings and provides debt relief and incentives for people who can put these bills in front of their rent, phone, food, and transportation. The fact that it will take at least five years to understand the convoluted system of assessing and collecting fines and fees (and lack of accounting) should tell us all we need to know about this historical attempt to fund America’s most expansive criminal legal system on the backs of one of America’s poorest citizens. These will both pass.
Study of homicide data over the past 5 years: HCR 56. The Legislature added Voice of the Experienced to the research team, to provide insight on numbers and statistics that have real world people and situations. This passed the House, and is on to the Senate floor this week.
Retro 80s Throwback Edition - Reminiscent of America’s sordid “Tough on Crime” era, several bills are moving forward without any regard for the modern trend to reduce barbaric sentences that leave us with a prison full of senior citizens facing a global flu pandemic. These bills show that legislators often fail to look at the current maximum sentences, nor do they seem to believe the Louisiana judiciary (the most punitive in the nation) will dole out harsh enough sentences.
For more information on these bills and where things stand as the final week of the legislative session comes to a close, visit our Legislative Corner.
Here's where things stand at the end of this week.
At Gov. John Bel Edwards' daily press conference on Tuesday, Department of Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc announced that he has plans to release what will amount to about 1,100 people. That's not even 2% of the total number of people incarcerated in Louisiana, not including those in ICE facilities or on probation or parole! Not only that, but the plan only applies to those who: are doing time for a nonviolent offense, are within six months of their release date, and already have a residence plan for their release. Even worse, the review board--which includes no formerly incarcerated people--didn't begin until today, will only look at 40 cases at a time, and will require 5 of 6 board members to vote in favor of release. This is a negligible plan that isn't informed by medical or public health experts, and doesn't actually create any true social distancing within facilities. Can you please call Gov. Edwards right now at 225-342-0991 and tell him we demand that more people, especially our elderly and immunocompromised loved ones, come home?! Then can you repeat this call every day, and encourage others to do the same?
Care of Incarcerated People with COVID
On Tuesday, our partners at the Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections (DOC). The DOC has been transferring incarcerated people who test positive for COVID-19 from various jails and prisons around the state INTO Camp J, a condemned building at Louisiana State Penitentiary (commonly called Angola) instead of to hospitals, where they need to be. The DOC’s entire plan has been widely criticized by public health experts and civil rights advocates alike. Camp J is a notoriously inhumane facility that was designed as a punishment camp for those serving life without the possibility of parole. The lawsuit calls on the DOC to halt the plan immediately and ensure people with COVID-19 receive adequate care.
On Wednesday morning, Louisiana Republican lawmakers blocked an emergency election plan that would expand mail-in voting, early voting and make other changes to the state’s delayed presidential primary election because of the coronavirus pandemic. This has negative implications for ensuring fair and equitable elections, for our newly eligible voters with conviction histories, and for democracy as a whole.
Last, our first virtual VOTE meeting on Wednesday afternoon was a big success! At more than 100 attendees strong, we gathered online to support each other, answer as many questions as we could about our work and your loved ones on the inside, and discussed next steps in bringing our loved ones home. Watch a recap of the call here.
Please share this action as far and wide as possible. Click the links to share the above images on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
On Saturday, Patrick Jones died of the coronavirus while inside Oakdale prison in Allen Parish. Seven others from Oakdale are currently hospitalized because the pandemic has been spreading among the 990 men held at this facility. Positive cases are also confirmed at Angola, as well as in jails in Jefferson, Orleans, and Ascension Parishes. The spread among facilities is quickly catching up to--and will eventually surpass--the rate among the broad public. In NYC, for example, the infection rate in jails is already EIGHT TIMES that of outside the jail.
For the past three weeks we've been calling on decisionmakers at every level to immediately release as many people from these facilities as possible so that not only do they not endure the same fate as Patrick did, but they don't put thousands of others in harm's way, too, by spreading the virus.
The answer we keep hearing? "We're working on it."
That's vague. It's irresponsible. It's not something that consoles our families who are worried sick about their loved ones on the inside.
Gov. Edwards must take swift action before he has blood on his hands.
We DEMAND that IN THE NEXT FOUR DAYS,
he does the following FOUR EMERGENCY ACTIONS:
1) Grant 180-days Good Time to allow everyone within 6 months of going home to get home;
2) Issue medical parole for everyone with respiratory conditions, anyone who is immunocompromised, and anyone over 60 years old;
3) Provide masks and gloves to all staff and incarcerated people who remain; and
4) Create a jail and prison COVID-19 oversight commission under the Office of Public Health and CDC, with the power to interview sick people, enforce basic medical standards, and ensure families have a right to know about the health of their loved ones.
Can you help us make these demands by calling these three people today?
Gov. John Bel Edwards: 225-342-0991
U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy, MD: 202-224-5824
U.S. Representative Ralph Abraham, MD:
if you live in Central Louisiana call 318-445-0818
if you live in Northeast Louisiana call 318-322-3500
if you live in South Louisiana call 985-516-5858
Read the full demands letter that we sent to the Governor here.
Thank you for taking action. We are sending you and your loved ones love, persistence and hope in these times.
I can still remember when I first saw you--
a seemingly random night that brought
a seemingly random discovery,
was really Providence.
Wading into the depths of time to merge our storied paths.
A small step back into history
and there you were,
sitting atop the town.
Gracious. Humble. Secret.
I immediately knew I had uncovered something special
some part of me.
You draw me closer to you.
At first approach, I can feel you embrace me.
Warm. Inviting. Honest.
One deep look into you
and you begin to whisper your secrets.
Though time has faded and chipped away
You still gleam with beauty and elegance,
Poised there over the city.
I see you grin as you take in all her stories
and witness all her changes.
Yet you remain unchanged,
A timeless beauty.
Gilded. Golden. Graying. Gracious.
That place in my heart that I share with no one.
My own private room
of silence, solitude, and security.
I gaze up at you in our secret embrace
and I am lost.
I do not know the year.
I do not know the day.
I do not know the hour.
I only know here.
I only know now.
You hear my fears and see my tears.
When I am away from you,
my heart sojourns back to you.
A stolen piece of history
Spirited into my world
With no judgment,
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.
First and foremost, we are here for you. These are turbulent times, and we want to remind you that we love you, we are with you, and we will get through this together. Here are a few updates on where things stand with our incarcerated loved ones and with for members at home.
Our incarcerated loved ones
Most important, now is the time to bring as many of our loved ones in jails and prisons home. When the virus hits facilities, it will spread like wildfire among 2.3 million people. A federal lockdown that further punishes and tears families apart is not the solution. Rather, we demand that our elderly, anyone with existing health conditions, those doing time for nonviolent offenses, anyone in jail on technical violations or misdemeanors, and anyone in jail awaiting trial go NOW! We also demand that routine police stops, warrants, and any unnecessary arrests cease immediately.
Can you help us make these demands by calling and emailing the following today?
Mayor: (504) 658-4900
Baton Rouge Sheriff: (225) 389-5000
New Orleans Sheriff: (504) 822-8000
Governor: (225)342-7015 or (225)342-0991
DOC: (225) 342-9711
Governor John Bel Edwards
Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson, Louisiana Supreme Court
James L. Le Blanc, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections
email@example.com & JMLeBlanc@corrections.state.la.us
Dr. James Beuche, Deputy Secretary, Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice
Sheryl Ranatza, Chair, Louisiana Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole
Steve Russo, Acting Secretary, Louisiana Department of Health
Matthew Block, Executive Counsel to the Governor
Jonathan Vining, DOC General Counsel
Leslie Ricard Chambers, Esq., Criminal Justice Policy Advisor
Michael Ranatza, Executive Director, Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association
You can also encourage others to call by sharing this image on Facebook, signing our national pledge, email this letter to your elected officials, and tracking what other jails and prisons around the country are doing to decarcerate.
Our membership at home
We know many of our members are experiencing financial hardships due to this virus. We are working in coalition to demand that our elected officials implement paid sick leave for all workers in Louisiana and beyond. Until then, you can file for unemployment insurance for a maximum of $247/week. Download the instructions here. There are also new rules around keeping utilities on, preventing evictions, etc. Read them here. If you're in the greater New Orleans area, you can also give/receive help with funds, transportation, food, and more via the community mutual aid network. If you have children under 18, they can get a grab-and-go free meal at any of these locations. And these free meal locations are for anyone of any age. To find out about resources in Baton Rouge, Shreveport, and statewide, go here.
The 2020 Louisiana Legislature has been postponed until March 31. When it resumes, we will do everything in our power to make sure that we have a voice in the laws and reforms being made on our behalf. Check out what bills we'll be fighting for, and contact us if you or a loved one have been affected any of them. If you're also willing to record a video testimony, you can do so on your phone and email it to us.
The presidential primary election in Louisiana has been postponed until June 20. That also means the new registration deadline is May 20 (in person or by mail) and May 30 (online). In other words, please keep registering to vote! You can do so online here. Remember: you can vote if you are currently on probation, have been on parole for at least five years, or have finished your probation or parole time. You'll need to call your probation and parole office, first, and ask them to mail you a signed and sealed Voter Registration Form with your information on it.
The 2020 Census is still underway--fill it out online anytime before April 1. Please take 10 minutes to do so. Your responses make sure all of us--including loved ones still behind bars--are counted. They help lawmakers decide where necessities like stores, schools and housing are built in our communities.
If you have any questions or concerns regarding your loved ones in jails or prisons, where our work stands, or any of the above, please call us at 504-571-9599. We are available between 9am and 5pm, Monday through Friday.
This legislative session we’re introducing our most ambitious line up of bills yet. In order to win them, we need to show up at the Capitol as one strong and unified voice. That means we need more people with direct experiences of incarceration to speak up and speak out about the injustices they have faced. How? Check out these tips for successful advocacy, which work whether we’re sitting in one-on-one meetings with our elected officials, testifying in front of legislative committees, or making a speech in front of an audience on the Capitol steps.
1. Be prepared and brief.
We can expect all types of questions about our bills from both our supporters and the opposition. On top of that, we usually only have a few minutes of a legislator’s time to gain their support. We need to know what we’re going to say and be brief with it! Instead of writing out a full script (which can sound too practiced or, worse, fake) we like to make a list of two or three main points to really hit home, sandwiched by a short introduction and conclusion. Legislators hear so many people speak about bills every day, so use a strong opening statement to really grab their attention. For example, the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana is lobbying for bill HB 344, which would ban prisons from putting pregnant women and people with mental illness in solitary confinement. In practicing her testimony for HB 344, which would ban the use of solitary confinement for pregnant women and people with mental illness, Shametria Gonzales opened with, “Ending solitary confinement isn’t only a moral issue, it’s a bipartisan issue.” This hard-hitting and concise phrase sets the tone for a powerful testimony.
2. Be honest.
Our credibility is central to our relationships at the Capitol, so being honest in our conversations and testimonies is a must. There will be times when legislators ask tough questions about the facts of a bill. There’s no need to make something up or exaggerate anything. When we don’t know the answer, the best response we can offer is, “I’m not sure, I’ll find out and get back to you quickly.” Of course, our lived experiences are also our truth, and legislators who have never been incarcerated themselves need to hear them. As long as we stick to what we know, we will be successful.
3. Be respectful.
Speaking of relationships: keep it real, but be respectful. This helps us form new alliances and maintain the old. Even though there are many legislators who might not understand or respect our movement, we never know who’s watching. For example, during committee hearings, it can be tempting to get up to the podium and clap back at a representative or senator who’s not on our side. But if we attack one legislator, we can lose the important votes of their friends that we need to get our bill passed. Phrases like “great question, let me explain” and “I can see where you’re coming from, but” go a long way towards making legislators feel heard, while not compromising our truth or integrity. Challenge the idea, not the person communicating it. Finding a shared value goes a long way, too.
4. Be yourself.
The best thing we can do is to bring our whole selves with us to the Capitol. The building’s halls and chambers are filled with lobbyists who may be great at rattling off facts and figures, but they don’t know much about our lived experiences, if anything. As a community, that’s our greatest asset. “[VOTE] is bringing the directly impacted people,” says Rep. Ted James, the new Chairman of the Justice Committee. “Our personal stories are what move people and the needle.” This work can be tiring and make us want to not share what we know, but just remember that we all have each other’s backs. When we go to the Capitol as a Blue Wave, it’s not just to fight injustice, but to lean on each other in the process, too.
Ready to get engaged?
Got all of the above down pat? Find a bill (or two or five) that you have experience with and get in touch about testifying. A few bill examples include:
HB 380 will ensure that someone who is offered a plea deal will be told all of the consequences they’ll face by agreeing to it. If you’ve ever taken a plea bargain and were not fully told ahead of time about how it would affect your ability to find a job, housing or go to school, this bill is for you.
HB 339 will give all incarcerated people, including lifers, a chance to go before the parole board and be considered for release. If you know someone doing life, or were once doing life yourself but got out on a new law, we need to hear from you!
The Fair Chance in Hiring Bill will reduce the number of barriers employers are allowed to set up against people with convictions. Right now, many job applications from people with convictions are tossed out as soon as the employer finds out about it. If this bill passes, employers will only be allowed to reject the application if the conviction is related to the job. “This bill would make it possible for people like me to get more than a minimum-wage job,” says Kisha Edwards, of The First 72+. If you’re in the same boat as Kisha, please consider testifying on this bill!
If you have experience with any of the issues we’re tackling this session, your story can help us win. Drop a note to our Membership Coordinator, Ilona Prieto, at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get you prepared to testify when the time comes!
They say reading is fundamental, well what the hell is writing--essential? In school I didn't know an adverb from an adjective. I knew a sentence had to have a subject and a predicate because Dr. Dre gave that to me in old school hip hop. But I could never get my subject and verb to agree--actually, I still have trouble making them not argue.
You may have seen a gangsta turn rapper, rapper turn movie star, but you never seen a thug turn writer, and thug does not mean brutal ruffian or assassin regardless of what Webster says. Thug means The Highest Under God.
To say that my inspiration to write came from my great love to tell a story is the farthest from the truth. Instead, I was in the hobby shop learning how to make clocks and jewelry boxes. I was getting good, and I was ready to start sending them home to get sold. My college friend had an account on Ebay and sold one of my clocks. This was how I was going to make the money, I thought. I needed to hire a lawyer and get home.
One day I was called to the Warden's office. They told me to pack my stuff. I asked “where am I going?” They told me I was going to the dungeon. I'm like, “for what?” All they said was: “you know.” Completely baffled, I packed my stuff, went to the blocks, and sat there not knowing why I got locked up.
Two weeks later, I got called to an office. An investigator came to talk with me. He had a report in his hand, which he started to read. It said: “Prime Time told me to go to the McDonald’s in St. Francisville. His cousin was there and he gave me some weed and money. I was bringing Prime Time the weed.”
The report had a lot of Prime Time this and Prime Time that. When I heard this I was able to identify the young police officer who had given this statement. I figured he was under pressure at work so he was just giving them something. He had told them the play, but he didn't want to tell on the actual player(s), so he used a nickname, and it just so happened to be my nickname. The officer probably thought the people reading the report would never find the person it was about, but that's not how it works in prison. Even if they don't know they'll make it look like they know to avoid the appearance of stupidity. I knew who they were talking about, but that wasn't my business to tell.
I told the investigator that I didn’t know what he was talking about, and if I did, I wouldn't tell him nothing. The man gave me an angry look but quickly recovered. He said he respected that, me being a convict and all. I wasn't a convict, though. I had just got to prison. I had been there for maybe six to seven months and was still wet behind the ears. If I were a convict, I would have known the next move.
When I went to court, they read the report. They had replaced every mention of Prime Time with Eyba Brown. I put in a motion to review the original report, but the motion was denied, and I was on my way to extended lock down [solitary confinement].
When I was in my cell I told myself that I couldn't make money with my hands, so I had to make it with my mind. How was I going to do that? I sat in the dungeon for more than 60 days. But if you are in the dungeon for more than 45 days, they have to re-route you to a lesser custody status than you were sentenced to. That’s how I ended up in the working cell block, Camp C. I could have gotten out to play football, but I didn't want to get stuck in the outer camp, so I made my move to get back to the main prison. As I said, I had only been locked up for a couple of months, so I didn't know what I was doing. I ended up going to extended lock down for real this time. People stay there for years. You do nothing but sit in a cell for 23 hours. You get only an hour out of the cell each day.
In Camp C one of my friends was about to go to the main population to play ball for Camp C. Before he left, we walked the yard and strategized. He told me about a commercial idea he had that sounded like a short movie. As I sat in my cell on extended lock down I kept thinking about that commercial, and figured I could come up with a commercial, too. I started thinking about all the really good commercials I could remember and writing down my own ideas.
Eventually I was sent back to the main prison, C Block. There I met this dude who had a cousin who was studying film at USC. This dude would send his cousin movie scripts. He let me read one: "How to be a Player.” I remembered this movie, so as I'm reading the script I can see the movie in my head. I started writing scripts, too.
Math had always been my favorite subject because it has structure to it. Writing didn't. Or at least I thought it didn't. But I soon found out writing had a formula, too, and formulas are things I understand. My friend from LSU brought me some books on how to be a screenwriter. I wrote four movies and 10 commercials. I learned about the Writer's Guild, got a list of agencies, and contacted my cousin in Atlanta because Atlanta had a great number of agencies. Only four of them, however, would take unsolicited manuscripts.
I gave my cousin the scripts for the movie Blast4Me and three commercials: Tag, Runaway, and First Kiss. He told me the commercials were Super Bowl-type commercials, and I gave him the addresses to the agencies. He sent the commercials to the agencies. Of the four agencies, two asked him to come in for an interview. But it was spring break and he went to Daytona Beach instead.
Of course the pen is mightier than the sword, unless you're in a knife fight in which case you'd better have a Rambo knife. The pen is a mighty weapon, however, if you know how to use it. In prison you need an army, family or friend support to help your words get heard. And if you're saying something, how mighty is your pen?
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, always give credit to the artist(s) involved, and cover the costs of submission. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Eyba Brown is currently incarcerated at Raymond Laborde Correctional Center.
In the mid 1980s, our Founder and Executive Director was part of the Lifers Club at Angola State Penitentiary--a group of men who were told they’d never have a chance to come home. Refusing to accept this fate, they started to do research. Together the Lifers wrote to other people doing life in 10 Southern states, asking about their sentencing laws and reform. To the club’s surprise, they got responses indicating that so many states were fighting for the same reforms as our leader and his friends. They used the letters to draft a legislative bill that aimed to reduce the sentences of people serving life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). Hungry for change, they were disappointed to learn that they needed a legislator to sponsor and file the bill for them. So they wrote to Louisiana state lawmakers, but this time they didn’t get many letters back. Shortly thereafter, Henderson was sharing about feeling dismayed at the Lifers’ monthly meeting, which certain people on the outside were allowed to attend. When he had finished speaking, a woman sitting in the front row stood up. “My name is Naomi White Warren,” she said. “I’m a newly-elected state representative from New Orleans, and I’ll take your bill on for you.” The Lifers’ stories, voices, and perseverance inspired Rep. Warren (now Farve) to join their fight for freedom. “The excitement in the prison was off the chain,” says Henderson. Unfortunately, as that year’s legislative session went on, it was clear that the bill wouldn’t pass. Yet the bill was still a huge success, not only because it finally passed many years later, but because it was the first time in VOTE’s history that our people--the ones closest to the problem--organized to the point of changing the entire trajectory of their lives. Today we carry on this legacy by fighting for more bills and more reform at the Capitol. Every year, our collective voice gets stronger. Here’s what we’re fighting for this year, and how you can join us.
Protecting the rights of people facing convictions
While our (in)justice system promises we’re innocent until proven guilty, we know that’s often not true for many groups of people, including those who are poor and of color. In many states including ours, someone awaiting trial can be held in jail for years--even though they haven't been convicted of any crime--if they’re unable to pay ever-increasing fines and fees. This pretrial detention punishes poor people and then profits off of them, as the fines and fees they’re forced to pay are funding the salaries of judges--the very people setting the bond people need to pay to get out. Clearly, this is a conflict of interest and was even ruled unconstitutional by a federal consent decree last year. For that reason, one of our priorities this session is reducing the number of poor people in jail by holding our judicial system accountable to how fines and fees are created and used.
The system also wrongs people facing a conviction by not telling them what the full consequences of taking a plea deal are. Instead, lawyers often present a plea deal as the smartest option, but they leave out that we’ll face such consequences as losing our right to vote and access to public housing, among others. The bills we advocate for this session will make sure anyone offered a plea deal is fully informed about these collateral consequences before making such a big life decision. And the legislators deciding on these bills listen best when there are people who have been directly impacted by them at the hearings. “When we advocate for ourselves, we have hundreds more that we’re also advocating for,” says Rene Smith, our new Baton Rouge Organizer. “We can’t be afraid to tell our story--it could change the mind of a legislator and [affect] the lives of so many.”
Strengthening the rights of people behind bars
We also need more voices to strengthen the rights of people already in prison. We’ll be reforming probation and parole eligibility, LWOP sentencing, and medical service standards for people on the inside. Long-time VOTE member and now our New Orleans Organizer Donald Arbuthnot is excited to fight at the legislature. He’s especially interested in medical rights because he was so impacted by a lack of medical care while he was in prison. Once when he had food poisoning, instead of giving him treatment, the prison infirmary put Arbuthnot in a “tank”--a freezing room with concrete benches. “I was balled up in a knot, in so much pain,” he explains. Since so many of the prison medical staff were once doctors but had had their medical licenses revoked, he waited overnight in that room for a qualified doctor to come and diagnose him. Luckily, Arbuthnot was not permanently harmed by the incident. But many of Arbuthnot’s friends who went to the infirmary were misdiagnosed, mistreated or never came back. “[The prison] killed them,” he says. “A lot of it came out of their deep hatred and racism for people of color.” Arbuthnot encourages all formerly incarcerated people to come to the Capitol and change this common story. “When we speak from our experiences in prison,” Arbuthnot says, “we can only say the truth.”
Defending the rights of formerly incarcerated people
When we fight as a united front, we win. Last’s why another part of our strategy this year is defending the rights that we’ve already worked so hard for, including our right to vote. In 2018, we passed Act 636, which restored voting rights to 40,000 Louisianans with convictions. But since it went into effect on March 1 of last year, the DOC and Secretary of State’s office have put up so much bureaucratic red tape, making it extremely difficult for those eager to vote to get registered. “They don’t want it to be simple,” says our Shreveport Organizer Felicia Smith. “They want you to jump through hoops so you get tired and don’t vote.” We’re not going to let lawmakers take away rights that we’ve poured countless hours of sweat and tears into, which is why we need more voices than ever involved in this legislative session. With so many wins behind us, there’s that much more to defend.
We know that sometimes getting involved is easier said than done. But we have some resources--made by us and for us--to get you started. New to the legislative process? Check out How a Bill Becomes a Law (it’s more interesting than Schoolhouse Rock, we promise). Want to speak in front of legislators about your experiences with the (in)justice system? Check out our video explaining How and Why We Testify. Want to attend one of our upcoming events but want a sneak peek of what it’s like? Check out this Facebook live video from Lobby Day three years ago.
We’ll also be offering multiple trainings on how to make an impact at the Capitol, since we know that we’re all learning together and have a range of experiences. Upcoming sessions include Pre-Lobby Day on Tuesday, March 3 followed by Lobby Day on Tuesday, March 24 (click the links to RSVP).
When we advocate, it’s not just for ourselves, but for everyone who is still voiceless. “If you’re inside of a cell,” says our new Lafayette Organizer Marcus Simmons, “and you stick your hand out of the bars, the arms don’t forget about the body. I’m the arms now, and I can’t forget about the people still stuck inside. To the system, these people are just a body and a paycheck. But to me, they helped me to survive when I had no family, no soap or deodorant. The least I could do is be their legs and their voice.”
In addition to the upcoming events listed above, we also have monthly meetings around the state, which are a low-stakes and easy way to join our work. New Orleans meets on the first Wednesday of every month, Shreveport meets on the third Thursday, Lafayette meets on the fourth Monday, and Baton Rouge meets on the fourth Thursday. For specific dates and times, check our our calendar.
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 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! 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.