April has been a busy month for the New Orleans members of the national Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice (CSSJ) network, a partner of VOTE. On April 7, several CSSJ New Orleans activists traveled to Sacramento, CA for the 6th annual Survivors Speak Conference, where hundreds of survivor-organizers gathered to share their stories, hopes and visions. Then, on Saturday, April 13, local CSSJ Coordinator Ariel Jeanjacques hosted an all-day healing vigil for living and deceased survivors of crime. Community members from all over the city came out to remember and celebrate the lives of loved ones near and far. More than 20 cities nationwide held simultaneous vigils to honor National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. VOTE sat down with Ariel and Nicole Marshall--one of CSSJ’s superstar members (read her self-written bio here, and see her photos above)--to find out how the events went, and how they connect to the movements for safety, justice, and healing for all.
VOTE: Who is on your heart right now?
Nicole Marshall (NM): My seven sons, who range from 3 to 27 years old, my 6 ‘glamkids’, and my husband, Ronald Marshall, who is currently incarcerated at Rayburn Correctional Center.
Ariel Jeanjacques (AJ): Dawina McLarn, one of my CSSJ members. She was arrested because she missed a court date. That was last week, two days before the healing vigil she was supposed to be at. She’s in jail with a $300,000 bond, and is in a cell with a white woman who killed her child but only has a $100,000 bond.
VOTE: Thank you, they’re here with us in spirit. Do you use the word survivor for yourself?
AJ: Yes. A survivor is a person who has overcome the worst obstacles in life, is resilient, and keeps going. A person who doesn’t look at themselves as a victim but as a survivor because they know how much power they have.
NM: I prefer to say that I am a surviving victor, because the surviving is day-to-day, and the victor means that I have goals and I set out to accomplish them with victory in mind.
VOTE: Nicole, how did you get involved in CSSJ?
NM: I got involved through Ariel, who has known me for at least 20 years. We were both a part of the Freedom School that the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond was running. I speak with her brother quite often, so he put us in touch and, many years later, we got reconnected.
VOTE: And how does it feel to be a part of the network?
NM: It makes me feel like I have a sense of power. It gives me a voice and a platform, and let’s me know I’m not the only one. One of the things I experienced when I started the healing process was a lot of guilt and shame. It was as if I was walking around and everybody was looking at me like they knew what I was going through. With CSSJ I don’t feel like that. I feel like the supermom I’ve always been. I feel like an organizer around my community--changing the traumatic experiences that I and others have had.
VOTE: Beautiful. And how have you grown since being with the group?
AJ: So many members rely on me to help them start their healing journeys, so that has made me want to grow, learn, and be as supportive as I can. Also, with the network of survivors that I’m building relationships with, I’m learning to be more humble because they go through a lot of the same battles that I go through, or worse. That makes me want to be more present in my members’ lives and try to help them in any areas that they lack as far as their healing goes.
NM: I’ve always had a super positive attitude, cheering other people on to reach the stars. CSSJ has brought that back out of me, but to another level. I’ve found myself open to different avenues that I never thought I’d be a part of, and I’m deepening my organizing by seeing parts of myself that I didn’t know existed.
VOTE: Have you had any challenges so far?
NM: At first I only thought that CSSJ was for people who had lost close loved ones to violence, not necessarily for what I had been through, which is domestic violence. But they’ve been great, helping us to understand that not just one type of experience is centered, and that’s helped me realize that everyone has experienced some form of trauma.
AJ: Getting calls from survivors whose trauma is still fresh, like a woman who called on Sunday right after her son-in-law was killed. CSSJ works with survivors starting two to three years after the incident, because that’s how we build prevention over incarceration. In the beginning, you’re so hurt that you want to go and hurt someone back. Survivors think, “Oh this person hurt me--put him away forever, give him the death penalty.” They’re not going to get it overnight, so I just let them know that I’m always here and give them any resources CSSJ can provide. I just continue to educate, motivate and encourage, like ‘we’re in this together.’ We’re all survivors of something.
VOTE: Absolutely, we know that well here. How can we honor that everyone has experienced trauma without minimizing the impact of having different backgrounds and identities?
NM: By seeing each other as human. Everybody grieves differently. Everybody heals differently. A lot of people talk about it but I don’t think we really respect that that word--human--is very, very powerful. It should come with a lot of respect--just saying that we’re human.
AJ: Let’s look at counseling or therapy. That’s not something that’s common in my [Black] culture, but it’s common in yours [white culture]. If you see a therapist, people think you’re crazy or have a problem. Also, how the system is set up plays a big role in the ways we resolve trauma. Poor communities are the hardest hit, and we have the most unresolved trauma.
VOTE: Thank you for that. So, switching to the Survivors Speak conference in Sacramento, what was your favorite part of the experience?
AJ: There was a speaker (see video below) whose son was trying to resolve an incident and a young man killed him. The system got upset with [the speaker] because she forgave the young man. She wants to build a relationship with him and counsel him so that when he gets out at 33 years old, he won’t do it again. And the system is upset at her because they want him to be a repeat offender. She spoke from a place of love, of motherhood. She sent chills through my body when she spoke and everybody couldn’t help but weep because her words were just so powerful. I learned so much from her that I’m bringing back to my community. It showed me that CSSJ is really making good moves and getting connected with the right people. Just like how they had Tamara Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, last year.
NM: My favorite part was the breakout sessions, which is when I began to hear other survivors from other cities and states, and felt really moved into action. My husband and I have co-created a relationship violence and abuse curriculum called Pave it Forward, and I got excited to get it launched. When I sat down with other individuals and we talked about getting policies changed--not just for myself but for generations to come--that to me was the most impactful. It made me want to come back home and start running. I’m ready to go.
VOTE: Sounds like an amazing experience. Nicole, can you share more about Pave it Forward, which sounds amazing and so needed?
NM: I never blamed my ex for what he did because I looked at the systems and institutions that kept this craziness going on in his life. But I did lose everything from the bottom up, and that’s when I really began to journal. Eventually I told my husband my ideas, we’d just go back and forth, and that’s how the curriculum development began. Once I get it off the ground, I want to teach it myself because I want to make sure that whoever teaches it is coming from a sensitive place--a surviving victor, too.
VOTE: Yes, it’s so important for the most impacted people to be leading the way forward, and sharing how they see things. Speaking of, how do you define violence?
NM: Violence is when someone brings harm to someone else, though I guess I would have to know the magnitude and context of the violence, too. The night that I actually fought back against my ex, I bit him and the police took me away in chains. I called the pastor’s wife and she told me that she would’ve killed him. I think about all of the incarcerated women who are in there for killing their abusive partners. No, that’s not violence. I’m not saying it’s right, but I don’t see it as the same.
AJ: Violence is when you intentionally want to cause harm or inflict pain or abuse on a person, whether mentally or physically. I agree with Nicole that self-defense is not violence, even if the system looks at it that way. That’s why a lot of people who were trying to protect themselves against abuse are looked at as violent offenders.
VOTE: We totally agree that self-defense is something completely different, and hope that our work and your work will both continue to help people see that difference. What are other things that need to change in order to build a world where people are accountable to harm?
NM: I’m not fully sold on the restorative justice piece yet, but I’d say restorative healing. That’s just restoring humanity. If people [who cause harm] don’t even know what the person they are hurting is feeling or going through, then they won’t understand the acts or harm or change.
AJ: They have to want to change. They have to want to become accountable for their own actions and to stop creating situations that hinder other people’s freedom. People need to just have more love in their hearts and value life, freedom and everyone else. Since so much has happened throughout history, now is the time to change, and more people need to get involved.
VOTE: Very true. What about building a world where people don’t cause harm in the first place?
AJ: People first need to be able to live without any type of fear. The other day I was scared to open the door for the AT&T guy because I was panicking that it could be my probation officer. It doesn’t matter how straight of a line you can walk. Being on probation is just a scary feeling that you could get screwed over by the system at any minute.
NM: We need equity and equality. We need everybody having the same of everything, whether it’s corn, the air we breathe, water, neighborhoods. I don’t know where else violence truly stems from besides the trauma our ancestors experienced during slavery. That is a form of abuse that’s been passed down through generations. So equity and equality--that would be part of the key. Not all of it, but a big part.
VOTE: What feels like your greatest accomplishment in life so far?
AJ: I feel like I haven’t reached it yet.
NM: Having two sons go to college this year, a son a Lusher that is an A student, three- and five-year-olds that are brilliant. Starting Pave it Forward, seeing the impact I have on my community, my friends, and anyone that I meet. Marrying the love of my life, of course, even with his circumstances. And finally I would say healing, but healing from a place of not victimizing myself, but knowing that I’m victorious and I can help others overcome this.
VOTE: Yes! Victorious not victimized. Love it. What’s your greatest dream?
NM: To have my husband released from prison, and have this super big house where all of my kids, daughter-in-laws and (future) grandkids can live.
AJ: Just to accomplish everything it is that I’m fighting for to help heal my community, through CSSJ and the base that we’re building across the country through chapter leaders. Ending the cycle of gun violence, mass incarceration. The creation of trauma centers that focus on prevention over incarceration.
VOTE: We can see it! What does peace look, feel, smell, sound and taste like to you?
AJ: I taste fresh air, and hear kids running, playing, laughing and cheering. I smell roses and other flowers. I feel hugs and embraces of love. I see healthy living conditions, smiles and successful people who are happy.
NM: I see blue skies, blue water. Trees, dirt, sand that my feet are planted in. I hear birds chirping, I see people laughing, talking, singing, dancing. I smell fresh crisp air and feel it against my skin. The foods that we’re eating are vegetables and fruits such as berries--things that grow from the earth. I see people in their nakedness. I feel happy, peaceful--no worry, stress, or anxiety. Just joy and comfort. A peaceful world looks like everybody just loving each other.
In order to navigate through the jungle you need a tour guide. Born a Leo, I found out that not only did I not need a guide, but, like the king of the jungle, I have a natural instinct for survival.
My professional football career started in a pee-wee league at a park across the street from Old Dominion University. It seemed like a million kids showed up for tryouts, and the odds of me making the team were not good. On the other hand, I was a small kid, but fast, which made me the next Barry Sanders meets Jerry Rice. Since there were so many kids, the coaches decided to make two teams--the Dukes and the Lions, which was my team.
I told you I started my career as a lion, king of the jungle, right? Mufassa we were not. We were more like Scar--not evil, just sad.
I guess I considered myself the star of the team. I was the fastest, playing running back, wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback, and safety. I went home and studied how quarterbacks like Warren Moon, Doug Williams and Randall Cunningham played. When Cunningham scrambled he was like a throwing Barry Sanders, and that was going to be me.
The next day I went to practice and I said, "Coach, I am the starting quarterback." He said okay and we went in front the defense. I call my signals, got the snap, dropped back to pass the ball, and then somebody hit me harder than I've ever been hit in my life.
I got off the ground and told the coach, "I'm your starting wide receiver." He said okay.
The next year tryouts weren’t as crowded, maybe 40 or 50 kids. We only had enough for one team, which ended up going 10-0 and winning the city championship. I wasn't the fastest kid on that team, but I was still the starting wide receiver. I was getting ready for high school, and being on the city championship team put me on the top of the depth chart.
Then one day my father came home and put a monkey wrench in everything by announcing that we were moving back to California. That’s how I found myself at Palm Springs High School in my 9th grade year. I established who I was, and took the starting job as wide receiver. I made every catch, including ones going to other people. I was cocky, telling the prettiest girl in school to come to the game because I was going to catch a touchdown for her.
My first game everybody I knew was there because I told them I was going to show up and show out. Coming out of the tunnel into the stadium for the first time, I realized there were hundreds of people there--a lot for a high school game. A nervous energy surged through my veins. The first pass of the game came to me, and why not? I was unstoppable in practice.
There is a saying in football: you practice how you play. I've made it my life's mission to dismantle stereotypes, however, and I started with this one. I did not practice how I played because in practice I was unstoppable, unbeatable, invincible. In the game I was debilitated, irresolute, capitulated. The pass was perfect and hit me in the hands before it hit me in the face. One drop doesn't affect a whole game, but in my case it was the initial episode that told the whole show. I commenced to drop every pass thrown to me. I should have lost my starting job, but in practice I was phenomenal, so I kept my job and continued to drop every pass that was thrown to me that season.
The next season I was back in Louisiana. My grandmother lived in South Terrebonne's district, but all my cousins was going to Ellender Memorial, and that's where I wanted to go, too. Unfortunately, my grandmother was a by-the-book person. The first day at the new school, I spoke with the head coach, who wasn't interested. I vowed I'd never play for him, and wanted to switch schools, but my grandmother wasn't hearing it.
In order to survive in the jungle you gotta do what you gotta do. A week later I skipped school, went to the school board's office where my cousins went, sat next to an elderly Black lady, and struck up a conversation with her. I then went to the desk, got the paperwork to enroll in school, and filled it out. Every time the lady behind the desk looked up I would talk to the elderly lady and she thought this was my grandmother. I switched schools that day.
My first day at Ellender, I talked to the head coach and he told me to come to practice after school. It's no surprise that I did exceptional in practice, and took the starting spot. My grandmother discovered the switch but said if the people were stupid enough to let me switch, oh well. I was starting on the junior varsity team when game day came. The game was going well until it was a pass play. I had to run a 5 and out. I ran my route and completely lost my defender in my break. When I turned around, the ball was right in my face. Instinctively, I put my hands up to catch the ball and actually caught it! I just stared at the ball. The defender hit me right in the face and flipped me into the air, but when I came down I still had the ball.
Everybody congratulated me on the catch, but wondered why I just stood there and got flatlined. To me that was cool, since I had conquered a fear I never knew I had. With my head in the game, the gridiron jungle was easy to master.
Stay tuned for Part II, which will be published two weeks from now!
This is the fourth contribution to our new, bi-weekly blog post featuring creative content made by currently or formerly incarcerated people! 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! Today, we're sharing the first in a multi-part story written by Eyba Brown, who is currently incarcerated at Raymond Laborde Correctional Center.
As of yesterday, the 2019 Louisiana Legislature is in session, and we're ready to rock. In other words, we've submitted a long list of criminal justice reform bills, and we're getting our ducks in a row so that as many as possible become laws this year. Head over to the Legislative Corner on our website and check out:
We need your help to make this year as successful as possible! If you or someone you know has been affected by one of the proposed bills, we will need you to testify! If you can join us for Lobby Day at the State Capitol on May 6, we will need you there! If you have just 5 minutes to call your Representatives and Senators at different times throughout the session, we will need you to make those calls! There are endless ways to get involved. Subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date with the most recent information.
This is the third contribution to our new, bi-weekly blog post featuring creative content made by currently or formerly incarcerated people! 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! Today, we're sharing a poem written by Reginald Dwayne Betts, a husband, father of two sons, poet and memoirist. Betts spent 8 years in prison and is now a PhD student at Yale Law School.
Your father watches the flecks add up.
He says the wind-blown dead insects
against the window conjure ghosts:
tossed dice, the South, and his regrets.
You’re driving north on roads that glow
with high beams searching night. You cuss
and think about the wheel’s curved bone
pressed on your palms. The hard callus
burns and you curse the time--eight years
these towns on green billboards were home--
Greensville, Nottoway, Sussex. Names
of prisons, dark restless tombstones.
Words swallow air between you two
as a Newport lights the car’s inside.
Your father has listened and now wants
to talk. He pauses to glare wild-eyed.
His voice is broken bottles, smoke,
flesh. He knows you burned his letters.
In the back, your younger brother sleeps
between your wife and child for hours.
Outside, a storm begins with rain.
Your father sips his third straight beer
and you remember prison’s night.
He never mentions love’s austere
and lonely offices. And now--
when your son wakes--what will you say
about fathers? What will you say
about a voice cuffed to mistakes?
This poem comes from the most recent of Betts' three books, Shahid Reads His Own Palm. To get a FREE copy of the book, stop by our office M-F, 10am - 4pm.
Many people have registered to vote since Louisiana expanded voting rights eligibility on March 1, restoring the vote to anyone who is on probation (but hasn’t been to prison under that sentence), and about 3,000 people who have been on parole for at least 5 years. Some of those people will be allowed to vote on March 30th, while some won’t. Why the difference?
Consider Louisiana’s two largest parishes: In Baton Rouge, the local registrar’s office has a computer station. In New Orleans, it does not.
Anyone who registers to vote via computer (“online registration”) is eligible if they register 21 days prior to election day (which is one week prior to the early voting period). For people with a criminal record, online registration is tricky business because they must personally show up to the Probation & Parole Office and retrieve a form proving their eligibility, then personally hand that form to the local registrar’s office.
People who fill out the form while at the registrar’s office and hand it to them can’t vote for 30 days. If they can get to a computer instead, they can’t vote for 21 days. This is the election code’s difference between the in-person deadline and the online deadline. If someone is already standing at the counter in the registrar’s office, it makes little sense to then go to the public library, or an organization, or home and try to register online to gain those 9 days of eligibility.
In Louisiana, these election windows create donut holes for the electorate, especially as there are so many election. This year alone, there will be five, not including run-offs. Every day, the voting rights of hundreds of people sentenced to probation are suspended, yet those people also become eligible for restoration immediately following suspension. It is still unknown, however, how long it would take for the DOC and Secretary of State to process a suspension and ensuing restoration. Not only does this create more administrative work, but actively blocks the person on probation’s right to vote.
Further, there are even more administrative barriers even after the above process is complete. The local registrar won’t process any new voter applications until after they get out of the election window, meaning that most of us who registered on March 1 are not yet registered voters. In fact, our paperwork won’t be processed until March 31st. In other words, the structural oppression of currently and formerly incarcerated people continues.
A slightly more hopeful fact is that local registrars now have until April 13th to get a computer in every office. When that happens, then people can follow the lead of Baton Rouge by going online and registered right there where the public officials can be on hand to help.
Are you eligible to vote under this new law? Contact us TODAY at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll help you get registered.
This is the second contribution to our new, bi-weekly blog post featuring creative content made by currently or formerly incarcerated people! Today, we're sharing a persuasive essay written by Sede Baker, who is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penitentiary.
What happens when the state slashes funding to educational programs? What happens to the students that depend on that funding to attain higher education? And what happens to upcoming generations when their parents come from an era where the government they had faith in denied them education?
Government funding allows colleges to expand their educational programs to further their students’ ability to attain enlightenment. When there are major budget cuts, it prevents one class of people from elevating to a higher social class with a higher pay grade that would advance their means of living. In what is termed "the land of the free,” the cuts prevent this class from establishing wealth through free market principles and passing it on to their progeny to continue generational wealth-building.This creates no escape from oppressive bosses who utilize their position to control and manipulate. Instead, it creates high level of unemployment, and the stresses from such can cause one to become irrational. This leads to a variety of burdens, including crime.
All humans have one thing in common, which is that we are born with innate capabilities to survive. In a mode of self-preservation, this is where robberies, selling/using drugs, and killing come into the equation. These are violations of the laws that lead to long prison terms, and they are also all acts of survival that ultimately stem from funding cuts for educational programs. This lack of academic opportunity keeps knowledge-seekers from the understanding needed to make better decisions.
Worse, one group may suffer from these cuts, yet upcoming generations still inherit this hardships. This perpetuation of government-inflicted problems keeps many out of the realm of higher learning, and this is what I call a "boom in illiteracy". It transpires when the value system changes and the principles passed on are not of knowledge-seeking but of doing what must be done as a mean to put clothes on your back, food in your stomach, and pay the bills.
It is easy to say in a harsh tone that crime is rampant and laws need to be passed. Being “tough on crime” with stiff laws doesn't eliminate the crime factor, and it deters attention from the government’s greedy move of cutting the education budget.
It is a known fact that where education is high, crime is low, and where education is low, the level of crime is high. The government conveys that they seek to solve the crime issue, yet they don't realize that stripping schools of funding is a catalyst to the rise in crime, as it, in turn, strips people of chances to educate themselves. This affects every generation after the first group of people that was deprived of their education. Is it a problem? That’s a question our representatives must answer to.
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!
Sade Dumas is the Executive Director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC), a diverse, grassroots coalition of individuals and organizations from across New Orleans who have come together to shrink the size of the jail and improve the conditions of confinement for those held in detention in Orleans Parish. VOTE help found OPPRC in 2004, and today the coalition’s members include formerly incarcerated people and their family members, community activists, organizers, lawyers and service providers.
In honor of International Women’s Day, VOTE sat down with Sade and got the story about how she is able to bring formidable leadership to local criminal justice reform work.
VOTE: What are you bringing to the table right now? How you feeling?
Sade Dumas (SD): Today I’m feeling hopeful. Although this city at times seems divided, and there are so many issues to fight, I see so many people activated like they’ve never been before, and all of those fights--all of those issues--are interconnected.
VOTE: And how is your heart?
SD: My heart is overwhelmed but in a good way. There’s so much being done but there is so much more to do. I also feel a lot of gratitude for those working on these fights with us, and for divine timing and alignment, because even when it looks like we’ve lost something--or on the verge of losing something--everything always aligns itself perfectly when people are working together.
VOTE: Can you share how you got started with OPPRC?
SD: My journey with OPPRC started before I knew it even existed. I’m a native New Orleanian from the Lower 9th Ward, which means seeing someone involved in the criminal justice system was normal, a way of life. I know many people like my brother, cousin and ex-husband who have been in OPPRC and suffered from being in there.
When I was younger, however, I thought they ended up there because of genuine mistakes they had made. It wasn’t until I went to Tulane University that I realized it’s not normal--other people don’t go through this. The way the system is set up is not by mistake, but by design. I learned about ALEC and other groups lobbying for the continued oppression of people. Seeing the oppression of people of color, of women, of any and all minorities compelled me to get involved.
After graduating college, I became involved with VOTE, WWAV, and LPEC. I worked on the micro level, running a tutoring program for formerly incarcerated women. Although there was joy in working with directly impacted people, I wasn’t pleased because I felt like I was working on something after the damage was done. Instead, I wanted to focus on preventing people from getting in the cycle and going down the hole.
I had also been working at Tulane’s medical school because I thought I wanted to be a psychologist. Once I realized that all families I was working with were impacted by the criminal justice system, I got really sad about being the one putting on a bandaid, so that also helped me switch to macro level, too.
VOTE: And how did you make that switch?
SD: I started traveling across Louisiana with Robert Goodman, who was VOTE’s Statewide Organizer at the time. We spoke with people about the challenges they face when they are released from prison. I also learned how to encourage local policymakers to divest from funds that build prison infrastructure to programs that truly keep communities safe. When I went to OPPRC’s steering committee meetings as a representative for VOTE, I realized they were doing the same thing--policy reform work that was truly changing the system.
VOTE: Who are your (s)heroes?
SD: There are a lot of women I respect for their contributions, but wouldn’t necessarily call them (s)heroes because I do think it’s important to look to other people for inspiration, advice, mentorship, but we all have to be our own heroes. For too long women, whether told by society or themselves, are made responsible for taking care of themselves and everyone else around them.
VOTE: How does moving away from that false sense of responsibility help movement work?
SD: You can’t save other people, but you can empower them to save themselves. You can give them the tools, but you can’t fight their fight alone, and you shouldn’t expect to. It also changes the people you’re working with from victims to people empowered to do the work. And we don’t need any more victims, we need fighters.
VOTE: Absolutely, we need those directly impacted to lead the fight. How do you make your work accessible to those most affected?
SD: It’s about making it meaningful to each person and working with their capacities. Sometimes that means not coming to a meeting but doing the work of reading an email, passing out a flyer, or talking to someone about different campaigns we have. Informing people in the community is a big part of the movement, whether you’re sitting at the meeting table or not. You have to build the systems and structures so directly impacted people can all be at the table eventually, even if that day is not today, but we can’t stop the movement until then. For example, my sister worked in the sheriff’s office hoping make a change, but only lasted a year because the culture was that bad. Will she come to every OPPRC meeting and share? No, because she’s a single mother and has a lot going on, but she’ll come out to an event. So accessibility has a lot to do with the format of the organization and the way that people can carry and share that info. We’re not asking people to join OPPRC, we’re asking people to join a movement.
VOTE: Yes, that’s why coalitions are so important! What would you say has been your most defining moment as an organizer so far?
SD: I have many defining moments each day, but those that matter the most to me are when other young women of color write me little notes telling me how I’m inspiring them or serving as a mentor to them, because I don’t think of myself that way. Knowing people feel that way is the best thing. The best thing we can do is create more fighters, and that’s been one of the most enjoyable moments thus far.
VOTE: So sweet and inspiring! As a leader who clearly does so much, how do you practice self-care?
SD: I just started yoga. I’ve always been into alternative routes of self-care that are not mainstream, so I enjoy making tinctures, blending oils, and now yoga. It’s been great for me because in doing movement work I often have trouble finding balance, and now I’m literally finding it. I’m constantly reminded that things I’m doing on the mat transcend into other parts of my life, like taking care of myself and my body.
VOTE: That’s so important. Ok, last question, what would a world of total liberation feel like, look like, taste like, smell like and sound like to you?
SD: We are so far from liberation that I can’t fully imagine what that would be like. But to me it’s clean air, clean food, clean water. It’s a life where everyone has equal access, where everyone’s future is determined by their will to do more as opposed to what identity they were born into. It feels like you don’t have to fight harder or compete with others just because you’re expected to be at the bottom of the chain. It feels like confidence because you don’t have to worry about being judged because of real or perceived identities that you carry. Liberation feels like health because the fear of all the burdens that I and many other women of color carry would not exist.
This coming Wednesday, March 13, from 5:30 to 7:30pm, OPPRC is hosting a teach-in about how to help stop the jail expansion in New Orleans. RSVP here. Then, on the 25th, they’ll be hosting a town hall with local elected leaders about. Follow them on Facebook to learn more and get involved!
introducing the 'creative corner': a bi-weekly series of creative content by currently and formerly incarcerated people!: 'my hour' by Jeremy richard
We're excited to announce the launch of Creative Corner, a bi-weekly blog post featuring creative content made by currently or formerly incarcerated people! For our inaugural post, we're sharing a short story written by Jeremy Richard, who is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penitentiary.
It’s a cold winter day, the prisons steel bars icy to the touch. I exhale a foggy cloud of breath with a sigh and slump my shoulders at the thought of spending yet another lost day in this empty cell. The television has become boring, and with it, so have I. The only “getting lost” I’m doing these days is in my thoughts, memories. Hours spent dreaming about freedom. It seems as though I can recall every single day of my past life. My life before prison.
My stomach growls angrily as I count down the minutes until chow (prison slang for breakfast, lunch and dinner.) It makes me feel like a dog, one awaiting its negligent owner to feed it. And I pace, back and forth--a yellow plastic spoon in hand--from one end of my cell to the next. Even though it’s only nine feet to and fro, it’s still sort of soothing, calming.
Though I hate behaving like this, like an animal. It’s becoming something I can’t control as easily as I once did. A result of being caged in a box twenty-three hours a day for the past five years.
I find it simply fascinating that I have walked more miles in this cell than I ever did out of it. They say you never fully appreciate the value of something until that thing is gone. I find this to be true. For me, it’s walking ten feet without hitting a brick wall. You could say, I’m in a tight spot. If it wasn’t for my good humor, I would have lost a few screws long ago.
Breakfast arrives and with it, so does my favorite drink. This is a booze free facility, so I’ve had to substitute my drinking problem. I still have one but now, if I drink too much coffee, at least I won’t be found the next morning sleeping it off on my neighbor’s lawn.
The pancakes are dry and the oatmeal’s soggy but it’s all going to end up in my belly so who cares? I empty six packs of sugar on top of my oatmeal, whip it up, then add six more on top of that. I like my oats super sweet, my coffee bitter. Not using this many packs would be like breaking the law because I’ve been using this exact amount of sugar in my oatmeal for about three years now. I wasn’t like this before prison, but this place has either given me OCD, or gone into my treasure chest of hidden disorders to fish it out.
Now that my breakfast is finished, it’s time to wait on my owner, the correction staff, to bring the chains to take me and any other inmates who wish to go on a walk to the yard. We get a one hour yard three times a week.
Sgt. Loyd approaches my cell with a set of shackles and I greet him with a respectful and positive attitude just like I would were I in his shoes and he in mine.
“Good morning, Mr. Loyd,” I say, unconsciously tilting my hands in an attempt to make his job easier.
“Keep getting smart, boy, and I’m gonna show you a good morning,” he replies with a look I’m glad can’t kill me. Sometimes I think this place screws them up more than it does the inmates.
The lady in the control booth opens my cell door at his command, and I wonder as I trudge down the tier if she laughs at my pacing while watching me via the camera in my cell. I assure myself it doesn’t matter and continue on, down the familiar path that leads the way out of this building. A building that, give or take nineteen, maybe twenty, is home to over eighty other inmates who have been sentences to the grim reality of death, of which I’m not one.
I’m glad that yard-call has started in the front of the tier today. I’m in cell number 1. This means I get dibs on the yard pens, to pick the best basketball and goal. Some of them are in pretty bad shape. It’s sad this has become my life, but yard eighteen’s got the goods, so that’s where I’m headed.
On the outside, I may seem happy and content, but deep inside there is a bulging box of hurt and shame that weighs me down. If you pay close enough attention, you’ll notice the lazy drag of my feet across the concrete walkway and how my head hangs low. Behind my bright, engaging smile, a storm system silently brews. Not one with violent intentions, but one in search of relief. Like a bloated cloud heavy with the need to rain.
After the yard, Sgt. removes my shackles. I let out a joyful burst of barks. This receives a few questioning looks from the staff and my fellow inmates alike. The ones that don’t know me probably think I’m losing it, but those who do, know that this is just me making light of my situation. If you can’t do that, then your time will do you.
My first five shots are nothing-but-net, but there isn’t anyone watching so they don’t count. I miss the next ten before finally making another, and I notice I’ve been talking to myself the entire time. I should be embarrassed but most of the others are doing it too. So I say, the hell with it, and take another jumper. “Swish.” I had a few fans for that one. Let me tell you, a huge ego boost.
And for a moment, the razor wire and concrete is replaced by a wooden floor that’s been polished to a high sheen, with all the makings of a pro-court. There is only one lonely second left on the game clock and coach knows I’ve got the best long distance shot.
“Make me proud, Richard.” With the coach’s plea, my teammates know to get me the ball as soon as possible.
We’re down by two points but there’s not enough time to tie it up. It’s on me to win this thing. I take my position at the half court mark and shake out the tension from my hands. This is going to take my all.
Our team’s center, Jack, a seven-foot giant, shoots a bullet at me and I catch it, fighting back the pain from the sting of ball connecting with hand. I take two steps towards the goal and let it fly. A beautiful arc.
Time slows to a snail’s crawl. The only audible sound in the stadium is the pounding of my racing heart. The slow rotation of the ball in mid-air reminds me of the earth spinning on its axis. And I watch it, falling back...slow, slow, heading for the goal. Almost there, dipping towards the lip of the rim as the clock ticks its last second. Almost...Almost…
“Richard, if you keep blacking out, I’m gonna put you on mental health watch!” The yard sarge yells, loud enough to hurt my ears. He’s standing at the gate, waiting with a set of shackles in his hand.
I blink my eyes and take one last look at the threadbare ball as it gently rolls away.
My hour is up.
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!
In just TWO DAYS, anyone who:
1. is off probation or parole
2. has been on parole for 5 or more years OR
3. is on probation with no new convictions
will be newly eligible to vote under Act 636, which VOTE members helped pass at the legislature last year.
In advance of this historic victory, we're so excited to share our latest video "I'm formerly incarcerated in Louisiana--can I vote?" This hand-drawn video gives an overview of voting rights for Louisiana citizens who are: in jail or prison, on probation or parole, OR are back in their communities after completing their sentences, but still have a criminal record.
Please share this video far and wide, and come out to one of our 3 Formerly Incarcerated People's Voter Registration Events on Friday. RSVP using the links below:
New Orleans: 12-2pm, City Hall, 1300 Perdido St.
Baton Rouge: 12-2pm, City Hall, 222 Saint Louis St.
Lafayette: 11:30am-2pm, 110 Travis St.
At each event we'll have more information about the new law, speakers impacted by the new law, voter registration tables, and food, music and fun for the whole family. Hope to see you there! For any questions, or to get help registering to vote, email us at email@example.com or call us at 504-571-9599.
A day before Black History Month began, formerly incarcerated people and their allies gathered in a room with legislators and lawmakers from New Jersey. They were there to demand their right to vote, which was stolen from them 175 years ago, the same year voting became exclusively a white man's activity.
The group of changemakers is known as #1844NoMore, and their goal is to restore voting rights to the nearly 95,000 people who are either in prison, on parole or on probation throughout the state of New Jersey. At present, almost half of the disenfranchised people in the state are Black, even though Black people make up only 15% of the state's population. This is a clear indicator of the racist history of felony disenfranchisement in America.
But #1844NoMore is ready to right the wrong of this history. During the Jan. 31 meeting, attendees learned more about the three voting rights bills that will make the group's goal a reality: S-2100, S-771, and S-1603. While S-771 is a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough in that it would continue to deny voting rights people in prison. S-1603 is a bill that aims to provide voter registration assistance to people completing parole, probation, and criminal sentences, but does not explicitly re-enfranchise them. Thus, S-2100 is the bill that--in conjunction with the other two--will seal the deal on total restoration of voting rights for formerly incarcerated people.
The people spearheading these efforts are standing on the shoulders of many counterparts across the country. Last year, formerly incarcerated leaders helped regain voting rights for 1.4 million Floridians. We at VOTE helped re-enfranchise 43,000 Louisianans, whose voting rights will be restored in less than three weeks. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order restoring the right to vote to 35,000 people on parole.
The important work of restoring voting rights to people who have served their time in our nation's jails and prisons is happening everywhere, and the U.S. South has played a critical role in paving the way. We stand by our siblings near and far, knowing that by doing so we are honoring the legacies of the civil rights giants who came before us.
If you or someone you know are a member of a social justice organization whose work overlaps with #1844NoMore, sign the letter here and/or share the fact card here.