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!
Where should I start, the mind or the heart?
What about the spirit or perhaps the soul,
Being in a rage or having control?
There could be chaos and confusion on every side of the place where peace resides. Consideration and kindness, why to a fool it seems like blindness.
Should I go to the aged or to the youth, seeking answers, nothing other than truth?
I’ll question weakness as to its forms and ask strength how it remains strong.
If I spoke to patience, what would it say? Or would I have to wait for answers and entire day?
Love needs not be questioned, with its aroma so pleasing to smell.
But hate needs to be asked if that odor its carrying came from hell.
Also I’d like to ask pride about its foolish and destructive side, and find out from jealousy why it’s so ugly and awkward to hide.
Finally I’ll talk to understanding my old dear friend and in his presence is a good place to end.
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! Shane Johnson is currently incarcerated at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center.
The 2019 Louisiana legislative session is over, which means we are already thinking about election season this fall. We were faced with strong opposition at the Capitol this year, but we came out on top thanks to endless hours of work from VOTE members, staff, and a handful of supportive legislators. This fall, we have a huge opportunity to elect leaders who truly represent us--which will mean less opposition to our legislative efforts in the future. ALL 144 State Representatives and Senators, as well as the Governor, Attorney General and Secretary of State will be up for re-election on October 12. When we vote for more leaders like the ones who supported our bills this year, we protect and then advance the progress we've made. Here are the top 10 wins of this legislative session, and the lessons we learned from each. Every win moves us closer to the future we deserve, including a successful election this fall.
1. We mobilized by the hundreds:
This session, we proved that we can mobilize quickly in response to an opportunity. We learned this first one Friday in May, when we got word that seven of our key bills were being heard in House committees the following Monday. VOTE’s team activated our people across the state. We mobilized more than 100 members to fill every hearing room beyond capacity and testify in front of legislators for the first time. Just a few days later VOTE co-hosted a successful Lobby Day with Louisianans for Prison Alternatives, which brought hundreds of people to the Capitol to learn about the legislative process, meet their representatives, and fight for our bills.
Lesson: When we show up together as a network of directly impacted people, we can change the law. This lesson will be important during election season this fall, when we’ll be mobilizing our base to elect leaders who listen to our experiences and support criminal justice reform.
2. We advanced the conversation about fair juries:
A year after our historic campaign to end non-unanimous juries, it was nothing short of poetic to advocate for all people to have the right to serve on a jury. Currently, anyone with a felony conviction is excluded from this civic duty for life.
We made our case with the excellent sponsorship of Rep. Ted James, himself a former criminal defense attorney. Although the bill didn’t pass, it served as a catalyst for a broader discussion. Do our punishments ever end? Are there second chances? When a natural disaster hits Louisiana, all people come together to fulfill their obligations as friends and neighbors. In those times, nobody needs to complete a background check prior to getting involved. The same should apply for other aspects of community life. We must eliminate the segregation policies that bar us from participating in society once we come home.
In the wake of this bill, Louisiana passed a study resolution that will allow the Vera Institute for Justice to create an educational report on the state of juries in Louisiana. This is a huge step forward, and will provide ample information to present our case in the 2020 session.
Lesson: We may not have all of our rights back yet, but this fall we can vote people into office who agree that having a criminal record shouldn’t stop people from engaging in all civic responsibilities, including jury service.
3. We gained more transparency in sentencing:
We believe that everyone facing a charge should be informed of all of the consequences of pleading guilty, including the impact on housing, employment, and voting rights. From this belief, we passed a law requiring defense attorneys to communicate all plea offers to people facing charges.
We also won the opportunity to do a study on what lawyers currently communicate to their clients as part of plea deals, and to provide a recommendation to the Legislature. This is the first time a study of this magnitude has fallen upon FIP, and provides us with the force of law when we conduct our inquiries of district attorneys, court clerks, and others.
Lesson: We expect transparency, not just from courts during sentencing, but also from our politicians in general. When we vote this fall, we will elect leaders who have a track record of honesty, who are committed to telling us the full truth.
4. We lessened the wait time on professional licensing for FIP:
In recent years, proposals regarding professional licensing for formerly incarcerated people have been mixed. On one side are people who genuinely want to see hard workers have a chance to support themselves through their training and talents. On the other are people whose misguided fears lead them to support waiting periods before FIP can participate in the economy.
This year’s reform made several important changes to current law. Licensing boards are now only allowed to discriminate if a crime is violent, sexual, or directly related to the occupation. If the crime is directly related, they can only discriminate for five years. This is a significant step forward in a much longer journey towards fair reentry.
Lesson: Economic opportunity is key to successful reentry, and when we vote this fall, we will vote for people who agree.
5. We protected formerly incarcerated restaurant workers:
Another important win this year was making sure FIP still have access to working in restaurants, which are one of the most reliable places of employment for people with records. A certain bill would have created a new set of barriers for FIP to get over, but VOTE worked with the bill sponsor and their specialist to get this bill pulled from the pipeline.
Lesson: It’s not just what we fight for that matters; it is also what we fight against. We expect our elected officials to fight for employment rights for all FIP, and know that this fall we can vote for leaders who will do just that.
6. We started an honest conversation about the death penalty:
The people of Louisiana are moving towards a genuine debate about the death penalty. This year, Rep. Landry got the bill to eliminate the death penalty out of committee and onto the House Floor, which is a huge step in the right direction. The death penalty debate furthered a very serious conversation about punishment--from the details of cost to the to the issues of morality.
Lesson: Public dialogue matters. Though the bill to abolish the death penalty did not pass this session, we intend to elect leaders who will not shy away from this topic and other important conversations like it, and who share our values.
7. We eliminated a strike:
We know that the ‘three strikes’ law is overly punitive, and has led to massive group of people who are incarcerated on long-term sentences for minor offenses. This year, Louisiana had a chance to amend this law, thereby greatly reducing its negative impact.
What ultimately passed was less robust than we originally hoped, but it is still progress. The change only applies to people who: 1) are given a “first offender pardon,” which means the sentences is carried out as a probation, and then 2) pay to have that record cleared (i.e. expunged)--which can cost upwards of $1,000. Not only are these expungements costly, and therefore inaccessible to the vast majority of formerly incarcerated people, but the person using them has to wait a minimum of six months before they can even start the process. Before we passed this amendment, the first offense would still count as a first strike, even if expunged. Now, the “first offender pardon” will not count as a strike. While this is good news, it will realistically only apply to a small group of people, as this kind of pardon is rare, and expungement is expensive.
Lesson: Change is incremental, and there’s always more work to do. Though the version of the ‘three strikes’ bill that passed did not go far enough, it is a step in the right direction. In 2020, we will make the first offender pardon automatic for all. We will get there by electing leaders who don’t support overly-punitive sentences and will help us eliminate them altogether.
.8. We made unlikely allies:
During a hearing on restoring voting rights to FIP, Senator Dan Claitor, himself a former prosecutor, said “I’m doing this for Checo, and those people in the blue shirts.” He was referring to our Voters Organized to Educate Director Checo Yancy, who is a steady presence at the Capitol despite being on parole for the rest of his life. Further, Representatives Pylant and Hill provided personal stories about people they knew impacted by overly harsh punishments. This testimony shows us that more legislators like Claitor joined our side this year.
Lesson: The shift from a punitive system to a transformational system will depend on converting hearts and minds, even if it is one legislator at a time. This fall, we will vote for officials who already align with our visions, or who are at the very least willing to actively listen to us.
9. We protected our wins:
Last year, Act 636 passed the legislature and restored voting rights to 40,000 Louisianans on probation and parole. This year, Rep. Coussan tried to roll back our victory. His bill went after the lowest of low-hanging fruits--taking away voting rights for people who are on parole or probation for sex crimes involving minors.
We at VOTE know that reform must happen for all of us or none. In other words, we fight for every single formerly incarcerated person, no matter their conviction. We showed up by the hundreds for that bill hearing, and our message of “no rollbacks” was heard. We provided testimonies and more than 100 red cards in opposition. In the end, the sponsor pulled his bill from the floor. It was a huge win for VOTE and our newly eligible voters.
Lesson: Our right to vote is our voice. Act 636 gave us our right to vote back, but that doesn’t mean anything unless we use it. This fall, we have the opportunity to use our voice and elect leaders who will continue to uplift our victories, rather than roll back our progress.
10. We fought for accessible voter registration:
Act 636 went into effect on March 1 of this year. We anticipated some problems with implementation, namely getting everyone who is now eligible successfully registered. This session, we tried to put in a Voter Registration Simplification Act to smooth out the registration process for FIP using the Secretary of State’s offices, staff and protocols. The bill ultimately failed, but we’re ready to take registration into our own hands.
Lesson: We’re always willing to fight one day longer than the other.
VOTE is as determined as ever to get the 40,000 newly eligible voters registered in time for the fall elections--even if we don’t have full support from the Secretary of State and the Department of Corrections. From June 30 to July 3, we’ll be on a voter registration tour with Black Voters Matter. We’ll be stopping in: Baton Rouge (June 30), Lafayette (July 1), Shreveport (July 2), New Orleans (July 3), and some places in between! Come out and get registered, and celebrate with other newly eligible voters! RSVP using the links above.
Like every year since the movement to end mass incarceration has begun, we’ve seen ups and downs. But with each win and each setback, we learn a lesson, as seen above. The biggest one of all? We can, and will, turn the criminal legal system into a truly transformative justice system over time. We are proud of the progress we have made this session, and are excited to build the future we know is possible by electing leaders who will listen to our stories and help us fight for our rights this fall.
What if we were given an opportunity.
What if we could change things around inside of our community.
What if we stood for unity.
What if we made a difference, and encouraged another person to make better decisions.
What if you had the opportunity to write out your life.
What if a blind person was able to regain their sight.
What if somehow, someway we found a cure for aids.
What if H1N1 put an end to your days.
What if Hurricane Katrina hit Beverly Hills.
What if the water killed thousands in the BP oil spill.
What if houses in Haiti were sturdy and firm.
What if Obama was assassinated before completing his second term.
What if the Wikileaks founder withheld the truth.
What if America, the beautiful, returned all of her troops.
What if public school teachers were properly paid.
What if the wrongfully convicted were released from the cage.
What if innocent people got back all of those years.
What if mothers never suffered, and had to shed tears.
What if tomorrow never came.
What if it always rained.
What if you found a way to eliminate all of the pain.
What if you came to the conclusion that life was only just an illusion, and then drew into seclusion.
What if we never failed, just lived happily.
What if pain and stress were not a part of this reality.
What if your thought process brought success.
What if there weren't kids that had to starve to death.
What if oppression never existed--would the statistics inside the criminal system then become fictitious?
What if I never rose up off that hospital bed.
What if my little brother wasn't buried and dead.
What if, I could bring him back, dig him up and blow breath in his lungs so he could reconnect with his two sons.
What if, air pollution, global warming and massive atrocities put an end to this modern day society.
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! Brandon is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penitentiary.
Thursday is the last day of the 2019 legislative session. We have had many ups and downs, big wins, and small setbacks. Most of all, we have been reminded over and over again that long-term change is a slow process. With patience and perseverance, VOTE staff and members have been at the State Capitol daily for the past two months, fighting for the changes that will build the just future our community demands and deserves.
At VOTE, we know that the people closest to the criminal justice system--those who have experienced all of its injustice--will be the ones to ensure lasting change. House Concurrent Resolution (HCR) 109 is a chance for VOTE prove that principle to the legislature. HCR 109 allows VOTE to conduct a study about the level of awareness people facing charges have had regarding the consequences that come with taking a plea deal. We know from experience that many people are not made aware of the true impact of pleading guilty to a conviction, including how having a criminal record will affect their access to housing, voting, and employment for the rest of their lives. As of today, the bill has passed the House and the Senate and is ready to be signed by the Governor. Now VOTE and our partners have the opportunity to collect testimonies from our community and educate the legislature on the issues that directly impact us. We will come back to the 2020 legislative session with the report in hand, ready to continue the fight.
HCR 109 builds off of another bill that we introduced this session--HB 351--which ensures that defense attorneys will communicate all plea offers from the District Attorney to their clients. The bill also passed both chambers and is awaiting the Governor’s signature. This is a step in the right direction, though there's more room for growth.
Like HB 351, HB 518--which in its original form would have removed nonviolent offenses from the habitual offender, or ‘three strikes’ law, and drastically reduce its harmful impact--has been weakened by amendments. The habitual offender law allows judges to lengthen sentences for people who have been convicted of more than one crime, even if their first and second crimes were nonviolent and minor in nature. This type of unnecessarily harsh sentencing is the primary reason that our jails and prisons are overcrowded with people who have nonviolent convictions. Now (after the amendments), HB 518 will only apply to people who choose probation for their first offense and who went through the burdensome process of getting their record sealed after they served the probation. This choice, usually known as ‘deferred probation’ only applies to certain first-time offenses and is not a common sentence. On top of that, getting a record sealed is not automatic and very few people go through with the process--often deterred by the $1,000 price tag.* HB 518 passed the House and is being heard on the Senate Floor TOMORROW (click here to tell your legislators to vote YES on it). If it passes, this bill will still be a small win for VOTE, and we will have more work to do next legislative session to continue chipping away at the overly-punitive habitual offender law.
HCR 109, HB 315, and HB 518 do not go far enough, but they are undoubtedly moving us in the right direction. Unfortunately, this session has also seen some policy decisions that roll back on our progress. Two crucial criminal justice reform bills were defeated in the House this year--HB 509 and HB 59. HB 59 tried to reform penalties for marijuana possession and HB 509 sought to legalize the drug for recreational use. These bills are important because we know that the War on Drugs has been ineffective at best, and violently disrupted poor communities of color at worst. Last year, marijuana possession alone accounted for 13,000 arrests in Louisiana, and it is no surprise that those arrested were disproportionately Black. These marijuana bills were simply trying to amend the lowest hanging fruit by addressing the arrests that have been proven unnecessary and detrimental to justice.
It is now widely accepted across political lines that overly-punitive sentencing practices such as those mentioned above are a leading cause of mass incarceration in our state and throughout the nation. That means it’s time to make bigger strides in reversing these harmful policies. We demand better from our legislators, and are ready to fight one day longer than our opponents until justice is achieved.
*If you or someone you know has a record that you want sealed, the Justice and Accountability Center and Orleans Public Defenders’ office host a free expungement clinic every fourth Wednesday of the month from 2-5pm at 2601 Tulane Ave. Find more information here.
You esteem yourself better than the rest
Because of the stars pinned to your chest.
But somehow the irony escapes you
For you, dear friend, are in prison, too.
Bound by perceptions and concepts you can't understand.
Unseen shackles and manacles adorn your hands.
You wear them proudly, they fit you well.
How do medals stay pinned to such empty shells?
To ask you to lift a finger, or simply push a button
Is to somehow make you the victim of some great injustice.
The wages you receive would be better spent
Educating a young mind, not for paying your rent.
You dare look down at your nose, like we are the disgrace
But your truth betrays you, even in this place.
The cling and clang you constantly hear
Are not the shackles placed on us, my dear.
Your chains escort you from place to place
Your bondage is evident, you can't hide your face.
The time is coming, and soon all will know
Our taxes are wasted on YOU, Sgt. Joe.
Your power rests solely here in these walls
But the power will shift when the right gavel falls.
So laugh now, Sgt. Joe; make ME your wisecrack.
In just a little while, the number will be on your back.
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.
We know that the people closest to the problems of mass incarceration are the ones who will transform the criminal justice system in the most lasting, humane ways. VOTE is made up of such people, and this legislative session we have been working to bridge the gap between the current reality of an unjust system and our vision for a better future. We have had successes and setbacks, all the while building people power and momentum. Every day since April 8, VOTE staff and members have been at the State Capitol testifying on bills that support our mission to protect the rights of currently and formerly incarcerated people (FIP), and fighting against the ones that don’t. As people who have spent time behind bars ourselves or are supporting loved ones who are still locked up, we know we deserve so much better. As our mission says, we deserve the FULL restoration of our civil and human rights. This session, we’re focused on the following three topics, though the list of what we we’re fighting for is much longer, and we won’t quit until each item is checked off.
We deserve sentences that match the crime
One of the drivers of mass incarceration is overly-punitive sentences that result from the habitual offender law. More commonly known as the "three strikes” law, this allows judges to lengthen sentences for people who have been convicted of more than one crime, even if their first and second crimes were non-violent and minor in nature. This type of unnecessarily harsh sentencing is the primary reason that our jails and prisons are overcrowded with people who have non-violent convictions, and it has to end.
Often, the factors that lead people to commit crimes are systemic and deeply rooted, such as addiction, poverty and mental illness. The three strikes law only focuses on the symptoms of these underlying problems, and punishes the people dealing with them. The majority of people serving time in Louisiana under this law (64%) are in prison for non-violent offenses(1), and they are also disproportionately Black (79%)(2). HB 518 will remove non-violent offenses from the habitual offender law, which would drastically reduce the impact of overly-punitive sentencing. The bill passed the House Committee and is coming up for a vote on the House Floor on Wednesday, May 22! Contact your legislators and tell them to vote YES on HB 518 TODAY! (Reading this after May 22? You can still check the status of the bill here. If it’s moved forward, we still need you to contact your legislators. This applies to all the bills referenced in this post.)
We deserve transparency
Anyone who has been involved with the criminal justice system knows that it is confusing--often intentionally so. There is a lot of fine print, and most people going to court aren’t provided adequate legal counsel. This legislative session, VOTE is pushing to pass HB 351, which will make sure people who are offered a plea deal are made aware of the true impact of their conviction, including how having a criminal record will affect their access to housing, voting, and employment for the rest of their lives. At the bill’s House Committee hearing, it was clear we struck a nerve when Pete Adams of the District Attorneys Association testified that HB 351 would “slow down the process--it literally would shut down justice,” which is the opposite of true. His words are in keeping with District Attorneys’ common attempts to pressure people into signing away their rights via drive-by sentencing. As an antidote, this bill would provide more awareness to people facing a loss of freedom. As of now, it has been amended to ensure lawyers inform people of all plea offers by the state (which is constitutionally required under Missouri v. Frye). This bill has passed the House and has moved to the Senate Committee. Contact your legislators and tell them to vote YES on HB 351!
The lack of transparency in the trial process doesn’t end with the courts, it extends to bail bond companies as well. Bail bonds companies have been illegally overcharging people for bail for years in New Orleans. The Commissioner of Insurance has issued a directive ordering companies to repay the $6 million they’ve stolen from New Orleans families over the last 14 years(3). The corruption in the bail bonds industry most directly impacts women--the mothers, grandmothers, wives and friends of incarcerated men--who are also often the primary caretakers when their loved ones are incarcerated. VOTE opposes SB 108. The bill would make the order for bail bond companies to repay customers void. It is coming to a vote on the House Floor on Wednesday, May 22. Contact your legislators to oppose SB 108 today!
We deserve to participate in civic duties
The right to participate in civic duties such as voting has historically been denied to certain United States citizens, including formerly incarcerated people. As FIP, we know that voting is a pillar of our nation’s democracy, and one of the most powerful tools for change. Our huge legislative win from last year--which expanded voting rights to 40,000 formerly incarcerated people under Act 636--was already under attack this session. HB 527 tried to take away the right to vote for people specifically convicted of sex crimes. This bill sought to divide our community of FIP based on our specific convictions, and roll back the important progress we made last year. VOTE responded by mobilizing our base. We descended upon the Capitol in mass to show our opposition. On May 1, we filled the House Committee on Government Affairs room with 100 blue shirts, and watched as our leaders Norris Henderson and Checo Yancy testified against the bill alongside our ally, Rep. Pat Smith (D-District 67). We succeeded in defeating the bill in the committee, a testament to the strength in our numbers and in our stories.
In an effort to build on last year’s win, VOTE also pushed HB 65 this year, which would have restored the right to serve on a jury to people with a felony conviction who have not been incarcerated for at least five years. Like voting, the right to serve on a jury is one of the most fundamental rights guaranteed in both the Louisiana and United States Constitutions. Excluding FIP from jury service further disenfranchises an already stigmatized population. In Louisiana, more than 100,000 people are currently serving a felony sentence, while hundreds of thousands more have completed their punishments yet are barred for life from serving on juries(4). Though they are excluded from this civic duty, it is precisely this type of community engagement that reduces recidivism and promotes successful reentry. Research also shows that the more diverse a jury is, the more fair it will be(5). Allowing FIP to serve on a jury would therefore benefit all parties involved. On May 1, HB 65 passed the House Committee on Criminal Justice but lost by a 26-62 vote two weeks later on the House Floor. Despite this setback, we will keep fighting to restore the basic civil rights that should be guaranteed to every citizen of this country.
We know that we have to keep fighting for ourselves, because no one is looking out to protect our wins as much as we are. Our community deserves fair sentences, transparency, and participation in civic duties, among other rights, and we will keep working every day to secure them. In two weeks, we’ll dive even deeper into additional rights that we’re fighting for this legislative session, and how they connect with other states around the country who are doing parallel work. Together, we will all build the justice system we deserve.
(2) Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, Briefing Book, June 30, 2018. https://www.doc.la.gov/media/1/Briefing%20Book/July%2018/july.2018.bb.pdf
(5) Sommers, S.R. (2006). On racial diversity and group decision-making: Identifying multiple effects of racial composition on jury deliberations, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 90, 597.
Depending on your mission, the jungle can be a passing experience or a brutal graveyard. My senior year I was back at Ellender Memorial High School after an expedited exit from California. My football team had a game against Amite High, who would then go on to win the state championship in 3A. (They should have, because nobody on the team was under 25.)
Standing on the field with these grown men, every player had full mustaches and Rick Ross beards. Plus, these was some country boys--I'm talking about cornbread-fed. So it was no surprise when we found ourselves down 35 to 0 in the 4th quarter and the offense could hardly move the ball. I caught a 15-yard pass, but then we ended up losing 15 or 20 yards during the next play. Defense played okay, but they were definitely overpowered. In other words, I'm surprised the game wasn't 70 to nothing. For some reason, though, I still felt like my team wasn't giving it their all.
I walked up and down the sidelines, looking at all the so-called stars of the team, who were all-district, all-regional, and, on the defensive end, all-stater players. It was a Thursday night, so I asked how they were going to hold their heads up at school tomorrow after they’d said we were coming up here to beat these people at the pep rally. They told me I was getting beat ,too. I agreed, but I said the only difference was that I could at least say I had scored a touchdown. They laughed at me. Our offense crossed the 50-yard line once, and on the next offensive drive, I took the punt. I headed for the touchdown, but before I could make it to the sidelines, somebody hit me so hard I flew almost all the way to the track. Instead of being intimidated, I was extremely excited because this was the longest play of the game. I must have sparked something in my offense, because my running backs were actually hitting the hole. I caught another 15-yard post, and we were close to the end zone. Coach called my play--a waggle--and I took the post corner.
When I stepped into my post, the cornerback was all over me. I had caught 3 posts on him in the game, and he wasn't going to let me catch another one. But this wasn't a post, so when he and the free safety jumped the post, Kenny my quarterback threw the corner. When they looked, I wasn't in the post but racing to the corner. When I caught the ball, I was in the end zone. I ran out the back of the end zone and did my dance. My running back wasn't going to let me shine on my own, so he ran a 60-yarder. If we had had another quarter, we could have won, but instead we lost the game 35-14, though we did manage to that show everybody that we had a team to reckon with.
That year we were ranked 6th in 4A in the state. I had one goal, and that was to do my dance. I could only do my dance, however, if I crossed the goal line with the football.
We were undefeated going into the game against our Catholic rivals across town. They were ranked in 3A that year and threatened to give us our first loss. The score kept going back and forth, and in the 4th quarter we were tied. Kenny threw me a post, but the free safety read it and intercepted the ball in the end zone. The cornerback flipped me in the air, and I looked up to see the ball going the other way.
As I sat in the end zone, I heard somebody calling my name. When I looked up, another rival was standing outside the fence yelling, “don't worry, you'll beat 'em next year,” and then said, “my bad, this your last year.” I got off the ground and watched as the defense let them score. For some strange reason they went for two, and the defense stopped them, which meant we got the ball back. I tell everybody we would not lose this game, and we started to move the ball. The running back caught a few passes out the back field, yet time was running out and it was the fourth down. If they stopped us, we would get our first loss.
Coach called the waggle play, and I knew it was now or never.
I ran my route and the free safety read the play again. He jumped the post route, yet when he did the cornerback went to hit me, and I moved into the corner. Kenny really threw the ball. Actually, he overthrew it, and all I could think about was running all the way to the line and just stretching for the ball. As my tip toes stopped a corner of the end zone, I pulled the ball in. When I looked up the same rival was still there. I showed him the ball before I started to do my dance. Our kicker sealed the deal, and we won.
I was player of the week in that game, gave my first newspaper interview, and adopted the nickname Prime Time, which I did not like at first because it was already somebody else's name, but then it grew on me.
Never think in the jungle that just because all is clear ahead that everything is alright. Cliffs, crags, or bluffs could suddenly appear and you could plummet to your death. This sudden drop came when the coach from the school I should’ve been attending called my coach and told him that I was living out of district. He said that if I transferred schools and came to play for him, he wouldn't report me. My coach ask if I wanted to fight this, and I told him to scrap up. We fought and we lost. Since my grandmother had been my guardian, when I transferred schools I used my auntie's address. I lost my eligibility, and we ended up forfeiting all of our wins, but the team had still won enough games in the district to make the playoffs.
The playoff game was against the Capitol team from Baton Rouge. My replacement dropped too many passes and a game-winning touchdown. Everybody looked at me when he dropped that pass like it was my fault. In a way it was because if I would have played, we would have won and the game wouldn't have been so close. This is what it’s like to choose to live and die in LA-- not the city of angels, but the state where the oppressive is impressive. You may be able to erase my stats from a book, but you can't erase my action on films, and colleges still wanted the fast little kid that did his dance.
This is the sixth 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! This is the last part in a multi-part story written by Eyba Brown, who is currently incarcerated at Raymond Laborde Correctional Center.