In the mid 1980s, our Founder and Executive Director was part of the Lifers Club at Angola State Penitentiary--a group of men who were told they’d never have a chance to come home. Refusing to accept this fate, they started to do research. Together the Lifers wrote to other people doing life in 10 Southern states, asking about their sentencing laws and reform. To the club’s surprise, they got responses indicating that so many states were fighting for the same reforms as our leader and his friends. They used the letters to draft a legislative bill that aimed to reduce the sentences of people serving life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). Hungry for change, they were disappointed to learn that they needed a legislator to sponsor and file the bill for them. So they wrote to Louisiana state lawmakers, but this time they didn’t get many letters back. Shortly thereafter, Henderson was sharing about feeling dismayed at the Lifers’ monthly meeting, which certain people on the outside were allowed to attend. When he had finished speaking, a woman sitting in the front row stood up. “My name is Naomi White Warren,” she said. “I’m a newly-elected state representative from New Orleans, and I’ll take your bill on for you.” The Lifers’ stories, voices, and perseverance inspired Rep. Warren (now Farve) to join their fight for freedom. “The excitement in the prison was off the chain,” says Henderson. Unfortunately, as that year’s legislative session went on, it was clear that the bill wouldn’t pass. Yet the bill was still a huge success, not only because it finally passed many years later, but because it was the first time in VOTE’s history that our people--the ones closest to the problem--organized to the point of changing the entire trajectory of their lives. Today we carry on this legacy by fighting for more bills and more reform at the Capitol. Every year, our collective voice gets stronger. Here’s what we’re fighting for this year, and how you can join us.
Protecting the rights of people facing convictions
While our (in)justice system promises we’re innocent until proven guilty, we know that’s often not true for many groups of people, including those who are poor and of color. In many states including ours, someone awaiting trial can be held in jail for years--even though they haven't been convicted of any crime--if they’re unable to pay ever-increasing fines and fees. This pretrial detention punishes poor people and then profits off of them, as the fines and fees they’re forced to pay are funding the salaries of judges--the very people setting the bond people need to pay to get out. Clearly, this is a conflict of interest and was even ruled unconstitutional by a federal consent decree last year. For that reason, one of our priorities this session is reducing the number of poor people in jail by holding our judicial system accountable to how fines and fees are created and used.
The system also wrongs people facing a conviction by not telling them what the full consequences of taking a plea deal are. Instead, lawyers often present a plea deal as the smartest option, but they leave out that we’ll face such consequences as losing our right to vote and access to public housing, among others. The bills we advocate for this session will make sure anyone offered a plea deal is fully informed about these collateral consequences before making such a big life decision. And the legislators deciding on these bills listen best when there are people who have been directly impacted by them at the hearings. “When we advocate for ourselves, we have hundreds more that we’re also advocating for,” says Rene Smith, our new Baton Rouge Organizer. “We can’t be afraid to tell our story--it could change the mind of a legislator and [affect] the lives of so many.”
Strengthening the rights of people behind bars
We also need more voices to strengthen the rights of people already in prison. We’ll be reforming probation and parole eligibility, LWOP sentencing, and medical service standards for people on the inside. Long-time VOTE member and now our New Orleans Organizer Donald Arbuthnot is excited to fight at the legislature. He’s especially interested in medical rights because he was so impacted by a lack of medical care while he was in prison. Once when he had food poisoning, instead of giving him treatment, the prison infirmary put Arbuthnot in a “tank”--a freezing room with concrete benches. “I was balled up in a knot, in so much pain,” he explains. Since so many of the prison medical staff were once doctors but had had their medical licenses revoked, he waited overnight in that room for a qualified doctor to come and diagnose him. Luckily, Arbuthnot was not permanently harmed by the incident. But many of Arbuthnot’s friends who went to the infirmary were misdiagnosed, mistreated or never came back. “[The prison] killed them,” he says. “A lot of it came out of their deep hatred and racism for people of color.” Arbuthnot encourages all formerly incarcerated people to come to the Capitol and change this common story. “When we speak from our experiences in prison,” Arbuthnot says, “we can only say the truth.”
Defending the rights of formerly incarcerated people
When we fight as a united front, we win. Last’s why another part of our strategy this year is defending the rights that we’ve already worked so hard for, including our right to vote. In 2018, we passed Act 636, which restored voting rights to 40,000 Louisianans with convictions. But since it went into effect on March 1 of last year, the DOC and Secretary of State’s office have put up so much bureaucratic red tape, making it extremely difficult for those eager to vote to get registered. “They don’t want it to be simple,” says our Shreveport Organizer Felicia Smith. “They want you to jump through hoops so you get tired and don’t vote.” We’re not going to let lawmakers take away rights that we’ve poured countless hours of sweat and tears into, which is why we need more voices than ever involved in this legislative session. With so many wins behind us, there’s that much more to defend.
We know that sometimes getting involved is easier said than done. But we have some resources--made by us and for us--to get you started. New to the legislative process? Check out How a Bill Becomes a Law (it’s more interesting than Schoolhouse Rock, we promise). Want to speak in front of legislators about your experiences with the (in)justice system? Check out our video explaining How and Why We Testify. Want to attend one of our upcoming events but want a sneak peek of what it’s like? Check out this Facebook live video from Lobby Day three years ago.
We’ll also be offering multiple trainings on how to make an impact at the Capitol, since we know that we’re all learning together and have a range of experiences. Upcoming sessions include Pre-Lobby Day on Tuesday, March 3 followed by Lobby Day on Tuesday, March 24 (click the links to RSVP).
When we advocate, it’s not just for ourselves, but for everyone who is still voiceless. “If you’re inside of a cell,” says our new Lafayette Organizer Marcus Simmons, “and you stick your hand out of the bars, the arms don’t forget about the body. I’m the arms now, and I can’t forget about the people still stuck inside. To the system, these people are just a body and a paycheck. But to me, they helped me to survive when I had no family, no soap or deodorant. The least I could do is be their legs and their voice.”
In addition to the upcoming events listed above, we also have monthly meetings around the state, which are a low-stakes and easy way to join our work. New Orleans meets on the first Wednesday of every month, Shreveport meets on the third Thursday, Lafayette meets on the fourth Monday, and Baton Rouge meets on the fourth Thursday. For specific dates and times, check our our calendar.
What do you really know about me?
What do you know about four brick walls,
and 15-minute collect phone calls?
What do you know about 20-foot-high wire fences?
What do you know about
getting screamed at
and told what to do,
by an ‘authority’ figure
who couldn't walk a day in your shoes?
What do you know about having nothing to call your own?
What do you know about having a four-foot cell with a pisser in it,
and nothing to call home?
What do you know about having everything stripped from your life,
and praying you don't get stabbed when you try to sleep at night?
Before you pass judgement and say I chose my own path,
let me take a second and give you some insight into my past.
What do you know about growing up below the poverty line?
What do you know about your mother being gone for days,
and you don't have no idea where she went?
What do you know about freezing in the winter because they've turned off the power?
What do you know about going next door to the neighbor's house
just to get something to eat?
What do you know about getting kicked out when you're 16 years old?
What do you know about being forced to sleep in the back of a van,
or on the streets,
because you have nowhere else to go?
So, before you pass judgement about a man you've never seen,
What do you REALLY know about ME?
If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll be in touch! We'll share the content on social media and always give credit to the artist(s) involved. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Aaron G. Kitzler is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penitentiary.
Last Friday VOTE gathered alongside other justice reform advocates the inaugural Underground Railroad to Justice Summit hosted by Southern University Law Center. The day’s sessions spanned from current policy strategies to attracting media attention, but the resounding message from the summit was unified: our movement is strong, and it must keep growing in order to keep winning.
More than 25 Louisiana justice organizations came to the summit, proving the unstoppable power of our movement. Together we reiterated the importance of holding every part of the system that has locked us up and locked us out accountable.
East Baton Rouge Parish Prison (EBRPP), for example, has a death rate twice the national average. A large contributing factor is that this jail, like many across the country, are treated as a mental health facility. For this reason the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition focuses on proper mental healthcare and eliminating pretrial detention. “People are often taken to pretrial detention in moments of [mental health] crisis,” says coalition member Rev. Anderson, a long-time advocate for mental health. “And the excuse is always the same, ‘there’s no other option.’” But we know there is another option, which is why many people and organizations—including our Baton Rouge chapter—have joined the coalition. The next step is to demand that the local sherriff investigate the unnecessary and sky-high number of deaths in his jail.
People can also hold the system accountable as individuals. Deidra Howard felt like a true citizen when she served jury duty several years ago. Like many jurors, she thought that she took in all of the facts of the case before she sentenced the man on trial to life in prison. But afterward Howard realized that the court had only given the jurors some of the evidence, leaving other pieces out. She felt betrayed by our (in)justice system--as if they had tricked her into sentencing an innocent man. She wanted to change her vote. She wrote to every lawyer and judge involved in the case many times over the course of that next year, but no one seemed to care. The system communicated that it was too late--the indictment was irreversible.
A year later, she found out that the man she and the other jurors had sentenced was being released from prison. While Howard can’t say that her letters were the first cause of his release, she has a hunch that speaking out helped. Now, she and her sister are working on legislation to create a juror’s bill of rights so that all jurors know that not all of the evidence is always presented at trial. Now that the unanimous jury law we championed is in effect, jurors have more power to be like Howard. Since formerly incarcerated people cannot yet serve on juries in Louisiana, we encourage all jurors to ask as many questions as needed, and consider as many factors as possible.
Another effective way to get in where you fit in is by simply sharing your story. Social media makes this easier than ever before, in addition to more traditional outlets like writing a letter to the editor or calling into a radio show. That’s how Gary Chambers, founder of the Black media outlet The Rouge Collection, got his start. Chambers saw how no news outlets were reporting on local police brutality or deaths he was seeing in Baton Rouge’s parish prison. So he did it himself. He wrote blog posts and op-eds on the topic, doing his own reporting along the way. Slowly but steadily his social media following increased. Chambers began using his voice to hold people like elected officials and police officers accountable. At the summit, he taught attendees how to write our own press releases, submit a letter to the editor, and build relationships with reporters. If you see an injustice happening and everyone else is ignoring it, Chambers told us, you can bring it to light with truthful storytelling.
The summit reminded us that there’s room for everyone in this fight, including those still behind bars. Keynote speaker Calvin Duncan, who was wrongfully convicted and sat on death row for 28 years, says that he found his love for legal studies while incarcerated. “I love that the law gives me the power to help poor people who can’t help themselves,” he says. “Through [knowing the law], I have power like Superman. I want you all have that power, too.”
This year’s legislative session begins in a few weeks, so now is the time to harness our individual and collective superpowers. Some VOTE members are very good at connecting people, always bringing two new friends to our monthly meetings. Some of us are super-storytellers, moving crowds of people into action. Some of us are the hope-bearers, keeping our spirits up during trying times. The best leaders among us are all of these at once.
Share your superpower with our movement by signing up for our newsletter. Every other week we send out the latest updates on justice reform, as well as upcoming events, actions and opportunities.