Albert Woodfox spent almost 45 years in a 6-by-9-foot cell for 23 hours a day. Despite this, he says that his mind was free, in large part because he still had access to books. In other words, reading is freedom, and can help us see a pathway out of our current reality. Whether you’re new to the issue of mass incarceration, or directly impacted by it, our summer reading list has a book or two for you! From the racist history of modern-day slavery to the possibilities of a world without prisons, this list will take you from past, to present, to future. Can you finish this list before the summer is over? Challenge on!
This book should really be in the #1 spot, but we are starting this list with books that teach us how mass incarceration became a system of racial control and its impacts today. Alexander challenges the notion that the election of Barack Obama created a new era of colorblindness, arguing that "we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it." This is a must read for those who haven’t read this book before or are new to the issue. And, if you have already read this book, it’s a book worth reading again!
We love this book not only because it is written by a formerly incarcerated person, but also because Curtis used to co-lead our Shreveport chapter of VOTE (and is now using his talents as a certified paralegal at the Southern Poverty Law Center). Our leader Norris Henderson often says that “ those closest to the issue are closest to the solution,” and Curtis is a great example of this kind of leadership. Through a collection of essays and articles, Curtis illustrates the current state of the Louisiana criminal (in)justice system and its failures. Through his first (and likely not last) publication, he answers such questions as: how did Louisiana become the state with the highest incarceration rate? Why are more than 80 percent of Louisiana prisoners of African descent? We’ll give you a hint: it has to do with white supremacy and enslavement by design.
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” says Bryan Stevenson, Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a feature on the Netflix movie, 13th. Stevenson shows how the current issues of the criminal (in)justice system by sharing his experience of working as a civil rights lawyer fighting for the rights of death row prisoners. This inspiring and powerful book about defending those who are incarcerated includes stories of those who are still on the inside. Stevenson epitomizes how one person can change many lives.
Woodfox, the aforementioned survivor of solitary confinement, is a Native New Orleanian who spent almost five decades in lockdown for a crime he did not commit. One would think that this experience would push him to be defeated, but those harsh years of enduring violence and deprivation have instead inspired him to demand an end to this form of torture. As part of the Louisiana Stop Solitary Coalition, last month we hosted a press conference where Woodfox and other survivors of solitary spoke about their experiences. Their words align with a groundbreaking new report that includes testimonies from more than 700 people currently on lockdown--the largest ever of its kind. Watch the whole conference here, then come to our next coalition meeting!
We know that racial discrimination is one of the root causes of criminal (in)justice system. The Hate U Give is narrated by a 16-year-old girl whose life becomes public on a national level when she witnesses a white police officer fatally shoot her childhood friend, Khali, who is a Black teen. She is the only one who can share what really happened that night Khali was shot, and what she says has an effect on her community. Through fiction, this book attempts to teach readers what life is like for a young Black person in America.
The story of five young boys who were wrongfully convicted has been brought in the spotlight again by Ava DuVernay’s new series, When They See Us. Whether or not you have already seen the series, this book is a must-read to understand the deep-rooted race and class divisions in New York City at the time of the conviction, and how this case could've easily been in Louisiana, too. Sarah Burns tells the full story of this historic case as a microcosm of the ongoing criminal (in)justice system in America. This is a thought-provoking summer read for those who want to learn more about institutional racism and the challenges that young men of color face from arrest to sentencing and beyond. While this book and those before it have painted a picture of mass incarceration today and how it came to be, we also know that we need resources that can help us imagine a world without incarceration. The next books on this list will take you on that very journey into the future.
One out of every 7 people in prison in the United States is currently serving a life sentence. The Meaning of Life advocates for the end of life sentences, as well as reducing all sentences to 20 years or less. The authors explain how most incarcerated people age out of crime and once they are in their 40s, meaning that from then on they are at a very low risk of recidivism. This is a book for those who hunger for compassion and justice.
Imagine a world without prisons, a world more focused on healing and rehabilitation than punishment. Are Prisons Obsolete? advocates for the end of incarceration. Longtime prison abolitionist Angela Davis describes how prisons perpetuate racism and sexism, and imprison Black and Latinx individuals for capitalistic reasons. For generations of Americans, people thought the abolishment of slavery was not attainable, but it was. People thought segregation would last a lifetime, but it did not. Now we are asking you to believe in a world without mass incarceration. This book is a must read for those who are ready to take on the case for the complete abolition of all prisons.
Danielle Sered is a good friend of VOTE’s, but that’s not the only reason we chose this book for our list. Sered helps us see the possible future by offering insight into how we can address violence without relying on the inhumanity of mass incarceration. This book centers not just the stories, but also the desires of survivors of violence in terms of healing, accountability and interacting with the people who hurt them. She shows that people who commit violent crimes can accept responsibility and make meaningful amends to those they have hurt--something that the current process of trials, sentencing and incarceration doesn’t allow for.
Last but not least, this book discusses one of VOTE’s most important values: community. This book influenced Woodfox, the author of Solitary (which is earlier on this list), to believe that one man can make a difference. The Different Drum describes what community means, how it can be developed on the principles of love and tolerance, and how it transforms our lives. Peck addresses the stages of spiritual growth and shows how the weaknesses of human nature and lack of true community in the world have led to some of the world’s most pressing problems. This book is for those who seek to learn how to be authentically part of communities and how, together, we have the solution.
They grew next to my grandparents' house
When I was a kid
Papa planted them to cover an old well
My sister once fell in
And I remember them well.
I caught my first baseball
Under their watchful eyes
I learned to play football
While they cheered from the sidelines
They may have even gasped
When I broke my wrist
I remember them well.
Their leaves seemed as big as
Papa's cowboy hat,
To my little brown eyes
Their stalks like pine trees
Tall and slender and strong
Their proud blossoms flamed bright
Like torches sent to ignite the night
I remember them so well.
The small cluster that was a wild jungle
During a game of hide and seek
The perfect place to find ladybugs and caterpillars
Even when sorrow visited our home
There they were standing tall and courageous
By our side.
Every calla lily I see today
Takes me back to that place
Where a little boy caught his first baseball
And busted his nose
Where he dug up worms
To scare his Big Mama
Where honeysuckle dances on the breeze
And blackberries grow wild and free
Where a bike is the first invitation to freedom
Where Papa surprises everyone with juicy red watermelons
(and a yellow one for my Momma, his "Jo Baby")
Where summer is sugar cane juice dripping off your chin
As you pedal through town looking for adventure
Where grown ups sit on the porch and shuck corn and shell peas
And laugh like pain never existed
I remember them well
Where innocence is lost
And redemption is found
Where tears are shed and secrets are told
Where food seems to always be in abundance
And meals are loud and long
Where love lives in every heart
Where generations gather
And stand tall, strong, and proud
Like orange calla lilies.
If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll be in touch! We'll share the content on social media and always give credit to the artist(s) involved. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Angelo D. Golatt is currently incarcerated at David Wade Correctional Center.
From slavery, to Jim Crow, to, now, mass incarceration, America has tied Black people's hands behind their backs, refusing to let them practice basic rights, including the right to vote. For those of us with convictions, this is called felony disenfranchisement, and it prevents millions from being able to have their voice heard in the political process. On March 1 of this year, Act 636 restored voting rights to: formerly incarcerated people (FIP) who are off probation or parole; those who have been on parole for at least five years; and those who are on probation and haven’t received a new conviction. From June 30 to July 3, VOTE and Black Voters Matter drove across Louisiana to register anyone eligible under this new law. We learned and were reminded of many things on the road, such as the unstoppable power of the people, the importance of directly impacted leadership, and the depth of love and strength in our communities. Between now and the fall elections, we’ll be taking the following lessons with us as we register even more FIP to vote.
1. The South is rising.
Before we started the tour, we faced some pushback about what we were doing. That pushback promised that the old South is being rattled. For years, southern states have been called ‘backwards,’ ‘slow,’ and ‘not progressive.’ These are excuses for the racism and oppression that happens in these states. Our bus tour dispelled these narratives, showing all involved that the South is not stuck in its racist history. Loud and proud, we drove a giant bus that read “Black Voters Matter” in big letters across the very southern state of Louisiana. This is the new South. Just as the Freedom Riders drove interstate buses into the segregated South to create change, we also rode a bus that challenged the narrative of the old South.
2. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
A core principle of VOTE’s work is that those who are directly impacted by oppression need to be the leaders of liberation work. In other words, the ones closest to the problem are closest to the solution, as our great leader Norris Henderson often reminds us. Black Voters Matter, our co-hosts on the tour, is led by people of color who live the reality of racism every day. At each stop, they got off the bus and started a dance party to James Brown’s Say it loud! I'm Black and I'm proud. As leaders whose experiences matched those of the people attending our tour events, they knew what to talk about, rally around, and chant for. They energized fellow Black communities across the state in both rural and urban areas, proving that having leaders who truly represent us can power up lasting change.
3. No matter the size of a community, the strength it holds can make a difference.
We thought the smallest towns would have the least turnout, but we were proved wrong. Monroe has a population under 50,000, but more than 100 people came out to greet our bus. It felt as though the whole town of Monroe has been waiting decades for a moment like this to happen, reminding us that we can’t leave anyone behind. By being acknowledged and reminded of their power to change the way things are, the people of Monroe became an army ready to restore rights back to their formerly incarcerated community members.
4. One person, one vote can make a difference.
At the end of our first day of the tour, everyone was on the bus ready to leave Baton Rouge and get some rest before continuing on. Before we could leave, though, Louisiana House Representative Patricia Smith--who was instrumental in helping us pass Act 636--needed to give us a pep talk. “You really have the chance to make a difference in your state,” Smith said as she explained why voting is so important. As someone who represents the positive power of the system, her words encouraged us for the rest of the tour. But she wasn’t the only one! Throughout the tour, folks from all over Louisiana showed us that they vote because the know that their voice matters!
5. Voting can help us change our reality.
Even though the majority of people we met along the road wanted to vote, we also meet people every day who don’t make voting a priority because they are struggling to get their basic needs met. As an organization that is led by formerly incarcerated people who have struggled and continue to struggle for their basic needs in some ways, we do not minimize how hard it is to find a job or housing, for example, with a conviction on your back. By electing people who care about us into office, however, we can work with them to end these hardships.
6. Voting can save lives.
After our first stop in Baton Rouge, we took a detour to the corner store where Alton Sterling was shot by the police to pay our respects. On the day he was murdered, Sterling was selling CD’s as he normally did, trying to make some money to support himself. What happened that day is an example of anti-Black violence and the abusive power of the state that allows it to continue. After we parked, everyone got off the bus in silence. Then, immersed in emotions, we held hands in a circle. The sobering moment reminded us how deep the abusive power in this country is, and why we need to do the work that we are doing. People are murdered by state violence every day in this country, and the only way we are going to stop it is if we stop the people behind it. That’s where voting comes in. Who’s in charge of the state? The people we elect. Sterling was murdered because we have elected people who not only tolerate, but support anti-Black violence. But we have the power to elect people who support Black liberation, instead, especially this fall. In other words, our votes can save lives like the one of Alton Sterling.
7. The system is not on our side as much as they need to be.
Because anyone who is newly eligible to vote under Act 636 needs to get paperwork from their local probation and parole office confirming their eligibility, we need cooperation from those offices. In many locations they did support us by showing up and helping smooth the registration process, but their help was not enough, and we learned that most acutely in Shreveport.
There, we held the voter registration right in front of the parole and probation office. Jimmy Taylor, a person we were helping to register, had filled out the registration form and obtained the necessary eligibility paper from the probation and parole office. Since he already had a valid license, he had all three pieces that he needed to finally register. In other words, that moment that should have represented joy and hopefulness. Instead it turned into frustration and disappointment when we realized that the paper that the parole office gave him was for a person named Wendell Sessions, who lived all the way across the state in Metairie.
If we did not catch that mistake, Mr. Taylor could have easily been reincarcerated for voter fraud. The parole and probation office should have been trained enough on voter registration to make sure a mistake like this would not happen, as the registration process is already hard enough for our people as-is. In other words, we can’t be the only ones to make sure people have everything they need, and are getting registered to vote properly. The system, such as the Secretary of State’s office, needs to do their part. We can help along the way, but there is only so much we can do as a small organization.
8. It is going to be a long fight, but a fight that’s worth fighting for.
“No surrender, no retreat” was a popular rally chant throughout the bus tour, reminding us that, despite the administrative setbacks, we’ll keep fighting. Persistence through hardships always wins. For example, though we received a lot of press coverage of the bus tour, not every outlet spoke about us in the most humanizing ways, reducing us to “convicted felons” and the like. These degrading labels paint us as ‘criminals’ who are being ‘let back into society.’ Narratives like these make it harder for people to change their mindset, which is the first and most important step in creating change. Changing the way people think is hard, but not impossible, and for that reason we will not give up.
9. It’s not just about getting people their voting rights back, it’s about making our communities whole.
This tour was bigger than just getting people to register to vote--it was to affirm our humanity. This was clear when a woman in Baton Rouge pulled her car in front of the bus to stop us in our tracks, find out what we were about, and share her story with us. The woman, Patricia Richard, explained to us how she herself is formerly incarcerated. Though she had been arrested 22 times and struggled with substance abuse, she overcame those hardships and has been clean for 15 years. Even better, she now runs her own organization that gives back to the community, and is a registered voter. She fights on behalf of her brother, who is currently incarcerated at Angola, and doesn’t let her obstacles define her destiny. Her story reminds us that we are people who are more than our past. We deserve to be treated as full human beings. We deserve to practice our freedom by taking actions that better ourselves, our families and our communities.
10. Love conquers all.
Martin Luther King Jr. told us that “power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” In other words, love is a powerful tool to create the change we want to see. Love is actionable. It is a force of social justice that brings us together and builds people power.
During the bus tour, we made sure to let people know that we wee not just here to register people to vote. We were also there to spread love. “We love you,” LaTosha Brown, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter, told the crowd at one stop. “And sometimes we don't hear that. We don't see that. We don't believe that. But we drove all the way down here to tell y'all we love you.” And we felt the love in return. At each stop, we were welcomed with big hugs and warm smiles. We didn’t know most of these people and most of us hadn't set foot in any of these towns before, but their love radiated all over and we instantly felt like a part of their community.
We want to create a world where people feel loved and cared for, especially those who have suffered under the prison system. Voting is an expression of love, an expression of caring for ourselves and others. And this fall Louisiana has a huge chance to completely change the political climate and elect people who really care about us. ALL 144 State Representatives and Senators, as well as the Governor, Attorney General and Secretary of State will be up for election on October 12. In order to vote, the deadline to register in person is September 11th, and the online registration deadline is September 21st.
If you (or anyone you know) are eligible to vote under the Act 636, this is your time to change the course of your future! You can still ‘hop on the bus’ by contacting us to help you register to vote, and making sure everyone you know is ready to vote this fall!
Due process of the law was written for the rich and fools the poor.
If you look into the judicial system you will find:
When a poor man commits a crime of violence he dies in a penitentiary,
But when a rich man commits the same crime they always set him free;
Now, America, it’s not hard to see, due process of law is in jeopardy.
It’s funny how due process of law has changed,
Or perhaps, it’s only dollars being rearranged.
The lawmakers of old placed their names ever so bold,
On a piece of paper so old for the rights that we hold,
But now, due process seems to be no more.
America, better wake up and try to make this country what it used to be,
For the rights that we lost were paid for at such a high cost.
What does it take to make you people understand?
A revolution in America is close at hand.
If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to email@example.com and we'll be in touch! We'll share the content on social media and always give credit to the artist(s) involved. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Drew Pizzo is currently incarcerated at Rayburn Correctional Center.