Last Tuesday, more than 16,000 communities throughout the nation participated in the 35th annual Night Out Against Crime. Historically, this annual event has been an opportunity for local neighborhoods and law enforcement to come together in the name of crime prevention. VOTE and our sister organization, Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice (CSSJ), both know that we cannot prevent crime without also addressing its root causes including, but not limited to: a lack of financial stability, a lack of resources for mental health care, over-policing in communities of color, and mass incarceration. That’s why this year we partnered to put on a celebration that was not only anti-crime, but pro-healing. VOTE members, CSSJ members, and passers by all came together in Central City, New Orleans, to break bread, enjoy music and entertainment, and talk about what healing really looks like.
“To me, healing looks like people coming together and forgiving,” says CSSJ member Dominique Jones. “We have to move forward and lean on God.” Many others at the event echoed Jones’ sentiments about forgiveness, too. Angela Thompson lost her son to gun violence more than three years ago. Almost immediately, she asked to speak to the young man who killed her son. Having seen the horrendous impacts of mass incarceration many times before, she just wanted to talk to him to understand why he did what he did, not to punish him or get him locked up.
“It’s not always easy to break the vicious cycles of retaliation,” she says. “But I’m doing it. When it gets really hard, I just breathe and pray, breathe and pray.”
Both Angela and New Orleans’ CSSJ Chapter Organizer Ariel Jeanjacques have met resistance for trying to approach harm differently. The criminal legal system can’t understand why survivors of crime don’t want the people who harmed them to sit behind bars for the rest of their lives.
“The system is using survivors as puppets to do what they want,” says Ariel. “But they’re not the ones who have really been affected--they haven't been through it. They're persuading survivors to lock people up instead of putting in real efforts to end the cycle of abuse and harm.”
Proponents of mass incarceration aren’t the only ones who don’t fully understand the work of CSSJ, though. Other survivors in their communities who are still angry and bitter can’t see how people like Angela and Ariel have compassion in their hearts.
One of the many ways Ariel tries to bring survivors into her network and help them see things differently is by sharing her own story. Several years ago, she called the police, thinking they would help protect her from her ex-partner, who was abusive. Instead, they fell in line with the history of law enforcement not taking survivors seriously at best, or blaming and criminalizing them at worst. She was arrested and later imprisoned. She tells younger people that they could face this kind of systemic violence, too, but also that they can be a voice against it.
“I just meet people where they’re at,” she says. “At CSSJ we say ‘from healing to action,’ because losing a child is something you never fully get over, but also it’s not healthy or helpful to sit and drown in your sorrows when you can start to heal and turn that into action.”
That phrase--from healing to action--really resonated for a new CSSJ member, Sophie, who also lost her son to gun violence. Tuesday’s event was a first for her. For many years, she was sad and resentful. Because of that, Sophie didn’t get involved. She and Ariel lived in the same housing development for many years, though, so they stayed in touch and checked in from time to time. Now Sophie is ready to do anything she can to prevent the cycle of crime and hurt.
Similarly, Felicia, a Florida resident, was shot 13 times while sleeping at her childhood friend’s house. Her friend and his 12-year-old son were both killed. For a long time, she only had hate in her heart because the person who shot her was someone she grew up with, and she hadn’t done anything except try to sleep. Aswald Thomas, the Managing Director for CSSJ, counseled Felicia for almost four years. One day, she called him and said “hating the man who shot me isn’t making me feel any better. I need to cross over. I could’ve died that day, too, but I didn’t. I have a purpose. I’m here to make a difference.” She’s now a CSSJ Chapter Organizer in Florida.
Addressing and preventing harm without relying on mass incarceration is a slow process. But as Felicia’s story shows us, it’s worth it, and it works.
“Loving is the answer to ending cycles of harm [in the system and with each other],” says Ariel with total confidence. “We just need more love in the world, and resources that really help the people most impacted.”
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. More than 5,000 women in Louisiana experience domestic violence every year, and last year the New Orleans Police Department received more than 40,000 domestic violence-related calls. But as we’ve seen countless times before, the police don’t always keep survivors safe, especially women of color. If you or someone you know is in a domestic violence-related crisis, call the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence at 1-888-411-1333. If you know someone experiencing a mental health crisis in the greater New Orleans area, call the Metropolitan Human Services District at 504-826-2675. They have a 24/7 trained crisis team that is not affiliated with the police.
They say life’s a bitch and then you die,
that's why I can cry when a real homie die.
They say there is a Heaven for a gangsta.
Well is there?
Find yourself and tell me...
Lost in another world,
I pray that God finds me
and I know he will
But will it be too late?
When he comes looking
and I can't be found,
will he continue to look
or will I be forever "LOST" in time?
I'd be just another memory
like all our fallen soldiers,
another page turned
making our today
and must I still go on?
Tired of living like this
Sometimes I just want to give up
But I keep my faith up,
stay prayed up,
and hold on,
cause I know life goes on.
But I really pray
that he continue to look,
cause I'll continue to seek,
wish I could find him before me.
But as another day comes to an end
I'm still seeking cause of my faith within
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! Jeremy Smith is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penitentiary.
“One of the biggest lies we’ve been told is that time heals all wounds,” Justin Singleton told an eagerly-listening crowd on the morning of Sept. 28. “But time adds to the wounds. Love heals all wounds.” Singleton is currently doing a life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) sentence at Angola State Penitentiary. Usually, people doing LWOP are silenced and hidden from the public eye. For one rare day, however, we heard from not just Singleton, but several others doing life. As a partner of the Life With Other Possibilities Summit, we gathered many concerned citizens, scholars, and activists to learn more about LWOP and what we can do to end it. We heard how the laws created and enforced by our elected officials can help or harm people currently sentenced to death by prison. In addition to hearing from six lifers still on the inside, we were also encouraged by two others who were released because freedom fighters on both the inside and outside demanded that laws and policies be changed. Their stories remind us how much more work we have to do to end LWOP. They also help us understand what we can do about it right now, including vote for elected officials that support real reform.
As Fox Rich, our beloved friend and fellow formerly incarcerated leader says, “When we are united, the laws will change.”
Laws change every day, because they are made by humans who can change every day, too. LWOP laws are no exception. They only began in the 1970s when the Supreme Court ruled against the death penalty. Those who wanted to maintain a system of retribution but could no longer send people to the chair as often decided that LWOP was an equally punitive sentence, Dr. Marcus Konkar explained to us on the 28th. While this history is a bleak one, it reminds us that LWOP was created not long ago, and therefore can be abolished just as quickly. Every day we witness public and political opinions of justice reform changing, which means more and more people are realizing that we can’t heal trauma with trauma.
We see that giving people the opportunity to hear directly from the people most impacted by the criminal (in)justice system really works, which was no less true at the Summit.
Singleton spoke on a panel with his allies Keith Morse and Samuel Kelly, who are also doing LWOP at Angola. Together they run a reentry program for men who are doing shorter sentences at the same facility. Their program has graduated more than 1,500 men in Angola, and their model more than 10,000 worldwide. While Angola’s general recidivism rate is 50%, only 9% of the men who have gone through their program have landed back behind bars. “[We do this] out of a willingness to say we are better than our worst mistakes,” says Morse. “To say we have something to offer.” Kelly agrees, sharing that he helps others succeed “to see hope.” The tragic irony, of course, is that the system has stripped these leaders of their chance at freedom, yet they’re directly showing others how to get and stay free. At their end of their panel, the men implored the audience to get involved as much as possible. To start, we can vote on their behalf, carefully choosing candidates who offer incarcerated people opportunities for freedom. “We are continuing to strive even though people tell us that it’s purposeless and meaningless,” Singleton says.
Samuel Kelly speaks on his experience of doing life without the possibility of parole in Angola.
From L to R: Samuel Kelly, Keith Morse, and Justin Singleton.
Michelle Benjamin was sentenced to LWOP at 16 years old. She did 24 years until being released this past spring because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to LWOP was unconstitutional. She explained how she was constantly treated like her life and opportunities didn’t matter as much as people who weren’t sentenced to life. After all, the system told her she was going to die in prison. She was denied access to many of the programs that people with shorter sentences were easily able to sign up for, including the high school courses she needed to finish her degree. Instead of giving up, she filed a lawsuit for her right to finish school. She got her GED, got out, and is now working on her college degree. In part because of her persistence, the prison policies have changed. Now people doing LWOP have equal access to resources. If Benjamin can organize for lasting change from the inside, we can do the same on the outside.
One of the ways we can organize is by supporting the families of those doing LWOP. As Selina Anderson, another lifer at the Summit, says “[many] mothers are struggling because they're away from their kids.” Shanda Crain chimed in, sharing that when her grandkids come to visit for children’s day activities, they can’t understand why she’s never coming home.
Shanda Crain tells us about the family separation she feels and sees in prison while doing her life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Kelly Garrett, is the Policy Council of our partner organization, Voters Organized to Educate. She’s also the partner of Singleton. “It's a challenge to try to explain to people that [those doing life] are a human being just like everyone else,” she told the audience. “They need even more love.” Her concerns about others’ judgement were echoed by Dominique Jones, Founder and Co-Director of Daughters Beyond Incarceration. Jones’ father is also at Angola doing life. As a kid she was one of the best track runners in the state, but without her dad around, the success didn’t matter to her. At 16 years old, high-schooler Kasey relates to this experience. Unsure what the right thing to do was, the adults in her life kept the secret that her dad was doing LWOP. The system has put countless families in this same lose-lose situation. Keisha White, now an adult, also grew up with her father doing LWOP. She explained how no one from the prison called her when her when her father started having medical troubles. They turned out to be fatal, and he died in prison.
Candice Malone, another lifer, posed the most poignant question of all.“[Is doing] a life sentence really justice?” she asks. “Does it truly make the community better? … I don’t think so.”
We don’t, either, and that’s why we need to use our power: as leaders, as neighbors, as family members, and as voters. The materials that build the majority of prisons are funded by voters, and so are the elected officials who ordered them to be built in the first place. This Saturday, we have the opportunity to vote for those who will order the closing of prisons and the creation of better approaches to harm.
Please vote on behalf of all of the voices heard above, and all others sentenced to life without parole. Not sure where to vote? Find out here. Still not sure who to vote for? Check out Know Your Vote to see who's running and what issues they care about. The primary election is this Saturday, Oct. 12, and the runoff is Nov. 16.
To give a loving service,
that's what I've read;
these days to some--
that's a dread.
is the way most get by;
but in my heart I know that's a lie.
Jesus said, to give as a friend,
to a friend,
for a friend;
Do I expect something back?
Maybe something that I lack.
Thinking like that seems right to some;
not for me no,
I'm not the one.
What if that person has no way to honor
the help that I gave?
Do I demand payment
and make them a slave?
Then I'd be like the loan shark;
my true intentions would be in the dark.
Rethinking the way I should give;
is to know how Jesus showed me how to live.
Going through life one day at a time;
keeping that one thing on mind.
Gift-giving is not inherently in our souls;
however, it's more precious than gold.
Some people would say when asked,
what? the nerve;
never knowing that blessings come
when we learn how to serve.
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! Michael A. Videau is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penitentiary.