Today is the first day of the year 2020. Last year--2019--marked 400 years since the arrival of the first slave ship to what we now know as the Americas. With the new year comes new beginnings, but as the old African symbol of the Sankofa bird reminds us, we can’t see where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been.
Mass incarceration is a direct result of the transatlantic slave trade. Because the festering wounds from this collective trauma went unhealed, over the past 400 years we’ve seen the progression from slavery, to Jim Crow, to a public health crisis so severe that it affects one in every two American families.
Though these historic periods all share the intention of subjugating, controlling and profiting from Black people, people from all walks of life have become the collateral consequences of the system.
In other words, seeing the demise of mass incarceration is a struggle for everyone. And that’s what we have our eyes set on for 2020 and beyond.
At our last New Orleans chapter meeting of 2019, we asked our members to step back into what 400 years ago may have felt like. We asked them to reflect on what their ancestors may have been eating, smelling, and hearing; what horrors or moments of hope they may have witnessed; and who they may have been fighting alongside.
Then we asked them to take a look around the room at the freedom fighters of the present. Our membership includes everyone from Black leaders whose families have been in New Orleans for centuries, to Latinx and Asian activists whose families have experienced parallel horrors of mass deportation, to white organizers who were given the task of coming to one meeting a long time ago as a freshman college student, and then never left. Everyone is healing and fighting for freedom in distinct ways, but together we are a united front.
Finally, we asked our members to step 400 years into the future, to the year 2419. We heard what they want to see at this time, 800 years after the beginning of slavery.
They had a variety of hopeful answers, including that we’ll be flying, and so will our vehicles. Because there will be no need for highways, “everything will be all expansive,” says Darlene Jones. “We’ll have futuristic buildings and second-lines winding all over.”
In addition to creating major infrastructural innovations, our members know our society will also be more emotionally evolved.
“We’ll have multiple families living together with no conflicts,” says longtime VOTE member Kim.
“Justice will not be blind,” echoes Verelin, another longtime member. “She will not have blindfolds on.”
In a similar vein, “everyone will be equal,” Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice member Terell shares. “And we’ll have presidents of different races--a bunch of women presidents.”
Wendy, a newer but rapidly-growing member-leader whose son is incarcerated at Angola, chimes in. “We’ll live in a society where we will embrace our neighbors and grow together,” she says.
Our newest staff member, Community Health Worker Haki Sekou, had a more dystopian outlook on the future, postulating that mass incarceration would come in the form of chips implanted into people’s bodies.
His words serve as a warning for what could be if we don’t stick together and fight the system as we know it.
The VOTE staff took heed to his and everyone else's visions as we went into strategic planning at the end of December. While we didn’t plan for the next 400 years, we did take a serious look at the next decade.
In the imminent future, we have the 2020 elections on our mind, including the race for District Attorney and some local judges. We are also developing more opportunities for transitional housing, as more people than ever before are coming home. Finally, and as always, we have plans to strengthen our local, state and national coalitions, so that together we are unstoppable.
“I don’t have 10 years to wait,” says our Executive Director Norris Henderson. “The world changes when people, money and ideas get organized. And all of those things are sitting right here in our shop.”
To be so much,
To be a sunrise,
a first thought of morning.
To be a star,
a guiding thought in eve.
To be an anthem,
a song of celebration.
To be a page,
a gentle turn of history.
To be loved,
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! Angelo D. Golatt is currently incarcerated at David Wade Correctional Center.
This was a big year for VOTE, from our large-scale policy wins, to the personal wins from each of our members. In 2019, we saw yet again that our organization is powered by the perseverance, hope, and vision of hundreds of members, dozens of partner organizations, and about 20 staffers. Here’s what this unstoppable cohort of changemakers considers to be our top 10 wins of this year:
1. Our loved ones came home
Several VOTE members or their loved ones got out of prison this year. Some of them had been locked up for more than 40 years. “I’m blessed,” says VOTE member Cornell Hood who recently came home after doing many years of a life sentence. “Being able to be free and work a stable job [is] my win.”
2. We improved our health
Getting healthy was many of our members’ top win this year. “I’m thankful to be alive and free,” says one VOTE member. We know a healthy body and mind are necessary to do this work. That’s why we partner with Tulane University to run the Formerly Incarcerated Transitions (FIT) Clinic, which provides formerly incarcerated people with quality healthcare after they come home. We’re proud to say that in the past year we’ve hired two full-time, formerly incarcerated community health workers who will be bridging the gap between FIP medical needs and the services available!
3. We had policy wins
Every fall, we work to elect the right people so that our policy proposals get into the right hands. This year we had some notable wins, like “taking a bite out of the habitual offender [three-strikes] statute,” as one VOTE member described it. We’ll come back stronger next year, with the goal of taking two or more bigger bites. Another win was the enactment of a unanimous jury requirement for sentencing someone who’s being charged with a felony, which began on the 1st of January. “I felt this win personally,” shares member Darlene Jones, who sat on a jury that ended up convicting someone for murder with only 10 out of 12 votes. She felt that “the prosecution hadn’t even proven the case.” Non-unanimous jury convictions like the one that Darlene witnessed are no longer possible as of January 1, 2019. People still awaiting trial on arrests that happened before Jan. 1 and those already incarcerated on split juries do not get the benefits of this newfound justice. In other words, our fight to make the unanimous jury law retroactive still continues.
4. We voted for the first time!
Thanks to our legislative victory last year, Act 636 went into effect on March 1 of this year. This meant that this year was the first time many people with convictions were able to register and then vote! Voting as FIP marks the restoration of one of our core civil rights. “My high moment was the fact that I was able to vote for the very first time,” says VOTE member Donald Arbuthnot. “That blew me away.”
5. Then we got out the vote
In addition to voting for the first time, countless members of the VOTE family also joined forces in canvassing, registering, and poll monitoring to make sure Louisianans voted in the fall elections. “It was a win to see young people from 21 to 23 as well as older people ages 50 and up getting involved,” one VOTE member says. “Age didn’t matter. The one goal was to get people out to vote. It’s important.” As a result, we re-elected many candidates who we believe are best suited to push justice reform with us in 2020 and beyond!
6. We re-discovered our power
As we dove into our get out the vote efforts, many VOTE members also gained a deeper understanding of what political power means, including what seats are elected, how each position works for us, and how we can hold them to what they promise to do for our communities. As our fearless leader Norris Henderson says, “I vote because I understand the accountability that comes with it.” This year, more members than ever before also testified in front of elected officials, whether in the chambers of New Orleans City Council or in halls of the Louisiana State Capitol. “I spoke in front of both the City Planning Committee and the City Council for the first time to voice my opposition to the expansion of Orleans Parish Prison,” says our member Lauren Nguyen. “VOTE was the reason for that.” Elected officials are listening more intently than ever, too, and it shows. As one example, both the City Planning Committee and City Council voted unanimously to decrease the number of people allowed to be locked up in OPP. As one VOTE member reminds us, this year we earned an official nickname among legislators: the blue shirts.
7. We strengthened our partnerships
Social movements can’t happen in silos. That’s why almost everything we do is with at least one partner organization that shares our values and visions. Our members are the weavers between partner organizations, strengthening the fabric of our entire movement. For example, VOTE member Wan Qi Kong participated in the 9th Annual NOLA to Angola bike ride this fall. “Completing the ride deepened my commitment to justice reform work,” she says. “It was a beautiful and moving experience.” Other members have brought new partnerships into our fold by running a toy drive for children with incarcerated parents and starting a prison ministry called Abolition Apostles--a few of many examples.
8. We grew
Our statewide network has more members now than we’ve ever had before. “I learned about VOTE this past summer from a friend and made it my mission to get more involved,” a New Orleans member told us. Another said that they felt inspired to come back after many years away. In addition to the growth of our main chapter in New Orleans, we’ve seen the same in our three other chapters in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Shreveport. In the new year and beyond, we’re committed to developing these three other chapters, and one way we’ve already done that is by hiring four more full-time organizers. Additionally, our partner organization Voters Organized to Educate, which can lobby, endorse candidates, and get closer to political issues in the movement, hired its first full-time staff. We’re excited to work with all of the growing branches in our ever-expanding tree!
9. We deepened friendships
Our organization was started by several friends who had the shared experience of being incarcerated and were committed to changing their fate. Relationships are what keep this movement united, and we’re proud to be the reasons that many VOTE members became fast friends. “I was able to meet new friends this year who share the same passion as myself--fighting for justice,” says one VOTE member. These friendships remind us that what we’re building is a movement based on love.
10. We committed to gaining more wins
One VOTE member had a poignant message for us to remember as we celebrate this past year. “I’m waiting to receive my win,” he says, reminding us that there’s always more work to do, and more wins to be had. As we move into 2020 and beyond, these truths will echo in our ears.
These wins prove that VOTE is on the up and up. And they would not have been possible without the continued support of our community. Please consider us in your year-end giving. Make a donation here. Just like our wins, no donation is too big or small.
I ask this question, to all who’ve known me.
And still I get no answer to this question.
Why I can't see, the things that are right in front of my face?
As I try to see my life for what it really is
It makes me sick to my stomach.
Sometimes I know things as if I have already seen them.
I try to understand why my mind sees things before they happen?
I can't explain this.
Sometimes I lay on my rack
Thinking bad things about people that are good to me.
Sometimes my mind rows to and fro,
but it never stops thinking.
I have asked God what this means and I get no answer!
So, I try not to think this way,
But the bad outweighs the good sometimes.
I love all people,
But sometimes I just think about killing them all.
I know this is not good,
so I ask God to please stop these thoughts.
I snap back to the same question I asked in the beginning of this.
Why I can't see that that is right in front of my face?
I sometimes feel that I'm blind to it,
It makes me lost to know where I'm not at sometimes!
As I ask for directions to help me on this path,
God has no time for me or anything that I'm asking.
I lose my whole train of thought and have to start all over again.
I really hate it when this happens!
I say to myself: ‘God please fix my silly mind and bring me back.’
Back to where I understand,
Where I know what's going on.
I have tons of crap going through my mind in seconds.
This makes for a bad headache,
So I again cry out to God and ask the same question.
Why can't I see?
Still He has no time for my answer.
God, Lord. Help me in this time of need for Your Son is lost and confused.
Straighten out my path so that I may understand where my mind catches up with my body!
Lord I just want for all this to stop.
Allow me to see what's in front of my face
So that when I ask “why can't I see?"
I see what’s always been right there!
God allow my mind to focus on the simple things
And allow it to get back on the right path of trusting in the best things I need.
That I may finally see what it is that you have for me O Lord.
Sometimes the easiest things are the hardest things to overcome.
I just would like to see!
God thanks for all You do and all that You are going to do,
to me and others in my life.
Lord forgive me for I'm not the best apple in the basket,
But I try to be what You want me to be Lord.
Allow me to keep pushing towards the mark, Father.
Please make me better in every way Lord.
Allow me to be brighter than I've ever been, Father.
I just need this in my life, O God.
Strengthen me where I'm broken,
and straighten out my mind in ways that I may be normal.
Now I can see what I was looking for,
It was there all along.
It was You, God!
In Jesus’ name:
I Love, Love You Lord...
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 Kitzler is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penitentiary.
Mass incarceration and access to healthcare are both subjects in the national spotlight, but not many people are talking about the connection between the two. We know firsthand that this intersection can’t be overlooked. It’s what drove us to partner with Tulane University to open the Formerly Incarcerated Transition (FIT) Clinic, a place for formerly incarcerated people (FIP) to go get quality healthcare as they transition into life on the outside. Now we’re expanding our work on medical rights via an exciting new opportunity. Last month, our Deputy Director Bruce Reilly (BR), Andrea Armstrong (AA), Professor of Law at Loyola University New Orleans, and Ashley Wennerstrom (AW) with the Center for Healthcare, Value, and Equity at LSU Health Sciences Center won a research fellowship from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). For the next three years, they’ll work together to lift up the medical needs of directly impacted people by taking a complete look at medical treatment (or lack thereof) within prison walls, reviewing the transition services currently available to people in Louisiana, and evaluating the effectiveness of Louisiana’s Medicaid expansion to include people with convictions. We sat down with this incredible research team to learn about why FIP-centered research is so crucial at this moment, what excites them about this opportunity, and more.
VOTE: How are you doing today? What’s something on your heart that you’re bringing with you here?
BR: Awesome. I’m thinking about the love of my daughter who’s in town!
VOTE: How did it feel when you found out you received the fellowship?
AA: Disbelief. We had just been dreaming about what the project could be like and worked on the application for so long, so when we got the email that we’d been selected it was unreal.
VOTE: How did you become interested in the intersection of incarceration and healthcare?
AA: The focus of all my research is on jail and prison conditions. It’s always been really clear to me that medical care is the leading cause of death in prison and jails, so to prevent these deaths is a really exciting possibility.
AW: My involvement started many years ago. I had a dear friend who was locked up for about 44 years, and he got cancer while incarcerated. It started as Hepatitis C, which went untreated and turned into liver cancer. It was awful to watch him go through that. His conviction was overturned, and he was released just a few days before he died. He came home with me, some friends and family. I saw firsthand the consequences of someone not getting care while incarcerated. His name was Herman Wallace, of The Angola 3.
BR: I saw so many people suffering from mental and physical health issues on the inside, as well as the real gaps in treatment and the dubiousness with which healthcare “professionals” treat people who are complaining of symptoms. When I learned about the legal standards of care, I saw the challenges with them, the failure to meet them, When I got out, I saw it’s not just a symptom of incarceration, but also a symptom of poverty.
VOTE: What are your goals for the fellowship?
AW: More broadly, [a goal is to shift] thinking about criminal justice as a public health issue, and help reframe the narrative about why it’s so important for us to care about people who are and were incarcerated.
BR: [We also want to] build awareness that this is an issue. It’s not until you start talking about it. Then people go, “oh yeah, I’ve never thought about that.” There are a lot of issues that people never thought of until some currently incarcerated people started shaking the tree a little bit.
AA: We’ll have a chance to document in a systematic way all of the different ways that people are not receiving constitutionally proper healthcare. I don’t think there’s very much that’s known about how healthcare is delivered in jails and prisons. So this is a small project that provides the opportunity for deeper work. What comes out the end of these years will lay stronger foundations for future study. The ultimate goal is to improve conditions with better healthcare with Louisiana prisons primarily, but hopefully also jails. We hope to develop strong policy changes and recommendations to put forward.
VOTE: What role do you think academia and research have in reforming our carceral system?
AA: It’s about creating a story. Academia builds a data-focused, broader story. Ashley and I in different ways are contributing the analytical data that supports and confirms the stories that we hear from VOTE members and provides the foundation to advocate for improvements.
AW: I think that in order for that research to be effective, though, it needs to be done in partnership with people who are directly impacted. This is why we’re so excited to work with VOTE.
BR: When we have these silos and researchers who “know better,” that’s when things run off course. I think we all really benefit from the connection and dedication with the community that good researchers have. The real heart and soul that they put into their work, and why they do it, what motivates them, are all the best qualities that we hope for all members of our community. Sometimes you get people who are really smart [and] they may fight to win, but they’re not really in it for the right reasons, and they’re not going to stick around when the fight is over. So we try to build with people who are in it to win it and in it to the limit.
VOTE: Why is access to Medicaid is important for people who are just getting out?
AA: Overwhelmingly nationwide, we tend to incarcerate people who are marginalized through their income, their race, gender, disability and/or mental health status. So the people who are being released are those who were treated as second-class members of the country before they even went to prison. When they’re released, they’re likely leaving more traumatized than they came in with. [We’ll analyze] Medicaid data [for] the types of services [FIP] access when they get out and ask if the use is different from the general population. If it is, the question is why? Our hypothesis is that the use would be different because they may not have received constitutionally adequate healthcare on the inside.
AW: Medicaid [access] is absolutely critical. We know that people are at an increased risk of death right when they get out. For two weeks after being released from prison, people are 12 times more likely to die than others in society.
VOTE: Can you describe what the community engagement aspect of this research will look like?
AW: Our partnership is rooted not just in collaboration, but in friendship. Bruce and I have been doing this kind of work together for about five years already. My highest desire is whatever the directly impacted community wants. Right now, we intend to do focus groups with formerly incarcerated people about their needs that weren’t met [while they were on the inside]. Though it will be difficult, we’re also going to try to do interviews and/or focus groups with people who are currently incarcerated. [Throughout the research], we’ll keep directly impacted communities and transition services updated on what we’re finding, and check in with VOTE staff and members to be sure we’re asking the right questions and doing the research the right way. If the community says there’s something we’ve missed, by all means, we can make adjustments as we go.
VOTE: What do you hope the long-term impact of your study will be?
BR: This fellowship is another brick in the wall, another step in the journey towards giving people the healthcare they deserve. If you’re going to take over someone’s body, and not give them the option to take care of their own body, then you have to take care of that body until you no longer have control over them. No one should live in a world where their family members go to prison and aren’t able to get preventative medications or to treat things that are treatable, and suddenly have them dumped back on your door.
AA: In many ways, jails and prisons are seen as isolated “behind the walls” spaces where society and family members don’t have access, and [therefore can’t be] involved. Instead, I want us to think about them as public health spaces. Jails and prisons are part of our social fabric. What happens in these facilities doesn’t stay contained in these walls, but spills out in lots of different ways--in incarcerated people’s relationships with their families, their ability to get a job. When we think about these spaces as public health spaces our practices radically change.
AW: We have this idea that people who are in prison are “bad people”, so while they’re there whatever happens to them is not really our concern. We hope to bring some compassion to this issue. Regardless of whether someone is incarcerated, they still have the right to respect and dignity. Poor health should not be part of the punishment.
VOTE: Beyond this fellowship, what do you hope to see for the future of healthy communities?
AA: First, I’d like to see people leave no worse off than when they entered [jail or prison]. Confinement and separation are punishment enough. We have people who are being held captive to a healthcare system that doesn’t keep them healthy. Health takes lots of forms. In healthy communities, mental health is addressed, people can get acute and preventative care when they need it--not just when it’s an emergency--and when people come home they don’t have lots of obstacles.
AW: When we think about reentry, [sometimes it] sounds like we’re trying to check boxes of getting someone housing or a job. We forget to talk about people’s wellness and mental health. We don’t think about restoring and establishing relationships that have been damaged [or prevented] while people were incarcerated. How do we help this person become a full member of society in the same way that we do for those of us who haven’t been incarcerated?
BR: Part of this is about access, part of it is about availability. Those are two different things. It’s kind of like having voting rights and not having them. Just because you have them doesn’t mean you can use them. If you’re going to have a program that’s providing, let’s say, medication treatment for addiction, but at the same time isn’t going to test people for diabetes, it’s a little bit half-hearted and may defeat the whole purpose. Why am I going to keep you alive if I’m going to let you die of something else? I want to see a world where the medical professionals are as engaged with our community of currently and formerly incarcerated people as they are with other communities. There’s no reason for that division. If you’re in jail in New Orleans, you’re within half a mile of three hospitals. There’s no reason to build a barrier and say “we don’t do healthcare across the wall.”