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 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! This is the last part in a multi-part story written by Eyba Brown, who is currently incarcerated at Raymond Laborde Correctional Center.
Yesterday, we rose early. We got into buses, vans and cars across the state--in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Lafayette, Shreveport--and drove straight to the State Capitol. Hundreds of us gathered for Louisianans for Prison Alternatives (LPA)’s Third Annual Lobby Day. We learned about LPA’s legislative session priorities, met our representatives, filled out support and opposition cards for bills with upcoming hearings, and listened to the stories of others who have built resilience and a passion for change in the face of systemic oppression. As a sea of blue shirts, we made a point to name the building for what it is--our house.
“We have buku blue shirts in here, which means I’ve got a team behind me,” said VOTE member Rena Vereen, who, despite being nervous, testified at the Capitol for the first time last week. “What do I have to be scared of? We can change the law. We’ve got to do our part.” Vereen’s brother is currently incarcerated. She attended Lobby Day with her father, and the two of them, like so many of us, are committed to fighting until he’s free.
After Rena, our Voters Organized to Educate Director Checo Yancy, and others got us fired up and ready to go, we ascended to the steps of the Capitol. There, we listened to speakers from LPA, Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and, of course, VOTE. Our Executive Director Norris Henderson reminded the crowd of our many victories in 2018--especially turning out 1.5 million voters to end non-unanimous juries in Louisiana last November. “Don’t tell us about what we can’t do, or what we’re not capable of,” Norris said. “You either ride with us or you collide with us, and I don’t think anybody wants to collide with the 1.5 million voters we're waking up.”
Next, we went inside the Capitol and got to work. We met our legislators and submitted comment cards to urging them to support important criminal justice reform bills and oppose others that are trying to roll back our progress. We sat in on a House hearing and, later, a Senate hearing. Our day ended with being recognized by members of the House and Senate for showing up--not just on Lobby Day, but steadily throughout the legislative session--to fight for our rights.
Some of the bills we fought for yesterday came up for a vote in House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice today, including:
HB 158 will reduce the number of juveniles going to jail. It passed and is moving to the House Floor!
HB 518 will exclude non-violent offenses from the Habitual Offender Law, and drastically lower the law’s harmful impact. It passed and is moving to the House Floor!
HB 275 allows incarcerated people to fight for their cases by requesting DNA testing post-conviction. It passed and is moving to the House Floor!
HB 226 permits judges to bring expert testimony (as opposed to less-effective eyewitness testimony) to a trial. It passed and is moving to the House Floor
The votes on these four bills are an example of what goes on at the Capitol everyday. If you missed us yesterday, there will be plenty of opportunities to get involved throughout the legislative session, including testifying in front of elected officials like Rena did.
Last Saturday, VOTE’s Housing Justice Organizer Kiana Calloway voted for the first time. This was a direct result of the major voting rights victory we won during last year’s legislative session. In other words, our voices matter.
“We need our legislators to continue embracing the values of building us up, and not tearing us down,” Kiana shared in front of an eager crowd on Monday. “Today, we stand as residents in every parish. We stand as voters in every district...When we fight, we win. This is only the beginning.”
Read Part 1 here.
When the density of the jungle is too thick, you have two options--cut through or take a shortcut. Most people say I was born with a machete in my hand.
In my 11th grade year, I was going through it. My father had moved us up the mountain to 29 Palms, a small military town on top of a pointed hill with the base straight ahead. The population of young Black people was slim, and we stuck together like it was the 60s and 70s.
There was only one other Black kid that rode my bus. His name was Rabbit, and he was wild and loud. I didn't try to befriend him, but he gravitated to me. The town had was a lot of two-story quadplexes. We stayed in a unit that faced a hill with a basketball court on top. In order to catch the bus, I'd go all the way down the hill to the park, where the stop was.
I had to pass Rabbit's house on the way, so if I left early I'd stop at his house and wait on him. After school, I'd stop at his house before going home. One day we were making our way home when 7 white kids cut us off. They confronted Rabbit, then commenced to beat the hell out of him. They never acknowledged me. I knew this wasn't my fight, but I was with the dude, so I thought, I gotta do something, right?
Right or wrong, I couldn't let Rabbit get jumped by seven kids, so I grabbed the closest dude and started to put multiple fists into his face. He was big but size has nothing to do with fighting. He tried to slam me, but in in junior high I was on the wrestling team. I reversed his move, and slammed him instead. Once he was on the ground, I could pick my shots. He started screaming, and four guys came over to help him. Since we were in the desert, all of this movement was kicking up dust from the sand. Visibility was minimal, so I rolled with the guy and put him on top of me so that when his friends came to help him, they ended up beating the hell out of their friend. He screamed for them to stop.
Before they started to stomp I escaped and went over the fence to Rabbit's house. I went into the garage to look for a weapon and found a hammer. I came over the fence swinging like I was Thor, and they ran away.The fight was reported to the school, who suspended me and Rabbit. The seven white kids were the jocks of the school, so nothing happened to them. The explanation the school gave, however, was that since the jocks had gone home first, they were no longer within the school’s jurisdiction, as Rabbit and myself were.
These seven jocks would later become my teammates, and the one I grabbed was my quarterback. I caught every ball he threw at me. I say “at” me because the passes were never to me--the kid had an arm like Brett Farve. Since I was catching all his passes, he was upset and took it out on the other receivers, breaking one of their hands. I laughed, which made him mad, too. I was the fastest kid on the team, and this made him even madder.
He easily overthrew everybody but me. Once, he almost had me when I did a stop and go and he threw the ball early, but I accelerated and, at the last second, dove. The ball hit my fingertips, and I flicked it back to me. After practice, the leader of their little gang told me that they didn't hold a grudge, that what happened had nothing to do with me, but rather Rabbit. He also told the quarterback to chill, since I was a player that would help them win a championship. Since I was the fastest kid on the field, I was the starting receiver, the free safety, the kickoff returner, punt returner, and the gunner. I never left the field except for a timeout and halftime.
That season almost ended before it began. We were going to have our first game on the Friday of the first week of school. That Monday, the coach called me into his office and told me I was ineligible because I had failed 10th grade. I told the coach that was impossible because I was taking 11th grade classes. He said I failed because of the attendance rule, missing more than 13 days in each class. He told me to go to my guidance counselor and find out what might be possible.
I ran to the guidance counselor's office and she gave me a print out of the days I missed. I knew I had missed about 30 days for first period. Not only did I really not like this school, but I had often missed the bus, leaving me no choice but to walk to school, which took me about 45 minutes. I had made that time up in summer school, so when looked at the other courses, there were too many inconsistencies. I never cut class because there was nothing to do. If a teacher said my name wrong, however, then I wouldn't answer. Reading it, you’d probably say it wrong, too. It's pronounced E-bay, and this was way before the world wide web.
Luckily, I had kept my work since I'm a very organized individual, and my notes were dated. I showed each teacher that where they had marked me absent, I was actually present. They checked their lesson plans and saw that I had submitted the work so I must have been in class. They gave me credit for the days. I was still one day short, though, so on Wednesday I took off from school, rode my bike to the base, went to the hospital for a check-up, and got the doctor to sign me an excuse. The next day at school, I brought everything to the guidance counselor who processed everything, and from that point on I had officially passed the 10th grade.
Unfortunately, I still wasn't eligible to play for reasons I didn't understand.
Every football player had a 7th period PE where we’d normally stretch and mess around before practice. Since I wasn’t even practicing, nevermind playing, I didn’t dress in uniform. On Thursday coach gave everybody else their jersey, but when he got to me just looked and shook his head. On Friday everybody got their stuff together to catch the bus to the junior high where we played. I wasn't with them. Instead, I was sitting in front my locker. When the coach came in asking me why I didn't go to the junior high, I told him since I wasn’t playing, it made no sense to do that. He told me I passed and was clear to play, and to get my stuff. I went to the junior high with the coach, and when I walked into the locker room, it got real quiet. Then the leader of the little jock gang asked if I was going to play. I said yeah, and the locker room exploded.
I was on a whole other level this game. I wanted to show the haters that I was the real deal. The first quarter I caught my first high school touchdown on a post route. I had one of those unreal moments where I just looked at the ball, then looked where I was, and couldn’t believe it. The referee kept asking for the ball, but I didn't hear him--all I could hear was my heart beating fast. When my team came to congratulate me I snapped out of it. I also caught my first high school interception. I was on a roll.
Late in the first quarter, I was given a fly route. I lined up against the defender, who I had burnt numerous times during the game. I started up the field running, knowing the ball was coming to because quarterback told me where he was going to put it. About forty yards down the field I looked up and put my hands up. The ball was right there. It fell right into my hands, and I raced to the touchdown.
After the game my mom jumped on me like she was a cheerleader. She asked me if I heard her, and I told her no. She said she thought I was going to miss that last pass because I never looked back for the ball. To say she was surprised is an understatement, since all she remembered was my 9th grade season when I had told her I was good, and she had just said okay. What parent want to crush their child's dream? After that game my name went from zero to 100 real quick. Everybody knew Eyba. I was getting so many calls from girls that my mom used to take the phone off the hook. This was a new experience for me. Normally, I had a girlfriend and was cool and content with that. Now, I was single and had the prettiest girls in school checking for me. My school was diverse because it's a military town, so Black, white, Latina, and Asian girls were calling. One night, I went to a house party and left with a chick I'd known since I moved to 29 Palms. We went to one of my friend’s house since his mom was always gone. She had a boyfriend who was a Marine, and when he found out that she had left the party with me, he called and threatened me. I guess he thought I was just a football player, and would be scared.
One night when my mom, dad, and little sister went to the drive thru that showed double features, he called. He told me he knew where I stayed and was going to kill me. I told him to come get some. Then I called my friend, who knew what time it was. When my came in, he had a baseball bat, which told me he didn’t really know what time it was. My dad was a Marine, though, so he had guns. I got the 9mm and gave my friend the shotgun. He was a year younger than me, and I asked him if he was ready for this. He had been in Detriot before coming to 29 Palms, so he was battle-tested.
When the doorknob turned I thought it was the Marine, but as soon as I heard the key I knew it wasn’t, so I quickly grabbed the guns and hid them behind the sofa. My mom and dad came in carrying my little sister and walked straight up the stairs, then said hey. A second later my mom called me upstairs to their room. My dad had seen the guns and my mom was going ballistic. I had to tell them what was going on, because if somebody came to the house, they'd be in the crossfire.
I guess that was the last straw. After that, I was on the next plane going back to Louisiana. In a teenager's quest for popularity, they'd do absolutely anything to be on that list. I didn't do anything to get on that list but catch a football and be in the newspaper. When I was a nobody I didn't have people trying to kill me.
This part of the jungle is hard to navigate because it's not on the map, but when you have mo popularity, you have mo problems.
This is the fifth 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! Today, we're sharing the first in a multi-part story written by Eyba Brown, who is currently incarcerated at Raymond Laborde Correctional Center.
April has been a busy month for the New Orleans members of the national Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice (CSSJ) network, a partner of VOTE. On April 7, several CSSJ New Orleans activists traveled to Sacramento, CA for the 6th annual Survivors Speak Conference, where hundreds of survivor-organizers gathered to share their stories, hopes and visions. Then, on Saturday, April 13, local CSSJ Coordinator Ariel Jeanjacques hosted an all-day healing vigil for living and deceased survivors of crime. Community members from all over the city came out to remember and celebrate the lives of loved ones near and far. More than 20 cities nationwide held simultaneous vigils to honor National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. VOTE sat down with Ariel and Nicole Marshall--one of CSSJ’s superstar members (read her self-written bio here, and see her photos above)--to find out how the events went, and how they connect to the movements for safety, justice, and healing for all.
VOTE: Who is on your heart right now?
Nicole Marshall (NM): My seven sons, who range from 3 to 27 years old, my 6 ‘glamkids’, and my husband, Ronald Marshall, who is currently incarcerated at Rayburn Correctional Center.
Ariel Jeanjacques (AJ): Dawina McLarn, one of my CSSJ members. She was arrested because she missed a court date. That was last week, two days before the healing vigil she was supposed to be at. She’s in jail with a $300,000 bond, and is in a cell with a white woman who killed her child but only has a $100,000 bond.
VOTE: Thank you, they’re here with us in spirit. Do you use the word survivor for yourself?
AJ: Yes. A survivor is a person who has overcome the worst obstacles in life, is resilient, and keeps going. A person who doesn’t look at themselves as a victim but as a survivor because they know how much power they have.
NM: I prefer to say that I am a surviving victor, because the surviving is day-to-day, and the victor means that I have goals and I set out to accomplish them with victory in mind.
VOTE: Nicole, how did you get involved in CSSJ?
NM: I got involved through Ariel, who has known me for at least 20 years. We were both a part of the Freedom School that the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond was running. I speak with her brother quite often, so he put us in touch and, many years later, we got reconnected.
VOTE: And how does it feel to be a part of the network?
NM: It makes me feel like I have a sense of power. It gives me a voice and a platform, and let’s me know I’m not the only one. One of the things I experienced when I started the healing process was a lot of guilt and shame. It was as if I was walking around and everybody was looking at me like they knew what I was going through. With CSSJ I don’t feel like that. I feel like the supermom I’ve always been. I feel like an organizer around my community--changing the traumatic experiences that I and others have had.
VOTE: Beautiful. And how have you grown since being with the group?
AJ: So many members rely on me to help them start their healing journeys, so that has made me want to grow, learn, and be as supportive as I can. Also, with the network of survivors that I’m building relationships with, I’m learning to be more humble because they go through a lot of the same battles that I go through, or worse. That makes me want to be more present in my members’ lives and try to help them in any areas that they lack as far as their healing goes.
NM: I’ve always had a super positive attitude, cheering other people on to reach the stars. CSSJ has brought that back out of me, but to another level. I’ve found myself open to different avenues that I never thought I’d be a part of, and I’m deepening my organizing by seeing parts of myself that I didn’t know existed.
VOTE: Have you had any challenges so far?
NM: At first I only thought that CSSJ was for people who had lost close loved ones to violence, not necessarily for what I had been through, which is domestic violence. But they’ve been great, helping us to understand that not just one type of experience is centered, and that’s helped me realize that everyone has experienced some form of trauma.
AJ: Getting calls from survivors whose trauma is still fresh, like a woman who called on Sunday right after her son-in-law was killed. CSSJ works with survivors starting two to three years after the incident, because that’s how we build prevention over incarceration. In the beginning, you’re so hurt that you want to go and hurt someone back. Survivors think, “Oh this person hurt me--put him away forever, give him the death penalty.” They’re not going to get it overnight, so I just let them know that I’m always here and give them any resources CSSJ can provide. I just continue to educate, motivate and encourage, like ‘we’re in this together.’ We’re all survivors of something.
VOTE: Absolutely, we know that well here. How can we honor that everyone has experienced trauma without minimizing the impact of having different backgrounds and identities?
NM: By seeing each other as human. Everybody grieves differently. Everybody heals differently. A lot of people talk about it but I don’t think we really respect that that word--human--is very, very powerful. It should come with a lot of respect--just saying that we’re human.
AJ: Let’s look at counseling or therapy. That’s not something that’s common in my [Black] culture, but it’s common in yours [white culture]. If you see a therapist, people think you’re crazy or have a problem. Also, how the system is set up plays a big role in the ways we resolve trauma. Poor communities are the hardest hit, and we have the most unresolved trauma.
VOTE: Thank you for that. So, switching to the Survivors Speak conference in Sacramento, what was your favorite part of the experience?
AJ: There was a speaker (see video below) whose son was trying to resolve an incident and a young man killed him. The system got upset with [the speaker] because she forgave the young man. She wants to build a relationship with him and counsel him so that when he gets out at 33 years old, he won’t do it again. And the system is upset at her because they want him to be a repeat offender. She spoke from a place of love, of motherhood. She sent chills through my body when she spoke and everybody couldn’t help but weep because her words were just so powerful. I learned so much from her that I’m bringing back to my community. It showed me that CSSJ is really making good moves and getting connected with the right people. Just like how they had Tamara Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, last year.
NM: My favorite part was the breakout sessions, which is when I began to hear other survivors from other cities and states, and felt really moved into action. My husband and I have co-created a relationship violence and abuse curriculum called Pave it Forward, and I got excited to get it launched. When I sat down with other individuals and we talked about getting policies changed--not just for myself but for generations to come--that to me was the most impactful. It made me want to come back home and start running. I’m ready to go.
VOTE: Sounds like an amazing experience. Nicole, can you share more about Pave it Forward, which sounds amazing and so needed?
NM: I never blamed my ex for what he did because I looked at the systems and institutions that kept this craziness going on in his life. But I did lose everything from the bottom up, and that’s when I really began to journal. Eventually I told my husband my ideas, we’d just go back and forth, and that’s how the curriculum development began. Once I get it off the ground, I want to teach it myself because I want to make sure that whoever teaches it is coming from a sensitive place--a surviving victor, too.
VOTE: Yes, it’s so important for the most impacted people to be leading the way forward, and sharing how they see things. Speaking of, how do you define violence?
NM: Violence is when someone brings harm to someone else, though I guess I would have to know the magnitude and context of the violence, too. The night that I actually fought back against my ex, I bit him and the police took me away in chains. I called the pastor’s wife and she told me that she would’ve killed him. I think about all of the incarcerated women who are in there for killing their abusive partners. No, that’s not violence. I’m not saying it’s right, but I don’t see it as the same.
AJ: Violence is when you intentionally want to cause harm or inflict pain or abuse on a person, whether mentally or physically. I agree with Nicole that self-defense is not violence, even if the system looks at it that way. That’s why a lot of people who were trying to protect themselves against abuse are looked at as violent offenders.
VOTE: We totally agree that self-defense is something completely different, and hope that our work and your work will both continue to help people see that difference. What are other things that need to change in order to build a world where people are accountable to harm?
NM: I’m not fully sold on the restorative justice piece yet, but I’d say restorative healing. That’s just restoring humanity. If people [who cause harm] don’t even know what the person they are hurting is feeling or going through, then they won’t understand the acts or harm or change.
AJ: They have to want to change. They have to want to become accountable for their own actions and to stop creating situations that hinder other people’s freedom. People need to just have more love in their hearts and value life, freedom and everyone else. Since so much has happened throughout history, now is the time to change, and more people need to get involved.
VOTE: Very true. What about building a world where people don’t cause harm in the first place?
AJ: People first need to be able to live without any type of fear. The other day I was scared to open the door for the AT&T guy because I was panicking that it could be my probation officer. It doesn’t matter how straight of a line you can walk. Being on probation is just a scary feeling that you could get screwed over by the system at any minute.
NM: We need equity and equality. We need everybody having the same of everything, whether it’s corn, the air we breathe, water, neighborhoods. I don’t know where else violence truly stems from besides the trauma our ancestors experienced during slavery. That is a form of abuse that’s been passed down through generations. So equity and equality--that would be part of the key. Not all of it, but a big part.
VOTE: What feels like your greatest accomplishment in life so far?
AJ: I feel like I haven’t reached it yet.
NM: Having two sons go to college this year, a son a Lusher that is an A student, three- and five-year-olds that are brilliant. Starting Pave it Forward, seeing the impact I have on my community, my friends, and anyone that I meet. Marrying the love of my life, of course, even with his circumstances. And finally I would say healing, but healing from a place of not victimizing myself, but knowing that I’m victorious and I can help others overcome this.
VOTE: Yes! Victorious not victimized. Love it. What’s your greatest dream?
NM: To have my husband released from prison, and have this super big house where all of my kids, daughter-in-laws and (future) grandkids can live.
AJ: Just to accomplish everything it is that I’m fighting for to help heal my community, through CSSJ and the base that we’re building across the country through chapter leaders. Ending the cycle of gun violence, mass incarceration. The creation of trauma centers that focus on prevention over incarceration.
VOTE: We can see it! What does peace look, feel, smell, sound and taste like to you?
AJ: I taste fresh air, and hear kids running, playing, laughing and cheering. I smell roses and other flowers. I feel hugs and embraces of love. I see healthy living conditions, smiles and successful people who are happy.
NM: I see blue skies, blue water. Trees, dirt, sand that my feet are planted in. I hear birds chirping, I see people laughing, talking, singing, dancing. I smell fresh crisp air and feel it against my skin. The foods that we’re eating are vegetables and fruits such as berries--things that grow from the earth. I see people in their nakedness. I feel happy, peaceful--no worry, stress, or anxiety. Just joy and comfort. A peaceful world looks like everybody just loving each other.
In order to navigate through the jungle you need a tour guide. Born a Leo, I found out that not only did I not need a guide, but, like the king of the jungle, I have a natural instinct for survival.
My professional football career started in a pee-wee league at a park across the street from Old Dominion University. It seemed like a million kids showed up for tryouts, and the odds of me making the team were not good. On the other hand, I was a small kid, but fast, which made me the next Barry Sanders meets Jerry Rice. Since there were so many kids, the coaches decided to make two teams--the Dukes and the Lions, which was my team.
I told you I started my career as a lion, king of the jungle, right? Mufassa we were not. We were more like Scar--not evil, just sad.
I guess I considered myself the star of the team. I was the fastest, playing running back, wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback, and safety. I went home and studied how quarterbacks like Warren Moon, Doug Williams and Randall Cunningham played. When Cunningham scrambled he was like a throwing Barry Sanders, and that was going to be me.
The next day I went to practice and I said, "Coach, I am the starting quarterback." He said okay and we went in front the defense. I call my signals, got the snap, dropped back to pass the ball, and then somebody hit me harder than I've ever been hit in my life.
I got off the ground and told the coach, "I'm your starting wide receiver." He said okay.
The next year tryouts weren’t as crowded, maybe 40 or 50 kids. We only had enough for one team, which ended up going 10-0 and winning the city championship. I wasn't the fastest kid on that team, but I was still the starting wide receiver. I was getting ready for high school, and being on the city championship team put me on the top of the depth chart.
Then one day my father came home and put a monkey wrench in everything by announcing that we were moving back to California. That’s how I found myself at Palm Springs High School in my 9th grade year. I established who I was, and took the starting job as wide receiver. I made every catch, including ones going to other people. I was cocky, telling the prettiest girl in school to come to the game because I was going to catch a touchdown for her.
My first game everybody I knew was there because I told them I was going to show up and show out. Coming out of the tunnel into the stadium for the first time, I realized there were hundreds of people there--a lot for a high school game. A nervous energy surged through my veins. The first pass of the game came to me, and why not? I was unstoppable in practice.
There is a saying in football: you practice how you play. I've made it my life's mission to dismantle stereotypes, however, and I started with this one. I did not practice how I played because in practice I was unstoppable, unbeatable, invincible. In the game I was debilitated, irresolute, capitulated. The pass was perfect and hit me in the hands before it hit me in the face. One drop doesn't affect a whole game, but in my case it was the initial episode that told the whole show. I commenced to drop every pass thrown to me. I should have lost my starting job, but in practice I was phenomenal, so I kept my job and continued to drop every pass that was thrown to me that season.
The next season I was back in Louisiana. My grandmother lived in South Terrebonne's district, but all my cousins was going to Ellender Memorial, and that's where I wanted to go, too. Unfortunately, my grandmother was a by-the-book person. The first day at the new school, I spoke with the head coach, who wasn't interested. I vowed I'd never play for him, and wanted to switch schools, but my grandmother wasn't hearing it.
In order to survive in the jungle you gotta do what you gotta do. A week later I skipped school, went to the school board's office where my cousins went, sat next to an elderly Black lady, and struck up a conversation with her. I then went to the desk, got the paperwork to enroll in school, and filled it out. Every time the lady behind the desk looked up I would talk to the elderly lady and she thought this was my grandmother. I switched schools that day.
My first day at Ellender, I talked to the head coach and he told me to come to practice after school. It's no surprise that I did exceptional in practice, and took the starting spot. My grandmother discovered the switch but said if the people were stupid enough to let me switch, oh well. I was starting on the junior varsity team when game day came. The game was going well until it was a pass play. I had to run a 5 and out. I ran my route and completely lost my defender in my break. When I turned around, the ball was right in my face. Instinctively, I put my hands up to catch the ball and actually caught it! I just stared at the ball. The defender hit me right in the face and flipped me into the air, but when I came down I still had the ball.
Everybody congratulated me on the catch, but wondered why I just stood there and got flatlined. To me that was cool, since I had conquered a fear I never knew I had. With my head in the game, the gridiron jungle was easy to master.
Stay tuned for Part II, which will be published two weeks from now!
This is the fourth 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 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! Today, we're sharing the first in a multi-part story written by Eyba Brown, who is currently incarcerated at Raymond Laborde Correctional Center.
As of yesterday, the 2019 Louisiana Legislature is in session, and we're ready to rock. In other words, we've submitted a long list of criminal justice reform bills, and we're getting our ducks in a row so that as many as possible become laws this year. Head over to the Legislative Corner on our website and check out:
We need your help to make this year as successful as possible! If you or someone you know has been affected by one of the proposed bills, we will need you to testify! If you can join us for Lobby Day at the State Capitol on May 6, we will need you there! If you have just 5 minutes to call your Representatives and Senators at different times throughout the session, we will need you to make those calls! There are endless ways to get involved. Subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date with the most recent information.
This is the third 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! Today, we're sharing a poem written by Reginald Dwayne Betts, a husband, father of two sons, poet and memoirist. Betts spent 8 years in prison and is now a PhD student at Yale Law School.
Your father watches the flecks add up.
He says the wind-blown dead insects
against the window conjure ghosts:
tossed dice, the South, and his regrets.
You’re driving north on roads that glow
with high beams searching night. You cuss
and think about the wheel’s curved bone
pressed on your palms. The hard callus
burns and you curse the time--eight years
these towns on green billboards were home--
Greensville, Nottoway, Sussex. Names
of prisons, dark restless tombstones.
Words swallow air between you two
as a Newport lights the car’s inside.
Your father has listened and now wants
to talk. He pauses to glare wild-eyed.
His voice is broken bottles, smoke,
flesh. He knows you burned his letters.
In the back, your younger brother sleeps
between your wife and child for hours.
Outside, a storm begins with rain.
Your father sips his third straight beer
and you remember prison’s night.
He never mentions love’s austere
and lonely offices. And now--
when your son wakes--what will you say
about fathers? What will you say
about a voice cuffed to mistakes?
This poem comes from the most recent of Betts' three books, Shahid Reads His Own Palm. To get a FREE copy of the book, stop by our office M-F, 10am - 4pm.
Many people have registered to vote since Louisiana expanded voting rights eligibility on March 1, restoring the vote to anyone who is on probation (but hasn’t been to prison under that sentence), and about 3,000 people who have been on parole for at least 5 years. Some of those people will be allowed to vote on March 30th, while some won’t. Why the difference?
Consider Louisiana’s two largest parishes: In Baton Rouge, the local registrar’s office has a computer station. In New Orleans, it does not.
Anyone who registers to vote via computer (“online registration”) is eligible if they register 21 days prior to election day (which is one week prior to the early voting period). For people with a criminal record, online registration is tricky business because they must personally show up to the Probation & Parole Office and retrieve a form proving their eligibility, then personally hand that form to the local registrar’s office.
People who fill out the form while at the registrar’s office and hand it to them can’t vote for 30 days. If they can get to a computer instead, they can’t vote for 21 days. This is the election code’s difference between the in-person deadline and the online deadline. If someone is already standing at the counter in the registrar’s office, it makes little sense to then go to the public library, or an organization, or home and try to register online to gain those 9 days of eligibility.
In Louisiana, these election windows create donut holes for the electorate, especially as there are so many election. This year alone, there will be five, not including run-offs. Every day, the voting rights of hundreds of people sentenced to probation are suspended, yet those people also become eligible for restoration immediately following suspension. It is still unknown, however, how long it would take for the DOC and Secretary of State to process a suspension and ensuing restoration. Not only does this create more administrative work, but actively blocks the person on probation’s right to vote.
Further, there are even more administrative barriers even after the above process is complete. The local registrar won’t process any new voter applications until after they get out of the election window, meaning that most of us who registered on March 1 are not yet registered voters. In fact, our paperwork won’t be processed until March 31st. In other words, the structural oppression of currently and formerly incarcerated people continues.
A slightly more hopeful fact is that local registrars now have until April 13th to get a computer in every office. When that happens, then people can follow the lead of Baton Rouge by going online and registered right there where the public officials can be on hand to help.
Are you eligible to vote under this new law? Contact us TODAY at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll help you get registered.
This is the second contribution to our new, bi-weekly blog post featuring creative content made by currently or formerly incarcerated people! Today, we're sharing a persuasive essay written by Sede Baker, who is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penitentiary.
What happens when the state slashes funding to educational programs? What happens to the students that depend on that funding to attain higher education? And what happens to upcoming generations when their parents come from an era where the government they had faith in denied them education?
Government funding allows colleges to expand their educational programs to further their students’ ability to attain enlightenment. When there are major budget cuts, it prevents one class of people from elevating to a higher social class with a higher pay grade that would advance their means of living. In what is termed "the land of the free,” the cuts prevent this class from establishing wealth through free market principles and passing it on to their progeny to continue generational wealth-building.This creates no escape from oppressive bosses who utilize their position to control and manipulate. Instead, it creates high level of unemployment, and the stresses from such can cause one to become irrational. This leads to a variety of burdens, including crime.
All humans have one thing in common, which is that we are born with innate capabilities to survive. In a mode of self-preservation, this is where robberies, selling/using drugs, and killing come into the equation. These are violations of the laws that lead to long prison terms, and they are also all acts of survival that ultimately stem from funding cuts for educational programs. This lack of academic opportunity keeps knowledge-seekers from the understanding needed to make better decisions.
Worse, one group may suffer from these cuts, yet upcoming generations still inherit this hardships. This perpetuation of government-inflicted problems keeps many out of the realm of higher learning, and this is what I call a "boom in illiteracy". It transpires when the value system changes and the principles passed on are not of knowledge-seeking but of doing what must be done as a mean to put clothes on your back, food in your stomach, and pay the bills.
It is easy to say in a harsh tone that crime is rampant and laws need to be passed. Being “tough on crime” with stiff laws doesn't eliminate the crime factor, and it deters attention from the government’s greedy move of cutting the education budget.
It is a known fact that where education is high, crime is low, and where education is low, the level of crime is high. The government conveys that they seek to solve the crime issue, yet they don't realize that stripping schools of funding is a catalyst to the rise in crime, as it, in turn, strips people of chances to educate themselves. This affects every generation after the first group of people that was deprived of their education. Is it a problem? That’s a question our representatives must answer to.
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!