dIn 2008, a judge sentenced Derek Harris to 15 years for selling a $30 bag of cannabis. Sound extreme? If Harris hadn’t had a record, he surely would not have gotten 15 years for this small-time drug sale. But those 15 years were not enough. The district attorney in Harris’ case took it a step further and filed to have him classified under the habitual offender statute. With one court filing, Harris’ past convictions, which he already paid the price for, were used against him yet again to sentence him to life without parole (LWOP). Harris, like so many others labeled by the (in)justice system as Habitual Offenders, was sentenced to death by prison. Harris started the arduous appeals process, desperately pleading that some judge, at some level, recognized that dying in prison was too extreme. He hoped they would agree that only a bad lawyer could have let this happen. Thankfully, even between uninspired lawyers and bureaucratic red tape, Derek’s latest lawyers (the only good ones) convinced the Louisiana Supreme Court (LASC) to overturn their previous decision. With their ruling out last week, on his sixth stage in his process, he won the opportunity for his case to be reviewed.
The ultra-punitive nature of prosecutors and judges is only one part of the courtroom equation that explains why Louisiana leads the nation in mass incarceration. Other parts include (a) defense counsel, and (b) restrictive appellate rules that can block even the most unconstitutional actions from being reviewed.
The LASC ruling declared that appellate judges CAN review errors during sentencing, including ineffective assistance of counsel. This is a major victory in creating fair appellate rules--but how many people will be able to benefit? It will take a few more cases to test the boundaries of this ruling, but our calculation is that those who tried to get their sentences reviewed (including when judges wrongfully thought the application of a Habitual Offender sentence was mandatory) but were categorically barred from raising the issues, will have a new window for appealing their case. For those people denied under Meline v. Louisiana (1996), they may have a year to build and file their case. While ultimately this is TBD, impacted people should seek legal advice.
Keep reading for a deeper dive into the legal analysis of this case.
When lawyers aren’t what they should be - Ineffective Assistance of Counsel (IAC)
One of our foundational democratic values is that people accused of crimes have the constitutional right to not just a lawyer, but an effective lawyer who covers all the bases on legal procedures. Meaning a lawyer is constitutionally obligated to explore every avenue and try their hardest to defend their client. For example, if someone has an alibi witness, the lawyer is constitutionally obligated to investigate and interview that person. But there are a lot of holes in this system. For one, though there are countless stories about how overworked and underpaid even the “best” public defenders are, meaning they always wish they could have done more. And how thorough of a job are the “good” lawyers doing? What about the “so-so” lawyers who don’t even specialize in criminal defense, yet are appointed by the court? Most of them don’t really care much about their client, or have the time to care, and will make the same flat rate regardless of the case’s outcome. Furthermore, what about the conflict of interest when public defense is partially funded from the fines following someone’s conviction?
These are just some reasons why a lawyer does not rise to the constitutional standard of “effective.” Regardless of the reason, this is one way innocent people are found guilty, or someone ends up in Angola with cruel and unusual punishment. Another hole in the system is that it can take some time for the average person to realize precisely where their case went wrong. If they realize the fault lies with their lawyer, they can raise a claim of Ineffective Assistance of Counsel (IAC)--they can officially claim their lawyer didn’t properly do their job, which, as we said, is a constitutional right. But (yet another hole) people cannot raise IAC on a direct appeal, because that is reserved for issues that were “Objected” to at trial, where there is some dispute on the trial record to review. This creates a problem, of course, because a sleeping lawyer can’t object to their own nap. So this kicks the can further down the road (meaning more time behind bars) and requires a second review AFTER the direct appeal.
Yet another hole: what if your direct appeal lawyer is also ineffective? This usually happens when an appellate lawyer fails to make an argument that an effective lawyer should have. That means someone needs to file a post-conviction petition, after being denied on the direct appeal, and make claims against BOTH of their lawyers. Because it is difficult to get a lawyer to represent you on a post-conviction petition, nearly all of these filings begin as a pro se filing, hopefully with the help of a jailhouse lawyer, or “inmate counsel.” VOTE’s founders and leaders all served as inmate counsel, and collectively we have filed hundreds of petitions.
Lastly, one of the biggest problems with IAC is exactly what Justice Thurgood Marshall warned in Strickland v Washington: the standard is so high, nobody will be able to prove it. To actually WIN an IAC, someone must prove that their counsel failed to do something, or made an objectively wrong non-strategic decision, and this ineffective performance puts doubt on the conviction. Basically, is it reasonable to think the situation would have turned out differently? (Usually, no matter how bad the lawyer, appeals courts will say “it didn’t impact the outcome,” or that it is a “harmless error.”)
The bottom line is that it is very difficult to make an IAC claim. There are endless barriers for incarcerated people to claim IAC, and Derek had to seek review by judge after judge.
Derek Harris’ Claims of IAC
The first thing that is clear in Derek Harris’ post-conviction petition to the LA Supreme Court is how difficult it is to get the courts to review bad lawyering. After waiting four years between his 2004 arrest and 2008 sentencing, it took Derek another TWELVE YEARS to get to the point where the LA Supreme Court said that his case may be reviewed. It still hasn’t been actually reviewed. That comes next, back at the trial court level.
Derek claimed (1) his trial lawyer should have presented a pretty standard “entrapment defense,” whereas the police initiated the drug deal, and the evidence was a video without audio, (2) his trial lawyer should have objected to the Habitual Offender being “mandatory,” because it was not and is not, (3) his trial lawyer should have told him the prosecutor offered him 7 years (this is required under the U.S. Supreme Court, and written into Louisiana law following VOTE’s 2019 advocacy), and (4) his appellate lawyer should have raised the claim about the no-audio DVD.
In 2013, one appellate judge (dissenting from the ruling) saw the situation clearly: the trial judge (a) admittedly didn’t believe Derek, an honorably discharged vet who has had PTSD and drug issues following his return, deserved 30 years in prison, much less to die in prison, and (b) it was clear that the trial judge thought that imposing the Habitual Offender sentence was mandatory. The ruling went against him though, so Derek had to keep trying.
Ironically, the state and federal courts put strict time limits on filing for review, because even if a case is continuously in the courts, from one stage to the next, every case like Harris' will usually span over a decade.
Finally, in 2016, Harris got into district court with his post-conviction petition and his IAC claims.
Post-Conviction Relief, overturning Melinie, and the New Ruling within LA v. Derek Harris
Along with Derek’s IAC claims listed above, he also claimed that the judge should have known that LWOP was not mandatory. In other words, it should not be solely the defense lawyer’s burden to point out every part of the law--certainly one would think anyone issuing a death sentence would know the legality around it.
In 2016, District Court Judge Laurie Huelin ruled that issues regarding sentencing, including IAC and Habitual Offender sentences, cannot be heard on post-conviction relief. Based on a ruling in 1996 (Melinie) judges have interpreted that to mean the 6th Amendment right to counsel at sentencing is not protected under Louisiana law. Overturning Melinie is the heart of Derek’s case. Judge Huelin also ruled that Derek failed to prove his IAC claims. This should come as no surprise, as Derek’s post-conviction attorney did not bother to call trial counsel to the stand. Examining the lawyer is the standard process for every IAC hearing. Basically, Derek was left with a lawyer ineffectively claiming ineffective assistance.
Making matters even worse, Derek Harris had to then argue, pro se, that his post-conviction attorney was also ineffective.
The 2020 LASC Ruling: People’s 6th Amendment right to counsel during sentencing, including Habitual Offender proceedings, can be reviewed by the court
This may seem obvious, because where else would you fight an issue about your lawyer failing to object to the Habitual Offender sentence enhancement? Essentially, the past rulings in Louisiana served to make Derek’s sentence, to die in prison, immune from review, bulletproof, and above the law. Likewise for similar people who have been stonewalled over the past 24 years. The State’s position on Derek Harris being sentenced to die in prison for a tiny bag of cannabis is that the LWOP cannot be reviewed by the appellate judges. The State’s lawyers actually take the position that Louisiana should hand out such severe sentences, and, no matter how faulty the process, the sentence is untouchable. But last week, LASC disagreed with the State’s attorneys.
Previously, people who have turned to the Federal courts for relief would then be told the state court shot you down for “adequate and independent state grounds.” This creates a classic feedback loop, where non-review in one court justifies non-review in another court because it was determined that it is not reviewable.
This new ruling puts hundreds of people in an interesting position. Those who have had similar such claims will need to go back to court. The first case to make its way up the chain, from district court petition on up the appellate chain, will create a precedent as to whether the Harris case is applied retroactively. One appeals circuit could rule that it is retroactive, while another circuit could rule that it isn’t. The precedent won’t be binding on the whole state until, like Derek Harris, the case goes all the way to LA Supreme Court.
Likewise for those challenging their state sentences in federal court. The only way to be certain how the feds will consider this new position is by filing a petition and trying. The Feds are effective at barring the courthouse door since the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). Using restrictions such as a 1-year filing deadline, or allowing just one “bite at the apple” (meaning your first petition needs to make every claim). Federal time deadlines also occasionally have more leeway when new rules are announced, such as high profile decisions in Miller, Montgomery, and Ramos. When someone files after a new ruling, there will be debates about issues like “procedural vs. substantive rule,” or “watershed rule,” and whether non-review would be a “miscarriage of justice.” It is quite likely that any federal petition would either be denied or held onto, awaiting the Louisiana court’s final position on the issue.
Justice Crichton, who Justice Genovese agreed with, took his Harris concurring opinion a step further and spoke directly regarding the hundreds of people who have been told, essentially, there is no 6th Amendment right to effective counsel at sentencing. Crichton invoked the debate in Ramos, about the State’s worry of upsetting their status quo:
In its valiant search for reliance interests, the dissent somehow misses maybe the most important one: the reliance interests of the American people. Taken at its word, the dissent would have us discard a Sixth Amendment right in perpetuity rather than ask two States to retry a slice of their prior criminal cases. Whether that slice turns out to be large or small, it cannot outweigh the interest we all share in the preservation of our constitutionally promised liberties. Indeed, the dissent can cite no case in which the one-time need to retry defendants has ever been sufficient to inter a constitutional right forever. Ramos, 140 S.Ct. at 1408.
Justice Crichton writes, plainly, that the administrative burden of reviewing cases such as Derek Harris’ “is far outweighed” by the Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel at both trial and sentencing phases. Similar to the Ramos ruling on non-unanimous juries, the District Attorneys of Louisiana and the district court judges of Louisiana might have pondered whether their unique brand of “justice” would hold up under further scrutiny. Interestingly, all the district attorneys and judges are up for election this November 3. J. Crichton thoughtfully applies the Ramos rationale to overturn the instant case, and it appears that at least two LASC justices are firmly in support of someone returning to the courts after previously being told that IAC during sentencing cannot be reviewed.
Unlike Non-unanimous jury convictions, where a retroactive application of Ramos could mean throwing out an entire conviction, the Harris cases would be more like Miller and Montgomery. Those cases also applied to sentencing and threw out those unconstitutionally mandatory LWOP sentences for children still left these people convicted of a crime. Being re-sentenced, or simply having a Habitual Offender sentence enhancement tossed out, does not require witnesses and evidence and juries. The State would not be in such a tight position if dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of sentences are reviewed.
What’s next? Getting back into court
Anyone with a claim that centers on ineffective assistance of counsel during sentencing or legal challenges to the Habitual Offender laws, should consider that a one year clock just started ticking. This may also preserve a federal petition after you have exhausted your state remedies, but that bridge would need to be crossed when the time is right.
There is no need to hastily get “just anything” in immediately. Whether someone is Inmate Counsel, pro se, a family member, or an attorney: it would be wise to check in with VOTE and the Promise of Justice Initiative, to be sure you have the best representation and collectively do our best to ensure this ruling has the broadest impact on the most people.
Excellent work, courage, and faith exhibited by Derek Harris and our incarcerated brothers who supported his petitions along the way. And major shoutout to Harris' (hopefully last) lawyer, Cormac Boyle, a longtime death penalty investigator, who earned his law degree and is putting it to the best use with Promise of Justice Initiative.
Read the full opinion, Louisiana v. Derek Harris here.
As the legislative session winds down, it has become very clear that this is not just an emergency session for Covid-related bills. The final week of this session looks like any other, with bills covering a wide range of topics.
ACTION ALERT: HB 643, HB 529 all need to get a hearing in Senate Judiciary C this week! Call and email Chairman Franklin Foil asking him to put the bills on the agenda TODAY! 225-342-6777 / email@example.com
Here are some of the bills we’ve been following this session, covering Prison Conditions, Supervision and Discrimination, and Medical Marijuana:
Council on the Children of Incarcerated Parents (CIP): HB729 (Rep. Marcelle). Under the leadership of Daughters Beyond Incarceration (DBI), this entirely new council, to be in the Office of the Governor, would have 17 members (including a representative each from DBI and VOTE, three people who were children when their parents were incarcerated, and one FIP parent). Unlike most councils and commissions about our people, the CIP smartly only has two members of DOC, one representative from the Sheriffs association and one District Attorney.
Medical Services in Jails and Prisons Study: HCR 91 (Rep. Mandie Landry). This resolution will ask VOTE, LSU Health Sciences Center, Loyola Law, and the FIT Clinic to study medical services for the incarcerated, including the impact of COVID-19, and report to the legislature in 2021. This resolution passed the House (80-19), and needs to be heard in the Senate Committee this week.
End Solitary Confinement for pregnant women: HB 344 (Rep. Mandie Landry). This bill originally ended solitary confinement for pregnant women and people with mental illness, but amendments limited its scope to just pregnant women. Still, this bill marks the first time Solitary has been barred in any way, and hopefully future efforts will expand the ban on this inhumane practice.
Veteran’s Mentorship Program: SB 407 (Sen. Kenny Cox). This bill is a “clean up” to our prior expansion of the program, allowing the DOC to actually fulfill the intent of the law and ensure powerful vet mentors are able to help their fellow vets.. It passed through the Senate and House committee with no opposition, and onto the House Floor today for final passage.
Community Supervision and Post-Conviction Discrimination
Parole conditions cap at 5 years: HB 643 (Rep. Jones). This bill would help a few thousand people who have proven to successfully overcome the many obstacles to assimilation after prison, and place them on unsupervised parole. It has made it through the House will be heard this week in Senate Judiciary C.
Proving your incarceration term: HB 529 (Rep. Duplessis). This bill allows people to get documentation regarding their sentence (past or present) from their local Probation and Parole Office. People have previously gone to great lengths trying to prove they have finished the term, to prove identity theft, or qualify for a program.
Voter registration for people on probation: A bill to streamline voter registration (HB 454), which was worked out with the Secretary of State, DOC, and Rep. Sam Jenkins will need to wait on next week’s Special Session.
Studying the barriers to reintegration: HCR 14 The Louisiana Dept. of Health and Dept. of Education will study some of the barriers to reintegration. This is part of a broader movement to really understand why “success” is so difficult, and develop new strategies that work. – Passed the House and heads to the Senate floor this week.
Medical Marijuana: HB 819 Allows any doctor in good standing to recommend marijuana when “in the sincere judgment of the physician, therapeutic cannabis may be helpful to the patient's condition or symptoms.” This should finally allow Louisiana to fully benefit from medical marijuana the way that most other states in America can. The House passed it 77 – 15, and it is up for the full Senate today. Another medical marijuana bill (HB 455) passed the House 80 - 10, and is on the Senate floor. The bill would allow therapeutic marijuana for people in hospice or palliative care. The progress of these bills indicate a major shift on this subject.
Parole eligibility for all juveniles at 25 years: HB 173. The next step after ending mandatory juvenile life w/o parole was creating a parole eligibility at 25 years. This bill would extend that eligibility to every child serving a lengthy adult sentence. It passed the House 68 – 22, and is now in Senate Judiciary B.
Fines and fees--the saga continues: HCR 2 and HCR 3 serve to continue pushing off the JRI Reform that grants people “Ability to Pay” hearings and provides debt relief and incentives for people who can put these bills in front of their rent, phone, food, and transportation. The fact that it will take at least five years to understand the convoluted system of assessing and collecting fines and fees (and lack of accounting) should tell us all we need to know about this historical attempt to fund America’s most expansive criminal legal system on the backs of one of America’s poorest citizens. These will both pass.
Study of homicide data over the past 5 years: HCR 56. The Legislature added Voice of the Experienced to the research team, to provide insight on numbers and statistics that have real world people and situations. This passed the House, and is on to the Senate floor this week.
Retro 80s Throwback Edition - Reminiscent of America’s sordid “Tough on Crime” era, several bills are moving forward without any regard for the modern trend to reduce barbaric sentences that leave us with a prison full of senior citizens facing a global flu pandemic. These bills show that legislators often fail to look at the current maximum sentences, nor do they seem to believe the Louisiana judiciary (the most punitive in the nation) will dole out harsh enough sentences.
For more information on these bills and where things stand as the final week of the legislative session comes to a close, visit our Legislative Corner.
Here's where things stand at the end of this week.
At Gov. John Bel Edwards' daily press conference on Tuesday, Department of Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc announced that he has plans to release what will amount to about 1,100 people. That's not even 2% of the total number of people incarcerated in Louisiana, not including those in ICE facilities or on probation or parole! Not only that, but the plan only applies to those who: are doing time for a nonviolent offense, are within six months of their release date, and already have a residence plan for their release. Even worse, the review board--which includes no formerly incarcerated people--didn't begin until today, will only look at 40 cases at a time, and will require 5 of 6 board members to vote in favor of release. This is a negligible plan that isn't informed by medical or public health experts, and doesn't actually create any true social distancing within facilities. Can you please call Gov. Edwards right now at 225-342-0991 and tell him we demand that more people, especially our elderly and immunocompromised loved ones, come home?! Then can you repeat this call every day, and encourage others to do the same?
Care of Incarcerated People with COVID
On Tuesday, our partners at the Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections (DOC). The DOC has been transferring incarcerated people who test positive for COVID-19 from various jails and prisons around the state INTO Camp J, a condemned building at Louisiana State Penitentiary (commonly called Angola) instead of to hospitals, where they need to be. The DOC’s entire plan has been widely criticized by public health experts and civil rights advocates alike. Camp J is a notoriously inhumane facility that was designed as a punishment camp for those serving life without the possibility of parole. The lawsuit calls on the DOC to halt the plan immediately and ensure people with COVID-19 receive adequate care.
On Wednesday morning, Louisiana Republican lawmakers blocked an emergency election plan that would expand mail-in voting, early voting and make other changes to the state’s delayed presidential primary election because of the coronavirus pandemic. This has negative implications for ensuring fair and equitable elections, for our newly eligible voters with conviction histories, and for democracy as a whole.
Last, our first virtual VOTE meeting on Wednesday afternoon was a big success! At more than 100 attendees strong, we gathered online to support each other, answer as many questions as we could about our work and your loved ones on the inside, and discussed next steps in bringing our loved ones home. Watch a recap of the call here.
Please share this action as far and wide as possible. Click the links to share the above images on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
On Saturday, Patrick Jones died of the coronavirus while inside Oakdale prison in Allen Parish. Seven others from Oakdale are currently hospitalized because the pandemic has been spreading among the 990 men held at this facility. Positive cases are also confirmed at Angola, as well as in jails in Jefferson, Orleans, and Ascension Parishes. The spread among facilities is quickly catching up to--and will eventually surpass--the rate among the broad public. In NYC, for example, the infection rate in jails is already EIGHT TIMES that of outside the jail.
For the past three weeks we've been calling on decisionmakers at every level to immediately release as many people from these facilities as possible so that not only do they not endure the same fate as Patrick did, but they don't put thousands of others in harm's way, too, by spreading the virus.
The answer we keep hearing? "We're working on it."
That's vague. It's irresponsible. It's not something that consoles our families who are worried sick about their loved ones on the inside.
Gov. Edwards must take swift action before he has blood on his hands.
We DEMAND that IN THE NEXT FOUR DAYS,
he does the following FOUR EMERGENCY ACTIONS:
1) Grant 180-days Good Time to allow everyone within 6 months of going home to get home;
2) Issue medical parole for everyone with respiratory conditions, anyone who is immunocompromised, and anyone over 60 years old;
3) Provide masks and gloves to all staff and incarcerated people who remain; and
4) Create a jail and prison COVID-19 oversight commission under the Office of Public Health and CDC, with the power to interview sick people, enforce basic medical standards, and ensure families have a right to know about the health of their loved ones.
Can you help us make these demands by calling these three people today?
Gov. John Bel Edwards: 225-342-0991
U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy, MD: 202-224-5824
U.S. Representative Ralph Abraham, MD:
if you live in Central Louisiana call 318-445-0818
if you live in Northeast Louisiana call 318-322-3500
if you live in South Louisiana call 985-516-5858
Read the full demands letter that we sent to the Governor here.
Thank you for taking action. We are sending you and your loved ones love, persistence and hope in these times.
I can still remember when I first saw you--
a seemingly random night that brought
a seemingly random discovery,
was really Providence.
Wading into the depths of time to merge our storied paths.
A small step back into history
and there you were,
sitting atop the town.
Gracious. Humble. Secret.
I immediately knew I had uncovered something special
some part of me.
You draw me closer to you.
At first approach, I can feel you embrace me.
Warm. Inviting. Honest.
One deep look into you
and you begin to whisper your secrets.
Though time has faded and chipped away
You still gleam with beauty and elegance,
Poised there over the city.
I see you grin as you take in all her stories
and witness all her changes.
Yet you remain unchanged,
A timeless beauty.
Gilded. Golden. Graying. Gracious.
That place in my heart that I share with no one.
My own private room
of silence, solitude, and security.
I gaze up at you in our secret embrace
and I am lost.
I do not know the year.
I do not know the day.
I do not know the hour.
I only know here.
I only know now.
You hear my fears and see my tears.
When I am away from you,
my heart sojourns back to you.
A stolen piece of history
Spirited into my world
With no judgment,
If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll be in touch! We'll share the content on social media and always give credit to the artist(s) involved. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Angelo D. Golatt is currently incarcerated at David Wade Correctional Center.
First and foremost, we are here for you. These are turbulent times, and we want to remind you that we love you, we are with you, and we will get through this together. Here are a few updates on where things stand with our incarcerated loved ones and with for members at home.
Our incarcerated loved ones
Most important, now is the time to bring as many of our loved ones in jails and prisons home. When the virus hits facilities, it will spread like wildfire among 2.3 million people. A federal lockdown that further punishes and tears families apart is not the solution. Rather, we demand that our elderly, anyone with existing health conditions, those doing time for nonviolent offenses, anyone in jail on technical violations or misdemeanors, and anyone in jail awaiting trial go NOW! We also demand that routine police stops, warrants, and any unnecessary arrests cease immediately.
Can you help us make these demands by calling and emailing the following today?
Mayor: (504) 658-4900
Baton Rouge Sheriff: (225) 389-5000
New Orleans Sheriff: (504) 822-8000
Governor: (225)342-7015 or (225)342-0991
DOC: (225) 342-9711
Governor John Bel Edwards
Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson, Louisiana Supreme Court
James L. Le Blanc, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections
email@example.com & JMLeBlanc@corrections.state.la.us
Dr. James Beuche, Deputy Secretary, Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice
Sheryl Ranatza, Chair, Louisiana Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole
Steve Russo, Acting Secretary, Louisiana Department of Health
Matthew Block, Executive Counsel to the Governor
Jonathan Vining, DOC General Counsel
Leslie Ricard Chambers, Esq., Criminal Justice Policy Advisor
Michael Ranatza, Executive Director, Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association
You can also encourage others to call by sharing this image on Facebook, signing our national pledge, email this letter to your elected officials, and tracking what other jails and prisons around the country are doing to decarcerate.
Our membership at home
We know many of our members are experiencing financial hardships due to this virus. We are working in coalition to demand that our elected officials implement paid sick leave for all workers in Louisiana and beyond. Until then, you can file for unemployment insurance for a maximum of $247/week. Download the instructions here. There are also new rules around keeping utilities on, preventing evictions, etc. Read them here. If you're in the greater New Orleans area, you can also give/receive help with funds, transportation, food, and more via the community mutual aid network. If you have children under 18, they can get a grab-and-go free meal at any of these locations. And these free meal locations are for anyone of any age. To find out about resources in Baton Rouge, Shreveport, and statewide, go here.
The 2020 Louisiana Legislature has been postponed until March 31. When it resumes, we will do everything in our power to make sure that we have a voice in the laws and reforms being made on our behalf. Check out what bills we'll be fighting for, and contact us if you or a loved one have been affected any of them. If you're also willing to record a video testimony, you can do so on your phone and email it to us.
The presidential primary election in Louisiana has been postponed until June 20. That also means the new registration deadline is May 20 (in person or by mail) and May 30 (online). In other words, please keep registering to vote! You can do so online here. Remember: you can vote if you are currently on probation, have been on parole for at least five years, or have finished your probation or parole time. You'll need to call your probation and parole office, first, and ask them to mail you a signed and sealed Voter Registration Form with your information on it.
The 2020 Census is still underway--fill it out online anytime before April 1. Please take 10 minutes to do so. Your responses make sure all of us--including loved ones still behind bars--are counted. They help lawmakers decide where necessities like stores, schools and housing are built in our communities.
If you have any questions or concerns regarding your loved ones in jails or prisons, where our work stands, or any of the above, please call us at 504-571-9599. We are available between 9am and 5pm, Monday through Friday.
This legislative session we’re introducing our most ambitious line up of bills yet. In order to win them, we need to show up at the Capitol as one strong and unified voice. That means we need more people with direct experiences of incarceration to speak up and speak out about the injustices they have faced. How? Check out these tips for successful advocacy, which work whether we’re sitting in one-on-one meetings with our elected officials, testifying in front of legislative committees, or making a speech in front of an audience on the Capitol steps.
1. Be prepared and brief.
We can expect all types of questions about our bills from both our supporters and the opposition. On top of that, we usually only have a few minutes of a legislator’s time to gain their support. We need to know what we’re going to say and be brief with it! Instead of writing out a full script (which can sound too practiced or, worse, fake) we like to make a list of two or three main points to really hit home, sandwiched by a short introduction and conclusion. Legislators hear so many people speak about bills every day, so use a strong opening statement to really grab their attention. For example, the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana is lobbying for bill HB 344, which would ban prisons from putting pregnant women and people with mental illness in solitary confinement. In practicing her testimony for HB 344, which would ban the use of solitary confinement for pregnant women and people with mental illness, Shametria Gonzales opened with, “Ending solitary confinement isn’t only a moral issue, it’s a bipartisan issue.” This hard-hitting and concise phrase sets the tone for a powerful testimony.
2. Be honest.
Our credibility is central to our relationships at the Capitol, so being honest in our conversations and testimonies is a must. There will be times when legislators ask tough questions about the facts of a bill. There’s no need to make something up or exaggerate anything. When we don’t know the answer, the best response we can offer is, “I’m not sure, I’ll find out and get back to you quickly.” Of course, our lived experiences are also our truth, and legislators who have never been incarcerated themselves need to hear them. As long as we stick to what we know, we will be successful.
3. Be respectful.
Speaking of relationships: keep it real, but be respectful. This helps us form new alliances and maintain the old. Even though there are many legislators who might not understand or respect our movement, we never know who’s watching. For example, during committee hearings, it can be tempting to get up to the podium and clap back at a representative or senator who’s not on our side. But if we attack one legislator, we can lose the important votes of their friends that we need to get our bill passed. Phrases like “great question, let me explain” and “I can see where you’re coming from, but” go a long way towards making legislators feel heard, while not compromising our truth or integrity. Challenge the idea, not the person communicating it. Finding a shared value goes a long way, too.
4. Be yourself.
The best thing we can do is to bring our whole selves with us to the Capitol. The building’s halls and chambers are filled with lobbyists who may be great at rattling off facts and figures, but they don’t know much about our lived experiences, if anything. As a community, that’s our greatest asset. “[VOTE] is bringing the directly impacted people,” says Rep. Ted James, the new Chairman of the Justice Committee. “Our personal stories are what move people and the needle.” This work can be tiring and make us want to not share what we know, but just remember that we all have each other’s backs. When we go to the Capitol as a Blue Wave, it’s not just to fight injustice, but to lean on each other in the process, too.
Ready to get engaged?
Got all of the above down pat? Find a bill (or two or five) that you have experience with and get in touch about testifying. A few bill examples include:
HB 380 will ensure that someone who is offered a plea deal will be told all of the consequences they’ll face by agreeing to it. If you’ve ever taken a plea bargain and were not fully told ahead of time about how it would affect your ability to find a job, housing or go to school, this bill is for you.
HB 339 will give all incarcerated people, including lifers, a chance to go before the parole board and be considered for release. If you know someone doing life, or were once doing life yourself but got out on a new law, we need to hear from you!
The Fair Chance in Hiring Bill will reduce the number of barriers employers are allowed to set up against people with convictions. Right now, many job applications from people with convictions are tossed out as soon as the employer finds out about it. If this bill passes, employers will only be allowed to reject the application if the conviction is related to the job. “This bill would make it possible for people like me to get more than a minimum-wage job,” says Kisha Edwards, of The First 72+. If you’re in the same boat as Kisha, please consider testifying on this bill!
If you have experience with any of the issues we’re tackling this session, your story can help us win. Drop a note to our Membership Coordinator, Ilona Prieto, at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get you prepared to testify when the time comes!
They say reading is fundamental, well what the hell is writing--essential? In school I didn't know an adverb from an adjective. I knew a sentence had to have a subject and a predicate because Dr. Dre gave that to me in old school hip hop. But I could never get my subject and verb to agree--actually, I still have trouble making them not argue.
You may have seen a gangsta turn rapper, rapper turn movie star, but you never seen a thug turn writer, and thug does not mean brutal ruffian or assassin regardless of what Webster says. Thug means The Highest Under God.
To say that my inspiration to write came from my great love to tell a story is the farthest from the truth. Instead, I was in the hobby shop learning how to make clocks and jewelry boxes. I was getting good, and I was ready to start sending them home to get sold. My college friend had an account on Ebay and sold one of my clocks. This was how I was going to make the money, I thought. I needed to hire a lawyer and get home.
One day I was called to the Warden's office. They told me to pack my stuff. I asked “where am I going?” They told me I was going to the dungeon. I'm like, “for what?” All they said was: “you know.” Completely baffled, I packed my stuff, went to the blocks, and sat there not knowing why I got locked up.
Two weeks later, I got called to an office. An investigator came to talk with me. He had a report in his hand, which he started to read. It said: “Prime Time told me to go to the McDonald’s in St. Francisville. His cousin was there and he gave me some weed and money. I was bringing Prime Time the weed.”
The report had a lot of Prime Time this and Prime Time that. When I heard this I was able to identify the young police officer who had given this statement. I figured he was under pressure at work so he was just giving them something. He had told them the play, but he didn't want to tell on the actual player(s), so he used a nickname, and it just so happened to be my nickname. The officer probably thought the people reading the report would never find the person it was about, but that's not how it works in prison. Even if they don't know they'll make it look like they know to avoid the appearance of stupidity. I knew who they were talking about, but that wasn't my business to tell.
I told the investigator that I didn’t know what he was talking about, and if I did, I wouldn't tell him nothing. The man gave me an angry look but quickly recovered. He said he respected that, me being a convict and all. I wasn't a convict, though. I had just got to prison. I had been there for maybe six to seven months and was still wet behind the ears. If I were a convict, I would have known the next move.
When I went to court, they read the report. They had replaced every mention of Prime Time with Eyba Brown. I put in a motion to review the original report, but the motion was denied, and I was on my way to extended lock down [solitary confinement].
When I was in my cell I told myself that I couldn't make money with my hands, so I had to make it with my mind. How was I going to do that? I sat in the dungeon for more than 60 days. But if you are in the dungeon for more than 45 days, they have to re-route you to a lesser custody status than you were sentenced to. That’s how I ended up in the working cell block, Camp C. I could have gotten out to play football, but I didn't want to get stuck in the outer camp, so I made my move to get back to the main prison. As I said, I had only been locked up for a couple of months, so I didn't know what I was doing. I ended up going to extended lock down for real this time. People stay there for years. You do nothing but sit in a cell for 23 hours. You get only an hour out of the cell each day.
In Camp C one of my friends was about to go to the main population to play ball for Camp C. Before he left, we walked the yard and strategized. He told me about a commercial idea he had that sounded like a short movie. As I sat in my cell on extended lock down I kept thinking about that commercial, and figured I could come up with a commercial, too. I started thinking about all the really good commercials I could remember and writing down my own ideas.
Eventually I was sent back to the main prison, C Block. There I met this dude who had a cousin who was studying film at USC. This dude would send his cousin movie scripts. He let me read one: "How to be a Player.” I remembered this movie, so as I'm reading the script I can see the movie in my head. I started writing scripts, too.
Math had always been my favorite subject because it has structure to it. Writing didn't. Or at least I thought it didn't. But I soon found out writing had a formula, too, and formulas are things I understand. My friend from LSU brought me some books on how to be a screenwriter. I wrote four movies and 10 commercials. I learned about the Writer's Guild, got a list of agencies, and contacted my cousin in Atlanta because Atlanta had a great number of agencies. Only four of them, however, would take unsolicited manuscripts.
I gave my cousin the scripts for the movie Blast4Me and three commercials: Tag, Runaway, and First Kiss. He told me the commercials were Super Bowl-type commercials, and I gave him the addresses to the agencies. He sent the commercials to the agencies. Of the four agencies, two asked him to come in for an interview. But it was spring break and he went to Daytona Beach instead.
Of course the pen is mightier than the sword, unless you're in a knife fight in which case you'd better have a Rambo knife. The pen is a mighty weapon, however, if you know how to use it. In prison you need an army, family or friend support to help your words get heard. And if you're saying something, how mighty is your pen?
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, always give credit to the artist(s) involved, and cover the costs of submission. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Eyba Brown is currently incarcerated at Raymond Laborde Correctional Center.
In the mid 1980s, our Founder and Executive Director was part of the Lifers Club at Angola State Penitentiary--a group of men who were told they’d never have a chance to come home. Refusing to accept this fate, they started to do research. Together the Lifers wrote to other people doing life in 10 Southern states, asking about their sentencing laws and reform. To the club’s surprise, they got responses indicating that so many states were fighting for the same reforms as our leader and his friends. They used the letters to draft a legislative bill that aimed to reduce the sentences of people serving life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). Hungry for change, they were disappointed to learn that they needed a legislator to sponsor and file the bill for them. So they wrote to Louisiana state lawmakers, but this time they didn’t get many letters back. Shortly thereafter, Henderson was sharing about feeling dismayed at the Lifers’ monthly meeting, which certain people on the outside were allowed to attend. When he had finished speaking, a woman sitting in the front row stood up. “My name is Naomi White Warren,” she said. “I’m a newly-elected state representative from New Orleans, and I’ll take your bill on for you.” The Lifers’ stories, voices, and perseverance inspired Rep. Warren (now Farve) to join their fight for freedom. “The excitement in the prison was off the chain,” says Henderson. Unfortunately, as that year’s legislative session went on, it was clear that the bill wouldn’t pass. Yet the bill was still a huge success, not only because it finally passed many years later, but because it was the first time in VOTE’s history that our people--the ones closest to the problem--organized to the point of changing the entire trajectory of their lives. Today we carry on this legacy by fighting for more bills and more reform at the Capitol. Every year, our collective voice gets stronger. Here’s what we’re fighting for this year, and how you can join us.
Protecting the rights of people facing convictions
While our (in)justice system promises we’re innocent until proven guilty, we know that’s often not true for many groups of people, including those who are poor and of color. In many states including ours, someone awaiting trial can be held in jail for years--even though they haven't been convicted of any crime--if they’re unable to pay ever-increasing fines and fees. This pretrial detention punishes poor people and then profits off of them, as the fines and fees they’re forced to pay are funding the salaries of judges--the very people setting the bond people need to pay to get out. Clearly, this is a conflict of interest and was even ruled unconstitutional by a federal consent decree last year. For that reason, one of our priorities this session is reducing the number of poor people in jail by holding our judicial system accountable to how fines and fees are created and used.
The system also wrongs people facing a conviction by not telling them what the full consequences of taking a plea deal are. Instead, lawyers often present a plea deal as the smartest option, but they leave out that we’ll face such consequences as losing our right to vote and access to public housing, among others. The bills we advocate for this session will make sure anyone offered a plea deal is fully informed about these collateral consequences before making such a big life decision. And the legislators deciding on these bills listen best when there are people who have been directly impacted by them at the hearings. “When we advocate for ourselves, we have hundreds more that we’re also advocating for,” says Rene Smith, our new Baton Rouge Organizer. “We can’t be afraid to tell our story--it could change the mind of a legislator and [affect] the lives of so many.”
Strengthening the rights of people behind bars
We also need more voices to strengthen the rights of people already in prison. We’ll be reforming probation and parole eligibility, LWOP sentencing, and medical service standards for people on the inside. Long-time VOTE member and now our New Orleans Organizer Donald Arbuthnot is excited to fight at the legislature. He’s especially interested in medical rights because he was so impacted by a lack of medical care while he was in prison. Once when he had food poisoning, instead of giving him treatment, the prison infirmary put Arbuthnot in a “tank”--a freezing room with concrete benches. “I was balled up in a knot, in so much pain,” he explains. Since so many of the prison medical staff were once doctors but had had their medical licenses revoked, he waited overnight in that room for a qualified doctor to come and diagnose him. Luckily, Arbuthnot was not permanently harmed by the incident. But many of Arbuthnot’s friends who went to the infirmary were misdiagnosed, mistreated or never came back. “[The prison] killed them,” he says. “A lot of it came out of their deep hatred and racism for people of color.” Arbuthnot encourages all formerly incarcerated people to come to the Capitol and change this common story. “When we speak from our experiences in prison,” Arbuthnot says, “we can only say the truth.”
Defending the rights of formerly incarcerated people
When we fight as a united front, we win. Last’s why another part of our strategy this year is defending the rights that we’ve already worked so hard for, including our right to vote. In 2018, we passed Act 636, which restored voting rights to 40,000 Louisianans with convictions. But since it went into effect on March 1 of last year, the DOC and Secretary of State’s office have put up so much bureaucratic red tape, making it extremely difficult for those eager to vote to get registered. “They don’t want it to be simple,” says our Shreveport Organizer Felicia Smith. “They want you to jump through hoops so you get tired and don’t vote.” We’re not going to let lawmakers take away rights that we’ve poured countless hours of sweat and tears into, which is why we need more voices than ever involved in this legislative session. With so many wins behind us, there’s that much more to defend.
We know that sometimes getting involved is easier said than done. But we have some resources--made by us and for us--to get you started. New to the legislative process? Check out How a Bill Becomes a Law (it’s more interesting than Schoolhouse Rock, we promise). Want to speak in front of legislators about your experiences with the (in)justice system? Check out our video explaining How and Why We Testify. Want to attend one of our upcoming events but want a sneak peek of what it’s like? Check out this Facebook live video from Lobby Day three years ago.
We’ll also be offering multiple trainings on how to make an impact at the Capitol, since we know that we’re all learning together and have a range of experiences. Upcoming sessions include Pre-Lobby Day on Tuesday, March 3 followed by Lobby Day on Tuesday, March 24 (click the links to RSVP).
When we advocate, it’s not just for ourselves, but for everyone who is still voiceless. “If you’re inside of a cell,” says our new Lafayette Organizer Marcus Simmons, “and you stick your hand out of the bars, the arms don’t forget about the body. I’m the arms now, and I can’t forget about the people still stuck inside. To the system, these people are just a body and a paycheck. But to me, they helped me to survive when I had no family, no soap or deodorant. The least I could do is be their legs and their voice.”
In addition to the upcoming events listed above, we also have monthly meetings around the state, which are a low-stakes and easy way to join our work. New Orleans meets on the first Wednesday of every month, Shreveport meets on the third Thursday, Lafayette meets on the fourth Monday, and Baton Rouge meets on the fourth Thursday. For specific dates and times, check our our calendar.
What do you really know about me?
What do you know about four brick walls,
and 15-minute collect phone calls?
What do you know about 20-foot-high wire fences?
What do you know about
getting screamed at
and told what to do,
by an ‘authority’ figure
who couldn't walk a day in your shoes?
What do you know about having nothing to call your own?
What do you know about having a four-foot cell with a pisser in it,
and nothing to call home?
What do you know about having everything stripped from your life,
and praying you don't get stabbed when you try to sleep at night?
Before you pass judgement and say I chose my own path,
let me take a second and give you some insight into my past.
What do you know about growing up below the poverty line?
What do you know about your mother being gone for days,
and you don't have no idea where she went?
What do you know about freezing in the winter because they've turned off the power?
What do you know about going next door to the neighbor's house
just to get something to eat?
What do you know about getting kicked out when you're 16 years old?
What do you know about being forced to sleep in the back of a van,
or on the streets,
because you have nowhere else to go?
So, before you pass judgement about a man you've never seen,
What do you REALLY know about ME?
If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll be in touch! We'll share the content on social media and always give credit to the artist(s) involved. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Aaron G. Kitzler is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penitentiary.