It is easy to list the root causes of incarceration, but our society clearly struggles to form the collective will to address them. Poverty leads to poor educational opportunities, hunger, and homelessness. These conditions, in turn, motivate children and young adults to start their own businesses, regardless of their legality. The unresolved trauma from abusive homes, serving in combat, or surviving a hurricane creates sadness, anger and various forms of spiritual damage that often lead to self-medication or erratic behavior. Addiction can be a downward spiral, and the barriers facing formerly incarcerated people make it worse. More often than not, these barriers lock them out of ever rejoining society.
In Baton Rouge, voters have an opportunity on December 8th to address these root causes by Voting “Yes” on the mental health tax proposal. If the ballot question passes, the average homeowner would be taxed $1.50/month to fund a mental health crisis stabilization center. The center would be a small antidote to the state’s billion-dollar prison system.
Many residents and police officers can clearly identify when someone “needs help,” but they have no idea what to do. Just ask the friends and family of Lamar Johnson, who was pulled over for a routine traffic stop in 2015. Soon thereafter, guards at the East Baton Rouge Prison beat him. Within four days he was found dead under mysterious circumstances, leaving behind his 3-year old son.
Many people both in and out of custody, in Baton Rouge and beyond, are seeking treatment. In Johnson’s case, the police officer was compelled to arrest him on an old warrant. The officer told Johnson that “everything happens for a reason, and I believe sincerely in my heart that you’re trying to do right.” Surely, someone in the jail felt similarly about Lamar Johnson, but had nowhere to refer him.
While the proposed treatment facility, known as The Bridge Center, is a step in the right direction, the current proposal is not without concerns. The Center needs transparency and oversight that includes the perspective of impacted community members. Public oversight of our institutions is crucial, especially for vulnerable populations such as those accused of criminal behavior. The Bridge Center’s current board should also do away with its vice chairman, Dr. Raman Singh, who had multiple marks on his record before and during his tenure as state prison medical director, which came to an end due to allegations of sexual harassment.
No single solution will be the magic salve for all that ails us, especially in a city as large as Baton Rouge. On the other hand, we can’t have an effective, multifaceted response to societal issues without putting the first brick down. It is time to stop using jails and prisons as a stow-away for what we think we can’t collectively deal with. It is time to create alternatives, and give our neighbors, police, district attorneys, sheriffs, and judges a chance to actually help our community.
Early Voting is open now through December 1st, from 8am - 6pm at:
Yesterday, Louisiana voters cast their ballots in favor of Amendment 2, passing a law that will require a unanimous jury on all felony convictions. As a result of this historic win, which puts to rest a 138-year-old law, Louisiana will join 48 other states in requiring a unanimous jury.
“This is a huge moment for criminal justice reform in the South,” says VOTE Executive Director Norris Henderson. “From community conversations, to the Legislature, and finally to the ballot, we’ve put all our efforts into passing this law, and I couldn’t be prouder.” After a split 10-2 jury wrongfully found him guilty, Henderson himself spent almost 28 years at Angola State Penitentiary for a crime he did not commit.
Since the summer, Henderson has led the Unanimous Jury Coalition (UJC), an unlikely group of bipartisan supporters of the unanimous jury law. The UJC collectively represents more than 30 organizations, including Innocence Project New Orleans, the Promise of Justice Initiative, and Southern Poverty Law Center. It also includes individuals such as Ed Tarpley, former District Attorney of Grant Parish, and Robert Jones, who was exonerated in 2017 for four separate crimes.
Louisiana currently leads the country in wrongful convictions. More than 40 percent of all of those who have been recently exonerated were mistakenly found guilty by non-unanimous juries. Though today’s victory is one of many steps necessary to achieve total criminal justice reform in the state and nation, it is a big one. The presence of a unanimous jury law will reduce the rate of wrongful convictions statewide, and send a strong message that the time for criminal justice reform is now. Though the UJC will disband now that Election Day has passed, the political energy generated through its work will continue.
"This work is far from over," says Henderson, "especially considering this year we also won voting rights for the majority of Louisiana citizens on probation and parole.”
VOTE, the Power Coalition and other key criminal justice reform organizations are hosting a candidate forum on November 14th, when questions about Act 636, effective March 1st, 2019, will surely be a hot topic. Kyle Ardoin (R) and "Gwen" Collins-Greenup (D) are in a run-off election for Secretary of State, which will be on Dec. 8th. Early Voting begins November 24th.
“Who this new Secretary of State will be, and how they decide to support or obstruct the new law, will have a lot to say about our democracy moving forward," says Henderson.
The forum will be held at 2022 St. Bernard Ave. from 6 - 8pm. To attend, RSVP at: bit.ly/votecanforum.
VOTE is also raising funds to propel this work forward. Our goal is to raise $30,000 in the next 30 days. Please make a donation today--every dollar counts!
While much of our focus has been on encouraging voters to #VoteYeson2 and #VoteNo1, it is also crucial that we highlight the importance of the Secretary of State race. Among the responsibilities that the incoming Secretary of State will be in charge of is the implementation of Act 636, which will restore voting rights to over 40,000 Louisiana citizens. Currently, people must complete their probation or parole sentences before they can regain voting rights. Act 636 changes this in four months, specifically allowing voting rights to people who have been incarceration-free while on probation, and people on parole for over five years. The law goes into effect on March 1, 2019, and its implementation is central to the Secretary of State’s job.
As of now, only two candidates have released statements about how they will follow the law, and how they will ensure that voting rights are protected.
During a candidate forum hosted by Justice and Beyond, Democratic candidate Renee Fontenot Free stated “it is not good enough for me to wait for somebody that’s on probation or parole to want to vote. It’s incumbent upon me to go to DOC and say ‘give me your records, tell me who is going to be eligible to vote…let me reach out to them.’”
“It is not good enough for me to wait for somebody that’s on probation or parole to want to vote. It’s incumbent upon me to go to DOC and say ‘give me your records, tell me who is going to be eligible to vote…let me reach out to them.’”
She is committed to engagement and education that will make all citizens of Louisiana excited to vote, especially people who were merely given probation by the judge and required to be upstanding citizens. Ms. Free worked in two previous Secretary of State administrations and is the only candidate to fill out the Know Your Vote candidate survey that covers this issue.
At the same forum, Democratic candidate Gwen Collins-Greenup expressed her support for Act 636. She emphasized the importance of voter education, noting that many formerly incarcerated people do not know if they can or cannot vote, once they are released. Collins-Greenup believes that it is the Secretary of State’s responsibility to actively educate all citizens, including illiterate and disabled voters. She also believes it is within the Secretary of State’s duties to work with the Department of Corrections (DOC) and various local organizations to register people to vote under Act 636.
The acting Secretary of State, Republican Kyle Ardoin, testified about the challenges of implementing Act 636 before it was signed into law, when it was still House Bill 265, as he had about variations on the bill during previous legislative sessions. However, now that the restoration of voting rights outlined in Act 636 is mandated, he said it will not be a problem for the Secretary of State to work with the DOC on implementation. There are no indications as to whether he has done any preparation for February or March. If people are going to have voting rights on March 1st, they will need to have a registration system similar to 17-year-olds who turn 18 on Election Day.
Republican candidates Julie Stokes and Rick Edmonds both voted against HB 265, while they were state legislators. Neither candidate has released a statement or opinion about how they plan to implement the new law, if elected. The window to adjust the registration system, train the parish officials, create a better data exchange with the Department of Corrections, outreach eligible voters, and print new materials will close in fast after the election, which certainly will go to a December 8th run-off.
The window to adjust the registration system, train the parish officials, create a better data exchange with the Department of Corrections, outreach eligible voters, and print new materials will close in fast after the election, which certainly will go to a December 8th run-off.
The remaining four candidates, Republicans Heather Cloud, A.G. Crowe, and Thomas J. Kennedy, and Independent Matthew Paul Moreau have also not publicly spoken about their plans to implement Act 636.
In the next few days leading up to the primary election on November 6, and during the time between the primary and the runoff, it is crucial to pay attention to what these candidates are saying about their plans to implement Act 636. It is a very important law that will positively impact thousands of people throughout Louisiana. It is our top priority that we elect a Secretary of State who will ensure that each and every eligible individual is able to easily and quickly regain their voting rights.
Stay tuned for a candidate forum, November 14th, following the primary.
Four members of VOTE’s staff, all working hard to encourage civic engagement of people throughout the community, will continue to be denied the right to vote along with thousands of members and constituents living on probation or parole across the state. The named plaintiffs include college graduates, veterans and faith leaders. The good news, however, is that Act 636, effective March 1st 2019, will solve half the problem, and even the NFL is hailing VOTE’s work to create voting rights and equal opportunities.
One reason the case may have been dismissed is because the legislature changed the laws and, as the Secretary of State wrote in opposition to the writ, Act 636 will end the suspension of voting rights for roughly 40,000 people on probation- unless they commit a probation violation and go to prison. This leaves roughly 30,000 people on parole, barred from voting, as they have been out for less than 5 years.
The Court’s decision is a reminder of the many barriers built and defended to, ironically, keep people from 'doing the right thing.' In a state that struggles to get more than 20% of people to vote, denying participation to so many people contributes to the demise of democracy and legitimacy of elections. For people recovering from a criminal conviction, attempts to assimilate into society can be futile. One might think such hurdles were enacted to prevent crimes, yet most barriers prevent housing, impede education, block employment, and bar voting.
“We weren’t even making a moral argument, which we could have,” says Bruce Reilly, VOTE deputy director, member of the legal team, and himself disenfranchised. “Our case is built on the reality that the voters were played by a bait-and-switch back in 1974. I’m disappointed, but not surprised, that the Court didn’t want to go there. Galileo faced the same problem back in the 16th century, trying to get the court to look into the telescope, to prove the earth rotated around the sun. Instead, they placed him under house arrest.”
This case turned on the interpretation of a phrase, “under order of imprisonment,” where lower courts agreed that the definition (to include people in prison, on parole, and on probation) was correct, despite being crafted several years after the constitution was ratified. Yet the lower courts refused to follow established legal standards to reach their rulings. It is hard to trust the process when the process is ignored. The legal standards call for courts to consider what the voters believed they were voting for, particularly when a word of phrase does not a hold a common everyday plain meaning. Rather than conduct an inquiry, six members of the Louisiana Supreme Court remain silent.
Chief Justice Johnson has been an attorney for 50 years, and a judge for 34 years. While she saw the merits of the case clearly to be on the side of VOTE, it is disappointing that the other justices did not even see the controversy as worthy of consideration. Such a move begs critics to see courts as an extension of political theatre, rather than a place of reasonable minds and rigorous inquiry. The Chief Justice's own research unearthed what may be the origin of the phrase “under order of imprisonment,” which is not a part of the Louisiana criminal code. Back in 1876, when an incarcerated person wanted courts to correct his deficient "order of imprisonment," he filed for “habeas relief” to be released from incarceration. Today, however, an order of imprisonment is equated to the “threat of” imprisonment, which everyone in America actually faces. The path to tyranny is a slippery slope.
Furthermore, even if the denial of a fundamental right were clearly written into law, the legality of it would require a “legitimate state interest” for why this right were being denied, and whether this was the least intrusive way to deny the right. This judicial review serves as a check on legislatures or mob rule run amok, and is one of the basic “checks and balances” under American democracy. In this case, the Court did not even want to weigh the matter- thus relegating “voting rights” to a whimsical privilege. Yet as Chief Justice Johnson writes, “There is no legitimate reason for disenfranchising these citizens.”
Although this chapter of the story concludes, VOTE v. Louisiana will be remembered as a lawsuit that united the brilliance of so many people and organizations, all of which contributed to our overall cultural shift. This historic litigation owes special thanks to Professor Bill Quigley (lead counsel), Advancement Project (appellate counsel team, particularly Denise Lieberman and Jennifer Lai-Peterson), League of Women Voters, American Probation and Parole Association, The Sentencing Project, Professors Andrea Armstrong, Davida Finger, and Lawrence Powell, and NAACP-Legal Defense Fund. Additional thank you to those attorneys who joined the fight before there was even a light at the end of the tunnel: Ron Wilson, Rob McDuff, Anna Lellelid, Vanessa Carroll, Ilona Prieto, Alexis Erkert, Patrick Murphree, and Megan French-Marcelin.
This case would be nothing without the courage of our plaintiffs: Kenneth “Biggy” Johnston, Bruce Reilly, Checo Yancy, Randy Tucker, Bill Vo, Huy Tran, and Ashanti Witherspoon. VOTE v. Louisiana was a model of 'movement-based lawyering' just that, a testament to self-empowerment, and an example of unity between jailhouse lawyers and allies. Regarding future legal filings... join VOTE's email list and stay tuned!
“No Surrender, No Retreat!” - Checo Yancy
In the current world of criminal justice, the story we are told is that there is a person who causes harm, and a person who is harmed. A perpetrator and a victim. An abuser and an abused. And, more often than not, in a given instance, or in a particular situation, that may indeed be true. One person hurts, is triggered, and gets violent. The other receives that pain from the other and carries it with them. Sometimes, the one who harms gets locked in a cell. Sometimes, the one who is harmed does. Oftentimes, neither ever see a day inside prison. And almost never do both the harmer and harmed feel healed.
There is another story. It’s the one we try to tell at VOTE, but, like many of our peers, have trouble with. It’s complicated, and, in many ways, unfinished.
This story also begins with a person who harms and another who is harmed. Together, their story are two links of a long chain of pain. Zoom out, and the chain starts to form: the person who harms was harmed by someone else, earlier. The person who was harmed then goes on to harm someone else, later--a sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious cycle of retaliation. And so it continues. The chain binds us all.
In other words, hurt people hurt people. At VOTE, we know and live this phrase in our bones. We are an organization that includes people who have hurt others and spent years in prison because of it. We are an organization that includes people who have been hurt by others and have spent years in prison in spite of it. We are an organization that includes people who have both hurt people and been hurt by people and have never spent time in prison. We are all of that, and more, oftentimes in the same person.
By existing as we are, we’re complicating the story, whether we like it or not.
By existing in the world, we're complicating the
And why does that matter?
It matters because there are 2.3 million people sitting in prisons across the United States. This reality, known as mass incarceration, was built on the single story, the same one we started with, the one with the perpetrator and the victim. That story freezes time and assigns individuals indefinitely to one of those two roles. Individuals are incarcerated accordingly, and no one gets an opportunity to heal. Much the opposite, the trauma of incarceration adds more hurt to the pain that is already there. Instead of breaking the cycle of “hurt people hurt people,” prison makes it worse.
Since we’re halfway through Domestic Violence Awareness Month, let’s use domestic--or intimate partner--violence (IPV) as a case study.
At present, under the current story, only a small handful of people who cause harm to their intimate partners go to prison. Traditional Batterer Intervention Programs (BIPs), which the court system usually requires abusive partners to attend, focus on punishment rather than histories of trauma, and, in turn, are not effective in getting attendees to stop abusing others.
Meanwhile, at home, the children of incarcerated abusive partners are without a parent, and the abused partners are left to raise those children alone. In these cases, closure, accountability, and true healing are rarely seen. In other words, the ‘solutions’ to DV/IPV are not solutions at all.
Several years ago, our Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice (CSSJ) Coordinator Ariel Jeanjacques called the police, trying to find safety from her abusive partner. When they arrived on the scene, her abuser lied and told them Ariel broke his nose. Even though she had bruises and scrapes on her body, the police didn’t hear anything she was saying. Because of a previous charge on her record that she was still on probation for, they arrested her. Right after she arrived at the local jail, she was turned back around and sent to the hospital--where she should have gone in the first place--for a CT scan. After waiting for 16 hours, she was finally seen by medical professionals, and then ultimately sent back to jail.
Not long after, she was told she could go because someone had bonded her out. She walked outside to find her abuser, who had a stay away order, waiting at his car. She tried to refuse a ride, but he was not having it. He told authorities that they lived together and were both listed on the lease, even though only her and her son's names were. She tried to ask him to leave numerous times, but he would threaten her and tell her he'd only leave if the police made him. He knew, however, that based on previous experiences with the police, she was too afraid to call them and ultimately be arrested again.
Eventually, with the diligent help of friends and various social services, Ariel was able to leave her partner for good. Her story is an example of why that typical narrative of ‘victim-perpetrator' is not only unhelpful, but dangerous as a driver of mass incarceration. She was the ‘victim’, but was treated as the ‘perpetrator.’ She tried to use the justice system as it is allegedly intended--to get help--and wound up being further harmed by that very system. That system enabled, rather than restructured, her partner’s abusive patterns.
Ariel knew why her ex-partner hurt her the way he did. He had been beaten throughout his childhood. He confused love with control. He was never given the tools to learn how to heal himself.
She also never wanted anyone--herself or her partner--to go to jail. All she wanted was for him to stop hurting her, and in that moment when she called the police, that was her last resort.
Ariel, like all of us at VOTE, knows there is another way. As a team of people who have been on every side of violence, we know that creating a world of safety, justice and healing without relying on mass incarceration is extremely challenging work. Oftentimes it feels impossible. Many times, it feels like building the plane as we’re flying it. Once in a while, it works, and that becomes the ground zero for the future.
Making new worlds starts with asking new questions such as “how can we build accountable communities for the purpose of healing and repair without exiling or disposing of those who cause harm?” Next Friday, October 26, at 3pm CST, anti-violence activists Kiyomi Fujikawa, Shannon Perez-Darby, and Mariame Kaba will be hosting an online discussion on this topic. Register here, and let us know if you’re interested in watching it together! If enough people are interested, we can host a viewing at our office and discuss the content afterwards.
Dear Senators Kennedy and Cassidy,
We, a Louisiana grassroots organization, call on you to vocally oppose the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the face of the accusations and documentations of Kavanaugh’s behavior, anyone who supports him to oversee the entire U.S. Constitution (including its application to crime and punishment) severely undermines any credibility in the justice system.
Although VOTE generally calls for second chances, and although we know that people are not the sum of one bad act, Kavanaugh does not fit into our analysis of an overly punitive system. Nor, we know for certain, would any “forgiveness” for Kavanaugh be equally extended as a policy towards all Americans. In other words, you both know that if Brett Kavanaugh were an everyday working class citizen in Louisiana, Dr. Ford’s extremely credible allegations would result in a criminal indictment on (at least) sexual battery. That charge carries a sentence of 25 to 99 years, with a minimum of 25 served without the possibility of parole. If Kavanaugh were convicted, and did live long enough to be released, he would be on electronic monitoring until death.
As U.S. Senators who speak so vocally about holding people accountable, and (particularly you, Senator Kennedy) about lengthy sentences that eliminate second chances, it is especially duplicitous for you to support Mr. Kavanaugh. Not only are you advocating for him to exist outside of prison, but you are actually vouching for him to be on the highest seat in the American justice system. This sends a clear message to all survivors of sexual assault: ‘You don’t matter.’
You may see our advocacy for second chances as a promotion of lawlessness, but that is furthest from the case. We believe in safe and sustainable communities, and we want people who have suffered trauma to receive support. We believe in restorative justice where accountability serves to improve individuals and society as a whole. You are not supporting Dr. Ford, and you are not protecting the residents of Louisiana who have experienced sexual assault. Your commitment to party and ideology over moral standards undermines both your party and your ideology.
Dr. Ford showed America an amazing profile in courage, putting herself and her family in front of a freight train that she anticipated. Her testimony should have made every Senator’s decision simple, as there are so many people more appropriate for the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead, you made it clear that not only do you not believe the allegations, but, even worse given your position, you don’t believe in a process that takes serious allegations seriously.
A vote for Kavanaugh is giving a pass to every person who would sexually abuse others, including abuse that happens to your own friends and family. Both his past and present represent a lack of good judgment and respect for others, yet you would put him in the nation’s most esteemed position.
Your comments thus far are completely disturbing, but there is still time to change your mind and respect the will of the people.
The VOTE Staff
At VOTE, we believe there are alternatives for holding people and groups accountable that don’t involve mass incarceration, which is ineffective at best and lethal at worst. Transformative Justice (TJ) is one such alternative, and we have regular internal and external dialogues about what those worlds could look like. On October 26 at 2pm CST/3pm EST, anti-violence activists Kiyomi Fujikawa, Shannon Perez-Darby, and Mariame Kaba will be hosting an online discussion about TJ and building accountable communities. Register here.
Watch this video of what accountability means, and share your thoughts with us!
Members of the Louisiana Republican Party, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, the Louisiana Family Forum, and the Innocence Project walk into a room. This is not the start of a bad joke, but rather the beginning of a Unanimous Jury Coalition (UJC) meeting. People filter in carrying backpacks and briefcases, some wearing sandals and others full suits. Pre-meeting chatter spans from talk of church to Congress to the candy on the table.
The unexpected group has formed to encourage everyone in Louisiana--regardless of political leaning--to vote YES on Amendment 2 on the November 6 ballot. In today’s America, such unlikely allies uniting across party lines is a rare sight. In fact, a room where formerly incarcerated people are collaborating with former conservative prosecutors is so abnormal as to be worthy of statewide news coverage. Yet it is exactly this type of collaboration that is necessary to make true political change. And it’s happening.
To understand the importance of this motley crew, it’s important to first understand what’s bringing them together: the current existence of non-unanimous juries in Louisiana.
In this state, only 10 out of 12 jurors in all jury cases are required to agree that a person is guilty in order to sentence that person to prison. Louisiana is one of only two states in the nation that do not currently require unanimous juries in criminal cases, and the only state that does not require them in murder cases.
Unanimous juries--which the other 48 states have had for a long time--are meant to ensure that the person on trial is judged by a jury representative of their peers, and that each member of the jury has an equal voice.
This equality on the jury holds the justice system accountable to make sure that all citizens receive a fair trial.
Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury law, dating back to the 1898 constitutional convention, works to silence the voice of opposition in jury cases. Rooted in racism, the law continues to disproportionately impact Black people. Non-unanimous juries have led to wrongful convictions, an over extension of government power, and a reproduction of white supremacy.
But the motley UJC crew is here to correct that. The group is a model of bipartisan grassroots organizing that is moving beyond biases in order to change the broken systems that affect Louisiana communities in profound ways. The UJC is made of people of many different races, class statuses, faiths, and political backgrounds. So, too, are Louisiana voters, so many of whom are affected by the reality of non-unanimous juries, and all of whom hold the power to demand the same basic right to a fair trial for Louisiana residents that 48 states in our nation guarantee for their citizens.
Celebrities are also joining hands with the civil rights activists, politicians, and Louisiana citizens of all kinds who are uniting to vote #yeson2 and encourage others to do the same.
“It's time to come together, reject prejudice in all its forms and build a future in which everyone is valued and supported”-- John Legend
“It's time to come together, reject prejudice in all its forms and build a future in which everyone is valued and supported,” says Grammy award winning singer/songwriter John Legend. “The 1898 constitutional convention was about denying voice to the expression of all of Louisiana's citizens. This ballot question in November is about giving Louisiana her voice back.”
Echoing Legend’s sentiments is VOTE’s own Checo Yancy, who is formerly incarcerated and was sentenced by a 10-2 jury. "The unanimous jury matters because of liberty, freedom, and confidence in the justice system," he says. "The only way to make change is to unite as Louisiana voters."
The UJC, Legend, Yancy and many more are working hard to make sure Louisiana voters know that non-unanimous juries are denying them rights that are guaranteed by the United States Constitution.
That way, come November 6, when question 2 on the ballot reads, verbatim:
“CA NO. 2 (ACT 722 - SB 243 - Unanimous Juries for Noncapital Felonies
Do you support an amendment to require a unanimous jury verdict in all noncapital felony cases for offenses that are committed on or after January 1, 2019? (Amends Article 1, Section 17 (A)) ”, Louisianans of all backgrounds will know what to do.
This movement is stronger when all people come together, learn together, and vote together.
Sarah Gordon is VOTE's new Communications Assistant. She recently moved to New Orleans after graduating from Washington University in St. Louis. Contact Sarah at email@example.com.
On September 6, community members gathered for the first Stop Solitary Confinement Campaign meeting at VOTE’s office in New Orleans. At the meeting, individuals who have experienced solitary confinement shared their stories and discussed strategies for eliminating this dehumanizing practice in Louisiana prisons and jails. One of the goals of the campaign is to educate citizens about human rights violations that persist in prisons. “It’s that mystery that allows these abuses to happen,” says Bruce Reilly, Deputy Director of VOTE. Listen to this WBOK interview to hear more about solitary confinement from Bruce, Albert Woodfox, a community leader and activist who spent more than 40 years in solitary, and Vanessa Spinazola, a lawyer with the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy:
“[Prisons] want to keep people in their individual cells, individual lives, individual struggles…The worst thing that can happen to a prison is all of the folks banded together asking for better conditions, better yet demanding better conditions,” says Bruce Reilly. VOTE is building a coalition of directly impacted people to demand better conditions in prisons and jails, to call out injustice, and to hold those officials who are in charge of our loved ones accountable. Look out for more information in the coming weeks about Stop Solitary Confinement Campaign meetings in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Shreveport, as well as a larger event that will be open to the public in November.
The second bi-annual Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People and Families Movement (FICPFM) conference was a huge success. VOTE traveled with a bus full of 50 members from New Orleans to Orlando early Thursday morning. This year’s FICPFM conference was held in Florida, a state where 1.4 million people convicted of non-violent felonies have lost their right to vote. The gathering was centered around a ballot initiative that could restore voting rights to those people if it passes on November 6. Nearly 1,000 people from across the United States gathered to discuss, learn, organize, and mobilize to end mass incarceration.
Friday morning we came together for an opening plenary, “This is What a Movement Looks Like.” Members of the steering committee welcomed attendees and reflected on the progress that the movement has made since the last FICPFM gathering. Daryl Atkinson, Co-Director of Forward Justice, turned our attention to the reality that, “there was a time when you’d walk in a room and people would say, ‘where are the formerly incarcerated people (FIP), the directly impacted people?’ and no one would raise their hands.” As we looked around the room and saw 1,000 FIP, family members, and allies, it was evident that FIP are now at the forefront of the movement. Daryl emphasized that our hard work is what got us here.
After the opening plenary, there were breakout sessions on various policy priorities and best practices in affecting change. Session topics included banning the box and restoring employment, education and housing rights, law enforcement and prosecutorial accountability, and bail reform. A session discussing re-enfranchisement and civic engagement featured our Deputy Director, Bruce Reilly as the moderator. We then gathered for a lunchtime plenary, “Let’s Get in Formation: Women, Leadership and FICPFM.” After listening to panelists discuss the unique issues of mass incarceration for women, smaller caucuses allowed attendees to have more intimate discussions.
The final session of the day, “Wounded Healers: Naming, Understanding and Resolving Our Trauma” was a panel discussion about the pain those directly impacted by the criminal justice system go through, on various levels. We know this trauma exists, but it is rarely recognized or discussed on a large scale, which made the panel even more powerful. Susan Burton, Founder and Executive Director of A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project explained how this country “incarcerates trauma...women’s response to trauma,” and it throws people away, deeming them disposable. “There are no throw away people,” said Susan. “I was thrown away...the pain we feel, our children feel it too. We need to break this intergenerational cycle of trauma and bring peace back to our communities,” Susan continued. Listening to these panelists, we heard the traumatic effects of incarceration for everyone involved. These effects are prevalent among FIP and are too often overlooked by the mainstream public.
On Saturday, we gathered for the final plenary, “Where are we Headed?” We heard from our Executive Director, Norris Henderson, about the importance of collective action in this movement. We used this moment to talk about the future of FICPFM and our role in ending mass incarceration. Throughout the weekend, the FICPFM steering committee asked a series of polling questions to attendees in order to gauge what people believed are the most pressing issues and results were announced at the final plenary. 47% of people at the conference believe the most important issue to focus on is prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the courts. 28% of people felt re-entry and restoration of rights for people with criminal records is the most crucial. Unfortunately, the movement to end mass incarceration is going to require conquering much more than just one aspect of the system. As Daryl Atkinson explained, conquering mass incarceration is like eating a giant hamburger: “How are we going to eat this giant burger called mass incarceration?” Daryl asked the audience. “One bite at a time...There’s not one thing we need to do,” he continued. “We need to change policies, organize, vote people in...keep biting until the giant burger is gone.”
“How are we going to eat this giant burger called mass incarceration?...One bite at a time...There’s not one thing we need to do, we need to change policies, organize, vote people in...keep biting until the giant burger is gone.”
After the final plenary, we loaded buses and went to the local community center for a community call to love and action. From there, groups of canvassers went into Orlando to knock on doors, and others stayed at the community center to phone and text bank. The goal of the call to action was to urge people to vote yes in November and help Florida restore voting rights to 1.4 million people. During this time, we touched over 83,000 people in three hours.
Our weekend in Orlando was a huge success and an incredible experience. We furthered our education on a range of topics surrounding criminal justice reform and we connected with formerly incarcerated communities from various parts of the country.
During our bus ride back to New Orleans, Checo Yancy, the Director of Voters Organized to Educate (VOTE’s sister organization), asked VOTE members a series of questions about what they learned, what they saw, what they thought went well, and what needs improvement. Checo began by encouraging people to “think about the nightmare we were living in prison when we started this,” and then urged them to realize “the dream we’re now living.” Checo was incarcerated when the Angola Special Civics Project (now VOTE) first began and was a founding member.
Kenneth “Biggy” Johnston, a co-founder of the Special Civics Project, touched on the progress VOTE has made: “From the beginning [of the Angola civic project in 1986], this is where we ended up,” he explained. “At the time we put this together, I didn’t have any out date, but I knew one thing. Biggy with the 'Y' was not gonna die in the penitentiary.”
“At the time we put this together, I didn’t have any out date, but I knew one thing. Biggy with the 'Y' was not gonna die in the penitentiary.”
VOTE member Veralynn Kohlman continued along this transformational path. She expressed that looking around the room this weekend, “I saw the souls of my ancestors...who were brought here through the Atlantic slave ships...with no human rights and no dignity…when they brought them here, they intended for us to stay in chains, but [this weekend] I saw the souls of our ancestors being proud…We’re going to vote, and everybody’s going to vote. It is our human right!”
Our Statewide Organizer, Dolfinette Martin reflected upon the outreach we did over the weekend and the importance of bringing that energy home. “If we want people to help us fight, we have to be willing to go out there with them...when we go back, we have some fighting to do of our own,” said Dolfinette. “We have a lot of people on this bus who had life sentences...and they’re on this bus. They got those life sentences by non-unanimous juries! So we’re gonna go back and we’re gonna change the way things are going!”
Now that we’re back in New Orleans, it’s time to prepare for our upcoming ballot initiative. Amendment 2 would change our state’s constitution and require unanimous jury decisions for all felony convictions. It’s time to spread the word and vote yes on Amendment 2 in November. Anyone who would like to join VOTE for this next step can sign up to volunteer here.
Today, incarcerated people around the country begin a 20-day strike to end inhumane prison conditions and labor. The strike intentionally commences on the 47th anniversary of the death of George Jackson, a Black Panther, who passed while incarcerated in San Quentin. The strikers are circulating a list of 10 demands, including "no human shall be sentenced to death by incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole," and "the voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called 'ex-felons' must be counted."
We at VOTE fully support these demands as well as peaceful direct action tactics such as hunger and labor strikes, and are encouraged to see currently incarcerated people carrying on the legacy of nonviolent protest that many of our staff members organized while they were incarcerated.
This morning, we participated in a solidarity action alongside the People's Assembly and the New Orleans Workers' Group. We supported the resistance against prison abuse and ending modern-day slavery by marching in pairs down the block beginning at Tulane Ave. and Broad St., passing the local jail and the Sheriff’s offices. We chanted “we want liberation, not mass incarceration,” and “put the pigs in the prisons, put the people on the street.” to protest mass incarceration and police corruption.
The full list of formal demands, taken directly from the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, includes:
Follow the strike's unfolding using the hashtags #August21 and #prisonstrike.