Sade Dumas is the Executive Director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC), a diverse, grassroots coalition of individuals and organizations from across New Orleans who have come together to shrink the size of the jail and improve the conditions of confinement for those held in detention in Orleans Parish. VOTE help found OPPRC in 2004, and today the coalition’s members include formerly incarcerated people and their family members, community activists, organizers, lawyers and service providers.
In honor of International Women’s Day, VOTE sat down with Sade and got the story about how she is able to bring formidable leadership to local criminal justice reform work.
VOTE: What are you bringing to the table right now? How you feeling?
Sade Dumas (SD): Today I’m feeling hopeful. Although this city at times seems divided, and there are so many issues to fight, I see so many people activated like they’ve never been before, and all of those fights--all of those issues--are interconnected.
VOTE: And how is your heart?
SD: My heart is overwhelmed but in a good way. There’s so much being done but there is so much more to do. I also feel a lot of gratitude for those working on these fights with us, and for divine timing and alignment, because even when it looks like we’ve lost something--or on the verge of losing something--everything always aligns itself perfectly when people are working together.
VOTE: Can you share how you got started with OPPRC?
SD: My journey with OPPRC started before I knew it even existed. I’m a native New Orleanian from the Lower 9th Ward, which means seeing someone involved in the criminal justice system was normal, a way of life. I know many people like my brother, cousin and ex-husband who have been in OPPRC and suffered from being in there.
When I was younger, however, I thought they ended up there because of genuine mistakes they had made. It wasn’t until I went to Tulane University that I realized it’s not normal--other people don’t go through this. The way the system is set up is not by mistake, but by design. I learned about ALEC and other groups lobbying for the continued oppression of people. Seeing the oppression of people of color, of women, of any and all minorities compelled me to get involved.
After graduating college, I became involved with VOTE, WWAV, and LPEC. I worked on the micro level, running a tutoring program for formerly incarcerated women. Although there was joy in working with directly impacted people, I wasn’t pleased because I felt like I was working on something after the damage was done. Instead, I wanted to focus on preventing people from getting in the cycle and going down the hole.
I had also been working at Tulane’s medical school because I thought I wanted to be a psychologist. Once I realized that all families I was working with were impacted by the criminal justice system, I got really sad about being the one putting on a bandaid, so that also helped me switch to macro level, too.
VOTE: And how did you make that switch?
SD: I started traveling across Louisiana with Robert Goodman, who was VOTE’s Statewide Organizer at the time. We spoke with people about the challenges they face when they are released from prison. I also learned how to encourage local policymakers to divest from funds that build prison infrastructure to programs that truly keep communities safe. When I went to OPPRC’s steering committee meetings as a representative for VOTE, I realized they were doing the same thing--policy reform work that was truly changing the system.
VOTE: Who are your (s)heroes?
SD: There are a lot of women I respect for their contributions, but wouldn’t necessarily call them (s)heroes because I do think it’s important to look to other people for inspiration, advice, mentorship, but we all have to be our own heroes. For too long women, whether told by society or themselves, are made responsible for taking care of themselves and everyone else around them.
VOTE: How does moving away from that false sense of responsibility help movement work?
SD: You can’t save other people, but you can empower them to save themselves. You can give them the tools, but you can’t fight their fight alone, and you shouldn’t expect to. It also changes the people you’re working with from victims to people empowered to do the work. And we don’t need any more victims, we need fighters.
VOTE: Absolutely, we need those directly impacted to lead the fight. How do you make your work accessible to those most affected?
SD: It’s about making it meaningful to each person and working with their capacities. Sometimes that means not coming to a meeting but doing the work of reading an email, passing out a flyer, or talking to someone about different campaigns we have. Informing people in the community is a big part of the movement, whether you’re sitting at the meeting table or not. You have to build the systems and structures so directly impacted people can all be at the table eventually, even if that day is not today, but we can’t stop the movement until then. For example, my sister worked in the sheriff’s office hoping make a change, but only lasted a year because the culture was that bad. Will she come to every OPPRC meeting and share? No, because she’s a single mother and has a lot going on, but she’ll come out to an event. So accessibility has a lot to do with the format of the organization and the way that people can carry and share that info. We’re not asking people to join OPPRC, we’re asking people to join a movement.
VOTE: Yes, that’s why coalitions are so important! What would you say has been your most defining moment as an organizer so far?
SD: I have many defining moments each day, but those that matter the most to me are when other young women of color write me little notes telling me how I’m inspiring them or serving as a mentor to them, because I don’t think of myself that way. Knowing people feel that way is the best thing. The best thing we can do is create more fighters, and that’s been one of the most enjoyable moments thus far.
VOTE: So sweet and inspiring! As a leader who clearly does so much, how do you practice self-care?
SD: I just started yoga. I’ve always been into alternative routes of self-care that are not mainstream, so I enjoy making tinctures, blending oils, and now yoga. It’s been great for me because in doing movement work I often have trouble finding balance, and now I’m literally finding it. I’m constantly reminded that things I’m doing on the mat transcend into other parts of my life, like taking care of myself and my body.
VOTE: That’s so important. Ok, last question, what would a world of total liberation feel like, look like, taste like, smell like and sound like to you?
SD: We are so far from liberation that I can’t fully imagine what that would be like. But to me it’s clean air, clean food, clean water. It’s a life where everyone has equal access, where everyone’s future is determined by their will to do more as opposed to what identity they were born into. It feels like you don’t have to fight harder or compete with others just because you’re expected to be at the bottom of the chain. It feels like confidence because you don’t have to worry about being judged because of real or perceived identities that you carry. Liberation feels like health because the fear of all the burdens that I and many other women of color carry would not exist.
This coming Wednesday, March 13, from 5:30 to 7:30pm, OPPRC is hosting a teach-in about how to help stop the jail expansion in New Orleans. RSVP here. Then, on the 25th, they’ll be hosting a town hall with local elected leaders about. Follow them on Facebook to learn more and get involved!
introducing the 'creative corner': a bi-weekly series of creative content by currently and formerly incarcerated people!: 'my hour' by Jeremy richard
We're excited to announce the launch of Creative Corner, a bi-weekly blog post featuring creative content made by currently or formerly incarcerated people! For our inaugural post, we're sharing a short story written by Jeremy Richard, who is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penitentiary.
It’s a cold winter day, the prisons steel bars icy to the touch. I exhale a foggy cloud of breath with a sigh and slump my shoulders at the thought of spending yet another lost day in this empty cell. The television has become boring, and with it, so have I. The only “getting lost” I’m doing these days is in my thoughts, memories. Hours spent dreaming about freedom. It seems as though I can recall every single day of my past life. My life before prison.
My stomach growls angrily as I count down the minutes until chow (prison slang for breakfast, lunch and dinner.) It makes me feel like a dog, one awaiting its negligent owner to feed it. And I pace, back and forth--a yellow plastic spoon in hand--from one end of my cell to the next. Even though it’s only nine feet to and fro, it’s still sort of soothing, calming.
Though I hate behaving like this, like an animal. It’s becoming something I can’t control as easily as I once did. A result of being caged in a box twenty-three hours a day for the past five years.
I find it simply fascinating that I have walked more miles in this cell than I ever did out of it. They say you never fully appreciate the value of something until that thing is gone. I find this to be true. For me, it’s walking ten feet without hitting a brick wall. You could say, I’m in a tight spot. If it wasn’t for my good humor, I would have lost a few screws long ago.
Breakfast arrives and with it, so does my favorite drink. This is a booze free facility, so I’ve had to substitute my drinking problem. I still have one but now, if I drink too much coffee, at least I won’t be found the next morning sleeping it off on my neighbor’s lawn.
The pancakes are dry and the oatmeal’s soggy but it’s all going to end up in my belly so who cares? I empty six packs of sugar on top of my oatmeal, whip it up, then add six more on top of that. I like my oats super sweet, my coffee bitter. Not using this many packs would be like breaking the law because I’ve been using this exact amount of sugar in my oatmeal for about three years now. I wasn’t like this before prison, but this place has either given me OCD, or gone into my treasure chest of hidden disorders to fish it out.
Now that my breakfast is finished, it’s time to wait on my owner, the correction staff, to bring the chains to take me and any other inmates who wish to go on a walk to the yard. We get a one hour yard three times a week.
Sgt. Loyd approaches my cell with a set of shackles and I greet him with a respectful and positive attitude just like I would were I in his shoes and he in mine.
“Good morning, Mr. Loyd,” I say, unconsciously tilting my hands in an attempt to make his job easier.
“Keep getting smart, boy, and I’m gonna show you a good morning,” he replies with a look I’m glad can’t kill me. Sometimes I think this place screws them up more than it does the inmates.
The lady in the control booth opens my cell door at his command, and I wonder as I trudge down the tier if she laughs at my pacing while watching me via the camera in my cell. I assure myself it doesn’t matter and continue on, down the familiar path that leads the way out of this building. A building that, give or take nineteen, maybe twenty, is home to over eighty other inmates who have been sentences to the grim reality of death, of which I’m not one.
I’m glad that yard-call has started in the front of the tier today. I’m in cell number 1. This means I get dibs on the yard pens, to pick the best basketball and goal. Some of them are in pretty bad shape. It’s sad this has become my life, but yard eighteen’s got the goods, so that’s where I’m headed.
On the outside, I may seem happy and content, but deep inside there is a bulging box of hurt and shame that weighs me down. If you pay close enough attention, you’ll notice the lazy drag of my feet across the concrete walkway and how my head hangs low. Behind my bright, engaging smile, a storm system silently brews. Not one with violent intentions, but one in search of relief. Like a bloated cloud heavy with the need to rain.
After the yard, Sgt. removes my shackles. I let out a joyful burst of barks. This receives a few questioning looks from the staff and my fellow inmates alike. The ones that don’t know me probably think I’m losing it, but those who do, know that this is just me making light of my situation. If you can’t do that, then your time will do you.
My first five shots are nothing-but-net, but there isn’t anyone watching so they don’t count. I miss the next ten before finally making another, and I notice I’ve been talking to myself the entire time. I should be embarrassed but most of the others are doing it too. So I say, the hell with it, and take another jumper. “Swish.” I had a few fans for that one. Let me tell you, a huge ego boost.
And for a moment, the razor wire and concrete is replaced by a wooden floor that’s been polished to a high sheen, with all the makings of a pro-court. There is only one lonely second left on the game clock and coach knows I’ve got the best long distance shot.
“Make me proud, Richard.” With the coach’s plea, my teammates know to get me the ball as soon as possible.
We’re down by two points but there’s not enough time to tie it up. It’s on me to win this thing. I take my position at the half court mark and shake out the tension from my hands. This is going to take my all.
Our team’s center, Jack, a seven-foot giant, shoots a bullet at me and I catch it, fighting back the pain from the sting of ball connecting with hand. I take two steps towards the goal and let it fly. A beautiful arc.
Time slows to a snail’s crawl. The only audible sound in the stadium is the pounding of my racing heart. The slow rotation of the ball in mid-air reminds me of the earth spinning on its axis. And I watch it, falling back...slow, slow, heading for the goal. Almost there, dipping towards the lip of the rim as the clock ticks its last second. Almost...Almost…
“Richard, if you keep blacking out, I’m gonna put you on mental health watch!” The yard sarge yells, loud enough to hurt my ears. He’s standing at the gate, waiting with a set of shackles in his hand.
I blink my eyes and take one last look at the threadbare ball as it gently rolls away.
My hour is up.
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!
In just TWO DAYS, anyone who:
1. is off probation or parole
2. has been on parole for 5 or more years OR
3. is on probation with no new convictions
will be newly eligible to vote under Act 636, which VOTE members helped pass at the legislature last year.
In advance of this historic victory, we're so excited to share our latest video "I'm formerly incarcerated in Louisiana--can I vote?" This hand-drawn video gives an overview of voting rights for Louisiana citizens who are: in jail or prison, on probation or parole, OR are back in their communities after completing their sentences, but still have a criminal record.
Please share this video far and wide, and come out to one of our 3 Formerly Incarcerated People's Voter Registration Events on Friday. RSVP using the links below:
New Orleans: 12-2pm, City Hall, 1300 Perdido St.
Baton Rouge: 12-2pm, City Hall, 222 Saint Louis St.
Lafayette: 11:30am-2pm, 110 Travis St.
At each event we'll have more information about the new law, speakers impacted by the new law, voter registration tables, and food, music and fun for the whole family. Hope to see you there! For any questions, or to get help registering to vote, email us at email@example.com or call us at 504-571-9599.
A day before Black History Month began, formerly incarcerated people and their allies gathered in a room with legislators and lawmakers from New Jersey. They were there to demand their right to vote, which was stolen from them 175 years ago, the same year voting became exclusively a white man's activity.
The group of changemakers is known as #1844NoMore, and their goal is to restore voting rights to the nearly 95,000 people who are either in prison, on parole or on probation throughout the state of New Jersey. At present, almost half of the disenfranchised people in the state are Black, even though Black people make up only 15% of the state's population. This is a clear indicator of the racist history of felony disenfranchisement in America.
But #1844NoMore is ready to right the wrong of this history. During the Jan. 31 meeting, attendees learned more about the three voting rights bills that will make the group's goal a reality: S-2100, S-771, and S-1603. While S-771 is a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough in that it would continue to deny voting rights people in prison. S-1603 is a bill that aims to provide voter registration assistance to people completing parole, probation, and criminal sentences, but does not explicitly re-enfranchise them. Thus, S-2100 is the bill that--in conjunction with the other two--will seal the deal on total restoration of voting rights for formerly incarcerated people.
The people spearheading these efforts are standing on the shoulders of many counterparts across the country. Last year, formerly incarcerated leaders helped regain voting rights for 1.4 million Floridians. We at VOTE helped re-enfranchise 43,000 Louisianans, whose voting rights will be restored in less than three weeks. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order restoring the right to vote to 35,000 people on parole.
The important work of restoring voting rights to people who have served their time in our nation's jails and prisons is happening everywhere, and the U.S. South has played a critical role in paving the way. We stand by our siblings near and far, knowing that by doing so we are honoring the legacies of the civil rights giants who came before us.
If you or someone you know are a member of a social justice organization whose work overlaps with #1844NoMore, sign the letter here and/or share the fact card here.
“We stand on mighty shoulders,” Barbara Major, the founder of Citizens United for Economic Equity said during the opening plenary of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC)’s 12th annual Fit For a King Fair Housing Summit last week. “You don’t do this kind of work by yourself.”
The collective and intersectional nature of the fair housing movement in New Orleans became clear throughout the day, as attendees--including VOTE staff--heard from civil rights legends and local community activists.
“This is what a movement is,” Major continued. “It’s about hearing everyone’s voice at the table.”
GNOFHAC is a organization working to eradicate housing discrimination. Much like VOTE’s, their strategy includes education and outreach, policy work, litigation, and homeowner protection programs. The Fit For a King conference serves as a space to take stock of the movement today while honoring its connection to Dr. King Jr.’s struggle for justice.
To couch this movement in its deep historical roots, the opening panel included three powerful women changemakers: Dodie Smith-Simmons, Barbara Major, and Angela Kinlaw.
We can’t talk about fair housing without talking about the civil rights movement.
Smith-Simmons got her start in the 1950s. She was a member of the NAACP youth council and later part of New Orleans’ CORE chapter. Through CORE, Smith-Simmons joined the Freedom Riders in the ’60s.
“At a lot of rallies we would sing ‘May Be the Last Time,’” she recalled, singing a few lines. “We sang that song because we didn’t know if we were coming back.” Smith-Simmons, at 75 years old, keeps coming back to show up as a role model for younger activists. “I’m still dancing,” she assured the audience.
We can’t talk about fair housing without talking about food justice.
Major began organizing while living in the Desire housing projects. When her mother found her doing her first action--protesting at a grocery store nearby--she forced her to come home. “My mama said to me, ‘you keep taking care of the people.’,” she said. “She understood, she was just scared.”
Since then, Major has been involved in fighting for hunger and food security, health equity and housing issues. She trains new leaders with love and compassion, so that they can pick up the work where she leaves off.
We can’t talk about fair housing without talking about economic revolution.
Kinlaw advocates for issues like relocating Gordon Plaza residents, ending police brutality and removing Confederate monuments, along with the racism they represent. “I see myself as an organizer for the wellbeing of humanity,” Kinlaw explained. That means understanding the interconnection of all forms of injustice, and tackling the underlying systemic oppression instead of putting bandaids on individual issues.
Kinlaw was an educator for many years before becoming a community activist outside school walls. When people tell her she’s too radical, Kinlaw contends that “it takes a creative mind to imagine a world we have not yet seen.” She believes deeply that the fair housing and workers’ rights movements must be aligned.
Even though we had not yet met you, we loved you.
Breakout sessions spanned the topics of eviction, discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in housing, and displacement and climate justice.
We can’t talk about fair housing without talking about climate change.
Colette Pichon Battle of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy led the session on displacement and climate change--a topic close to home for all Louisianans. The Center was founded in 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina, when there was a growing need for disaster relief legal services. Since then, the organization has expanded to address equitable disaster recovery, sustainable economies and energy, water equity, and land labor.
Despite the political games that stifle progress on the issue, it is clear that extractive industries, and extravagant consumption practices, are the root causes of climate change.
“We’re talking about what you consume and what I consume,” Battle explained. “If we don’t have leadership that will change, then the people have to change.”
Battle showed the shocking rate of land loss in Southern Louisiana, a result of both global warming, (i.e. sea levels rising), and extractive oil and gas industries, (which are causing land to sink). Estimates tell us that by 2050, 250 million people will be displaced by climate change--a group that includes all residents of southern Louisiana. “It’s not just land," she said. "This is people. This is culture.”
We can’t talk about fair housing without talking about agapic energy.
The keynote speaker, Diane Nash, brought us full circle to the civil rights leaders who started this work. Nash joined the civil rights movement as a college student in Nashville. Born and raised in Chicago, Nash had not experienced outright segregation until she moved to the South. It shocked her and called her to action. She became the chairperson of the student sit-in movement in Nashville, and later organized the Freedom Ride from Birmingham to Jackson.
Nash explained that her activism grows out of love. “What Ghandi developed,” she pointed out, “was a way to wage war without violence...waging war with an energy produced by love.”
With Ghandi’s influence in mind, Nash coined the term ‘agapic energy’. It comes from the Greek word ‘agape’, meaning love for humankind. Agapic energy is energy produced by the love of humankind.
The basic principles of agapic energy are that people are never the enemy--ideas, systems, and attitudes are--and that oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed. She argued that as soon as oppressed people withdraw their support from the oppressive system, it falls apart. This process happens in six steps: investigation of the system that needs to change, education of constituents, negotiation with the opponent (always with love and respect), demonstration, resistance, and, finally, resolution, to ensure the oppression doesn’t repeat itself in a different form.
Nash spoke with a quiet, confident conviction. “I want you to know that my contemporaries had you in mind when we acted,” she said. “Even though we had not yet met you, we loved you. We wanted to build a better world for you to be born into, and younger generations will look to you to do the same.”
We can’t talk about fair housing without taking action.
The summit ended with a call to action. It is not enough to honor Dr. King Jr.’s legacy, we must do the work.
To participate in this movement, you can join Jane’s Place courtwatch program to ensure evicted tenants get their security deposits back. You can sign up for GNOFHAC’s email list to stay informed on policy initiatives. You can support the Smart Housing Mix by calling your city council member. You can become a member of VOTE’s fair housing coalition.
“Citizens must take the future of this country into their own hands,” Nash concluded. “We need to realize that there is no one to solve the problems but you and me.”
The Loyola Journal of Public Interest Law recently published "To Purify the Ballot": the Racial History of Felon Disenfranchisement in Louisiana by VOTE's own Deputy Director Bruce Reilly. Reilly started writing this article in 2011 as a VOTE member who was new to New Orleans and in his first year at Tulane Law School. During orientation week, he realized that because he was a formerly incarcerated person, he had lost his voting rights. He worked on the paper for nearly three years and, in 2015, VOTE used an expanded version of it to get our all-volunteer legal team on the same page. Thanks to last year's passage of Act 636, Reilly and thousands of other Louisiana citizens on probation or parole will get their voting rights back. We are so proud of our staff and all of their amazing accomplishments!
Click the link above for the full publication text.
As we ring in 2019, we're ready to have our most successful year yet. To do this, though, we first need to look back at how far we've come. Our office was recently graced with Naomi Farve (center), an integral player in VOTE's early roots. In the fall of 1987, our Executive Director Norris Henderson (right) and Voters Organized to Educate Director Checo Yancy (left) were incarcerated at Angola. They were both serving life sentences, which made them eligible to attend the Lifers Banquet, an annual event where people with life sentences could shares their wants, needs and visions with folks on the outside.
That night, as Henderson was giving a presentation about penal reforms that he and other members of the Angola Special Civics Project compiled, he was interrupted by a woman in the audience: Farve. She took the mic from him and vowed to use her position as the newly-elected Representative for House District 101 to carry their demands for reform forth. From there, she introduced House Bill 1709, which made everyone eligible for parole. Though the legislation didn't pass that year, she reintroduced a version of it every year until, in 1990, it passed and became Act 790. Sadly, by then the bill had been modified to make everyone but lifers eligible for parole. On the other hand, the passage of this Act became the foundation that later allowed Henderson, Yancy and other early members of the ASCP--which later became VOTE--to overturn their life sentence convictions and go home free.
We owe an immense amount of gratitude, respect and humility to Farve and other champions like her. Theirs are the shoulders we stand on as we plan for major wins in the years, decades and centuries ahead.
We thank you, too, for being part of this movement. If you'd like to help us start the year off strong, please make a new year donation to our work.
“How is your heart today?” George asked me gently, looking into my eyes with an eager openness that I imagine comes only from having a lot of practice asking people that question. I definitely didn’t extend equivalent grace when, a few minutes prior, I awkwardly asked him the very same thing, my eyes darting between his own and the white wall behind him. “My heart is full of joy and gratitude,” he had replied.
George is a middle-aged Black man who has been incarcerated for the past 12 years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary--better known as Angola--the largest maximum security prison in the United States. He spends much of his time mentoring younger men, playing piano in a band, and preaching at his church--all of which are inside the prison walls. “This day is going to be a little weird, a little different,” he warned me playfully when I sat down at Table #5.
Indeed, a prison cafeteria full of incarcerated men and visitors from outside meditating and discussing compassion together was a little different.
In my mind, prisons have always been dark, ugly, claustrophobic places, filled to the brim with injustice. When I got to Angola, I saw parts of that truth up close. Injustice is evident in the remnants of the Angola Rodeo arena on prison grounds. It’s evident in the rows of homes inside the prison gates known as “the City of Angola.” These homes, complete with basketball nets and ‘children playing’ signs, house the prison’s staff and ooze nostalgia for small-town America in the eeriest of ways. Of course, the most striking evidence of injustice are the acres upon acres of crop fields that surround the prison buildings. As Angola is a former plantation, these fields are the site of both age-old and modern-day slavery.
What I could not have imagined, though, until I found myself at Table #5 across from George, is the light that this group of men radiate in the face of blatantly racist and discriminatory realities.
Laura Naughton is the brains behind the Day of Compassion event. She runs an 8-week Compassion Cultivation Training course at the prison. Its goal is “to build a culture of compassion at Angola through mindfulness and the daily practice of compassion. By recognizing common humanity, free and incarcerated people will cultivate and nurture the value of self, others, and togetherness.”
Throughout the day, men who had been through the course taught us visiting folks about compassion and its necessary place in justice work. From this, I learned that if suffering isn’t present, compassion will not arise. I also learned that compassion is activated in four stages. First, we must notice suffering. After that, we must care and then wish for that suffering to be relieved. Finally, we must be willing to act to relieve that suffering. The action is the key, and that compassionate action is boundless. The more it is given, the more it is created. Compassion begets compassion.
In this political age, there is undoubtedly plenty of suffering to go around. Newspaper headlines overflow with corruption and cruelty. Our planet is burning, flooding, sinking. Our people are beaten, stolen, shot. Our political and social systems appear to be broken at every seam. We all see suffering. Many of us who are engaged in movements for social justice care deeply and wish for this suffering to be relieved. And luckily, we have ample opportunity to act.
Towards the end of the day, one incarcerated man took the mic and explained that “compassionate justice is to understand the person who is sitting across from you.”
Maybe that is a good place to start.
Sarah Gordon is VOTE's newest staff member. She is serving a one-year fellowship through Avodah, a Jewish service-based organization.
Today marks 5 days until the end of our first-ever grassroots fundraising campaign. It is sunny and clear in New Orleans today--the opposite of the storm we've been in the last year.
When I say 'we', I mean you. I mean me. I mean anyone who's ever put on that blue VOTE t-shirt, jumped on a 5am bus to Baton Rouge, stormed the Capitol and let them know whose house it really is.
But I also mean the people who have no choice but to wear worn-out grays because they're locked behind bars.
Those are the people we fight for. They're the reason I get up every day at 5am--or earlier. On so many days, I don't want to be up that early, but I do it for them.
As someone who was once voiceless and now runs an organization named Voice of the Experienced, I have a commitment to uphold, a commitment to being a voice of the voiceless. I can't speak alone, though. I need your voice, too.
Will you donate just $20 to our campaign today? We have to raise $30,000 by Friday, and are 20% of the way there.
I often tell my friends, staff and allies that we don't want to be a group to be recognized, we want to be the group to be reckoned with. Every day we become that group more and more, and if we make our goal by the time this campaign ends, that will be truer than ever before.
Please help however you can. Donate now.
Founder and Executive Director,
Voice of the Experienced (VOTE)
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.
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