On June 19, Fox Rich (left), a formerly incarcerated woman turned freedom fighter, delivered some real talk to a large crowd that had gathered to celebrate Juneteenth, the day commemorating the emancipation of slaves in the former Confederate States of America. “We’re free, and we’re still not free,” she said, alluding to the 6.6 million people who are currently being controlled under slavery’s modern sibling: mass incarceration. Her words are spot on, as anyone who is fighting for the end of the criminal (in)justice system can tell you that it is a world full of contradictions. While we may be free of physical shackles, we are not always free in our minds. While we may have been released from prison gates, there are so many others who are still behind bars. If we believe that our liberation is intertwined, that we cannot be free until the other is, then it is true that we are both free and unfree at the same time. Luckily, our network is full of leaders who have been directly impacted by mass incarceration and are fired up and ready to go. Though the list of freedom fighters in our movement is long, for this Independence Day we’re focusing on the leadership and visions of Fox (FR) of Rich Family Ministries, Mike Biggs (MB), who is the new National Organizer of the Formerly Incarcerated Convicted Peoples and Families’ Movement, and our Lafayette Chapter Organizer Consuela Gaines (CG).
VOTE: How are you feeling today?
CG: Great, because I’m living my purpose, and not very many people can say that honestly. For many years I used to pray, asking what I was born for, and then my purpose was born out of my pain, my struggle, my incarceration, my separation from my family and society.
I actually knew my purpose was to help other formerly incarcerated people (FIP) before I even got out, I just didn’t know how I was going to do it. A few months later I met VOTE’s New Orleans Chapter Organizer Robert Goodman, and from that point on I’ve been living my purpose every day. I am so excited for the voter registration tour we’re doing with Black Voters Matter, because I know how much power is in our vote.
VOTE: Our votes, our voices! Who is one person on your heart right now?
MB: My late grandmother, Mattie Hankins. She always believed in me and kept me out of trouble. It was always positive growing up with her.
CG: Gloria Dean “Mama Glo” Williams, Louisiana’s longest-serving incarcerated woman. When I went to prison, Mama Glo was the first person to take me under her wing. She was a mentor, a mother, a role model to me. Anytime I had issues or problems, I would go to her. She always pretty much kept her door open. Sometimes she could just look at my face and knew that something was wrong. She would say, “Come on and talk to me, what’s going on.” If she needed to chew me out for some crazy thoughts or wanting to quit, she would do that, too. She has a really raspy type of voice, almost like she’s whispering [laughs]. She was always so encouraging--always motivating me and applauding me when I accomplished things. Always letting me know how proud she was of me.
Since I’ve been home, I’ve taken her with me daily because she was there with me for 22 years. Fox and I have been working hard on #FreeMamaGlo, a campaign for her release. Her hearing date is coming up on July 22 [download, print and mail your #FreeMamaGlo postcard TODAY]. I’ve always wanted to be able to say that I helped bring her home, that’s major for me.
FR: I have my fall partner on my mind, my nephew Ontario. I got a JPay [prison system email] from him yesterday that said “hearing from you makes me feel content and full of hope.” I had sent him a Father’s Day card because he’s a father of 3.
VOTE: What would the opposite of a fall partner be to you, Fox?
FR: Well, when you fall into the system, your fall partner is the person with you. They fell along with you when you hit the tragic landing at the bottom. The opposite is my movement family. We fell together, we rise together--from fall partners to movement family. Everything I do [in this work] is with my husband, Rob, too. We’re a team. We work together because it’s about showing the world that we can fight the system as a family.
VOTE: Yes, that’s why we say FIP and their families in our mission. What’s a recent moment that brought you joy?
MB: I was recently in Dothan, Alabama with Kenny Glasgow’s organization, TOPS, The Ordinary People’s Society. They have a summer youth program geared towards kids with ADHD called ‘ADHD Ain’t Me’. My youngest, who is 10 now, was diagnosed with ADHD at three. We’ve had to do different things we’ve had to do over the years like therapies, etc. It was moving to see that TOPS is invested in the kids and working with them at such a young age. Beyond that, I’m loving working FIP and their families.
VOTE: We love it too, clearly! What does the word freedom mean to you?
CG: It means being able to wake up every day and make your own decisions. For 22 years I had to wake up and play by somebody else’s rules--what time to wake up, what to wear, what to eat, what time to go to work, what time to get off work--everything was so controlled. So to me, freedom is having the ability to make your decisions and not have somebody else controlling every decision that you make.
MB: Freedom to me is one’s ability to live in a way that enables them to both feel safe in their environment while freely moving around and exercising their rights and desires. It’s about not being worried about persecution.
FR: Freedom is being able to live one’s life unrestricted. It’s being at liberty, which is a whole other level of freedom. Like my husband, he is physically free outside of prisons, but because he is on parole for the next 40 years, he’s not at liberty to travel around as he wants to. He has to call his PO [parole officer], get paperwork, etc. just to travel. Also, if you don’t have any money, you are financially restricted from liberty.
VOTE: A lack of freedom is one of the worst experiences in the world. How do you handle feeling disheartened?
MB: Music primarily, especially old school rhythm and soul, r&b, and motown. It keeps me grounded, focused and productive. And eating. Southern soul food, seafood, and creole/cajun foods, especially. Gumbo is one of the favorites anywhere I go.
CG: My dad would tell me “never let them see you sweat,” which means don't let them see your weakness, don’t let them know you’re down. So if I get to that point, I just pull on that inner strength and hear my dad. I also think about where I’ve been. I think about people who would love to be in my shoes, because I remember being one of those people, wishing I could walk around in the so-called “free world” where nothing is free. That reminds me how blessed I am. I’ve been able to accomplish so much in the past 2.5 years.
FR: I never get low, honestly. I may get mad, and want to fight the system even more, but not low. I have a freakish addiction to dismantling this mass system of incarceration and nothing about the work could get me down. Frustrated, maybe, but never low. I am honored to do my part in abolishing slavery in America.
VOTE: YES! And you’re so good at it. Speaking of, what qualities do you think make a good leader?
FR: Love. I’m a fanatic of it. I’ve tried it, it works. God is Love, Love is God, and if we just follow Love, we’re doing it right. As long as our intentions are of Love, it’ll lead us the right way. Love is the pinnacle. It’s the most divine chemical in the universe, and it dissolves everything that is not itself. Love is what allowed us to maintain our family for 21 years while my husband was in prison and never lose hope that he was coming home even on a life sentence. Sew love into the hearts of those that are working in service with you.
MB: Being a good listener is tantamount. You have to have empathy for people. Some of the most effective leaders are most of the time adored by the people that they’re leading. Obviously you can lead through fear, too, but in order to be effective you have to be a good listener. You also have to be willing to take risks--to be a good strategist and thinker.
CG: A leader is someone who doesn’t mind switching and following. To me that is probably one of the best qualities a leader can have, one who doesn’t feel the need or desire to always be out front. Someone who doesn’t mind passing the baton and saying here, your turn, you can do it. One who stays humble at all times. That’s why Norris Henderson is the epitome of a good leader.
VOTE: It’s true, we’re so lucky he’s our leader! So, for yourself as a leader, what’s your greatest dream?
MB: That my kids, and maybe grandkids, encounter a world that is much freer, much more fair, much more justice-oriented and -driven than the one that my grandparents, my parents, and I am in right now. All the money and material things are great, but if you can’t live in a society that values you and treats you as equal to everyone else, it’s just a matter of time before all that goes away.
FR: I want a nobel peace prize for changing the criminal justice system. I need someone to write Switzerland and tell them what I’ve done. If I can do this work in the worst place of incarceration in the world, that’s a pretty great job.
CG: Since I was incarcerated I’ve had a big dream, and I know one day it’ll be a reality. That dream is to open up a transitional house for women here in Lafayette because there are so few that are up and running and can actually accommodate the women. They really just have nowhere to go coming out of prison. That’s a sure way to end up back in prison. If I came home and didn’t have the family and support that I had, I don’t know where I would be at this point. There’s nowhere for these women to lay her head other than the shelter. That’s something that I want to help correct in this city, and I will do it. In fact, more than likely operating under that same roof will be my re-entry center. All these different organizations providing different services are spread out all over the city. I want to have a one-stop shop for someone coming home from prison. Right now they have to run all over the city to all these different organizations providing different services. They don’t even have transportation, and sometimes they don’t even know where to go.
VOTE: That sounds amazing, and so important. We can’t wait to see it happen. So when these dreams come true, when there’s freedom and justice for all, what are you seeing, feeling, smelling, hearing and tasting?
CG: I see the world in its natural state. Trees, mountains. There are no buildings--just us and nature. I smell magnolias, the dust from the Earth, that fresh smell when it’s just starting to rain. It’s hot, but there’s a breeze. No truck, car, or siren noises, just birds chirping. It’s peaceful, really peaceful.
MB: I see a lot of green spaces. Trees and grass by the water. Bright sunlight and the wind. I smell the flowers, and everything is unpolluted, unfettered. I’m drinking cold lemonade, watching people enjoying themselves and their surroundings. There’s laughter, splashing, running. I feel happy. Fulfilled. Excited.
FR: There’s fresh air coming off the ocean. There’s an abundance of healthy foods. Fresh breads and fruits and desserts. The flaky layers of my mother’s pound cake that melt in your mouth and make you ask for a second piece. And in my world there’d be no calories, so I can have two slices [laughs]. I hear music that edifies love, that edifies peace, that glorifies prosperity. The sounds of the drums resonating within the hearts of the human souls. I feel frisky. I feel a cleanliness about society, a well-cared for society that takes care of the place it calls home, whether that be by recycling, or clean water, or adequate vegetation that minimizes pollution. Children are well cared for, whole and complete and loved. Intelligentsia abounds. People are thinking about their highest selves and best lives, and they are in pursuit of them. And they fully understand in that pursuit that they are their sisters’ and brothers’ keeper.
VOTE is premised on that very idea--that we are each other's keepers. When we started from within prison walls in the late 1980s, our goal was to advocate for our collective freedom. Today, almost 40 years later, that hasn’t changed. Between July 18 and August 26, five women in our network who are currently incarcerated have pardon or parole hearings. In other words, they have a chance to walk free, and we want to help make that happen. Please download, print, and mail these postcards urging the Louisiana Parole Board to release these women, all of who have left behind family as they’ve sat behind bars for more than 20 years. Can’t print them on your own? Come to our next New Orleans monthly meeting on July 10 from 6-8pm at 2022 St. Bernard Ave. We will have pre-stamped cards for you to sign. Spread the word!