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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
by Lizzie Shackney
“We’re in the same boat,” says Checo Yancy, a formerly incarcerated person and the Director of Voters Organized to Educate, the sister organization of VOTE. “If I put a hole in the boat, we’re all gonna sink. Doesn’t matter if you’re white [or] Black.”
This is the philosophy he shared with other prison activists like himself who were organizing inside of Angola State Penitentiary back in the 80s and 90s as the Angola Special Civics Project. “You got a life sentence, I got a life sentence, but we’re gonna work together.”
Today, the small group of prison organizers that Yancy, VOTE’s Executive Director Norris Henderson, and a few others founded has evolved into formal networks of thousands of directly impacted people who are leading the conversation on what must be done to end mass incarceration.
From September 13 through 15, this network will meet in Orlando, FL for the bi-annual Formerly Incarcerated Convicted People’s and Families Movement (FICPFM) gathering. Directly impacted families and communities will strategize democratically around dismantling a system of control predicated on racism and oppression and restoring their own human and civil rights. Together they’ll take on issues such as prosecutor accountability, voting rights restoration, bail reform, and Ban the Box initiatives.
I know of this gathering as someone who is not directly impacted by the criminal justice system, as someone who is an ally. This means I know that people with backgrounds like mine sometimes have a negative perception of currently and formerly incarcerated people, and therefore they discount or ignore their voices. It means that systems of oppression--from slavery, to segregation, to mass incarceration--are often upheld by people with privilege, who use these systems to dehumanize poor people and people of color. It means that directly impacted activists must work harder than I have to in order to be taken seriously, yet it also means that allies can help to boost the legitimacy of their demands and their access to different networks of people.
Our relationships and our places within movements are dynamic and shifting depending on our identities, experiences, and the needs of the organizers.
This may sound easy, but it can actually be hard, because there aren’t static answers as to “how.” Our relationships and our places within movements are dynamic and shifting depending on our identities, experiences, and the needs of the organizers.
One way to achieve an effective ally-leader partnership is through the maintenance of accountable relationships. As allies, we do this by continually listening and asking questions, both to ourselves and others. We may ask ourselves, what is my role in this work? How can I be as effective as possible? What brought me to this work in the first place, and what compels me to stay here?
We may ask our leaders what they need, and then follow through with what is asked for. We may provide input only when it is requested, all the while checking ourselves and accepting feedback when it is given. Sometimes we aren’t needed at all, and the time and energy it would take to correct us and train us to do things right detracts from directly impacted leaders being able to address the problems at hand.
I listen first, because that’s where accountable relationships begin.
Whether I am in a role as a writer, a teacher, a student government leader, a service provider, or an intern at VOTE, I listen first, because that’s where accountable relationships begin. I learn where to begin, take action, accept feedback, adjust my course, and then repeat. I have made mistakes. I have discounted the views of someone who has described their oppression, because if I were to accept what they were saying as true, it would mean that I was complicit. I have apologized and made amends. I continue to work at moving beyond the fear of making mistakes, because I know that would hold me back and keep me from knowing those directly impacted as capable of understanding and forgiveness. In other words, learning and growth are essential components of accountable relationships, too.
The last thing those of us in positions of privilege who care deeply about social and criminal justice issues want is to replicate the dynamics of disempowerment and silencing that constitute systems of oppression. We want to remain accountable to the impacted people we know personally, and we want to contribute what we can to building a more equitable world. So, it’s our responsibility to unpack our involvement regularly and evaluate whether we’re contributing in ethical and productive ways.
As Yancy said, we’re in the same boat. Our lives and our fates are intertwined, and the only way forward is to build accountable relationships, together.
Lizzie Shackney was a summer Communications intern with VOTE. She is now working on Beto O'Rourke's campaign in Texas. Contact her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @e_shackney.
Kiana Calloway waited as guards shouted numbers at him for nearly 90 days in Jefferson Parish Correctional Center before he learned of his charges. He was only 16 years old, and he had recently discovered his passion for basketball and football. Not long after he started getting into his athletic groove, he found himself in a jail cell.
After three months of sitting in jail, confused and afraid, he visited court for the first time. A magistrate judge explained that he had been arrested on two counts of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and feticide. Calloway, innocent of these accusations, found himself even more distressed. Despite his innocence, Calloway was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder at age 17. He received two life sentences to be served consecutively. Four years later, his case was retried, this time on two counts of second-degree murder. In the retrial, he was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 34 years in prison.
“Okay, I’ll be home soon,” Calloway said to himself when he woke up every morning at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. In 2011, he was finally released on parole.
Calloway was asked to place his faith in a 'fair' system and then witnessed a jury made up of people who do not fit a reasonable definition of 'peers' deliver an uncertain verdict that ripped him away from his family and community.
A series of injustices facilitated Kiana’s wrongful conviction, but a very prominent one is the non-unanimous jury verdict that decided his fate. In each trial, Calloway’s juries were made up of eleven white jurors and one Black juror—a common makeup for juries nationwide. In each trial, the verdicts that sent him to prison were non-unanimous, meaning that all jurors had not come to an agreement about the verdict of “guilty.”
The jury deciding on the first-degree murder charges reached an 11 to 1 verdict. One juror did not believe that he was guilty. The jury in the second trial reached a 10 to 2 verdict. Two jurors were not convinced that Calloway had committed the crime with which he was charged.
Because Louisiana is the only state where people accused of murder can be convicted on a non-unanimous jury, it didn’t matter that one, and then two, jurors had disagreed with the others. In this state, around 40 percent of people are convicted on a non-unanimous jury, and a 10 to 2 or 11 to 1 verdict always means that a defendant is found guilty.
At the time of his conviction, Calloway was just a kid. He didn’t know what to expect, and he didn’t know what his rights were. He trusted his lawyer to serve as his advocate. He believed that the process would be fair, and a fair outcome meant exoneration. It was jarring, years later, to comprehend the extent to which the law did not protect him. He was asked to place his faith in a “fair” system and then witnessed a jury made up of people who do not fit a reasonable definition of “peers” deliver an uncertain verdict that ripped him away from his family and community.
We, the people of the United States, have proclaimed that we are dedicated to “liberty and justice for all.” The discriminatory results of non-unanimous jury decisions, which disproportionately affect people of color, do not establish liberty and justice for all.
We, the people of the United States, have proclaimed that we are dedicated to “liberty and justice for all.” The discriminatory results of non-unanimous jury decisions, which disproportionately affect people of color, do not establish liberty and justice for all. If we intend to uphold values of liberty and justice, it is our duty as citizens to right the wrong of the Louisiana State Constitution and do away with the non-unanimous jury law.
Now that he is home, Kiana, VOTE’s Housing Justice Campaign Organizer, is driven to fight discrimination and elevate the oppressed. “[Mass incarceration] is another form of slavery,” he says. “The system definitely needs to be reformed, restructured. It needs to work for everybody, all people…Everybody needs to get out to the polls and [change the non-unanimous jury law].”
[Mass incarceration] is another form of slavery. The system definitely needs to be reformed, restructured. It needs to work for everybody, all people.
Imagine that it’s November 6, 2018. It’s Election Day. Maybe you haven’t voted since 2016, or maybe you have never voted before in your life. Maybe you don’t read the news. Maybe you don’t believe that a vote during midterm elections matters. Maybe you attended every community meeting in your neighborhood, you design posters and show up to every political rally in Louisiana, and you do extensive research on every candidate on the ballot.
Regardless of what you’ve done up to now, you’re on a mission today, because you have the opportunity to reduce the number of people in Louisiana who will go to prison. You’re on your way to work, or to drop your kid off at daycare, or home from a long shift, and you make a stop at your polling place. A poll worker greets you, smiles, and checks you in. You glance at the woman to your left as she digs through her purse to pull out her identification card, and you are reminded that she is a part of your community, even though you don’t know her name.
They hand you a ballot and you make your way to a private corner to fill it out. You’re partaking in one of the few responsibilities assigned to you as a citizen, just like being a juror on a jury. You fill in the bubbles of the candidates you’ve selected, and then you arrive at the Unanimous Juries ballot measure. You vote “Yes.” You mean, “Yes, this racist law has been on the books for far too long, and I have the power to change it.” You mean, “Yes, I care about creating a more just Louisiana.” The process isn’t loud or flashy, and you won’t know the results right away. But once you’re done, the poll worker hands you a sticker that says “I voted,” and you wear it with pride for the rest of the day.
Lizzie Shackney is an intern at VOTE this summer. She spent the last year as an AmeriCorps member in Alabama and will soon move to Texas to work on Beto O'Rourke's Senate campaign.
Though we're sad to see Curtis go, we're proud of him and excited for the opportunities he'll have at his new job with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Read more in the interview below.
Curtis Davis: After working with VOTE for the past two years, I have now taken a job at the Southern Poverty Law Center. I am a certified paralegal, so I have decided to put my talents to work by helping to prepare lawsuits for the firm.
VOTE: What is your new position? What responsibilities will you have?
CD: My title is Outreach Paralegal, Criminal Justice Reform. I’m working with the team that does a lot of policy work for organizations like VOTE who are involved in criminal justice reform advocacy. I am specifically responsible for investigating cases, interviewing witnesses, along with researching and coordinating with grassroots organizations.
VOTE: What are you looking forward to?
CD: I am specifically looking forward to the passing of the referendum on unanimous juries in Louisiana coming up on November 6th.
VOTE: What have you learned through your work at VOTE? How will that help you in your next job?
CD: Working as the Chapter Leader of VOTE Shreveport, I was able to learn about changing policies, and I gained experience that I could have not received anywhere else. I am forever grateful to Norris Henderson for giving me the opportunity to demonstrate my value and learn on the job.
VOTE: How will your work with SPLC impact the criminal justice system?
CD: SPLC has done tremendous work over the past several years, especially in regard to penal reform. However, I believe the best is yet to come!
By Checo Yancy and Will Harrell, J.D., LL.M.
The 2018 session was complicated and hectic. VOTE made truly historic gains by passing laws that positively impact formerly and currently incarcerated folks. We battled a very powerful law enforcement community that was able to block some best practice reforms that would have reduced prison and jail populations.
VOTE was at the capitol every day actively supporting 51 and opposing 36 of the nearly 120 criminal justice bills. We were also there to push for and fight against amendments to bills. This summary focuses on the critical pieces of legislation and takeaways from the session, as well as future opportunities to work together.
Key 2018 Legislative Developments
Unanimous Jury: On November 6, 2018 voters will go to the polls to amend the Louisiana Constitution to require unanimous jury decisions in felony cases. The previous law allowed for a 10-2 verdict to convict. This amendment will be a game changer for folks being prosecuted. Please get your family and friends registered to vote so that we can change the LA Constitution!
Right to Vote: LA Act 636 gives the right to vote back to people who have been on parole or probation for 5 years. If, however, in that 5-year window a person’s parole or probation is revoked and they are incarcerated, the 5 year clock will start all over again upon release. The law goes into effect on March 1, 2019. We need your help getting the word out!
Post-Adjudication Veterans Court Mentorship Program: The Veterans Association of Angola drafted a first-of-its-kind bill for VOTE to take to the legislature. It creates the veterans’ mentorship program. Veterans convicted and sentenced to 20 years or more may serve as mentors in the Veterans Court programs once they have served 10 years on their sentence and meet other requirements. If they mentor for 5 years, they will receive a favorable clemency recommendation and become eligible for parole.
We must build a statewide movement to amend the LA Constitution and demand that conviction of any felony only be decided by a unanimous jury of 12 peers.
Prosecutorial Accountability and Transparency: VOTE sought to create a statewide Commission on Prosecutorial Accountability to provide real oversight and accountability for prosecutorial misconduct though many detailed reporting measures. Because nearly every District Attorney in the state travelled to the Capitol to oppose the bills, we were only able to pass a House resolution to study the need for prosecutorial oversight.
2017 Justice Reinvestment Package: VOTE and the Louisianans for Prison Alternatives coalition (LPA) unsuccessfully tried to expand the impact of the historic 2017 criminal justice reform laws. We had to spend a significant amount of time preventing “roll backs” to the sentencing reform laws. We fought hard and stood firm to prevent much of that from happening. Judges and prosecutors were successful in changing the law that capped probation at 3 years to give judges the ability to add 2 more years to an individual’s probationary period.
Due Process Protection: Our friends at the Innocence Project were able to pass what is being hailed as a model eyewitness identification reform.
Juvenile Justice: Two significant juvenile justice bills passed. Together they expand the number of charges for which a juvenile can request a sentence modification, give broader discretion to judges to sentence juveniles prosecuted as adults and shorten lengths of stay in detention.
Medical Furlough: We eliminated the prohibition against medical furlough to people with convictions for second degree murder but lost the fight on prohibiting a medical furlough for anyone convicted of first degree murder.
We need people committed to working for common goals inside and outside.
NO SURRENDER, NO RETREAT!