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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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!
Mr. Morrison, a 67-year-old Black man, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison at age 17. After serving 40 years, he is eligible for parole.
Five other VOTE interns and I learn this as we sit in a small room in a Baton Rouge courthouse. There are four rows of chairs on either side of the room, and a monitor hanging on the wall in the middle of them. On the other side of the monitor sits Mr. Morrison, who’s in another small room at Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola. The Warden and another woman sit to his left, and a few people sit behind him. The quality of the monitor isn’t perfect, so I can’t quite see Morrison’s facial expression, but I imagine it is solemn.
Though there are five people sitting in front of us, only two are allowed to speak. One man, Morrison’s mentee from Angola, gives a heartfelt and compelling speech about his friend. He emphasizes how influential Morrison was in helping him to get to the successful place he is now—working as a law clerk with a law degree. There’s a job waiting for Morrison at the firm if he gets out.
“I don’t have room for error in my life anymore,” says Morrison, echoing the sentiments of his mentee.
Ultimately, though, he is denied parole because of a homemade weapon that was found in his cell last February. He claims it wasn’t his, but that doesn’t matter to the parole board, only one of whom votes in favor of his release. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, one of the other interns takes my hand. We all look at each other with rage and sadness.
Don’t cry right now, I tell myself.
Later, one of the other interns told me that she felt it wasn’t her place to cry, naming my own feelings in that moment. So I don’t allow myself to cry, despite listening to a Southern white man tell a 67-year-old Black man that he wishes him luck as he denies him his freedom.
Why is the solution for a teenager who commits a crime to lock them up for their entire life? I ask myself as I watch Mr. Brent, another Black man in his 60s, enter the room on the monitor.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath, one of the other interns takes my hand. We all look at each other with rage and sadness.
Like Morrison, Brent has also served a little over 40 years in prison. Unlike Morrison, however, Brent has family members sitting in the same room as us or with him at Angola. They are all wearing shirts with Brent’s face on it. There is a tonal shift as one of the board members, the same older white Southern man who wished Morrison good luck, begins cracking jokes. He was quite strict during Morrison’s case, but now he cautions Brent’s daughter to not mess up her speech, implying that her father’s parole is already guaranteed. He mixes up important numbers, like the year Brent was convicted and his risk assessment score. He jokes about how bad his math is.
“You already know how I’m going to vote,” he says.
The room simultaneously fills with nervous laughter and a sense of gravity. Although it is a relief to hear the board member make such a claim, his jokes are making light of Brent’s fate.
Brent is granted parole, and his family bursts into tears and a series of “amen.” There is not a dry eye in the room, including my own and those of the other interns.
Though Morrison was denied parole, it seems clear to me that both he and Brent deserve to be free. I cannot say the same for the third case, Mr. Parent.
Parent, a 56-year-old white man, has multiple convictions for various counts including intimidating a witness, simple burglary and extortion, among others. The Warden expresses how well he’s done in various programs that he has been a part of, and Parent himself expresses remorse, apologizing to the victims of his crime. He claims he has found God, that he has changed due to his new devotion to Christianity. In front of me, five white men nod along with his words. One of these men is Senator Danny Martiny (R - District 10), who speaks on Parent’s behalf. Where was the senator to speak on Morrison or Brent’s behalf? Parent clearly had powerful connections that protected him and provided him with an unfair advantage. This is reinforced when the prosecutor mentions Parent’s multiple D.U.I.’s that he never received any penalty for.
I see firsthand what I had learned long before: that the cyclical nature of this system is so pervasive and internalized in everyone.
Unlike the other two hearings, Parent’s victim sits across from us with two lawyers and family members. Ms. Blanco, the mother of the victim, speaks first. With anger in her voice, she explains the fear that she and her daughter felt when Parent called them with death threats. She claims that Parent’s religiosity means nothing, that he is still a danger to her and her daughter.
Ms. Lambert, Parent’s victim, eventually approaches the podium. Her voice shakes as she tells the board that if Parent were to get out, she and her son would not be safe. She points to the group of white men sitting in front of me and says that they are the same people who have always protected him. Senator Martiny looks up from his phone to shake his head and whisper something to a woman sitting next to him. I could feel the fear in her testimony, and the contrast between testimonies is unsettling.
Despite Parent’s display of power and white privilege, his parole is denied. Ms. Lambert and Ms. Blanco, along with their lawyers, exit the room almost immediately. The group of Parent’s supporters stay behind. I learn later they are required to wait a certain period of time to allow for the victims to leave. I watch as they approach the board members and shake their hands familiarly, smiling and making jokes with one another. The whole scene leaves me confused. Although I don’t believe anybody should stay incarcerated, and I wish there was a better option for Parent, the victims’ testimonies also had me questioning the idea of Parent’s release.
After listening to all three cases I was most bothered by the idea that both Morrison and Parent are considered dangers to society, yet the contrast between them could not be more stark. It was was very clear to me that if Morrison was released he would peacefully live the rest of his life. At almost 70 years old he seemed so far removed from his conviction, and I could tell that he was simply exhausted. I wondered what it would have taken to convince the parole board of the thoughts that I was having. Was it really just his violation and subsequent lockdown that made them consider him a danger and deny his parole? Was it the color of his skin? In this moment I remember that mass incarceration is an extension of slavery. I remember that I am fed narratives of white supremacy and of Black incarceration daily. I see firsthand what I had learned long before: that the cyclical nature of this system is so pervasive and internalized in everyone. Suddenly, I’m once again confused and enraged.
Each unanswered question and frustrating feeling motivates me to use my voice as a white ally to spread awareness and speak out against this system. Knowledge is power, and although at times I felt uncomfortable during the hearings, I am grateful for the opportunity to now pass on what I learned.
Stella Frank interned with VOTE this summer. She is a student at Bard College.
Thanks to the help of many VOTE members and allies, Senate Bill 243, which requires unanimous verdicts in felony cases, passed through the Louisiana Legislature this past session. Half the battle has been won, but now the decision to repeal this Jim Crow-era law is in the hands of Louisiana voters.
On November 6, 2018, the election ballot will ask people, “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?” And we need them to vote YES.
Louisiana is one of two states that allow non-unanimous verdicts in jury trials and is the only state to allow non-unanimous verdicts (requiring only 10 out of 12 votes) for murder cases and crimes carrying sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury law was put in place in 1880 as an effort to minimize the influence Black jurors could have in criminal trials. The silencing that results from this non-unanimous jury system has resulted in over-incarceration, reduced deliberation and has dramatically increased wrongful convictions. It has also created rightful community distrust of the justice system, which directly undermines why the jury system exists in the first place. In theory, juries bring the voices of the community to the table and allow people to feel confident about an ethical justice system. A non-unanimous jury system is antithetical to this.
The legislative win was due in large part to the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (LACDL) and the Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI), specifically Ben Cohen and Calvin Duncan. People like Duncan, whose expertise developed while he was in prison, have been essential to the efforts to litigate, legislate and educate Louisiana on this issue.
The constitutional amendment has many additional supporters. One, the ACLU of Louisiana, calls the current law “archaic and racist.” The Black Caucus of Louisiana has co-sponsored it. Representative Sherman Mack, who admits to supporting legislation on behalf of prosecutors, supports the amendment, expressing that it’s time for Louisiana , “to do the right thing” and join the rest of the United States. Representative Ted James (D - East Baton Rouge) stated that this amendment will give “the people of Louisiana have the opportunity to right a 138-year wrong.” Governor Edwards also recently expressed his support and promised to encourage Louisiana to vote in favor of the amendment this fall. Even the Louisiana GOP has endorsed the amendment, supporting this change.
The people of Louisiana have the opportunity to right a 138-year wrong -- Rep. Ted James
Despite much bipartisan support, the amendment also has opponents. Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier is not in favor. During the legislative session he said “it is what it is,” in response to the fact that this law is a remnant of slavery. His quote can now be found on billboards throughout the Lake Charles area.
While DeRosier is one of numerous district attorneys throughout the state that tried to put an end to the bill, he Louisiana District Attorneys Association ultimately went from an oppositional to neutral position prior to its passage. Senator J.P. Morrell, who sponsored Senate Bill 243, believes that the likelihood of the amendment passing in November depends on the “continuation of the coalition that backed the change during the session” to educate voters and remain united. “Very seldom do we have something of this magnitude, this historic, that has enjoyed such bipartisan support,” he said during the session.
This ballot initiative is an opportunity to dramatically advance criminal justice reform in Louisiana. Combined with a relaxation on felon disenfranchisement (effective March 1st, 2019), the non-unanimous jury issue can help alter the legacy of slavery and white supremacy in the South and nationwide. Yet this win won’t be possible simply with the passage of time. The time to organize, educate, and mobilize an ever-growing group of people directly impacted by the criminal justice system is now.
We must strengthen our collective voice claiming our rightful space in society, and craft a criminal justice system that actually creates public safety and healthy communities.
As November quickly approaches, it is essential that we’re hitting the ground running, which means tireless door knocking, canvassing, and spreading the word about this ballot initiative. Get involved by: 1. Registering to vote and 2. Volunteering to help us pass the unanimous jury law!
How is your heart today? More than 100 people coming together for the first time sat quietly in the room, meditating on this question. How is your heart today, the facilitator repeated before asking participants to get in pairs and share their responses. A moment later, incarcerated people doing time at Angola State Penitentiary and individuals on the outside who had come to the prison for the second Day of Compassion were sharing what was on their hearts. For one rare day, people who generally spend their days locked in a cage--sometimes for up to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement--sat side by side with people who had never been inside prison walls. Together they told their stories and co-birthed ideas and visions for a better criminal justice system.
The Day of Compassion is the brainchild of Lara Naughton, a white woman who experienced a kidnapping and sexual assault while traveling. She now uses writing, acting and mindfulness as tools to heal from her experiences, and teaches these tools to others. In her writing, she names compassion as the most powerful force that enabled her survival. Over time, she forged a relationship with the Department of Corrections, and that ultimately allowed her to create an 8-week Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT). The training, which explores how to create a culture of compassion, is available to currently incarcerated people, and culminates in the special day that brings together incarcerated and non-incarcerated people.
While only incarcerated people who had gone through the CCT program attended yesterday’s event, the whole day was videotaped for the almost 6,000 people held at Angola prison to watch later. Participants broke bread together and discussed one of three topics: victim-offender intentional dialogue, sentencing reform or community reentry.
“As a victim, what would you want from me?” asked Keith, a CCT participant who is currently serving a life sentence for murdering someone when he was 18 years old. Respondents talked about the importance of a sincere apology, a commitment to change patterns and behavior, and an opportunity to truly understand why he did what he did. Keith talked about his frustration with the justice system strongly encouraging victims of crime to be punitive, even if they don’t want that themselves. He has a desire to talk to the family of the person he killed more than 20 years ago, but in Louisiana, it is illegal for the offender to reach out to the victim.
“I have a parole hearing in September,” he said. “Even though I feel completely rehabilitated and other people in here [the prison] know that, I can’t show that to the victim’s family.” Victims are allowed to come to offenders’ parole hearings, and many times their opinion strongly informs the ultimate decision, regardless of how much and in what ways offenders may have changed.
Several VOTE staff members--some who have been incarcerated and some who haven’t--were present yesterday.
“The day was a heartwarming and inspiring experience,” says Anna Sacks, VOTE’s Communications Associate. “At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel sad about the other 5,000 incarcerated people who weren’t in the room.” Sacks and other staff members exchanged information with some incarcerated individuals, and have plans to become penpals with them.
While the day is no silver bullet solution to a more compassionate criminal justice system, the experiences and conversations shared will continue to have a profound impact on both sides of prison walls.
Click here to learn more about the Compassion Institute and upcoming events.
Watch the full video of us filing the application for our lawsuit at the Louisiana Supreme Court here!
On Friday, we filed our application to the Louisiana Supreme Court on VOTE v. Louisiana, which seeks to end Louisiana’s unconstitutional disenfranchisement of citizens on probation or parole. With this filing – and with Advancement Project’s national office serving as national counsel – this historic case is officially in the hands of the Louisiana Supreme Court. The application urges the Supreme Court to hear this case due to its serious constitutional implications for tens of thousands of citizens on probation and parole in the state and to affirm the fundamental right to vote for all Louisianans.
“This filing marks one more milestone for VOTE, our members, and everyone resisting against an out-of-control criminal ‘justice’ system,” said Norris Henderson, Executive Director of VOTE. “We envisioned this case while some of us were incarcerated. After organizing, growing, and building power for years, today we affirm our political voice before the Louisiana Supreme Court. The state needs to make good on the promise of the right to vote we have based on the Constitution.”
“The judges seeing this case so far are upholding a law that we know is unconstitutional,” said Bruce Reilly, Deputy Director of VOTE. “The Louisiana Supreme Court is best positioned to correct this, and proclaim once and for all that the Louisiana Constitution guarantees the right to vote, and that voting can only be suspended during, not after, incarceration.”
This historic law is made possible by the historic years-long efforts of hundreds of formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones coming together to urge state representatives to defend democracy.
In a March 2017 ruling granting summary judgment to the state in this case, 19th Judicial District Judge Tim Kelley said that, even though he was ruling against plaintiffs, he thought this was unfair. VOTE appealed the ruling to the First Circuit Court of Appeal, arguing that the Constitution explicitly guarantees the right to vote to all people who are not “under an order of imprisonment,” including those on probation and parole. With a partial dissent, the appeals court sided with the district court, clearing the way for today’s appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
“People should be given second chances, maintain their political voice and the opportunity to choose those who represents them,” said Judith Browne Dianis, Executive Director of Advancement Project’s national office. “Because of organizations like VOTE, we are seeing broad, sweeping criminal justice reform across the country. Still, too often the voting rights of people ensnared by the criminal justice system are left behind. People on probation and parole should have their right to vote restored. Louisiana’s constitution, unlike the Federal Constitution, affirms an explicit fundamental right to vote. The court below failed to give weight to this fundamental right, and that is why we take our case to the Supreme Court today.”
The claim to the right to vote made in VOTE v. Louisiana enjoys overwhelming support from influential voices who have filed amicus briefs in the case. Legal scholars from every law school in Louisiana have expressed their support for the merits of the lawsuit. Historians from Louisiana added incisive historical analysis showing that recognizing the right to vote is long overdue. Importantly, the American Probation and Parole Association, which represents 700 probation and parole officers in Louisiana alone, is strongly in favor of recognizing the right to vote as claimed by VOTE. Whalen Gibbs, a longtime Louisiana public servant, probation officer, and a former assistant secretary with the Louisiana Department of Corrections who oversaw reentry work, publicly expressed his support through an op-ed in the Times-Picayune. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), The Sentencing Project and the Southern Poverty Law Center have supported the case with important racial, historical and legal context that cannot be separated from what this case means to the community.
VOTE secured a key victory just last month via the ratification of Act 636, which restores voting rights sooner to some people on probation and parole. While a significant step forward, the law is also only a partial restoration – tens of thousands of parolees and probationers are estimated to remain disenfranchised even the new law goes into effect next year.
Through VOTE v. Louisiana, VOTE seeks to affirm the right to vote for more than 70,000 people who are not incarcerated, but living under community supervision (i.e. probation and parole) as our neighbors, family members, and co-workers.
Louisiana denies the right to vote to people behind bars. It also bars from voting 40,000 people on probation, along with 30,000 citizens who have returned to their communities on parole. Each year, thousands of people are removed from this list while thousands more take their place, as Louisiana has more police and prisons per capita than anywhere in the nation.
Key legal documents and pleadings available here:
Writ application available here: http://nationalrighttovote.org/vote-lasc-writ/
Last Thursday, Governor John Bel Edwards signed House Bill 265 into law. This historic victory was made possible by the leadership of formerly incarcerated people as well as Representative Patricia Smith (Baton Rouge) and hundreds of supporting families and allies. “This is a win of our lifetime, and also one of many to come,” says Executive Director Norris Henderson, who will now be able to vote. “It wouldn’t have been possible without the voice of those who have been to prison. We know that those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”
The new law will go into effect on March 1, 2019 and is estimated to reach at least 43,000 people--40,000 on probation and 3,000 on parole--throughout the state in the first year. Find out more about the eligibility details below.
Whose voting rights can Louisiana suspend? 110,000 people.
The 1974 Louisiana constitution guarantees all resident citizens, over 18, the right to vote. However, it carves out the option to suspend the right while someone is under an order of imprisonment for a felony conviction. The phrase “under order of imprisonment,” was first defined in 1976, and expanded in 1977. The state may suspend the rights of people in prison, on parole, or on probation for a felony.
Whose voting rights will not be suspended after a criminal conviction?
Whose rights did HB 265 restore?
The operative part of the new law carves out a group of people who will not be impacted by the state’s choice to suspend voting rights. This group is anyone, under order of imprisonment: “who has not been incarcerated pursuant to the order within the last five years.”
The incarceration must be “pursuant” (or after) the order of imprisonment, parole, or probation.
At any given time, roughly 40,000 Louisiana citizens are on probation. All of them left the courthouse, and went home, following the judicial order. None of their voting rights will be suspended until after they are incarcerated, if ever. While many finish their probation terms with no incident, others do not. Upon violation, and sentence to incarceration, they will have their voting rights suspended. Because probation terms are under 5 years, such person will not have that right restored until they complete the probation (which is likely to be under 5 years), and are no longer “under an order.” At that point, all past incarcerations become irrelevant.
People on parole who have been out for five years will be able to vote. The DOC estimates about 3,000 of the roughly 30,000 people currently on parole would have their right un-suspended. The majority of people finish parole in shorter than five years, thus HB 265 would not apply to them. Nearly half of people on parole return to prison for a violation, nearly all of those people do that within the first year of release, under the pressure of finding food, clothing, shelter, a job, and happiness.
Download a 1-pager of the voting eligibility under HB 265.