They say reading is fundamental, well what the hell is writing--essential? In school I didn't know an adverb from an adjective. I knew a sentence had to have a subject and a predicate because Dr. Dre gave that to me in old school hip hop. But I could never get my subject and verb to agree--actually, I still have trouble making them not argue.
You may have seen a gangsta turn rapper, rapper turn movie star, but you never seen a thug turn writer, and thug does not mean brutal ruffian or assassin regardless of what Webster says. Thug means The Highest Under God.
To say that my inspiration to write came from my great love to tell a story is the farthest from the truth. Instead, I was in the hobby shop learning how to make clocks and jewelry boxes. I was getting good, and I was ready to start sending them home to get sold. My college friend had an account on Ebay and sold one of my clocks. This was how I was going to make the money, I thought. I needed to hire a lawyer and get home.
One day I was called to the Warden's office. They told me to pack my stuff. I asked “where am I going?” They told me I was going to the dungeon. I'm like, “for what?” All they said was: “you know.” Completely baffled, I packed my stuff, went to the blocks, and sat there not knowing why I got locked up.
Two weeks later, I got called to an office. An investigator came to talk with me. He had a report in his hand, which he started to read. It said: “Prime Time told me to go to the McDonald’s in St. Francisville. His cousin was there and he gave me some weed and money. I was bringing Prime Time the weed.”
The report had a lot of Prime Time this and Prime Time that. When I heard this I was able to identify the young police officer who had given this statement. I figured he was under pressure at work so he was just giving them something. He had told them the play, but he didn't want to tell on the actual player(s), so he used a nickname, and it just so happened to be my nickname. The officer probably thought the people reading the report would never find the person it was about, but that's not how it works in prison. Even if they don't know they'll make it look like they know to avoid the appearance of stupidity. I knew who they were talking about, but that wasn't my business to tell.
I told the investigator that I didn’t know what he was talking about, and if I did, I wouldn't tell him nothing. The man gave me an angry look but quickly recovered. He said he respected that, me being a convict and all. I wasn't a convict, though. I had just got to prison. I had been there for maybe six to seven months and was still wet behind the ears. If I were a convict, I would have known the next move.
When I went to court, they read the report. They had replaced every mention of Prime Time with Eyba Brown. I put in a motion to review the original report, but the motion was denied, and I was on my way to extended lock down [solitary confinement].
When I was in my cell I told myself that I couldn't make money with my hands, so I had to make it with my mind. How was I going to do that? I sat in the dungeon for more than 60 days. But if you are in the dungeon for more than 45 days, they have to re-route you to a lesser custody status than you were sentenced to. That’s how I ended up in the working cell block, Camp C. I could have gotten out to play football, but I didn't want to get stuck in the outer camp, so I made my move to get back to the main prison. As I said, I had only been locked up for a couple of months, so I didn't know what I was doing. I ended up going to extended lock down for real this time. People stay there for years. You do nothing but sit in a cell for 23 hours. You get only an hour out of the cell each day.
In Camp C one of my friends was about to go to the main population to play ball for Camp C. Before he left, we walked the yard and strategized. He told me about a commercial idea he had that sounded like a short movie. As I sat in my cell on extended lock down I kept thinking about that commercial, and figured I could come up with a commercial, too. I started thinking about all the really good commercials I could remember and writing down my own ideas.
Eventually I was sent back to the main prison, C Block. There I met this dude who had a cousin who was studying film at USC. This dude would send his cousin movie scripts. He let me read one: "How to be a Player.” I remembered this movie, so as I'm reading the script I can see the movie in my head. I started writing scripts, too.
Math had always been my favorite subject because it has structure to it. Writing didn't. Or at least I thought it didn't. But I soon found out writing had a formula, too, and formulas are things I understand. My friend from LSU brought me some books on how to be a screenwriter. I wrote four movies and 10 commercials. I learned about the Writer's Guild, got a list of agencies, and contacted my cousin in Atlanta because Atlanta had a great number of agencies. Only four of them, however, would take unsolicited manuscripts.
I gave my cousin the scripts for the movie Blast4Me and three commercials: Tag, Runaway, and First Kiss. He told me the commercials were Super Bowl-type commercials, and I gave him the addresses to the agencies. He sent the commercials to the agencies. Of the four agencies, two asked him to come in for an interview. But it was spring break and he went to Daytona Beach instead.
Of course the pen is mightier than the sword, unless you're in a knife fight in which case you'd better have a Rambo knife. The pen is a mighty weapon, however, if you know how to use it. In prison you need an army, family or friend support to help your words get heard. And if you're saying something, how mighty is your pen?
If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to email@example.com and we'll be in touch! We'll share the content on social media, always give credit to the artist(s) involved, and cover the costs of submission. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Eyba Brown is currently incarcerated at Raymond Laborde Correctional Center.
In the mid 1980s, our Founder and Executive Director was part of the Lifers Club at Angola State Penitentiary--a group of men who were told they’d never have a chance to come home. Refusing to accept this fate, they started to do research. Together the Lifers wrote to other people doing life in 10 Southern states, asking about their sentencing laws and reform. To the club’s surprise, they got responses indicating that so many states were fighting for the same reforms as our leader and his friends. They used the letters to draft a legislative bill that aimed to reduce the sentences of people serving life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). Hungry for change, they were disappointed to learn that they needed a legislator to sponsor and file the bill for them. So they wrote to Louisiana state lawmakers, but this time they didn’t get many letters back. Shortly thereafter, Henderson was sharing about feeling dismayed at the Lifers’ monthly meeting, which certain people on the outside were allowed to attend. When he had finished speaking, a woman sitting in the front row stood up. “My name is Naomi White Warren,” she said. “I’m a newly-elected state representative from New Orleans, and I’ll take your bill on for you.” The Lifers’ stories, voices, and perseverance inspired Rep. Warren (now Farve) to join their fight for freedom. “The excitement in the prison was off the chain,” says Henderson. Unfortunately, as that year’s legislative session went on, it was clear that the bill wouldn’t pass. Yet the bill was still a huge success, not only because it finally passed many years later, but because it was the first time in VOTE’s history that our people--the ones closest to the problem--organized to the point of changing the entire trajectory of their lives. Today we carry on this legacy by fighting for more bills and more reform at the Capitol. Every year, our collective voice gets stronger. Here’s what we’re fighting for this year, and how you can join us.
Protecting the rights of people facing convictions
While our (in)justice system promises we’re innocent until proven guilty, we know that’s often not true for many groups of people, including those who are poor and of color. In many states including ours, someone awaiting trial can be held in jail for years--even though they haven't been convicted of any crime--if they’re unable to pay ever-increasing fines and fees. This pretrial detention punishes poor people and then profits off of them, as the fines and fees they’re forced to pay are funding the salaries of judges--the very people setting the bond people need to pay to get out. Clearly, this is a conflict of interest and was even ruled unconstitutional by a federal consent decree last year. For that reason, one of our priorities this session is reducing the number of poor people in jail by holding our judicial system accountable to how fines and fees are created and used.
The system also wrongs people facing a conviction by not telling them what the full consequences of taking a plea deal are. Instead, lawyers often present a plea deal as the smartest option, but they leave out that we’ll face such consequences as losing our right to vote and access to public housing, among others. The bills we advocate for this session will make sure anyone offered a plea deal is fully informed about these collateral consequences before making such a big life decision. And the legislators deciding on these bills listen best when there are people who have been directly impacted by them at the hearings. “When we advocate for ourselves, we have hundreds more that we’re also advocating for,” says Rene Smith, our new Baton Rouge Organizer. “We can’t be afraid to tell our story--it could change the mind of a legislator and [affect] the lives of so many.”
Strengthening the rights of people behind bars
We also need more voices to strengthen the rights of people already in prison. We’ll be reforming probation and parole eligibility, LWOP sentencing, and medical service standards for people on the inside. Long-time VOTE member and now our New Orleans Organizer Donald Arbuthnot is excited to fight at the legislature. He’s especially interested in medical rights because he was so impacted by a lack of medical care while he was in prison. Once when he had food poisoning, instead of giving him treatment, the prison infirmary put Arbuthnot in a “tank”--a freezing room with concrete benches. “I was balled up in a knot, in so much pain,” he explains. Since so many of the prison medical staff were once doctors but had had their medical licenses revoked, he waited overnight in that room for a qualified doctor to come and diagnose him. Luckily, Arbuthnot was not permanently harmed by the incident. But many of Arbuthnot’s friends who went to the infirmary were misdiagnosed, mistreated or never came back. “[The prison] killed them,” he says. “A lot of it came out of their deep hatred and racism for people of color.” Arbuthnot encourages all formerly incarcerated people to come to the Capitol and change this common story. “When we speak from our experiences in prison,” Arbuthnot says, “we can only say the truth.”
Defending the rights of formerly incarcerated people
When we fight as a united front, we win. Last’s why another part of our strategy this year is defending the rights that we’ve already worked so hard for, including our right to vote. In 2018, we passed Act 636, which restored voting rights to 40,000 Louisianans with convictions. But since it went into effect on March 1 of last year, the DOC and Secretary of State’s office have put up so much bureaucratic red tape, making it extremely difficult for those eager to vote to get registered. “They don’t want it to be simple,” says our Shreveport Organizer Felicia Smith. “They want you to jump through hoops so you get tired and don’t vote.” We’re not going to let lawmakers take away rights that we’ve poured countless hours of sweat and tears into, which is why we need more voices than ever involved in this legislative session. With so many wins behind us, there’s that much more to defend.
We know that sometimes getting involved is easier said than done. But we have some resources--made by us and for us--to get you started. New to the legislative process? Check out How a Bill Becomes a Law (it’s more interesting than Schoolhouse Rock, we promise). Want to speak in front of legislators about your experiences with the (in)justice system? Check out our video explaining How and Why We Testify. Want to attend one of our upcoming events but want a sneak peek of what it’s like? Check out this Facebook live video from Lobby Day three years ago.
We’ll also be offering multiple trainings on how to make an impact at the Capitol, since we know that we’re all learning together and have a range of experiences. Upcoming sessions include Pre-Lobby Day on Tuesday, March 3 followed by Lobby Day on Tuesday, March 24 (click the links to RSVP).
When we advocate, it’s not just for ourselves, but for everyone who is still voiceless. “If you’re inside of a cell,” says our new Lafayette Organizer Marcus Simmons, “and you stick your hand out of the bars, the arms don’t forget about the body. I’m the arms now, and I can’t forget about the people still stuck inside. To the system, these people are just a body and a paycheck. But to me, they helped me to survive when I had no family, no soap or deodorant. The least I could do is be their legs and their voice.”
In addition to the upcoming events listed above, we also have monthly meetings around the state, which are a low-stakes and easy way to join our work. New Orleans meets on the first Wednesday of every month, Shreveport meets on the third Thursday, Lafayette meets on the fourth Monday, and Baton Rouge meets on the fourth Thursday. For specific dates and times, check our our calendar.
What do you really know about me?
What do you know about four brick walls,
and 15-minute collect phone calls?
What do you know about 20-foot-high wire fences?
What do you know about
getting screamed at
and told what to do,
by an ‘authority’ figure
who couldn't walk a day in your shoes?
What do you know about having nothing to call your own?
What do you know about having a four-foot cell with a pisser in it,
and nothing to call home?
What do you know about having everything stripped from your life,
and praying you don't get stabbed when you try to sleep at night?
Before you pass judgement and say I chose my own path,
let me take a second and give you some insight into my past.
What do you know about growing up below the poverty line?
What do you know about your mother being gone for days,
and you don't have no idea where she went?
What do you know about freezing in the winter because they've turned off the power?
What do you know about going next door to the neighbor's house
just to get something to eat?
What do you know about getting kicked out when you're 16 years old?
What do you know about being forced to sleep in the back of a van,
or on the streets,
because you have nowhere else to go?
So, before you pass judgement about a man you've never seen,
What do you REALLY know about ME?
If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll be in touch! We'll share the content on social media and always give credit to the artist(s) involved. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Aaron G. Kitzler is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penitentiary.
Last Friday VOTE gathered alongside other justice reform advocates the inaugural Underground Railroad to Justice Summit hosted by Southern University Law Center. The day’s sessions spanned from current policy strategies to attracting media attention, but the resounding message from the summit was unified: our movement is strong, and it must keep growing in order to keep winning.
More than 25 Louisiana justice organizations came to the summit, proving the unstoppable power of our movement. Together we reiterated the importance of holding every part of the system that has locked us up and locked us out accountable.
East Baton Rouge Parish Prison (EBRPP), for example, has a death rate twice the national average. A large contributing factor is that this jail, like many across the country, are treated as a mental health facility. For this reason the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition focuses on proper mental healthcare and eliminating pretrial detention. “People are often taken to pretrial detention in moments of [mental health] crisis,” says coalition member Rev. Anderson, a long-time advocate for mental health. “And the excuse is always the same, ‘there’s no other option.’” But we know there is another option, which is why many people and organizations—including our Baton Rouge chapter—have joined the coalition. The next step is to demand that the local sherriff investigate the unnecessary and sky-high number of deaths in his jail.
People can also hold the system accountable as individuals. Deidra Howard felt like a true citizen when she served jury duty several years ago. Like many jurors, she thought that she took in all of the facts of the case before she sentenced the man on trial to life in prison. But afterward Howard realized that the court had only given the jurors some of the evidence, leaving other pieces out. She felt betrayed by our (in)justice system--as if they had tricked her into sentencing an innocent man. She wanted to change her vote. She wrote to every lawyer and judge involved in the case many times over the course of that next year, but no one seemed to care. The system communicated that it was too late--the indictment was irreversible.
A year later, she found out that the man she and the other jurors had sentenced was being released from prison. While Howard can’t say that her letters were the first cause of his release, she has a hunch that speaking out helped. Now, she and her sister are working on legislation to create a juror’s bill of rights so that all jurors know that not all of the evidence is always presented at trial. Now that the unanimous jury law we championed is in effect, jurors have more power to be like Howard. Since formerly incarcerated people cannot yet serve on juries in Louisiana, we encourage all jurors to ask as many questions as needed, and consider as many factors as possible.
Another effective way to get in where you fit in is by simply sharing your story. Social media makes this easier than ever before, in addition to more traditional outlets like writing a letter to the editor or calling into a radio show. That’s how Gary Chambers, founder of the Black media outlet The Rouge Collection, got his start. Chambers saw how no news outlets were reporting on local police brutality or deaths he was seeing in Baton Rouge’s parish prison. So he did it himself. He wrote blog posts and op-eds on the topic, doing his own reporting along the way. Slowly but steadily his social media following increased. Chambers began using his voice to hold people like elected officials and police officers accountable. At the summit, he taught attendees how to write our own press releases, submit a letter to the editor, and build relationships with reporters. If you see an injustice happening and everyone else is ignoring it, Chambers told us, you can bring it to light with truthful storytelling.
The summit reminded us that there’s room for everyone in this fight, including those still behind bars. Keynote speaker Calvin Duncan, who was wrongfully convicted and sat on death row for 28 years, says that he found his love for legal studies while incarcerated. “I love that the law gives me the power to help poor people who can’t help themselves,” he says. “Through [knowing the law], I have power like Superman. I want you all have that power, too.”
This year’s legislative session begins in a few weeks, so now is the time to harness our individual and collective superpowers. Some VOTE members are very good at connecting people, always bringing two new friends to our monthly meetings. Some of us are super-storytellers, moving crowds of people into action. Some of us are the hope-bearers, keeping our spirits up during trying times. The best leaders among us are all of these at once.
Share your superpower with our movement by signing up for our newsletter. Every other week we send out the latest updates on justice reform, as well as upcoming events, actions and opportunities.
Spending all my time,
I'm looking for that perfection;
I dare not stop for anything less...
Spending all my time,
traveling the world for reflection;
I dare not pause for anything else...
I'm looking for that perfect book,
the one with the perfect rhyme;
I'm looking for that perfect look,
the complete and the sublime...
Spending all my time,
I'm looking for the perfect smile;
the one to fill my heart...
Spending all my time,
looking for beauty worthwhile,
a face defined as art...
I'm looking for that perfect song,
the one with the perfect tune;
I've been looking for you all along,
the perfect woman to swoon...
I've spent all my time,
all my time, looking blue,
But I still have a lot more left,
to spend with silly little you...
Won't you spend yours as well searching?
Let's get to know each other;
let's ride across the universe,
from one star to another...
Let's spend all our time
together as much as we can.
Even as sunshine falls and stars appear,
we shall dance, we shall dance...Searching
If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to email@example.com and we'll be in touch! We'll share the content on social media and always give credit to the artist(s) involved. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Jeremy Smith is currently incarcerated at Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola).
In prison, the average cost of a doctor’s visit is $3. The average wage of an incarcerated worker, however, is a mere two cents per hour. That means in order for someone to access basic health needs while in prison, they have to work 150 hours first. Even the best paid workers, who make 20 cents per hour, still have to work 15 hours to get medical help. If that doesn’t dissuade incarcerated people from exercising their medical rights, a long list of other reasons--including provider negligence, ineffective medications, and a resistance to the money-making scheme between institutions and Big Pharma--will. As an antidote to this, VOTE began a partnership with the Tulane School of Medicine in 2015. Together we established the Formerly Incarcerated Transitions (FIT) Clinic, a place where returning citizens can go to get access to quality, affordable and safe medical treatment. Now, five years later, we’ve brought two community health workers, Danielle Metz and Haki Sekou, on board. As formerly incarcerated leaders, both have experienced these medical injustices firsthand, and as such have big visions for where VOTE and Tulane will be taking this work. Check out what they have to say.
VOTE: Let's start with an easy one. How did you come into the VOTE family?
Haki Sekou (HS): Norris was my motivating factor in becoming involved. The major thing I like about VOTE is the fight we got. If there’s an issue, we address it, and I like that more than anything else. It’s not just one person being recognized, it’s an organization being reckoned with.
Danielle Metz (DM): I’ve been a VOTE member since I came home in 2016. My favorite memory was when we went to Orlando [for the FICPFM gathering] and knocked on formerly incarcerated people’s doors to deliver the message that they could vote.
VOTE: As our community health workers, how do you define health?
DM: Health is defined as mind, body and soul. You have to be physically healthy, mentally prepared, and spiritually prepared.
VOTE: Tell us about accessing medical care on the inside.
HS: It was about who you knew. If the doctor knew you and liked you, you got services. Then people started getting cancers and other illnesses, but they were given a huge stack of pills, so a lot of people wouldn’t take their medication. They didn’t trust the doctors unless they knew them. A lot of people also didn’t take them because they thought it was all about the dollar--about people making capital off of them taking the pills.
DM: I watched about 10 women die in prison, or a week after they came home. They would have cervical cancer or something like that but [the doctors] thought it was fibroids. So a lot of stuff went untreated. You know you’re looking forward to your next life, your freedom, and you never get to see it because of the neglect of the system.”
VOTE: That’s horrific, and not surprising. So now that you are both home and in your role as community health workers with VOTE, how are you helping FIP on the outside?
DM: We are the liaison between a physician and a person coming back into society. We are the most trusted person because when you’re coming out, because of the inadequate care you received while in prison, it’s kind of hard to trust anyone. But when we tell them that we’ve been to prison, too, it breaks down that barrier and makes them want to open up. Sometimes I go to the court house. Sometimes I stand on the corner in areas where I know people go, and I explain to them what we offer. I let them know we have dental, and a lot of people want to get their teeth done. Now we’re even enrolling people on the inside.
HS: I also go to the people--to parole board hearings, to the institution--we’re just out in the community. People can come to us to talk about things that they wouldn’t talk about with their doctors. It’s a bond. So like Danielle said, we’re the buffer zone between the doctors and the formerly incarcerated community. We ask the doctors the questions that they may not know how to ask.
VOTE: And if they tell you that they don’t trust or feel comfortable going to the doctor, how do you approach that?
HS: Keep working with the person, meeting them where they’re at. Accepting them where they’re at, moving at their pace, taking the time and patience to be with them. You’ll win their trust, most of the time. You have to really care about people to be in this role.
DM: Yeah, sometimes I even have to go to their houses and bring them to the appointment.
VOTE: That’s right in line with one of our main expressions: help is what I need, not what you want to give me. So we’re very excited to build out this part of our work! What is your overall goal?
DM: We want everyone coming out of prison to receive adequate healthcare--Medicaid, Medicare, and any kind of healthcare that they can because health is very important. And we also want to reduce the stigma. We are people who need access to healthcare. Don’t define us as ‘inmates’ or ‘ex-offenders’, we’re a patient. As so whatever we need, we should get adequate attention.
HS: I’ve heard of some doctors who don’t treat people the same once they find out they are such and such [i.e. formerly incarcerated]. I want to start by investigating who are these doctors? Where are they practicing?
VOTE: Yes, we know that Louisiana has a long and embarrassing history of malpractice within facilities.
DM: Right and that’s why we need to take these issues into legislation. When we’re sitting in meetings and telling people that they’re still practicing on the inside with a suspended [medical] license, people are like ‘huh?’ I never knew that.’ So we have to expose it for what it is, and that way people can get the proper healthcare that they need.
VOTE: Yes! And that’s where our organizing and policy teams come in. Let’s talk about mental health for a minute. How is that being treated and what do you all intend to do about it?
HS: You know a lot of mental institutions shut down, and they just took the baggage from that and sent it straight into the [prison].
DM: Right, instead of getting it treated. And, with my incarceration, when you send a 26-year-old person to three life sentences plus 20 years in prison, I think right hten and there it should be mandated that I see some kind of psychiatrist, you know talk to somebody once a week, twice a week if possible. But there’s no one there to help you with those type of problems.
HS: Yeah and when you go to the Parole and Pardon Board, they ask you about a job, and if you have a place to live, but they never mention the syndromes, the post-[incarceration] syndromes. You go through 41 years of prison, you see a man killed...that’s still on your head, but they act like nothing happened. So they want you to be ‘normal’ in an abnormal environment.
VOTE: So it goes without saying that this work, these experiences, are very challenging. What is something you like to do to take care of yourself?
DM: I like to read because it’s like a great escape. I can travel anywhere in the world through a book when I can’t even leave this state because I’m on probation. And that’s what I used to do on the inside, too. Right now I’m reading Hope Against Hope against the charter school system takeover here in Louisiana.
HS: I’m reading Prison Without Walls, which is about the psychological effects of prison, drugs, money. It’s a holistic approach to psychology. I also like exercise. I do a whole routine, work the whole body Monday through Friday, then I take the weekend off. As far as eating healthy I like fruits, vegetables, fish, chicken.
VOTE: Ok, now let’s go way into the future. Can we build a world without prisons?
HS: I don’t think prison as we know it today will last forever. I do think they will have some form of corrections, enough to keep order.
DM: I was just reading this morning that 500 people got clemency because they did a sentencing reclassification. Where this happened, they don’t even get time anymore for marijuana and I was like ‘that’s amazing.’ Because you have a lot of people in prison for a lengthy time for petty crime. So if there is going to be a world without prison, I hope it don’t take another 400 years. They say ‘once upon a time,’ meaning right now. You know, now is the time.
VOTE: Indeed it is! To close us out, tell us when you feel the most free?
DM: I feel the most free when I get up in the morning, I’m lying in my bed and I see that ceiling fan going around and around and around and I’m like ‘I’m here.’ I can jump in the car and just go where I want to go. I’m also in school and I love going to school. It gives me a sense of belonging, a sense of being empowered that I can do it, even at this age.
HS: I feel the most free when I go to jummah...at the mosque. I’m in prayer...I’m focused on the Creator. I think I’m the most free at that point than any other time.
The FIT Clinic is located at 2222 Simon Bolivar Ave, New Orleans, LA. Walk-ins are welcome, but appointments can be made at 504-475-3784. Those without insurance are also welcome. Learn more here.
Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 91 this week. He left behind a lasting legacy of how to fight for justice. He graced countless freedom fights with his words, which have since become guiding of our movement. One of his many lessons is that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” As an ever-growing local, state, and national network of formerly incarcerated leaders, we can’t stay silent. Instead, we help people from all walks of life understand our experience, especially as public support for justice reform grows.
MLK is the reason we have classes of people that are protected against housing discrimination today. In 1968, one week after MLK was assassinated, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Federal Fair Housing Act into law. This made it unlawful for any private or public landlord to discriminate on the basis of: color, disability, familial status (i.e., having children under 18 in a household, including pregnant women), national origin, race, religion, or sex. While this has had a tremendously positive impact in ensuring the human rights of many, the fruits of MLK’s labor have not yet been fully realized. These laws have not included people with convictions like us.
Because we are not yet considered a protected class, the 7 million Americans with a record can be legally denied housing based on their conviction history.
VOTE’s Fair Housing Now! Campaign, led by our Housing Justice Organizer Kiana Calloway, seeks to rectify this. As the above introductory video explains, our goal is to ban the box (i.e. remove the question about conviction history) from all private and public rental applications in both Orleans and Jefferson Parish. We hope to do this by the end of 2020.
Like all of our work, the campaign operates from a coalition model that seeks to involve as many players as possible. When the campaign began last year, most of our partners were fellow non-profit organizations working for housing justice, as well as concerned citizens and community activists. This year, we’re seeking to expand our reach to include policymakers at every tier of government, all types of businesses from small mom-and-pop shops to national corporations, and--perhaps the toughest audience--private landlords.
“We need to open up the hearts and minds of not only our local leaders, but also the private landlords who have a heavy hand in playing out this discrimination,” says Calloway.
In addition to fighting for policy changes, we’re focused on shifting the cultural perceptions of people with convictions.
“We need a shift to where it becomes almost childish for someone to view me simply as a formerly incarcerated person [FIP] instead of a stand-up man in my community,” Calloway continues. “If they can’t view [formerly incarcerated people] as productive members of our community, then we’ll never be in agreement. What we’re really fighting for is safe, healthy and stable families. Who is really going to be against families? It’s not a good look for them.”
As the people in the above video explain, getting a job and finding housing as a returning citizen is not as easy as it sounds, even though these two things have been proven crucial in order to break the cycle of recidivism. Legal discrimination from property owners, combined with a lack of affordable rentals, push FIP out of the housing market. The same kind of discrimination from employers pushes them out of the job market. As a result, FIP are ten times more likely to be homeless than non-FIP.
Calloway is one of the few FIP he knows that has been gainfully and steadily employed since coming home. Despite this, he still has a hard time finding stable housing. This is one of the many reasons he’s on the frontlines of our campaign.
“The public needs to know that even those of us that have a decent education, a good job and cash in hand still face massive discrimination, exclusion and predation when trying to find a place to live.”
He reminds us that many reentry programs are not created and informed by FIP, and as such do not successfully help participants find a house and a job. “It is my duty to expose the ridiculousness of so-called reentry support programs that simultaneously exclude FIP from civil and economic life once they complete the programs. The current reentry mechanisms have no real bottom, so people continue to fall through.”
With the presidential election in November, justice reform--including housing justice for people with convictions--must be put into the national spotlight as the crisis that it is.
We begin to do that by starting right where we are. Last week, Calloway organized a rapid-fire action in which more than 70 New Orleanians used their lunch break to call their city councilmembers and demand that they push forward our work to ban the box. And this action is just the beginning, with more forums, rallies and meetings coming up soon.
“We win when the majority of our city councilmembers can say comfortably that New Orleans has 100,000 people with criminal records--which means that over half of our city’s families are dealing with a lifetime of punishment,” Calloway explains. “We win when they publicly acknowledge that these families are suffering in silence, and when they commit to doing something about it.”
Help us carry forth MLK’s legacy by getting involved in this fight today. Email Kiana directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today is the first day of the year 2020. Last year--2019--marked 400 years since the arrival of the first slave ship to what we now know as the Americas. With the new year comes new beginnings, but as the old African symbol of the Sankofa bird reminds us, we can’t see where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been.
Mass incarceration is a direct result of the transatlantic slave trade. Because the festering wounds from this collective trauma went unhealed, over the past 400 years we’ve seen the progression from slavery, to Jim Crow, to a public health crisis so severe that it affects one in every two American families.
Though these historic periods all share the intention of subjugating, controlling and profiting from Black people, people from all walks of life have become the collateral consequences of the system.
In other words, seeing the demise of mass incarceration is a struggle for everyone. And that’s what we have our eyes set on for 2020 and beyond.
At our last New Orleans chapter meeting of 2019, we asked our members to step back into what 400 years ago may have felt like. We asked them to reflect on what their ancestors may have been eating, smelling, and hearing; what horrors or moments of hope they may have witnessed; and who they may have been fighting alongside.
Then we asked them to take a look around the room at the freedom fighters of the present. Our membership includes everyone from Black leaders whose families have been in New Orleans for centuries, to Latinx and Asian activists whose families have experienced parallel horrors of mass deportation, to white organizers who were given the task of coming to one meeting a long time ago as a freshman college student, and then never left. Everyone is healing and fighting for freedom in distinct ways, but together we are a united front.
Finally, we asked our members to step 400 years into the future, to the year 2419. We heard what they want to see at this time, 800 years after the beginning of slavery.
They had a variety of hopeful answers, including that we’ll be flying, and so will our vehicles. Because there will be no need for highways, “everything will be all expansive,” says Darlene Jones. “We’ll have futuristic buildings and second-lines winding all over.”
In addition to creating major infrastructural innovations, our members know our society will also be more emotionally evolved.
“We’ll have multiple families living together with no conflicts,” says longtime VOTE member Kim.
“Justice will not be blind,” echoes Verelin, another longtime member. “She will not have blindfolds on.”
In a similar vein, “everyone will be equal,” Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice member Terell shares. “And we’ll have presidents of different races--a bunch of women presidents.”
Wendy, a newer but rapidly-growing member-leader whose son is incarcerated at Angola, chimes in. “We’ll live in a society where we will embrace our neighbors and grow together,” she says.
Our newest staff member, Community Health Worker Haki Sekou, had a more dystopian outlook on the future, postulating that mass incarceration would come in the form of chips implanted into people’s bodies.
His words serve as a warning for what could be if we don’t stick together and fight the system as we know it.
The VOTE staff took heed to his and everyone else's visions as we went into strategic planning at the end of December. While we didn’t plan for the next 400 years, we did take a serious look at the next decade.
In the imminent future, we have the 2020 elections on our mind, including the race for District Attorney and some local judges. We are also developing more opportunities for transitional housing, as more people than ever before are coming home. Finally, and as always, we have plans to strengthen our local, state and national coalitions, so that together we are unstoppable.
“I don’t have 10 years to wait,” says our Executive Director Norris Henderson. “The world changes when people, money and ideas get organized. And all of those things are sitting right here in our shop.”
To be so much,
To be a sunrise,
a first thought of morning.
To be a star,
a guiding thought in eve.
To be an anthem,
a song of celebration.
To be a page,
a gentle turn of history.
To be loved,
If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to email@example.com and we'll be in touch! We'll share the content on social media and always give credit to the artist(s) involved. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Angelo D. Golatt is currently incarcerated at David Wade Correctional Center.
This was a big year for VOTE, from our large-scale policy wins, to the personal wins from each of our members. In 2019, we saw yet again that our organization is powered by the perseverance, hope, and vision of hundreds of members, dozens of partner organizations, and about 20 staffers. Here’s what this unstoppable cohort of changemakers considers to be our top 10 wins of this year:
1. Our loved ones came home
Several VOTE members or their loved ones got out of prison this year. Some of them had been locked up for more than 40 years. “I’m blessed,” says VOTE member Cornell Hood who recently came home after doing many years of a life sentence. “Being able to be free and work a stable job [is] my win.”
2. We improved our health
Getting healthy was many of our members’ top win this year. “I’m thankful to be alive and free,” says one VOTE member. We know a healthy body and mind are necessary to do this work. That’s why we partner with Tulane University to run the Formerly Incarcerated Transitions (FIT) Clinic, which provides formerly incarcerated people with quality healthcare after they come home. We’re proud to say that in the past year we’ve hired two full-time, formerly incarcerated community health workers who will be bridging the gap between FIP medical needs and the services available!
3. We had policy wins
Every fall, we work to elect the right people so that our policy proposals get into the right hands. This year we had some notable wins, like “taking a bite out of the habitual offender [three-strikes] statute,” as one VOTE member described it. We’ll come back stronger next year, with the goal of taking two or more bigger bites. Another win was the enactment of a unanimous jury requirement for sentencing someone who’s being charged with a felony, which began on the 1st of January. “I felt this win personally,” shares member Darlene Jones, who sat on a jury that ended up convicting someone for murder with only 10 out of 12 votes. She felt that “the prosecution hadn’t even proven the case.” Non-unanimous jury convictions like the one that Darlene witnessed are no longer possible as of January 1, 2019. People still awaiting trial on arrests that happened before Jan. 1 and those already incarcerated on split juries do not get the benefits of this newfound justice. In other words, our fight to make the unanimous jury law retroactive still continues.
4. We voted for the first time!
Thanks to our legislative victory last year, Act 636 went into effect on March 1 of this year. This meant that this year was the first time many people with convictions were able to register and then vote! Voting as FIP marks the restoration of one of our core civil rights. “My high moment was the fact that I was able to vote for the very first time,” says VOTE member Donald Arbuthnot. “That blew me away.”
5. Then we got out the vote
In addition to voting for the first time, countless members of the VOTE family also joined forces in canvassing, registering, and poll monitoring to make sure Louisianans voted in the fall elections. “It was a win to see young people from 21 to 23 as well as older people ages 50 and up getting involved,” one VOTE member says. “Age didn’t matter. The one goal was to get people out to vote. It’s important.” As a result, we re-elected many candidates who we believe are best suited to push justice reform with us in 2020 and beyond!
6. We re-discovered our power
As we dove into our get out the vote efforts, many VOTE members also gained a deeper understanding of what political power means, including what seats are elected, how each position works for us, and how we can hold them to what they promise to do for our communities. As our fearless leader Norris Henderson says, “I vote because I understand the accountability that comes with it.” This year, more members than ever before also testified in front of elected officials, whether in the chambers of New Orleans City Council or in halls of the Louisiana State Capitol. “I spoke in front of both the City Planning Committee and the City Council for the first time to voice my opposition to the expansion of Orleans Parish Prison,” says our member Lauren Nguyen. “VOTE was the reason for that.” Elected officials are listening more intently than ever, too, and it shows. As one example, both the City Planning Committee and City Council voted unanimously to decrease the number of people allowed to be locked up in OPP. As one VOTE member reminds us, this year we earned an official nickname among legislators: the blue shirts.
7. We strengthened our partnerships
Social movements can’t happen in silos. That’s why almost everything we do is with at least one partner organization that shares our values and visions. Our members are the weavers between partner organizations, strengthening the fabric of our entire movement. For example, VOTE member Wan Qi Kong participated in the 9th Annual NOLA to Angola bike ride this fall. “Completing the ride deepened my commitment to justice reform work,” she says. “It was a beautiful and moving experience.” Other members have brought new partnerships into our fold by running a toy drive for children with incarcerated parents and starting a prison ministry called Abolition Apostles--a few of many examples.
8. We grew
Our statewide network has more members now than we’ve ever had before. “I learned about VOTE this past summer from a friend and made it my mission to get more involved,” a New Orleans member told us. Another said that they felt inspired to come back after many years away. In addition to the growth of our main chapter in New Orleans, we’ve seen the same in our three other chapters in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Shreveport. In the new year and beyond, we’re committed to developing these three other chapters, and one way we’ve already done that is by hiring four more full-time organizers. Additionally, our partner organization Voters Organized to Educate, which can lobby, endorse candidates, and get closer to political issues in the movement, hired its first full-time staff. We’re excited to work with all of the growing branches in our ever-expanding tree!
9. We deepened friendships
Our organization was started by several friends who had the shared experience of being incarcerated and were committed to changing their fate. Relationships are what keep this movement united, and we’re proud to be the reasons that many VOTE members became fast friends. “I was able to meet new friends this year who share the same passion as myself--fighting for justice,” says one VOTE member. These friendships remind us that what we’re building is a movement based on love.
10. We committed to gaining more wins
One VOTE member had a poignant message for us to remember as we celebrate this past year. “I’m waiting to receive my win,” he says, reminding us that there’s always more work to do, and more wins to be had. As we move into 2020 and beyond, these truths will echo in our ears.
These wins prove that VOTE is on the up and up. And they would not have been possible without the continued support of our community. Please consider us in your year-end giving. Make a donation here. Just like our wins, no donation is too big or small.