Jobs Not Jails: Schedule and More!

One thing you gotta say for the Jobs Not Jails (JNJ) campaign is that they have created an amazingly strong organizing effort on the ground. And no matter how many people actually show up on April 26–hopefully thousands–they have done a great job educating people who might not have heard the word about mass incarceration.

On that day, from 1-4pm, activists, union organizers, students, religious groups, politicians, business folk, former prisoners, and those in recovery will head to the Boston Common Bandstand to rally for jobs instead of prison construction. Then on April 30, JNJ plans to ring round the State House orange banners with the names of some 25,000 who have signed on to stop prison building: each name standing for a vote against a new prison bed and a vote for job creation. That day they plan to lobby legislators for some of the criminal justice bills already on the table including ending mandatory minimum sentencing; ending collateral sanctions and fees regarding prison phone service and driver’s license suspension; reforming classification, levels of punishment, and parole; providing access to rehabilitative services; and shifting the system as a whole by reforming pretrial services and establishing restorative justice practices in Massachusetts.

JNJ has just announced a list of the speakers for the rally on April 26. Those items/names in bold below are confirmed, and those in italics include issues to be addressed, but names of speakers for those issues were not yet confirmed as of this post.

12:30

 

 

Music from the Second Line Brass Band

1:20

 

 

MC Cassandra Bensahih, EPOCA

1:23

 

 

Sunni Ali, Boston Workers Alliance

1:27

 

 

Stop & Frisk   

1:30

 

 

Phone Rates – Committee of Friends and Relatives of Prisoners

1:34

 

 

MUSIC

1:45

 

 

Shackling

1:55

 

 

Bail Reform

2:00

 

 

Mandatory Minimums

2:05

 

 

Addiction Funding – Massachusetts Org for Addiction Recovery

2:10

 

 

MUSIC from Revolutionary Snake Ensemble

2:30

 

 

RMV collateral sanctionsEPOCA

2:35

 

 

Keturah  Brewster, Youth Jobs Coalition

2:40

 

 

Minimum Wage

2:45

 

 

MUSIC from Revolutionary Snake Ensemble

2:55

 

 

CeCe McDonald, activist/trans woman incarcerated in men’s prison

3:00

 

 

Larry Turner, math teacher and father of a murder victim

3:10

 

 

Rev. Paul Robeson Ford, Union Baptist Church

3:15

 

 

Donnelle Wright, Jobs Not Jails

3:20

 

 

Candidates for Attorney General (Warren Tolman confirmed)

3:40

 

 

MUSIC 

 

 

According to Steve O’Neil, executive director of Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement (EPOCA), the idea of JNJ came about after many across the state fought against Three Strikes legislation in 2012. O’Neill wanted to build on that groundswell and said in an interview that it was “a realization that for deep-seated change to occur in the criminal justice system, more coalition and leadership building were needed.” He added that “It is not just about flaws in CJ system…It is also about the hollowing out of labor in our economy—We are not even doing job training anymore,” and  it is especially difficult for those with criminal records to get jobs, he said.

On their website Jobs Not Jails lists some initial and far-reaching goals of the campaign against mass incarceration:

Cassandra Bensahih, a Community Organizer for EPOCA, and MC for the day of the rally, is a former prisoner who describes herself as “hooked” on the way EPOCA does organizing. She appreciates the second chance they gave her and has spoken all across the state to get signatures and raise awareness. She said in an interview she feels the current Jobs Not Jails campaign is a significant part of a movement to end mass incarceration because “it addresses racism and poverty and looks at legislative reform.” For her, it’s important for her kids to have a better life; she is particularly interested in diversion to treatment for drug offenders instead of jail.

While there are more than 100 organizations which have signed on as supporters of JNJ, an active group also fighting for job creation is the Youth Jobs Coalition (YJC), with branches in Worcester, Brockton, and Boston. Founded by Dan Gelbtuch, YJC is a coalition of 40 youth and community groups from across the state which work together to create more employment opportunities for teens—especially difficult in a sagging economy.

Keturah Brewster, a senior at Boston Latin and lead organizer for YJC who will speak at the rally has been tirelessly collecting signatures on JNJ petitions. She experienced racial discrimination when she and her friends were just hanging out harmlessly in Boston. She described, in an interview, how police officers ambushed three of her male friends and beat up one, and watched as they were whisked away to jail; one was accused of assaulting an officer. She is worried about the racial issues in incarceration. Likewise, Devens Archer, another YJC activist is concerned about incarceration of youth, and also about job opportunities after prison. He said he’s trying to collect 1000 signatures.

O’Neill said that many legislators think their constituents are uneducated and maybe even unconcerned about these issues, but “They’re wrong.” Each person who shows up or signs a petition, he said, demonstrates the strength people have to lobby for change and demand public spending to create jobs rather than prison cells.

For more on JNJ thoughts on job creation, see here, and come to the rally on April 26!

Appalachian Prisons and Beyond

This weekend I went to West Virginia with many education in prison folks from around the country to the Educational Justice and Appalachia Prisons Symposium.

Morgantown, West Virginia is a cross between a college town and scenes from A Coal Miner’s Daughter. It’s only 1 and 1/2 hours from Pittsburgh but a lot of rolling hills until you hit the city. The speakers were stellar, each adding something unique to the event. But I couldn’t stop singing “Country Roads, Take Me Home” all weekend.

The first panel with incarcerated Inside Out students was accompanied by an officer to the presentation where presenters talked about their lives, and writing while locked in a federal prison. Inside Out in WVA brings college students inside in a unique program that offers college credit to both inside and outside students, Some comments from prisoners who were in attendance: “Without the outside, us on the inside would just be talking to ourselves;” and “Not writing about mass incarceration today would be like not writing about slavery in the 19th century.” Anne Rice, a powerhouse who teaches in a prison program with Lehman University, and has coordinated TEDx talks inside prisons, was also on that panel. She reinforced recent RAND Report findings–higher ed reduces recidivism. Also raised in this panel were two important concerns: some students of color don’t want to be in Inside-out programs because they don’t want to be any nearer than they are to the CJ system. And there can be a stigma associated with doing programs.

How hard it is to get past your past with social media continuing to scarlet letter you, I thought, as audience members rightly talked about how we need to find jobs for kids coming out of the system, fix the system and not-so-much, the kids. And I thought again of what Angela Davis said recently in a talk at Babson College which knocked my socks off: “Prisons are havens for outdated ideologies.”

The next panel included Jim Rubenstein, the Commissioner of Corrections in West Virginia, who shocked me when he said West Virginia has the 4th lowest recidivism rate in the country at 27%. Why, I wondered? Do they have such long sentences that no one gets out? Considering that Massachusetts’ recidivism is closer to 60% I want to try and understand his data. The Commissioner also spoke of drug addiction and incarceration. When I spoke on Changing Lives Through Literature, I said, in response to the first two panels, that we should take the word “inmate” out of our conversation, and that we should approach drug addiction as a health problem not as a criminal justice issue (See The House I Live in). Then I spoke about the program I love that has graduated more than 5000 probationers nation-wide.

The evening was highlighted by Rebecca Ginsburg’s stunning program, Education Justice Project, which is very collaborative with people inside/outside. It is a model college-in-prison-program, and the keys are: critical pedagogy, involvement of families, and starting slowly. One of my favorite things that Ginsburg said is that the program is “about the quality of life for anyone wherever they stand.” It is not just about recidivism, or re-entry. She highlighted that at the Higher Education in Prison conference in October, 2014, prisoners will be presenters as well as scholars from the outside.

Restorative Justice (RJ) was one of the highlights of the next day. Attorney Brenda Waugh said RJ depends on humility, respect and wonder, and the central issue is to “address harm.” Victims meet with those they have harmed, and although forgiveness is not always possible, some kind of understanding is. Judge Michael Aloi said entering a courtroom is “entering intense suffering.” He talked about “restoring dignity” to people, expungement of records, and being a non-judgmental judge. Attorney Valeena Beety, who teaches at the WVA Law School, quoted Angela Davis by saying that “prison is an abstract site into which people are placed,” and it is supposedly justified by the fact that it incapacitates. Most impressive at this panel was Jacqueline Roebuck Sakho who brought her small children, asked permission of the elders in the room before she spoke, and said we cannot do restorative justice until we confront multiple narratives of the system, who is responsible for crime, and who or what is actually guiltyBkjFmc4CYAEigfK.

 

 

Brenda Waugh, Judge Aoli, and Jackie Sakho.

Kyes Stevens shocked me with this: Alabama prisons are 198% overcrowded. Stevens worked at Tutweiller Prison where abuse is rampant, she said, and then “In steps poetry.” The Alabama Prison Arts & Education Project is thriving with many sites throughout the state and many teachers. Stevens finds joy in her work in prison, knows how to bring in all the stakeholders, and my favorite comment from her: “A handful of pencils” can lead to “amazing art.”

Both the Appalachian Book Project and Books Through Bars in Philadelphia do the incredible hard work of getting books to prisoners, both in West Virginia (ABP), and up and down the east coast (BTB). Marc Niesen from Chatham University in Pittsburgh mentioned the epiphany we all have who teach/have taught inside: “I can walk out.” The Chatham program has a great resource and a video on their site with the concept that words help you get outside your cell. On that same panel was Laura Leigh Morris who teaches in a Texas prison where women say they want the writing class to be a “refuge.” Most interesting, she said, “I have to pee in a cup to teach there.” Oh Texas!

The final presentation of the weekend was Dwayne Betts, poet, former prisoner and now student at Yale Law School. He shared his experience behind bars growing into  books and words. He read from his books of poetry and I am now devouring his memoir, A Question of Freedom. What an amazing mind. I’ll leave you with a snippet from one of his poems, entitled, “A Post-Modern Two Step:”

And this is ruin. Damn these chains,
this awkward dance I do with this van. Two-step,
my body swaying back and forth, my head
a pendulum that’s rocked by the wild riffs
of the dudes I’m riding with: them white folks know
you ain’t god body, what you commune wine
and bread? Where you from son? Red lines?
To what Onion? My eyes two caskets though,
so the voices are sheets of sound. Our van as dark
inside as out, and all the bodies black
and voices black too and I tell my god
if you have ears for this one, know I want
no part of it, no Onions and no tears.
I tell no one, and cry my dirge.
This place,
the cracked and scratching vinyl seats, the loud
loud talk of murder this and blanket fear
around the rest, is where I’m most at home,
but it’s beyond where prayers reach, a point
something like purgatory. I lean back
and drift in sleep as someone says, his voice
all hoarse and jacked, all broken songbird-like
all revolutions end with a L-note.

What a weekend.

Activism is Alive and Well

After the wonderful experience I had last week at the Harvard Forum, I have been thinking a lot about bold actions, civil disobedience, and how we can express ourselves when we need to get the powers-that-be to see wrongs in our world. It was so heartwarming to experience students at the Law School come in with signs, or audience members stand and turn around as a symbolic way of refusing to listen—ways to protest homophobia. It reminded me of the time I protested the Vietnam War by marching in front of Stanford Research (SRI) Institute in California, gathering with a group that eventually got tear-gassed because we refused to move. This was in protest of SRI’s making materials to support the war effort. I remember the many signs teachers carried at protests to stand up for education and reject forced furloughs. Some men and women who refused to let the pickets at abortion clinics stop them from practicing medicine, lost their lives. In my day, it was not looked down on to stand up for what you believe in.

The Occupy movement renewed my faith in this kind of courage. And it also impressed a young woman who I ran across on Twitter. She was a Freshman when the Occupy movement took hold in Boston. And it changed her. Recently, Ali Welton sent out a tweet and although I didn’t know her, I saw it whe I looked through the hashtags (#=subjects) that indicated a tweeter was interested in Massachusetts politicians reading the tweet, i.e. #mapoli. I retweeted:

This is pretty fab: Via @AlliWelton Will @Massgovernor draw hard line against NewFossilFuels? http://justandstable.org/walkout 

I was excited. A walkout for climate change? I hadn’t heard of such a thing recently. So I “followed” Ali Welton on Twitter, and found that the walkout she spoke of was happening soon. I wanted to know her story.

Welton, born in a town of 1000 came to Harvard (what she called “the big city”) in 2011. Two years before, there had been a big push for 100% clean electricity ( no oil, coal or gas, only renewable energies like wind and solar) from an organization at Harvard called “Students for a Just and Stable Future.” It’s a network of campus groups across the state that do climate activism, and she got involved when she came to Harvard.

In September, 2012, the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement took off, partly because of Bill McKibbon’s stunning article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” in Rolling Stone. Welton said, Divestment was necessary as a tactic to decrease the influence of fossil fuel companies over our political system because if fossil fuel companies go forward, we’ll have put too much pollution in the atmosphere and end up in a world of climate disaster.” 350.org, McKibbon’s organization which aims to build a global movement of climate changers, reached out to a Cambridge group called “Better Future Projects,” a climate non-profit, looking for what Welton called “guinea pig campuses” to get campaigns underway. They got lots of takers in New England.

Welton was so driven by the climate movement that she took a year off from school, got a waitress job and worked for over eight months developing the campaign with her “Team.” She also took six weeks off from her waitress job to plan the action for today, the walkout. Now that’s what I’m talking about when I use the words “dedication to a cause.”

Today, 100-200 students from more than twenty schools across the Commonwealth walked out of classes at schools such as Harvard, Suffolk, Northeastern, Boston University, Worcester State, Hampshire College, Mt. Holyoke, and UMass Amherst. Students had sent letters to their teachers explaining the action and why they felt it was necessary to bring attention to climate change, specifically pushing for a ban on building any new fossil fuel infrastructure. They wanted teachers to know that their classes were important but this required action, right now.

They had met already with Secretary Richard J. Sullivan Jr., Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs in the Commonwealth, and they felt that they needed to speak to Governor Deval Patrick directly. The walkout was intended to shore up that meeting. And they succeeded. The meeting with the Governor himself will be scheduled for this spring.

To check out more about students like Ali Welton, take a look at this website. A powerful quote from this organization shows their passion to make the world safer and more inhabitable for all: “Climate change affects low-income populations, the developing world, and youth the most. In other words, the greatest burden of the climate problem has landed on the backs of those who haven’t caused it, have the least leverage and resources to deal with its harms, and have the least amount of power to advocate for solutions.”

They’re right, this injustice wasn’t caused by them. We need to step up and help.

Out-takes from the MA Gov Candidate Criminal Justice Forum

For those of you who didn’t have a chance to go, the Criminal Justice Forum at Harvard Law School for Gubernatorial Candidates, per my post in Boston Magazine, turned out to be an exercise in free speech. For some, it was also a frustrating realization that two hours can barely scratch the surface of complicated issues and policies that people care deeply about. For those who did attend on March 13th—more than 350—congratulations on exceedingly civil ways of shunning anti-gay pastor Scott Lively’s views while listening with a questioning mind to Evan Falchuck, Mark Fisher, Steve Grossman, and Juliette Kayyem. As candidates put forth their positions, this audience was not just taking it in. They had opinions.

I thought I’d share some of the questions that didn’t get asked and some of the tweets that helped to define how the audience responded to this event. I also hope that candidates will take the time to put forth clearer and more specific answers to many of the questions important to the audience.

Live tweeting from events is au courant today, and there were some great tweets. Prisoner Legal Services of Massachusetts (PLS) pointed out that Juliette Kayyem said “You rarely get good policy, good morals and lower cost in criminal justice.” They added that on race in criminal justice, Kayyem said “The laws are blind but they impact certain communities more than others. PLS quoted Steve Grossman, “More prisons, mandatory minimums, & undercutting judicial discretion are the wrong approach, and “I will use every tool at my disposal to stop prison expansion;” From Evan Falchuk, “We are the most progressive state in country. Seriously? We’re still shackling prisoners in labor. Needs to end.

EPOCA (Ex-prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement) was impressed by Grossman’s calling for” freezing prison construction, totaling mandatory minimums, and funding drug treatment and job training.” They also understandably wondered  “Why are Martha Coakley and Charlie Baker not at the forum hosted by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice?”

Since all the candidates were invited, I might suggest that perhaps they did not want to get grilled about their positions? Don Berwick, who could not attend, at least sent a video with his progressive positions outlined.

Some of the most insightful and critical tweets were from Jason Lydon of Black and Pink. Lydon tweeted that “Evan Falchuk: first person to mention race.” Falchuk said: “Get at the root causes of crime… Follow data driven and evidence based practices.” Lydon also added that it took awhile for Kayyem to talk about racism, and that while Grossman said he wanted to “leave no one behind,”  he needed to “TALK about how people of color are disproportionately unemployed and in poverty.” Lydon felt Mark Fisher wanted a “‘blind’ jobs programs” ignoring race so that all people were “equal under the law.” Said Lydon, “He lives in imaginary world.” Lydon also pointed out that Fisher “highlighted Chris Christie and Scott Walker as governors he wants to be like. Yikes.”

Evan Falchuk tweeted:  Embedded image permalink
“Honored to join Criminal Justice Forum last nite at the Houston Institute – reform is one of most impt opptys for next #Magov.” Agreed!

Audience members wanted to know how candidates proposed to pay for services they wanted such as increased mental health services, veterans’ courts and workforce development for returning prisoners; how might they deal with wrongful convictions and if they might insist that police interrogations be videotaped; how they might stop prison staff bringing drugs into prisons; their views on solitary confinement, the lack of commutations and the horrendous cutback in those being paroled; if candidates supported wire-tapping; what steps they might take to stop the current Finegold-Tarr bill to insist of thirty-five years of time for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder; how they planned to hold sheriffs accountable for rehabilitation of prisoners; and what they felt should be done about incarcerating immigrants. Would anyone see to it that the cuurent “gag order” that exists for the Department of Corrections is lifted so that the public might begin to see that ex-prisoners are not the monsters they are portrayed but people who are making many contributions to society?

There were many who stood and turned their back when Lively spoke–he’d been dis-invited then re-invited last minute in the name of free speech, ironic after he admitted on the panel that he didn’t know if he really wanted the job of governor; several from Harvard’s LGBT student organization, LAMDA, held signs that had slogans such as “No Hate in the State House.”

The moderators, Professor Charles Ogletree and Judge Nancy Gertner had an impossible job trying to move this discussion away from sound bites. I hope it is not the last time we try to facilitate real conversation on criminal justice issues. I’d like to think of it as only the beginning in a long race for governor. It is for many of us, one of the defining issues of the 2014 race.

What Will Candidates for Governor Say About Criminal Justice?

An upcoming forum at Harvard promises to get the wannabes talking about some thorny issues for Massachusetts. This will be March 13, 2014,6-8pm at Harvard Law school and you can find out more about it, who the candidates are who’re attending and some of the material that Massachusetts had better get down to—on Boston Magazine here.