Ferguson at Harvard

Tear-gas-filled-streets-BLMAn image from the streets of Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson.

The film, Saving St. Louis, and the event that followed at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute of Race & Justice was overly ambitious for a four hour slot on a Saturday afternoon, but a lot more interesting than what the Boston Globe reported ten days ago in their headline: “Activists Spar with Ferguson Mayor; police chief at Harvard.” While the Globe discussed the tension between stakeholders from Ferguson after unarmed Michael Brown was killed by police officer, Darren Wilson, the article missed some of the event’s best moments in their coverage.

The afternoon was multifaceted and much more vibrant than mere remarks shoved back and forth. First there was a moving introduction given by David Harris, the managing director of the Institute. Speaking of the times we live in when a black man can be choked eleven times by a white police officer, when use of clemency has dwindled across the country and U.S. mass incarceration stands at 2.3 million people, he said (and I paraphrase): We must name the problem if we live in a society that excludes some and not others, i.e. “Implicit bias invades every aspect of our society.” He rightly called the death penalty a way of claiming, “White lives matter rather than black lives matter,” and he shocked us when he said two people in U.S. prisons had faced execution on Martin Luther King’s birthday.

As Harris introduced the day’s events, he beckoned us to remember that “True citizenship is a dynamic of inclusion and participation. What we are learning from today’s protestors is that they are voting with their feet and not their ballots.” Whether or not you think that is a good thing, some of this important on-their-feet-participation was actually present before we walked into the hall where two hundred and fifty or so people had gathered for the event. A group from the Harvard Ferguson Action Committee protested the presence of Police Chief Thomas Jackson and Ferguson Mayor James Knowles whom they called “human rights abusers,” handing out flyers calling for their resignation.

Certainly some of this important anger helped set the stage for the day, but deep concern was behind the anger, a need to fight the kind of injustice that has fueled the Black Lives Matter movement. One such person invited to participate, show his film, and moderate one of the panels was Andre Norman. Boston native and a formerly incarcerated gang member, Norman has turned around his life to become a change agent. His interesting film on the St. Louis school system had been filmed long before the events in Ferguson. It spoke of the kind of inequities that we have seen in poor communities across this nation. The school system was failing and to help improve it, Norman aimed at connecting people, similar and different from himself, and he brought attention to the problem. The film shows us the views and work being done by gang leaders, inner-city activists, and corporate CEOs.

There were several interesting comments about Norman’s attempt to help St. Louis lose the designation of “the most violent city in America.” They included Reverend Charles Shelton of Urban Development Solutions in St. Louis, saying, “When the Mike Brown situation happened, that was already my reality and that was just showing you folks what was happening in my reality every day.” Dr. E. Lance McCarthy, co-founder of Black Silicon Valley and Ferguson 1000 Jobs, said “African Americans contribute a trillion to this economy but jobs they get are not equal to that. You cannot solve economic problems with social solutions.” In other words, people need jobs. Behind the failing schools was economic injustice. But of course, racism was and is also part of the picture.

As the discussion turned to the recent events, we heard from Dianne Wilkerson, Massachusetts former state senator, who has her own checkered past as both a beloved and effective legislator—the first black woman elected to serve in Massachusetts— and also a person who as served time for public corruption charges. The Globe reported that she was “a civil rights attorney for the NAACP and in the Dukakis administration.” One of the most moving comments she made in her introduction was “My personal triumph and victory is that I have kept my son alive.” Wilkerson spoke out about a recent action that stopped traffic on the highways of Boston, countering the idea that it was disruptive for no purpose, and adding that #BlackLivesMatter welcomes everyone to protest conditions that are inhumane and exclusionary.

Boston BLM March


                    Photo by Jean Trounstine from #BlackLivesMatter March in Boston

Wilkerson introduced several people who knew the pain of losing loved ones to police violence. Eric Garner’s nephew Gabriel Baez said he grew up with the same story as St. Louis. “The problem of police brutality is real. We have to change the relationship of police with the urban community.” Monalisa Smith from Mothers for Justice and Equality, founded by mothers who had lost children to violence, said “Hopelessness needs to be turned into solutions. It is not normal for kids to be killed or incarcerated.” She added about what goes on for kids in communities where there is violence, “Trauma impacts the ability to be educated.”  In an amazing moment for the audience, as they absorbed how these speakers had lost sons and brothers and nephews, Dr. Leah Gunning Francis, Associate Dean for Contextual Education at the Eden Theological Seminary, asked, “What can we do as concerned people to bring compassion into the hearts of people who look at us every day and want us dead?”

The most important question of the day occurred when Dianne Wilkerson asked each of the final group of panelists one single question. These panelists included the mayor and the police chief, as well as: OOOPS, a local St. Louis artist and street poet (“battle rapper”) who has been on the front lines in Ferguson;  Justin Hansford, a professor of law at St. Louis University; Derecka Purnell, a Harvard Law School student who went to Missouri to protest; Paul Muhammad, founder of Peace Keepers St. Louis; and Dave Spence, a St. Louis businessman. She asked: “What do you think is the problem,” and she was speaking about Ferguson, but of course, knowing its ramifications have echoed across the nation.

The answers were profound and why I needed this day at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute. Professor Hansford said the problem is: “Black lives do not matter.” He pointed out that “Whenever killing happens and no one is held accountable, someone needs to lose their job.” And he asked the police chief and commissioner to resign. Echoing him, Purnell said “I think that whenever someone is killed by the police they need to go to trial. There is leadership that wants to hold on to power and not justify a broken system.”

The police chief got a cold shoulder from the audience when he said that the problem was “very long term poverty and lack of love in some people’s lives.” He added that he thought the country needed to “establish a national policy when an officer is involved in shootings… a transparent system…you have to talk right away. Police can’t kill someone and not explain why.” Likewise, the mayor was shunted when he ignored cries of “Racism” from the audience and said “Economics is the problem.” He added “I called fourteen elected officials to remove Bob McCullough. Our governor didn’t have the political courage.”

Muhammad said that the problem is “the disregard and dehumanization of black lives.” Speaking of the mayor and police chief and others like Bob McCullough, he added, “It was not personal and they did not feel it when Mike brown on the ground.” Muhammad feels that the racial divide in Ferguson and racial component across the country has to be addressed.

Ooops ended this panel with something that has stayed with me ever since. He said “The biggest problem is I always fit the description. Think about me getting pulled over with a gun in a car that I can legally have. We have to stay alive.”

I applaud the Institute for taking on so many important projects like this one, and for those of you who missed it, check out their website for future events.

Reading Groups in Prison

I’m excited that West Virginia University is starting a  book group that seems based, in part on Changing Lives Through Literature. I have written about CLTL here and there’s info on my blog about it as well. When I went to a conference last year in West Virginia, I talked about CLTL and lo and behold, I think it helped Katy Ryan get this group going, although she had been doing great things already with literature and writing behind bars.

This is a press release from WVA. I forgive them the use of the word, “inmate.” For more info, contact: Devon Copeland, Devon.Copeland@mail.wvu.edu _______________________________________________________________

For the past 10 years, community and West Virginia University nonprofit organization the Appalachian Prison Book Project has helped imprisoned people discover the transformative power of reading.

The project began in 2004 after Katy Ryan, associate professor of English at WVU, realized the state did not have any prison book projects.

The group has received more than 20,000 letters from imprisoned people expressing how needed — and essential — reading is. Books have been shipped to men and women in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Now, the program is starting its next chapter – a prison book club in the secure female facility at the U.S. Penitentiary Hazelton in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia.

The idea for the book club grew from a discussion at last spring’s Educational Justice and Appalachian Prisons Symposium, an event co-sponsored by the Appalachian Prison Book Project. Longtime members of the project Cari Carpenter, Elizabeth Juckett and Katy Ryan are facilitating the book club.

“Prisons are built to isolate and to separate. They stand as formidable barriers between those inside and those outside. Books can lessen that isolation,” said Ryan, founder of the Appalachian Prison Book Project. “Malcolm X wrote that reading in prison changed forever the course of his life. ‘It awoke in me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.’ We all need that intellectual and creative stimulation, and people in prison have fewer opportunities for it.”

Through reading and discussion of selected works, the group hopes to strengthen members’ analytical and communication skills, and build positive peer support and vital connections between people inside and outside prisons.

It can also foster relationships and help mend those affected by incarceration.

“One woman told us that after reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, she wanted to reach out to her son. He is going through a hard time, and she hadn’t been able to find a way to connect with him. She had not felt comfortable writing to him, but the book helped her find a way to start,” Ryan said. “She wrote her son a letter. Then they talked on the phone for the first time in seven months.

For others, it can simply be a more personal feeling.

“Several (prisoners) have talked about how a book has stayed with them and given them a new perspective or strength,” Ryan said. “The importance of reading and access to an education while inside prison certainly extends to life outside prison. Studies repeatedly conclude that those with a higher education do better once released than those without. But learning also matters while people are still in prison. Their lives, their health, their relationships, their mental faculties are not on hold. Books—and especially being able to talk with others about books—can be a real resource for living, for figuring things out.”

Every other week the book club works on creative writing. The 14-member group writes short essays and poems, reading them to one another.

“We want the book club to be flexible and responsive to the needs and ideas of participants,” Ryan said. “The women are highly motivated and dedicated to their education and growth. It’s a phenomenal group.”

Though it always accepts donations for postage, supplies and other books (including dictionaries), the group is currently seeking donations of the following titles for the book club. All donated items must be paperback.

There Are No Children Here, by Alex Koltowitz

A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest Gaines

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Discussions in the club have been fantastic and reaction to the group has been positive, Ryan said.

“Staff members (at the prison) have reached out to let me know that the women are really excited about the program and are talking about the books as they are reading them. And we know that other women are already interested in joining the next group. There is a lot of momentum.

The group says studies show rates of repeat offenses drop when inmates are given access to such materials while inside. The power of the written word, Ryan said, has the ability to change and transform.

“We often describe books as an ‘escape’ or ‘transporting’ — they move us — and yet they return us to ourselves and our moment,” she said. “The right book at the right time can adjust, even alter, the way that we think about life and the world.”


CJ and Drug Policy Legislation: Who’s Filing What in Massachusetts?

Last week Barbara Dougan, Project Director of the Massachusetts office of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, convened a terrific roundtable discussion at the Massachusetts Bar Association in Boston. The host was Lee Constantine of the Mass Bar. The point was to share and discover what criminal justice and drug policy reforms that groups hope to turn into legislation for the upcoming 2015-16 session.

I attended as a member of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety (CEPS), and along with the more than twenty others around the table, we are hoping that next year we will bring change to Massachusetts with legislation.

State House Hearing Room








Massachusetts State House Senate Chamber

Tony Smith of the New Start Project began the meeting. His organization advocates for reentry opportunities for people exiting prison. Their top priorities include repealing what the Prison Policy Institute, in an excellent report, calls a “misguided Massachusetts law”. This Registry of Motor Vehicles law (RMV) automatically suspends driver’s licenses of people convicted of a drug offense for up to five years, regardless of whether or not the original offense had anything to do with driving or road safety. I wrote about this here when I first heard about it last year.

Lois Ahrens, Director of The Real Cost of Prisons Project, was also representing the Pre-Trial Working Group (PTWG) which has as one of its priorities to stop the building of new jails and prisons, certainly as they say on their website: Massachusetts should have a moratorium on new construction “until bail reform and other pretrial diversion programs are implemented.” Reforming the outdated system of money bail is another top priority for the PTWG and was discussed by Norma Wassel, founder of Massachusetts Bail Fund, and a member of the Pre-Trial Working Group along with Ahrens. For more information on why bail jails are a bad idea see this article in Boston Magazine.

Andrea Goode-James, Executive Director of Families for Justice as Healing, and Rene Brimage, one of the members of that organization directly affected by policies affecting formerly incarcerated women, talked about services for women after prison. Their legislative priority is “to  create community-based sentencing alternatives for primary caretakers of dependent children.”

Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, and Bill Robinson, chair of the political action committee, talked about filing bills to end or limit the school to prison pipeline and police use of military equipment. They are also concerned about the cultural competency of law enforcement, and importantly, they want to file legislation addressing special prosecutors’ “inappropriate charges of murder” that primarily affect black citizens.

Prisoner Legal Services of Massachusetts, represented by Bonnie Tenneriello, will be filing legislation to stop some of the harsh solitary confinement conditions in Massachusetts, and are working on a bill for extraordinary conditions of illness and aging that should result in medical release from prison. They also have been very involved with what Tenneriello called “The Bridgewater Bill,” which aims to stop those with serious mental illnesses from restraints, solitary, and other harsh conditions that exacerbate issues for anyone much less those with mental health issues.

Liza Lunt of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said that they do not file bills but they lobby and support organizations who do file legislation. They are particularly interested, she said, in “the elimination of mandatory minimums,” and they are supporting statutory rape reform, expungement of records, ending harsh solitary confinement conditions, and they are advocating for medical release for prisoners.

The Coalition for Effective Public Safety, a group of many other organizations and individuals advocating for criminal justice reform, is supporting medical release, stopping solitary confinement, and parole reform. There is a group from CEPS currently working to decide what we feel is most important and necessary to improve parole. We do know that we are interested in presumptive parole, limiting setbacks when parolees are refused release by the Parole Board, right to counsel for parole revocation or rescission hearings, limiting the kinds of violations that result in revocation, and improving post incarceration supervision issues.

David Harris of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice said that they are not filing bills but as Harris also said, “we find ourselves in coalition with others.” Likewise, Len Engel of the Crime and Justice Institute at Community Resources for Justice said they do not have a Massachusetts agenda currently but they have seen renewed interest in justice reinvestment from some Massachusetts leaders. They also mentioned bail reform and mandatory minimums as on their agenda. Melissa Threadgill, who is working with Engel, also attended.

Hope Haff representing the National Association of Social Workers of Massachusetts said their agenda includes taking a stand against solitary confinement, backing the removal of mandatory minimums, as well as supporting compassionate release and the RMV bill that others discussed.

Mary Ann Walsh, FAMM’s lobbyist, and Barb Dougan talked about the mandatory minimum bill that they are working on with the Harm Reduction and Drug Reform Caucus in the Legislature. Maryann Frangules from Massachusetts Organization for  Addiction Recovery (MOAR) supports FAMM’s agenda. They also support repealing the RMV law and are working on legislation involving funding for residential treatment services. Additionally, they are considering if they need to strengthen language in an important piece of legislation for addiction and recovery, the Good Samaritan Law. Another recovery specialist, Connie Peters from the Association for Behavioral Healthcare is aiming to improve insurance to cover addiction services, and wants to create specific legislation to ask methadone clinics to be open to other treatments.

Lisa Hewitt and Maryann Calia, representing the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), said that they have “broad scope legislative initiatives” and mentioned several, including expungement of records, for those who have been falsely accused. They said that they could help others draft legislation and give people and organizations analysis on the issues–a real plus for everyone. Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for CPCS, added that bail reform, mandatory minimums, decriminalizing low level offenses, and the rights of juveniles are also among their agenda items.

John Ward came from Roca (meaning rock in Spanish), a group serving 17-24 year-olds. They are interested in policies that will reduce the amount of incarceration in the Commonwealth. They want criminal record reform, the elimination of money bail, and more community corrections instead of prison and jail for young people. Ward mentioned the “massive chasm” that exists between law enforcement and youth and feels training of police needs to address this.

Mike Avitzur, from the Boston Bar Association, mentioned that they too want an end to mandatory minimums and are concerned about guarding the rights of those serving juvenile life without parole sentences (since the Diatchenko decision). They oppose the death penalty and are pursuing issues of mass incarceration and reentry for prisoners.

Rev. Paul Ford from the Boston Workers Alliance (BWA) said that he supported the omnibus bill being considered by Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement.  (EPOCA). They both want bail reform, an end to mandatory minimums, a repeal of the RMV bill, and parole reform. Ford said that BWA also was working on a campaign against gentrification that was pushing former prisoners out of housing opportunities.

Criminal Justice Policy Coalitions Rachel Corey said they are working with the Bail Fund and Jobs Not Jails, and offered their website for a place to house bills that will be filed. She plans to include details on the bills so that advocates can share information and support each other’s efforts. This is important because it is all too easy to lose touch. We should all send info to Corey at director@cjpc.org.

Until the next meeting!

Note: Senator James Eldridge (Dem-Acton) will be filing a restorative justice bill. Many legislators are already on board for the projects mentioned and others will be contacted. If there are other pieces of CJ legislation in the works, please let me know and I will add to this list.

Thanksgiving in Prison

I posted this first in 2012, but I’m posting it again this year, in part because I need to think about people in prison on Thanksgiving. In part because it’s now 2.3 million behind bars. And in part because Boston protestors, in sympathy Ferguson and furious about racial inequality in our punishment system,  marched to the South Bay House of Correction chanting “We See You.”

I’ve been thinking about all the 2.2 million people in this country who will spend this Thanksgiving behind bars.  Yes, some of them have done pretty horrible things.  And some of them have been away from their family for years for very good reasons.  But many prisoners, the people we sentence to our darkest places — in fact, over one quarter of them according to The National Review  online — are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. And many of them will be saying their thanks for what they are grateful for; most of it has to do with love.

I have written much and often about how prisoners are not merely their crimes, and that their humanity is what often allows them to transform themselves behind bars whether it be through reading, programs, art, deep epiphanies about themselves and/or remorse.  While on the day of Thanksgiving, no prisoner gets the benefit of home, even the dysfunctional home, many prisons provide a turkey dinner with the usual trimmings.  Maybe not mom’s home-made pumpkin pie, but nonetheless, pie.

Thanksgiving is rough on the families who are visiting their loved ones behind bars. Mary Gautier, Louisiana born and Nashville now, kicking around with over five albums, has a song that really hits me when I think of how hard it is for everyone in this constellation, the families and the prisoners.  It’s called “Thanksgiving.”  You can listen to it here.

“We stood in a long line waiting for the doors to be unlocked
Out in the cold wind, ‘round the razor wire fenced in cellblock
Young mamas with babies, sisters and other kinds of kin
At Tallulah State Prison on Thanksgiving Day, we’re waiting to get in

You gotta get here early, it don’t matter how many miles you drove
They make you wait for hours, jailers always move slow
They run names, check numbers, gravel faced guards they don’t smile
Grammy and me in line, silently waiting single file

Thanksgiving at the prison, surrounded by families
Road weary pilgrims who show up faithfully
Sometimes love ain’t easy, sometimes love ain’t free

My grammy looks so old now, her hair is soft and white like the snow
Her hands tremble when they frisk her from head to her toes
They make her take her winter coat off then they frisk her again
When they’re done she wipes their touch off her dress, stands tall and heads in

Thanksgiving at the prison, surrounded by families
Road weary pilgrims who show up faithfully
Even though it ain’t easy, even though it ain’t free
Sometimes love ain’t easy, I guess love ain’t free”

Mary isn’t alone in thinking about prisoners on Thanksgiving.  A lot of us who have worked behind bars turn our thoughts to those who can’t go home.  Jack Cashill, an Emmy-award winning filmmaker and producer, shared a letter online from a prisoner.  It doesn’t surprise me one bit — the gratefulness expressed.  But I’d say it’s a lesson for many of us who complain about the minutia of life (me), and even those of us (me) who are sad on Thanksgiving without our parents to share our joy and sorrow. Most of us need to stop and see how much being in the moment and appreciating what we have is a way to heal our hurts.  Of course, prisoners learn this too.  Here’s a snippet of the part of the letter that I like best.  So thanks to Steven Nary who wrote it in Avenal State Prison in California:

“For everyone who has ever come into my life, no matter how long our interaction was or whether it was inside or outside of prison, I am grateful for each moment, which is a gift in itself and a blessing…”

On a day where we think both about what we’ve lost and what we’ve found, let’s remember those behind bars.