Former Prisoners Reforming Prisons

Elizabeth Gaynes has worked with people involved in the criminal justice system for more than 30 years: as a young law student in the early 1970s, she was galvanized by the uprising at Attica, and helped to defend some of the incarcerated people who were involved. Later, she took the reins as executive director of the nonprofit Osborne Association, which provides services to incarcerated people and their communities.

But until her daughter turned 16 and started speaking up about prison issues, Gaynes kept a rather relevant piece of personal information close to her chest: her kids' own father was incarcerated, and had been for a decade. "We really didn't volunteer that information very much in the world," she says. "Even people like me who worked in this business felt pretty restrained."

All of that's changed now. Part of it, Gaynes says, was her daughter's outspokenness. Part of it, however, was a larger cultural shift that is now reaching a tipping point. People affected by incarceration are raising their voices and telling their stories in ever-larger numbers. And, for the first time, politicians, policymakers, correctional officials, and foundations are listening.

"There are more formerly incarcerated people speaking up, organizing to fight for civil and human rights," says Dorsey Nunn of the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization Legal Services for Prisoners With Children.

There is now more funding than ever before available for organizations doing work around issues of incarceration -- some $40 million in federal and foundation dollars, up from almost nothing in 1999. More organizations working in the field are employing people affected by incarceration, and graduating those employees to leadership positions. And politicians and correctional officials are recognizing that, in conversations about correctional policy, they must reserve a seat at the table for those who have lived it.

"Especially in the last year and a half there's been a tremendous change in the attitudes of correction personnel," says Scott Washington, an attorney with the Dayton, Ohio-based nonprofit, Workplace Reconnections. Washington served some three years in prison and jails after spending his youth as a crack addict and member of the Crips gang. He later went on to college and then law school. "There's always going to be an ‘us against them' mentality," he says. "But the attitude of politicians is changing."

The U.S. prison system is in the midst of a unique historical moment. Federal "Truth in Sentencing" laws and mandatory minimums have recently turned 20, and the stringent state laws which followed suit -- California's 1994 ‘three strikes' law, for instance -- are coming of age, such that the first generation of people who have served 10- and 20-year sentences under these laws are re-joining their communities in record numbers. They're arriving home at a time of increasing political consciousness about incarceration -- the term "prison-industrial complex" was coined only a decade ago, by activist and historian Mike Davis in a 1995 article in The Nation -- as well as a growing awareness on both sides of the political spectrum that the current system is not sustainable. More than 2 million people are incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons. If you include people on probation and parole, that number jumps to over 7 million, or 1 in every 32 adults, according to the Bureau for Justice Statistics. At least 95 percent of them will come back home: 1700 people a day are released from state and federal prison.

The staggering numbers of people being released are, at least in part, at the root of this new trend towards a larger role for formerly incarcerated people in the criminal justice policy discussion. In 1999, Jeremy Travis was director of the National Institute of Justice when then-Attorney General Janet Reno asked him what was happening to all the people coming out of prison. The answer was Travis's 2005 book, But They All Come Back, and a shift in the conversation from its previous focus, rehabilitation to the new buzz-word: re-entry.

"Rehabilitation was seen as a pure left kind of issue," says Amy Solomon, senior research associate at the Urban Institute, who worked with Travis when he was a senior fellow there. "It was a discussion about helping offenders, coddling offenders." Re-framing the debate to be about re-entry, she explains, meant "rethinking how people are released into the community, [putting it in the context of] public safety, about doing things smarter so we prepare people for work and family when they get out. It really galvanized people on the right and the left."

Further, the sheer number of those incarcerated, and the reach of the war on drugs, has meant that "we've now gotten to the point where there are very few people left who have not been personally touched," says Gaynes of the Osborne Association. "It's hard for it to keep being ‘them' all the time." Suddenly, politicians on both sides of the aisle could listen to those with a bent towards reform without being seen as soft on crime.

In the past, says Glenn Martin, co-director of the H.I.R.E. Network, which seeks to increase job opportunities for those with criminal records, "we were caught in such a tough-on-crime era that people would stay away from taking advice from those directly affected because they were worried that their constituents would say, ‘what are you doing taking advice from these criminals?'" Now, says Martin, who served six years in New York state prison for armed robbery before being hired as a receptionist at the H.I.R.E. Network and working his way up to his current position, "I have to pinch myself. I'm sitting here with the head of criminal justice services, or I'm sitting here with the top Republican in a state somewhere."

Susan Tucker, program director at the Open Society Institute's After Prison Initiative, one of the key funders in the field, says that six or seven years ago, meetings and panels about re-entry rarely included the perspectives of formerly incarcerated people. Now, she says, including formerly incarcerated people on the agenda is "pro-forma."

State and federal funds are pouring into re-entry programs, which means there is more money than ever allocated for positions specifically for formerly incarcerated people. President Bush, in his 2004 State of the Union Address, proposed a $300 million prisoner re-entry initiative, citing Bureau of Justice Statistics data that some 600,000 inmates are released each year. "We know from long experience that if they can't find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit crime and return to prison," Bush said.

The resulting $25 million Prisoner Re-entry Initiative was funded in fiscal year 2005 and now has 30 grantee organizations nationwide that work to transition formerly incarcerated people back into the workforce. State-financed programs have followed, and with them, more employment and advocacy opportunities for former inmates.

Critics are quick to point out that re-entry work is, in the words of one person in the field, "tinkering around the edges." Which is to say, it doesn't address the real problem: the massive numbers of incarcerated people in the United States, and the socio-political structures which cause poor people and people of color to be locked up in numbers vastly disproportionate to their numbers in the country as a whole.

"Out of the punishment industry comes a group of people who says, let's try something different," says a skeptical Nunn of Legal Services. "I don't know how different it is--they're just acknowledging that we're releasing a lot of people." In other words, politicians may be able to make changes to the way people are released without seeming soft on crime, but it would be a different story for a senator to propose changing the way we approach incarceration altogether.

These types of proposals, more often than not, come from formerly incarcerated persons themselves. A 1998 conference was convened by formerly incarcerated people, including Nunn and Angela Davis, to examine ways of dismantling the prison-industrial complex. Nunn says the organizers were expecting some 500 attendees -- instead thousands flocked to New York City, and the weekend led to the birth of Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization which seeks to "build an international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe," according to its website.

Organizations like Critical Resistance are still considered relatively fringe, but they have been successful in raising awareness and helping to politicize the issue. "We took an obscure term out of a Mike Davis [article]-- prison-industrial complex -- we turned that into common language," says Nunn.

Nunn, who notes that after years of being the only one in his organization to be directly affected by incarceration, now up to 50 percent of his coworkers have done time, says that an increased political consciousness among people affected by incarceration has made the community speak out with a louder voice than before.

"I used to run from being this particular thing. Now I'm not running anymore. That's absolutely new. Used to be a time we would internalize it," he says. He used to tell himself, "Maybe I'm not good enough for the apartment. Now, I say, I have a right to get an apartment. Maybe I don't deserve a job. No, I deserve a clean application."

Foundation money has supported the push of the political envelope further to the left, allowing organizations to focus not just on re-entry, but on more systemic issues raised by incarceration, such as poverty and racism. "Most everybody agrees from right to left, people are coming out, they deserve a second chance, they need services, they need help," says the Open Society Institute's Tucker. "A more nuanced understanding is that incarceration itself is both a cause and an effect of political, economic, and social disenfranchisement."

Since it was launched in 2000, the Institute's After Prison Initiative has distributed $16 million in grants to some 100 organizations doing work "to decrease U.S. over-reliance on mass incarceration and harsh punishment," according to its website. And this year the Funding Exchange, a national network of local community foundations, under its Criminal Justice Initiative, released its first request for proposals specifically targeting organizations with formerly incarcerated persons in leadership roles.

Now that politicians and policy makers are listening, formerly incarcerated people have seen their stories go from being a source of shame to a force for change. Scott Washington of Workplace Reconnections, which helps people coming out of prison to lay the groundwork for successful re-entry, says, "I tell the guys that I work with, you're experts. If you transition fully back to community life, you have a commodity: your story."

"I'm the storyteller in my organization," says Patty Katz, a program director at the Oregon-based nonprofit Partnership for Safety and Justice. "My claim to fame is I can make a legislator cry in two minutes." Katz, who served a cumulative total of some six years in prison and jail as a result of her 14-year drug and alcohol addiction, says, "you don't wish to shut the door on your past because your experience can benefit others. I had to believe that if I were brave enough to stand up out of my box of anonymity and publicly tell my story, I would be delivering hope to decision makers."

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