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‘It’s All By Force’: Formerly Incarcerated People Speak Out On Prison Reform

“This is the first time in history, I believe, that there’s been such a gathering of formerly incarcerated leaders from across the country,” Glenn Martin said at the national conference for the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People, And Families Movement (FICPFM) in Oakland, California.

Martin is a formerly incarcerated person and the founder of JustLeadershipUSA, a prominent criminal justice reform organization whose mission is to cut the United States prison population in half by 2030 and reduce crime.

He’s also a member of the FICPFM leadership council, alongside Dorsey Nunn, whose organization, Legal Services For Prisoners With Children, and its grassroots project, All Of Us Or None, organized the event.

Their organizations, and many others represented by those gathered at the FICPFM conference on September 9, are led by and consist of formerly incarcerated people and their family members. They work to empower these individuals to drive policy reform, and it’s undeniable that they’ve had great success so far.

Many of these activists are responsible for the Ban the Box campaign, which gained attention and support from the public and lawmakers. They were involved in the settlement agreement, which ordered the end of longterm indefinite solitary confinement in California, multiple jail reforms in New York City, and other efforts to spotlight the challenges of life during and after incarceration.

As the FICPFM website notes, gatherings of this kind are not new, but many have “largely unraveled, failed or otherwise erupted into factional battles and infighting.” This was because they were directed or guided by foundations and national advocacy organizations.

The meetings lacked the involvement and direction of formerly incarcerated people. They didn’t have the right “spaces and processes for such a convening to occur,” where people could “gather and work out critical questions, debates, contradictions and problems necessary to generate a stronger foundation to build upon.”

FICPFM declares that such gatherings should be organized by formerly-incarcerated people, with “ample space to work to resolve questions, problems, and issues that have divided us in the past.”

Five years ago, FICPFM members met for the first time in Selma, Alabama. They walked backwards over the Edmund Pettis Bridge, to “mark a restoration of the historic Civil Rights Movement, a movement that lost its way under the rhetoric of drugs and crime that invested heavily into a gulag of cages to theoretically make community problems go away.” A year later, they ratified a 14-Point Platform in Watts, California, which includes demands for the right to vote, community investment over prison construction, and an end to mass incarceration.

“In 2016, we see an American culture that has had enough of mass incarceration,” members declared. “These voices come from both political parties and from no party. This frustration is present in rural white America as well as concentrated urban communities of color.”

“Ultimately, a small group of insulated people have been providing ‘solutions’ for us that they would never provide for their own families,” they added. “Although 6 million of us cannot vote, many millions more can. Our families, friends, and allies combine with us for the largest single-issue population in America—an issue that these politicians will strain, yet again, to ignore this election season.”

Bringing The Movement Together

Glenn Martin said it was a “significant amount of work to pull together the resources to make [the conference] happen.”

“The question was, how do we take full advantage of having so many people representing so many different states in one space, particularly in terms of creating a shared agenda for the work moving forward, and especially in light of the upcoming shift in the administration?” he said.

Around 500 people gathered in the conference halls of the Hilton Hotel by the Oakland Airport. Throughout the weekend, the mood alternated between a jubilant reunion of friends, colleagues, and fellow travelers, and a somber gathering of advocates aware of the challenges still before them.

A platform evaluation process helped FICPFM leaders gather data on the movement’s demographics and needs. Attendees gathered in intimate break-out sessions, tackling the constellation of issues facing their community such as barriers to employment, housing, education, and voting. A “Justice Fair” on the last day gave the many advocacy groups the opportunity to set up tables and spread the word about their work. 

A few feet away, a model supermax unit loomed in the parking lot in stark contrast to the closely manicured hotel grounds and architecture. Inside, a small prison cell and model visitation room were constructed to show the space and conditions in which prisoners are made to live. Attendees—some of whom shared that they or a loved one had spent years in similar cells—walked around the exhibit while whispering to each other and taking pictures. 

Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason took the stage on the first morning for a panel with Glenn Martin about the White House’s efforts on behalf of formerly incarcerated people. She discussed new initiatives from the Department of Justice, such as those to help expunge and seal criminal records, which she said had bipartisan support.

When it came time for Mason to take questions from the audience, she was confronted with serious issues that rarely garner appropriate media attention.

Attendees asked if the administration would prohibit private prison companies from holding government contracts for community corrections and post-release programs. They asked whether the administration would end the “brutality on the border,” referring to the administration’s policy of detaining immigrants, and in some cases their families, in private prisons. They asked if the White House had plans to extend more fellowships to help people leaving prison.

Mason generally responded to each question by celebrating the efforts of those assembled, noting the progress they’ve made with the administration. She urged them to continue fighting while claiming the DOJ had limited resources—at one point reminding the audience that more money for re-entry fellowships would mean less money for “other programs.” But she pledged to bring their concerns back to the White House nonetheless.

Every Intricate Detail Of Incarceration

“As formerly incarcerated or the family members of the incarcerated, we think of every single intricate detail that is included in incarceration,” Dolores Canales said.

Canales is the founder of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement, a group that was instrumental in possibly the largest prisoner hunger strike ever in 2013. She became involved in advocacy after her son, a prisoner at the Pelican Bay State Prison in California, launched his hunger strike in 2011.

“You know, those that maybe were not personally affected, that haven’t sat in a prison cell for a month or even ten years, might not think how would this change affect me because sometimes we even see where they are striving for change, but it turns out its actually making the situation more difficult for those inside,” Canales said.

Canales was imprisoned for 20 years, beginning at age eighteen. Like her son, she has spent time in solitary confinement.

“So when you have somebody that has been personally affected because they sat in a prison for 30 years, they’re going to know how this all plays out in the long run. They’re going to know how the wording is so important, that it’s worded a specific way so that it’s not turned around by corrections. If the wording is not detailed,” Canales explained, “then it’s open for corrections to use it as they please. There are a lot of things that are involved in this.”

Vicki Smothers, president and co-founder of Free At Last, provided the example of the impact of incarceration on parents and their children as an issue that needs better representation in reform discussions.

“Women and children are not included in the conversation, as far as women being able to have their children with them while they’re incarcerated,” she said, “because it’s a possibility to have programs like that.”

Smothers specializes in women’s recovery from addiction. In addition to her work at Free At Last, she is a co-founder of the East Palo Alto AIDS Task Force.

“[The government] took the money away and now the government is talking about how they want to be inclusive of women who are incarcerated, so they can talk to the principals of the schools. [Incarcerated parents] would be able to keep up with what their kids are doing. But that’s not keeping up with what your kids are doing because you’re not physically being with your child,” she argued.

She suggested efforts to support incarcerated parents have been well-intentioned but often misguided because they ignore the circumstances from which these people and their families come. “If your family doesn’t have the money to pay for the food for your child to come and stay with you anyway, you’re not going to be able to do it, because the department of corrections demands that you pay for their food and most people don’t have money for food.”

“I have a granddaughter that’s incarcerated right now, and I have her child, and I’m trying to figure out the school system ’cause I’m old,” Smothers shared.

“She’s my great granddaughter, so I’m trying to figure out how to keep her in the school that she’s in, because it’s a really good school. I’m trying to figure out how to keep her mind going straight, ’cause she can’t see her mom, who she’s been with for seven years of her life and never been apart from her.”

Smothers said she struggles to figure out “how to keep her from acting out and doing things that she does, cause she doesn’t understand that. She doesn’t understand prison.”

“If you ask any woman that’s ever been incarcerated that had children or has children and has lost their children, it’s something that doesn’t impact her for one moment. It impacts her for a lifetime,” she said.

“Build a place for that instead of building more prisons. Build a place for women with their children,” Smothers said. “Instead of sentencing people, they need to be trying to rehabilitate them.”

It’s All By Force

Five Mualimm-ak was sentenced to 33 years to life in prison for drug offenses in his early twenties. He served twelve years, five of them in solitary confinement, before most of his convictions were overturned. He became an advocate while living in a homeless shelter after his release from prison in 2012.

Mualimm-ak’s work was instrumental in bringing change to Rikers Island and federal solitary confinement policy. He is a founding member of the New York City Jails Action Coalition and the co-founder and director of Incarcerated Nation Corp. As a formerly incarcerated person who suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Mualimm-ak represents inmates with mental illness on the city’s behavioral task force.

“What you have to understand is the system, let’s be real, they don’t want solutions because it’s not a broken system,” Mualimm-ak said. “I disagree with everyone here, I actually think the system works perfectly fine. The alignment isn’t toward what it’s supposed to do so that means we have to do it by force.”

Mualimm-ak said that he and other formerly incarcerated leaders realized they needed to band together and create a network. “If it was one massive network you have to deal with this one network rather than playing with different people in different areas.”

In New York City, Mualimm-ak said he and others have had some of the movement’s best success in the country, where they have been working for years to raise consciousness about inhumane conditions on Rikers Island. At first, city officials believed “nothing was happening there,” he said.

“There are more educational institutions in New York than anywhere on the planet,” he said, “so we started going into schools and having their students go in, and then the students would write a report.”

Later, Mualimm-ak said organizers realized there was a public comment period, where people could weigh in on the conditions in the city’s jails. “So we kicked open the door for that,” he said, and they were able to submit hundreds of comments from all over the city.

By flooding Mayor Bill De Blasio’s administration with the perspectives of those directly impacted by the city’s criminal justice system, Mualimm-ak said it got to a point where the administration was forced to investigate. Yet he believes most media outlets reported the developments as though Commissioner Ponte and Mayor De Blasio were arriving at these conclusions on their own.

“No, we had to sue them for that,” he said. “We had to fight for that.”

“Be honest. [De Blasio] is a New Yorker, but he’s a Park Slope New Yorker. Different world, tale of two cities. And like Glenn [Martin] says, you live in that other city, where privileged people walk over homeless people on their way to the train,” Mualimm-ak said.

“We have to let you recognize that the majority of the city is poor. The majority of these people [in jail] are mentally ill. So the behavioral task force is one of the things that we did by force, and that was because we had lawsuits and other commitments like that. With the city, it’s all force, all force. Nothing would be moving without us.”

“[De  Blasio] wants to be reelected now, and he wants to say, ‘Yeah, we’re doing this, we’re doing great.’ No, we’re not. It’s really we’re making you do it ’cause you got 100-something lawsuits.”

“I got arrested and beat up by officers at my own book signing,” Mualimm-ak said, recalling an incident in New York City following an event for Hell Is A Very Small Place. He and Joseph “Jazz” Hayden were leaving the event when they saw NYPD officers harassing a homeless person.

Hayden filmed the police and was arrested. Mualimm-ak protested Hayden’s arrest and was arrested as well.

“So there’s no defense for a person directly impacted,” he said, “even if you’re working for the mayor, even if you’re the head of the task force, even if you’re making up the laws. So it is by force. And I believe he is just trying to get re-elected and look good doing the work, but all the work that he’s looking good doing is because we’ve made him do it.”

Mualimm-ak feels he has a different relationship with President Obama, who he said invited him into the process to end juvenile solitary confinement in federal prisons.

“Obama I do believe differently, I’m just going to be honest, because I mean this person — the White House asked me to organize two years ago the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for Rikers Island and the hearing, and I set that up. So they’re actually saying, ‘Give us the tools.'”

“I didn’t respect it at that time,” he said, “but then they gave me the petition [to end juvenile solitary confinement] based off of that evidence. It’s a back and forth thing.”

But he acknowledged that the movement’s efforts have not been entirely without setbacks. He noted bipartisan criminal justice reform proposals include funding for reentry services run by Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group—the same private prison companies the administration has backed away from in recent months.

Mualimm-ak said, “This is a system where the system creates other rules to knock down your chances of what you’ve done.”

“It looks like progression when you look at the time, no disrespect, I love [White House advisor Ari] Schwartz and all them, ’cause they’re doing great work. It looks good, but it’s not really happening. It’s done by force.”

“Those previously incarcerated did that—remember it was a collective of INC, Solitary Watch, NYCLU, and the Innocence Project that produced the panel. You had Piper [Kerman], you had people who were exonerated—that’s what forced them to do it.”

“Without those cases, without those directly impacted people saying, ‘my case is an example ’cause I’m giving you permission and I’m going to be the voice of it,'” Mualimm-ak said, “then that would have never happened ’cause there are no viable candidates to prove it. So it’s all by force. It’s all by force.”

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.