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Former prisoners are leading the fight against mass incarceration

Tina Glasgow will never forget one letter she received from her son, Kenny, when he was in an Alabama prison. It was 1994, the year of the crime bill, and Democrats and Republicans were outdoing each other to prove how harshly they could punish people like him. Kenny had started getting arrested for drugs when he was 14.

“After he sealed the envelope, he marked it and said, ‘Do not open this envelope until I come home,’” she said. “He didn’t come home until 2001.” When Glasgow and her son finally opened the letter, it contained a “vision,” a plan to “clean up what he messed up.” But it was more than that. Kenny wanted to help the people he’d left behind, to show them that they had value and a role to play in society.

Today, Kenny is known as Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, the man behind The Ordinary People’s Movement (TOPS), in Dothan, Alabama. It is “an oasis,” as described by the writer and Drug Policy Alliance activist asha bandele – a place where community members and the formerly incarcerated come for housing and sustenance, not to mention the grassroots headquarters for “some of the most far-reaching drug policy and criminal justice changes in Alabama.”

It’s because of Glasgow that state officials have been recently forced to follow the law where voting rights are concerned. For years, it was widely assumed that anyone convicted of a felony in Alabama lost the right to cast a ballot, at least until being released from prison. In reality, the law was narrower than that – only convictions “involving moral turpitude” could disqualify people from voting, yet the state didn’t bother to define which crimes fell into the category.

Unbeknownst to them, thousands of incarcerated Alabamans still had the right to vote. “This is an issue that’s never come up before,” the state commissioner of corrections told the New York Times in a 2008 story on Glasgow. “I would think that if there were any latent feeling out there that they wanted to vote, they would have expressed it by now.”

Glasgow was one of roughly 500 people who convened in Oakland, California, last weekend for the first national conference of the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People and Families Movement. Hailing from more than 30 states, it was a shared fact of life among participants that the change they need – including fundamental civil rights – will not simply be handed to them by people in power. They must fight for it themselves.

This is the founding logic of FICPFM, led by a network of grassroots activists from across the country who have been beating back the tentacles of mass incarceration for years. With the national consciousness shifting around criminal justice reform – and the 1994 crime bill now acknowledged by the Clintons themselves to have gone too far – the FICPFM convention was a powerful testament to those who have been doing such work because their very lives depended on it, not because the political landscape suddenly allowed it.

The conference took place at the Oakland Airport Hilton, kicking off with a jubilant tribute to the founders of the FICPFM. Central among them was the “godfather of our movement,” Dorsey Nunn, co-founder of the California-based group All of Us or None.

In 2011, Nunn joined Pastor Glasgow and others in Selma, Alabama, marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge under the banner of the Formerly Incarcerated People’s Movement. Once serving a life sentence in California, Nunn is now widely recognized for his decades of activist work; He coined the term “Ban the Box,” a campaign to abolish barriers to employment for people with a criminal record, an idea embraced last year by Barack Obama. Last year, Nunn received a Champion of Change award from the White House.

The love for Nunn was palpable. “Dorsey! Dorsey! Dorsey!” the audience shouted during the opening plenary; an emotional Glasgow vowed never to let his name die. Glasgow also gave a special shout-out to his mother in the audience, affectionately known as Mama Tina, thanking her for supporting him throughout his incarceration, including even when she was forced to pawn her belongings to make ends meet.

A standing ovation brought tears to her eyes. “I couldn’t help but cry when he was speaking,” she told me afterward. “Because I did not expect all of that back when I was praying for God to change his life.” Today, she urges people with a loved one in prison, “Don’t give up on them. A lot of people give up on them – especially if they commit a lot of crimes or have long sentences. Don’t ever give up on them. Because you never know what God’s gonna do.”

Tina is heartened by the recent embrace of criminal justice reform among mainstream politicians. But she is clear that it would never have happened without the work of those like Nunn and her own son, who fought for years before anyone in power listened. “I am 70 years old,” she says. “It should have been this way all the time.”

Not just another nonprofit

At a time when genteel, bipartisan criminal justice-themed summits seem to take place every day, the gathering in Oakland was decidedly militant by comparison. (“Building a Movement, Not Just Another Nonprofit,” read the slogan on pamphlets for All of Us or None.) Speakers identified themselves as prison abolitionists and anti-capitalists, many calling one another “comrade.”

Coinciding with the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising in New York – as well as a planned nationwide prison strike – a panel on Sept. 9 focused on political prisoners, featuring people like Sekou Odinga, a Black Panther and member of the Black Liberation Army who helped break Assata Shakur from prison, later spending 30 years behind bars.

It also included a powerful appearance by Angola 3 member Albert Woodfox, released in February of this year after surviving more than 43 years in solitary confinement, who began by saying, “All power to the people.” For their extraordinary biographies, however, panelists encouraged participants to broaden their idea of what constitutes a political prisoner. “When we’re sitting here in 2016 talking about our rights, that we are being denied the right to vote for political reasons, that you’re being [denied parole] for political reasons,” one speaker said, then what are you? “If we had the right to vote, imagine the political impact.”

In the room was a mix of young and old – veteran organizers and those finding their footing in activism. Twenty-five-year-old Robert Jones, who left prison in California just over a year ago, called himself a “third-generation convict” – his grandfather cycled in and out of prison and his dad “caught his first felony when he was 10,” he told me. After being homeless for a time, he’s back in school and still looking for the best way to break the cycle he was born into.

For all the talk of voting rights, Jones said he recently quit his job with a get-out-the-vote group, largely out of frustration. “I would go to the local Walmart and I’m talking to people, and half the people I’m talking to in the parking lot are either on parole themselves – they can’t vote – they’re undocumented, or they’re strung out,” he said. “You talk to them about voting and they’re like, ‘What the fuck? That’s not gonna help me right now. I don’t have time for this. I got three kids I have to pick up, rent’s due – sorry, bye.’”

Another young man, a founding member of the Black Lives Matter chapter in Long Beach, said he had recently been arrested at a protest. He wanted advice from the political prisoners on how to protect his generation of organizers, when “in the media they’re calling activists terrorists.”

The speakers weren’t the only ones with deep radical roots. An older woman named Sister Sheba knitted quietly throughout the panel, occasionally

nodding in agreement. Later she told me she had been in prison herself, under the name Claudia Grayson, after operating the George Jackson People’s Free Health Clinic in Berkeley as a lieutenant in the Black Panther Party. Her daughter, now in her 40s, is named Attica. “I was like five months pregnant when I heard about the rebellion at Attica,” she recalled. “My daughter kicked the mess out of me and I was like, ‘OK, that’s your name!’”

Like many at the conference, Sister Sheba was magnanimous about the more mainstream energy rising up around criminal justice reform. “There’s always been more than one track in terms of fighting oppression,” she said, adding that it often comes down to people’s economic background. “You do need educated people who know the law to counteract the unfair laws,” she said. At the same time, you also need more confrontational activists, those who will say to people in power, “You can make a deal with us or you can make a deal with them – but you’re gonna deal with somebody.”

Mixed messages from the Obama administration

It is emblematic of the power within the FICPFM that the Obama administration now finds itself dealing with so many of its members. In 2014, Pastor Glasgow, Dorsey Nunn and six other formerly incarcerated activists who were present in Oakland last weekend – Daryl Atkinson, Susan Burton, Norris Henderson, Manuel LaFontaine, Glenn Martin and Vivian Nixon – were invited to meet with senior staff to discuss the needs of people coming home from prison.

Officially known as the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, its members sought their input as they laid their goals and strategies. As Pastor Glasgow told the crowd, “something transformed” that day. “In that meeting they didn’t see ex-felons no more. In that meeting they seen people who have been incarcerated. Experts by experience. Serving our country after serving our time.”

Such encounters have not all been smooth sailing – last year, Glenn Martin, founder of JustLeadershipUSA, wrote an open letter to President Obama describing the humiliation of having arrived at the White House after being invited for a policy discussion, only to be told by security that he needed a special escort. On stage, Martin said he had been encouraged by the response from the White House, which appeared to take his letter seriously.

In particular, he lauded Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason – perhaps the most surprising speaker to appear in Oakland – for her work at the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs to advance among her colleagues the “moral argument for why they needed to be more courageous before this administration ended.” In a Q&A with Martin, Mason described the work being done by the Reentry Council and others within the Obama administration – for example, a pilot program restoring Pell Grants to people in prison.

Mason, who worked in private practice in Atlanta for more than 25 years – she was the first Black woman to make partner at her firm – worked to establish common ground with the crowd. She said she has cousins who have done time and referred to Nunn and his cohort as friends. But there were inevitable disconnects.

A reference she made to the Broadway musical “Hamilton” fell flat – predictable in a room where many people needed financial assistance to make the trip. Concerns she expressed about “collateral consequences” clashed with the wider contention – often heard among radical activists – that the system is not “broken” but operating exactly as designed, marginalizing poor people and people of color. And as Mason described efforts by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to let people with children “still be parents when they’re incarcerated,” one woman yelled, “Don’t send them to prison!,” eliciting cheers.

There was plenty of awareness in Oakland that the Obama administration has been no model for human rights – from its deportation record to the treatment of Chelsea Manning, who was beginning a hunger strike as Mason addressed the audience in Oakland. At the same time, between the president’s historic visit to a federal prison to his ongoing clemency initiative, many criminal justice activists could not have imagined such moves from the White House just a few years ago.

Certainly, Mason’s individual efforts at the DOJ suggest a personal commitment to the cause; it was she who directed her office earlier this year to stop using dehumanizing language like “felon,” “convict,” or “offender”; in the Washington Post, she described them as “useless and demeaning labels that freeze people in a single moment of time.” Such moves might seem purely symbolic or superficial, especially compared to concrete policy changes, but for groups like All of Us or None, language is a prime concern.

Participants in Oakland repeatedly invoked the need to reject the well-meaning progressive term “returning citizen” for people who leave prison, since it erases the criminalization of noncitizens and undocumented people. The name “All of Us or None,” after all, is itself a commitment to leaving no one behind, to abolishing the misleading distinctions between “violent offenders” and “nonviolent offenders,” for example.

It also means sticking up for the so-called “undeserving,” as one panel put it. “My son may not be going to get Skittles and iced tea,” Nunn said, invoking Trayvon Martin. “My son could be going to get a beer and a blunt – and he should still have the ability to make it home.”

In a sense, even Mason’s directive at the DOJ can be traced back to Attica, where the famed rallying cry was “We are MEN.” It was veteran activist Eddie Ellis, who was there in 1971 when the men inside the prison rose up, who decades later wrote an open letter rejecting labels like “felon” or “convict” and asking that society “simply refer to us as PEOPLE.” Ellis died in 2014; his name was invoked repeatedly in Oakland.

As the conference came to a close, Glenn Martin described how he and the FICPFM stood on the shoulders of leaders like Ellis, who “had a vision for this and much more. Here it is, years later and he’s not here to see that.” To Martin, the gathering in Oakland is a pivotal moment for a movement that will continue to build no matter who is in the White House next year. As they showed the Obama administration during that critical meeting in 2014, “We didn’t need people to organize us; we needed resources. We were already organized.”

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