Bruce Reilly is a founding member of the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement
Throughout the 1970s, forces of power and wealth dismantled and destroyed the movements that formed the push for civil and human rights widely celebrated today. People were assassinated, imprisoned, and otherwise sidelined—particularly—People of Color. Over the same era, America supplanted grassroots voices with a professional class of those who study the truth and talk about the truth. Many of them are fortunate to have middle and upper class backgrounds, elite educations, and do not live under the conditions of the criminalized lower class.
Upon studying people suffering at the hands of oppressive colonial rulers, Frantz Fanon recognized the difference between himself and the oppressed: The peasant need not study the truth, nor talk about it; the peasant is the truth. In modern America we have a similar separation between those who talk about the oppression and those who suffer it. This schism contributes to Americans’ struggle to fully grasp the systemic oppression of our people. This can be seen most clearly regarding America’s use of prisons.
Naturally, when one uses terms like “oppression” or “discrimination,” the defensive posture of people in power serves to further condemn this class of people, including their families. It is a reaction expected from those who sadistically or financially enjoy the fruits of a criminalized class, yet it is also common when people in power are challenged regarding their contribution to reversing the imprisonment trends. At times they lack a complete understanding of the situation, and fail to grasp their own role in this struggle.
The ruling class in America, which includes politicians and their donors, academics, foundations, and legal community, have collectively guided us (consciously or not) into a world where police and prisons are the new solution for the lower classes. Failing schools, mental illness, addiction, unemployment, and poverty all find solutions with police. Once the arrests, convictions, and a lifetime of labeling takes hold, the deeper problem begins. They are not the problem; they have a problem.
One recently celebrated work, Michelle Alexander’s “New Jim Crow,” begins with her recognition that she could not properly see the systematic oppression around her. She acknowledges that after attending the finest institutions, clerking for a Supreme Court justice, and working at the ACLU Racial Justice Project…she still did not see the light until she went to a grassroots organization’s meeting; a meeting including formerly incarcerated and convicted people. If a middle-aged, educated, Black civil rights lawyer could miss the elephant in the room, she posits, then everyone else should be excused. The mea culpa is a great literary device to connect with her audience (and refreshing honesty), yet small solace for those who have been screaming into the wind for the past decades. Like a reformed gangster or addict: better late than never.
The Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People’s Movement (FICPM) is an inclusive movement, created in 2010 after a group of formerly incarcerated activists from around the country recognized the repeated intersection of each other’s work. Groups such as All of Us or None, The Ordinary People’s Society, Voice of the Ex-Offender, and Direct Action for Rights & Equality have served crucial roles in their geographic regions on shoestring budgets. Many organizers and members were leaders in prison, and have transitioned that role into the free world. They were often the only FIP in a room, or the only Person of Color on a panel, and came together to ratify a mission, vision, and platform. The FICPM activists are not only those with criminal records, but also their family members, neighbors, and allies. They are on probation, visiting families behind bars, and mourning the victims on the streets in their own neighborhood.
Many academics, advocates, and politicians have used their dedication and skill in bringing prison issues, including the war on people known as the “War On Drugs,” to popular consciousness. But it may be time for everyone to take stock in their colleagues and themselves. The transformation of American eras from “Civil Rights” to “Carceral State” has been multigenerational. Like Professor Alexander or Senators Dick Durbin and Jim Webb, some of those in leadership positions today have said they did not recognize how bad the problem of imprisonment was amongst people of the lower classes, nor the disproportionate impact among Black and Latino people. Likely, because they were not living within, nor connected to, communities they purport to represent.
As it is said, “If you don’t know, you better ask somebody.” For example, when the mainstream Urban Institute compiled a 2009 report on the role of education in reentry, with the help of John Jay College of Criminal Justice (who have generated a considerable amount of valuable research), they admit to “unexpected” findings: the literacy rates of Black and Latino people are higher in prison than outside. And yet the hypothesis seems obvious: the most resourceful young people in Black and Latino communities combine immediate need with market forces…and sell drugs to predominantly White people, or devise some “hustle” to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. The 6’5” kid down the block may get offered a college education, but Kennedy School of Government isn’t recruiting the next Obama from the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. The prisons’ very effective drain on community progress is compounded by the lack of academia outreach, and the overwhelming struggle for these very people to enroll in college after having committed a felony.
Formerly incarcerated and convicted people are engaged in building healthier communities around the country; most of this, however, garners less support than the local animal shelter. A small group of funders and professionals are providing heroic levels of resources, and they cannot do this alone. A massive cultural shift is required to generate systemic change. We need to expand our pillars beyond New York City and California, or we will not support the weight of a Movement
We are whom the professionals study. We are the primary stakeholders in every program, not the (as typically measured) Attorney General, Dept. of Corrections, and police. Considering the statements, positions, and policies of law enforcement over the past thirty years, they are in no position to call themselves the primary stakeholders in reentry success… unless they are actually talking about the threat posed to their budgets when we stabilize our lives. Without us, there would be no reentry program, juvenile diversion, or book about solitary confinement. In the same way we are “commodities” for prisons to buy and sell (with our tax dollars attached), we are also commodities for everyone working in academia and the nonprofit realm. Our numbers and our stories are used to pad grant and fellowship reports, with the “special thanks” generally reserved for an academic or a funder who helped get the report printed and disseminated. Many of those same institutions non-discrimination hiring statements do not include us, and some have never considered hiring someone with a criminal record. Although we often provide the analysis, or referrals through our networks, we are rarely acknowledged, and sometimes given less respect than primatologists give to their subjects.
Every academic has some sway in their institution, some cabal they can form, and some budget they can tap. Is this power being used to empower those they seek to help? Is their work useful to people in the community? What are their institution’s admissions and hiring policies? What is being done to use higher education as a reentry bridge? Academics might commit themselves to condemning anyone who seeks to exclude people from higher education. An interesting dynamic is the often different treatment between an imprisoned intellectual, possibly celebrated for taking some college classes, who is then released into a world of poverty and exclusion. We are sometimes seen as worthy of educating…as long as we keep our distance.
Timeless intellectuals, from Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon to Howard Zinn, have all been explicit that there can be no “saving” done by the privileged classes, and equality can only be won by people whose struggle is intertwined with those they seek to liberate. The best allies have stepped forward and listened, then asked “how can I help?” They have formed efficient partnerships to find the best division of labor and synthesis of materials into a common fabric.
Some professional advocates become overly distracted in trying to determine the “worthy” people to save. This is draining momentum for change and serving the status quo. Most men, women, and children who have committed a crime have also been victims. Many who commit a second crime were never given a second chance after the first. Advocates who struggle to formulate and declare their motivations for systemic change, change that might also help a so-called “bad” person too, should probably not be in this line of work. If voting rights, for example, are based on the moral worthiness of the person, then we defeat the entire rationale that a felony conviction cannot justify ending a fundamental right. Those doing direct services need to understand the systemic framework, as every good doctor treating symptoms needs to also have a grasp on the root causes.
We are the historians of an America that has been locked away and shunned. We have lived the cycle of poverty and know the experiences of foster care, food stamps, crumbling schools, absentee parents, racial profiling, police brutality, addiction, PTSD, mental illness, unemployment, solitary confinement, birthing in prison, LGBTQ discrimination, ineffective assistance of counsel, and every conceivable topic to be studied. Our experiences, and access to trusted second-hand sources, fuels our own scholarship. And these are all things we would be willing to share.
Formerly Incarcerated People are often excluded and dehumanized in an attempt to avoid the contents of their contribution. “Shoot the messenger” is a tactic that challenges others’ courage to defend both the messenger and, more importantly, the message. A movement of radical reform will not occur if only wrongfully convicted or “first time non-violent offenders” are welcomed at the broader table. In lieu of the current bifurcation that has developed, we (the inclusive community) have built our own tables with recognition that a handful of people are insufficient to organize millions of affected people.
Preachers, politicians, and professors are collectively uttering things their peers once avoided as radical, but this new awakening (often around the costs of incarceration, not the morality) will be impotent where they serve as apologists, champions and mouthpieces for politicians. We cannot afford to be blinded by propaganda that co-opts the language of civil and human rights while the opposite happens in practice. We cannot afford to do our work in hopes of climbing the ladders of power. Each of us, in all parts of the political spectrum, must take stock in our constituency and move forward with honor and respect for what that constituency needs. We need to listen to them, and empower them to be heard.
Bruce Reilly is a founding member of the FICPM. He is an organizer that has worked most closely with Direct Action for Rights & Equality (DARE) and Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE). A former jailhouse lawyer, he now attends Tulane Law School. His forthcoming report, Communities, Evictions, & Criminal Convictions: Disparate Impact in Public Housing, is the FICPM’s inaugural policy report. You can read more of his writing on www.Unprison.com.