In a Cycle Where More Pain Equals More Gain, Less Focus on Crime and Punishment and More on Rehabilitation and Reentry Necessary for NOLA Judicial System

Inmates” by Editor B is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Elections are a great time to talk about issues, particularly ones within the purview of the office being sought. For years, sheriffs, judges, and district attorneys ran on messaging that went without question. Their stances on public safety were accepted as gospel: there was never enough law enforcement, crime is always going up, and they are the ones to make you safer. Increasingly, however, voters want to hear alternative points of view because the established system is telling us themselves that their work is not working.

When talking about “crime and punishment,” the conversation often continues to the next phrase: “rehabilitation and reentry.” But we know that views on this phrase mean different things to different people. For decades, if not centuries, the official “correctional” definition of rehabilitation had been “When the punishment is painful enough to deter future criminal conduct.” Thus, if someone were still violating societal laws, whether using drugs or stealing to survive, more pain equals more gain.

Coming from the group of millions serving those punishments, we have been the most concerned with rehabilitation and reentry that ultimately puts us in good health, as good family members, financially stable, and serving as solid citizens so we can build a better world. For those of us who are incarcerated as part of our punishment, our rehabilitation begins amongst our fellow community inside. Over the decades, we sought programs and opportunities to improve ourselves, and fought against the wardens and sheriffs who typically only sought to stack us in cages, deny health care, and feed us the bare minimum. So many of us were dying in the penitentiary, we started our own hospice program. Eventually, documentary filmmakers were profiling that program, and other prisons replicated it.

Our rehabilitation and reentry work of the past decades has extended beyond prison. While hardly anyone would hire us, nor take our rent checks, nor let us into college, we started our own organizations and eventually our volunteer efforts drew supporters. From community members to large foundations, they started to believe in our approach to rehabilitation and reentry. We raised funds and started campaigns to Ban the Box in jobs, housing, and college. We fought and won back our rights to vote and serve on juries. We reduced penalties on petty probation and parole violations, and brought forth the inequities of cannabis enforcement.

In 2017, we realized that our work to reinvest funds from incarceration to reentry would be empowering wardens and sheriffs to start programs they had never had interest in before. Louisiana funded positions for which punishment professionals had no expertise, as opposed to those of us who raised our own funds to start The First 72+, The Parole Project, the Formerly Incarcerated Transition (health) Clinic, and other things we needed to build for ourselves. The established system has since come to embrace our trailblazing efforts.

When drafting our “Principles of Reentry” in 2017, knowing people would co-opt our language (to get the funding) but not co-opt our approach. We started by noting there are two types of “reentry.” The first, and most heavily funded, is Monitoring Reentry, based on the concept that every person released from prison is an accident waiting to happen. By keeping a close monitor on those people, and returning them to prison at the first indication of trouble, this will prevent future societal harm. The second approach is Supportive Reentry, rooted in the idea that programs and support systems understand it is very difficult to start life after prison, and there will be bumps in the road for people who typically have zero margin for error and lack a strong family or social safety net. The goal is that supportive programs, run by supportive people, can help people navigate those bumps, fill a few gaps, and help someone work their way to stability.

We raise funds for Supportive Reentry. People believe in us because we have done it. Around the country, those that believe in Monitoring Reentry, in ultimate punishments for ultimate deterrence, have built a track record a few decades long. They may not hear it in their social circles, but people are saying “Enough!” And we see this change in both the media and the voting booths. We see the Old Guard try to hang onto their principles of punishment while struggling to use the language of the evolving culture that has left them behind.

The Establishment’s punishment system continues to take 70% of a person’s wages in work release, while saying they support reentry and encourage people to save up money for stability upon release. They will say they support family unification, yet enrich themselves through outrageous fees for phone and video visitation, while eliminating in-person visitation. They will say they support good citizenship, yet fight against our right to vote and serve on juries.

And if we confront these policies through the democratic process, they will call us names and labels, seeking to discredit us for things that happened prior to our rehabilitation and reentry- only further proving they don’t truly believe in the concept of rehabilitation and reentry at all. Making matters worse, they will try to take credit for our successes, when (in reality) they were resistant to those reforms.

We should not need to fight for things like unshackling pregnant women who are incarcerated, for task forces on children of the incarcerated or health care in jails and prisons. We should not need to fight against the System for Medication Assisted Treatment for opioid addiction, for “ability to pay” hearings on fines and fees, or higher education in prisons. We should not need to fight for transparency in public contracting, ethical campaign finances for public officials, fiscal oversight, and term limits. But we do, and we will.

Sheriff Gusman doesn’t want to talk about Voters Organized to Educate’s actual mailer, with our name proudly on it, called “Follow the Money,” sent to 50,000 voters. He doesn’t want to talk about the corruption allegations we made in his presence at City Council, on our podcast “From Chains to Change,” in our complaints to the Ethics Board, and across our social media- the latest titled “15 Reasons for a federal investigation of Gusman.” He would rather accuse us of sending a mailer that he is comfortable with: character attacks and this “radical extremism” fear tactic. 

When we raised over $2 million to end Jim Crow juries, we were definitely pushing a radical idea: New Orleans needs to reform an archaic criminal legal system to build a peaceful, equitable, sustainable city that attracts investors and tourists alike. Although we never saw Gusman on any of our campaign trails for reform, 85% of voters in Orleans Parish agreed with ending Jim Crow juries. And it says something that formerly incarcerated people, and allies like J.P. Morrell, Jason Williams, and civil rights lawyers needed to push the Establishment, for decades, to make such a change. 

We have raised another million dollars this year for our 501(c)(4) organization, and spent $481,000 on this election cycle. Now we are among the hundreds of late filers every election, and he himself has a massive list of late and amended filings throughout his tenure in public office. We have full-time staff, year-round activities, 990 filings and annual audits. Unlike Gusman, our bookkeeper is not our auditor. Unlike Gusman, we have a board of directors. We invite him to debate the actual issues of the OPSO with Susan Hutson, or us, or anyone at all, rather than hide from his Jailbirds contracts and avoid our Follow the Money mailer. The latest distraction, about candidates’ personal lives, is exactly what he wants.

We will keep striving for peaceful and equitable communities, especially in a beautiful and wealthy city such as New Orleans, Louisiana, which draws people from around the world to experience our culture. And we welcome city leaders who will stop fighting against us, and will start to join us. Elections should be a time for reviewing actual job performances of incumbents and debating strategies for moving forward.  

Sheriff Gusman has not addressed a single allegation we have made.

Voters Organized to Educate

Norris Henderson, Executive Director

Bruce Reilly, Deputy Director

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