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Formerly Incarcerated People Will Host A Presidential Town Hall This Month

Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people face restrictions, even repression, as they engage in activism to end mass incarceration.

Eastern State Penitentiary

The end of this month will feature an unusual town hall for Democratic presidential candidates: a forum hosted by formerly incarcerated people. On Oct. 28, Voters Organized to Educate is holding Justice Votes 2020: A Presidential Town Hall at Eastern State Penitentiary, the former prison in Pennsylvania.

The Democratic field has produced some detailedthoughtful plans to address the policing, prosecutorial, sentencing, deportation, and incarceration practices that inflict violence on so many and have created the mass incarceration and supervision crisis. But this month’s forum is important for putting the voices, insights, and leadership of formerly incarcerated people front and center.

There have been other candidate forums that have included the voices of incarcerated people. Last year, during the Suffolk County district attorney race in Massachusetts, six candidates participated in a debate at the local jail, the Suffolk County House of Correction. The ACLU and the local sheriff, who organized the event, described it as the first candidate debate to ever take place in a jail.

According to the organizers of this month’s presidential candidate forum, it is the first to be hosted by formerly incarcerated people.

The organizers are clear about the significance of the event. Voters Organized to Educate’s advisory board is entirely made up of formerly incarcerated people and the forum will be presented by the Marshall Project. In a video about the forum and its significance, DeAnna Hoskins of JustLeadershipUSA says: “What history has taught us is that no movement has been successful till those most impacted are put in a position of leadership to lead the way out of that situation.”

Vivian Nixon, of College & Community Fellowship, said the organizers recognize the need to focus “not just about the sheer numbers, but who is damaged by this trend and why.” Norris Henderson, the executive director of VOTE, was emphatic about the role formerly incarcerated people must play: “Although people want to help us, people can’t speak for us.”

As the movement to challenge mass incarceration has grown, there has been more recognition of the importance of this leadership.

A staggering number of people have had direct contact with the U.S. criminal legal system or have a family member who has. Nearly half of all adults in the United States has had a family member in jail or prison. Almost 2.3 million people are in prison, jail, youth confinement, or immigration detention on a given day. 4.5 million people are under community supervision. In a year, there are over 10 million jail admissions and over 600,000 people are sent to prison. At the other end, 9 million people return home from jail each year and more than 600,000 people return to their communities from federal or state prison each year.

These millions of people face significant hurdles to participating in and influencing the politics and policies of mass incarceration. The most obvious restrictions are voter disenfranchisement laws, which affect people in all but Maine, Vermont, and Puerto Rico. For formerly incarcerated people who are on parole, there is also the maze of supervision requirements to navigate. Falling on the wrong side of any of the many restrictions and rules can lead to a parole violation, triggering time in jail or even being sent back to prison.

Meeting the aspiration that people who are directly affected by mass incarceration lead the efforts to end it requires recognizing and confronting the restrictions, even repression, that stifle their participation.

For people who are in jail and prison, the costs of advocacy and activism can be unbearably high. There have been, in recent years, a number of actions by incarcerated people.  The Pelican Bay hunger strike of 2014, the national prison strike in 2016, and the national prison strike in 2018 were some of the largest coordinated efforts by incarcerated people to challenge their conditions of confinement and the broader set of laws affecting them and their communities.

All of these efforts take place at the risk of swift and often brutal retaliation. After the 2018 prison strike, there were reports of retaliation against strike organizers. Those reports continued for many months after the end of the strike.

Last month, Melissa Brown of the Montgomery Advertiser reported on an Alabama prison warden’s threat to withhold food from men held at the prison. Her source was Kenneth Traywick, incarcerated at Fountain Correctional Facility.

Traywick told Brown that days after the story was published, he was “taken from his Fountain bunk in a pre-dawn raid on Monday, Sept. 9, transferred to another prison, stripped and placed into a suicide crisis cell for 48 hours.”

In a letter written to the Advertiser before his transfer, Traywick predicted this treatment:

“I expect the administration of Fountain and the ADOC’s commissioner’s office to retaliate against me for exercising my constitutional right of free speech and access to the media. ADOC has numerous ways that they retaliate against those who may disrupt their corruption or speak against them in any way. These tactics range from physical assaults, bogus disciplinary actions, transfers to other facilities, placing in segregation and held for long durations (labeled as an agitator or political prisoner.) The life of one who will not remain silent becomes even more challenging on both a mental level and physical level. One pays a steep price to exercise what is alleged a right.”

Traywick’s allegations are a reminder of the cost of speaking out that is borne by the millions of people held in prisons and jails right now. The people who are shaping the forum at the end of this month have overcome enormous odds, after their own incarceration, to bring their voices and the voices of many more formerly incarcerated people to bear on this election. Their work is necessary for us to fully understand and transform the U.S. legal and incarceration system.

Correction: An earlier