It’s Monday of our second week, where we’ve been focusing on issues of justice– and injustice.
We kick off today’s Changemaker Monday with a group of individuals who are taking on mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex: The Decarceration Collective. A bit of background: we covered mass incarceration last February, as Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow went through wide circulation, climbing into the NY Times’ Bestseller List. While there is widespread recognition of the destruction that mass incarceration has perpetrated against Black and brown people, activists differ on how to deal with the prison system and its harm. One the one hand, prison reform activists seek to improve conditions for those caught in the existing penal system– on the other hand are prison abolitionists, who seek complete alternatives to the penal state. The Decarceration Collective works to free people at every stage of their encounter with incarceration: attorneys such as MiAngel Cody fulfill defendant’s’ Constitutional right to counsel, representing them for free. The carceral system also spreads destruction beyond the imprisoned individual, and beyond that individual’s time of imprisonment: incarceration tears families and communities apart, and for the imprisoned, huge obstacles exist to reentering the flow of society. The Decarceration Collective provides not only legal expertise, but practical healing and support to all those impacted. Their work has been covered extensively in major news outlets– you can check out some of what they do here.
Below, Reynolds Wintersmith, Jr., represented by lawyers and of the Decarceration Collective and whose sentence was commuted in 2013 by President Obama, tells part of his story.
Another changemaker is Michelle Jones, a PhD student at NYU in the American Studies program. Michelle’s research focuses on women, race and the prison system. I first learned of Michelle through a pretty troubling piece in the NYTimes, that spent some time talking about her drive and research excellence while incarcerated, but also focused most of its attention to the ‘rejection of her’ by places like Harvard University. While it is clear that it was a poor decision to not accept Ms. Jones, the article spent so much time talking abouther past, and her crimes that it almost did the thing it was preaching against: it didn’t let Ms. Jones define herself by something other than her time in prison. Others have asked why the reporting on her presented a fetishisation of her criminality, which of course also links to the post from yesterday. For many, the 20 years that Ms Jones spent behind bars wasn’t about rehabilitation– once she had shown her creative, academic, artistic and hardworking side we still only wanted to talk about a tragedy in her past.
Jones, in her own words:
“People don’t survive 20 years of incarceration with any kind of grace unless they have the discipline to do their reading and writing in the chaos of that place…Forget Harvard. I’ve already graduated from the toughest school there is.”
Luckily, Ms. Jones is forging her own path and changing her communities (whether they are at NYU or elsewhere) with her. She founded Constructing Our Future, which is a reintegration program designed to bring previously incarcerated women back into their community of Marion County, with a focus on education, employment and housing. Like so many of our changemakers, Michelle Jones started by asking a question about what they could do better to reintroduce offenders to the community. With others she asked what world she wanted to live in, and how we could make those changes happen. She took this to the Indiana legislature, by presenting legislative testimony to the Indiana State Interim Committee on the Criminal Code.
Michelle Jones is a reminder to us all that you can write a new future even if others would like you to only apologize forever, that being a Black woman can mean constantly pushing to have your redefinition of yourself accepted, but that you can still be the force of positive change for your community.
A few other folks who do great work and who could use your support:
- Bryan Stevenson leads the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which “is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States.” If you want to help them do more: Donate here.
- The Voice Of The Experienced (VOTE) is a grassroots initiative founded and led by folks who used to be incarcerated, formerly incarcerated persons (FIP). Take a moment, and help this group uplift communities: Donate here.
- The Innocence Project works to exonerate, through the use of DNA evidence, wrongly convicted persons. Take a few minutes out of your day, and help free the innocent. Get involved or donate here.