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Kneel, donate, or burn it all down? Decarceration and 5 types of justice work

September 3, 2019 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose


This is a guest post by Stephanie Keene, the program manager for ethical global learning at the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship at Haverford College.
“Put your hand to the plow and do the work that is yours.”

An activist friend said this to me recently. She said she’s heard it from countless Black women over the course of her life. It was my first time hearing the phrase, but it adequately conveys my thoughts on activism.

Often when people ask “how can I get involved?” I respond with “do what it is you’re good at”— that is, if your thing is data, figure out how to contribute those skills to a cause. If you’re a writer, lend your words to the struggle. If you’re good at cooking, feed the people. Revolutionaries certainly need full bellies to keep up the fight. I say this to emphasize everyone isn’t skilled at the same things, and the work wouldn’t be dynamic or sustainable if we were. We each can and should offer our particular skills to the collective pursuit of liberty and justice for all.

Finding the work that is yours is in part about knowing yourself; it’s also about knowing where the work is and what’s needed. A few months ago a colleague and I offered a partial history of the last 100 years of race and exclusion in Philadelphia. As we wrote, we were conscious that illuminating some of our regional history of systemic racism would necessarily portray parts of our region through a deficit lens. Sometimes that’s necessary, to expose extraordinary inequities.

But we also know that positive social change is not deficit-focused but desire-based, and we promised to follow the pieces on systemic racism with examples of people who are creating a more just and sustainable region today. Our hope in following up with pieces like the one I’m sharing today is that more folks in the region can locate the right place to put their hands to the plow, to continue making our region more just and inclusive.

My passion lies in various areas of human rights, most prominently in decarceration and prison abolition. When considering decarceration through the lens of the 5 types of justice work my colleague and I outlined last week, we can see how Philadelphia activists, organizers, lawyers, and elected officials are putting their hands to the proverbial plow and how all of those efforts work together for a shared goal.

From our Partners

Decarceration and charity

The U.S. cash bail system is historically racist and classist.  In essence, it allows individual judges to determine what amount of money is necessary for a person to be released on bail until their charges are brought to trial. If a person can afford to pay, they can be released. If they can’t, they must wait in jail until they are able to pay or until they are finally brought to trial (which can take years) or agree to a plea bargain.

Often, people either take a plea in order to reduce personal loss (i.e. time away from work and family) or to simply get out of jail. Other times, people refuse to plead guilty to crimes they haven’t committed. The case of Kalief Browder is a haunting example of the tragic realities of both the U.S. cash bail system and the state of U.S. prisons and jails. Browder was accused of stealing a backpack at the age of 16; an accusation that led to three years of imprisonment at Rikers Island, two of them in solitary confinement, and his suicide at the age of 22. Local activists push back on part of this destructive system through the organization of bail funds.

There is a National Bail Out Collective, which works with groups across the country to support ongoing bail reform efforts, and many U.S. cities have bail funds to address the needs of local people in need of funds to get out of jail. The Philadelphia Community Bail Fund is one such group.  Its mission is “to end cash bail in our city. Until that day, we post bail for residents who cannot afford to pay.” Advocates for ending cash bail are doing the immediate work of offering some relief (charity) from the system, while simultaneously working to dismantle (policy change) the system itself.

Decarceration and project work

A lot of the work I personally engage with is education-based. I work with a group of folks who are impacted by the criminal legal system at varying levels. We facilitate workshops and conversations about the system and especially the sentence of Life Without Parole, often (and more accurately) referred to by many activists as Death By Incarceration (DBI).

We believe education to be one of the first steps towards dismantling the current carceral world we live in. Many oppressive systems are allowed to continue operating because the average person doesn’t fully understand how those systems work. By working at the project level, our primary goal is to effect change in individuals and small groups of people, one by one, in hopes that individuals will in turn spread the message in their circles of influence, inspiring people to find their own way to the plow.

Decarceration and policy change

Several local organizations, including the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI) and Right to Redemption, have been organizing for years with law firms like Abolitionist Law Center and Amistad Law Project and elected officials including State Senator Sharif Street, (D-Philadelphia), to introduce and support bills that would extend parole eligibility to people serving life sentences in Pennsylvania.  Even within this one particular type of justice work, each group is doing the work it excels in and bringing it to the collective for a more powerful impact.

And thanks to grassroots advocacy successes born of the Ban the Box campaign, it is illegal in Philadelphia for most employers to ask about a person’s conviction history during a job application process.  Philadelphia’s Ban the Box ordinance makes the city one of 45 cities and counties including New York City, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Seattle, and San Francisco that have removed the question regarding conviction history from their employment applications.

Seven states, Hawai’i, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, have changed their hiring practices in public employment to reduce discrimination based on arrest or conviction records. Some cities and counties and the state of Massachusetts have also required their vendors and private employers to adopt these fair hiring policies. In some areas, private employers are also voluntarily adopting ban the box hiring policies.

But Ban the Box isn’t only a campaign for making policy changes — it is also asking us as humans to change the way we individually engage with people with conviction histories. As a campaign, it is encouraging us as individuals to embody the change our culture needs.

Decarceration and being the change

Two pledges Ban the Box asks community members to agree to are:

  • “As an individual, I pledge to always welcome formerly incarcerated peoples into my community; to support changes in policies that discriminate against the formerly incarcerated.”
  • “As an employer, I pledge to hire and support the formerly incarcerated; to support the elimination of any restrictions on participation that may exclude the formerly incarcerated; [and] to encourage others to also institute fair hiring practices.”

It isn’t a perfect or final solution.  But it’s a step towards building radically inclusive communities and workspaces.

A next step in policy advocacy would be expanding the ordinance to cover college application processes, and many activists are working to push Philadelphia in that direction. But colleges can start that work now, without policy guidance. They can be the change, and our colleagues at Rutgers University Newark are playing an important role in showing the rest of us the possibility of building a radically-inclusive Honors College. When individuals and organizations model possibilities in that way — by being the possibility that others have trouble seeing, they help us all imagine more liberatory futures.

Decarceration and visionary futurism

In 2017, about 200 Philadelphians attended a community resentencing organized by local activists and supporters of my dear friend Kempis “Ghani” Songster. The event was the day before Ghani was to be resentenced in a court of law.

The idea behind the event was that members of Ghani’s community, not the state, would gather, give testimonies, and decide together what sentence we could collectively imagine that didn’t involve prison and made room for redemption and restoration. As a community we made an intentional decision to operate outside of the limited imagination of the current criminal legal system. And it was truly a life-changing experience.

When abolitionists suggest we imagine a world without prisons, what we’re more specifically suggesting is that we imagine a world where everyone’s needs are met and people don’t cause harm. And we sincerely believe the work we are doing is leading to this, even if not in our lifetime.

illustration from who’s left — Mariame/Prison Abolition by Flynn Nicholls. (Courtesy of Stephanie Keene)

All of these kinds of change work have actionable steps. Social change is as old as human bodies are. When Jay-Z recently suggested “we’ve moved past kneeling” as part of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s notion of going “from protest to progress,” I wanted to ask him who was the “we” he was referring to. Many traditions have historically and continually used protest as a vehicle for change (including the community work done to free Jay-Z’s friend, rapper and Philadelphia native Meek Mill), alongside other forms of action.

So we are still kneeling. We are giving. We are educating. We are advocating. We are protesting. We are creating the future we want to see. And we believe that we will win.

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