Campaign to End the New Jim Crow

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Unfinished Business: Felony Disenfranchisement

Jan 18, 2015 | by admin

Friends and allies, we here at the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow are in the process of organizing a statewide and national movement to end felon disenfranchisement and all forms of voter suppression. Our goal is to create community, state, and national voting blocks in communities of color. We all need a strong and unified voice in these arenas. In America everything is political. We need you to spread this message far and wide and to join us in building this movement.

Please check out this important article below and join CENJC in moving this important work forward!

http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/the-state-felony-disenfranchisement-america

 

Additional words from Joseph Jazz Hayden

I would like to state categorically that we must start with the premise that felon disenfranchisement statutes cannot be reformed, amended, or in any way modified to seem fair, they must be nullified.  They must be kicked screaming and hollering into the dustbin of history, just like the grandfather clause, the poll tax, and the literacy test. There is no compelling state interest being furthered by their existence.  The target of these statutes will always be the poor and the marginalized.

The issue of felon disenfranchisement, as it applies to African Americans, is one that has been continuously growing in this country since the reconstruction period for, as we all know, when the plantation doors closed the prison doors opened wide.  This problem will continue to grow and the numbers will continue to expand, and afro-Americans (working class and underclass) will continue to find themselves increasingly disempowered as a result of felon disenfranchisement statues.  As it stands now 1.4 million afro-American males/females, who are presently incarcerated, will not be able to vote in 48 of the 50 states (Maine and Vermont, two predominately white states in which prisoners never lose their right to vote, are the exception).  We have already begun to notice the negative impact of felon disenfranchisement in national, state, and local elections.

The numbers are in, the research has been done and, clearly, the issue has been well defined, well publicized, and all that is required now is to develop strategies for restoring the rights of felons, dismantling the felon disenfranchisement statutes, and clearly defining them for what they are, racist in their impact and, though facially fair, also racist in their intent.
What is being done so far to address the issue of felon disenfranchisement?  Very little, at present the legal strategy seems to be/was the predominant mode of attack on the felon disenfranchisement statutes.  The strategy is spreading however, it needs to be expanded to every state in the union, and prisoners need to be educated and given the means to challenge these statutes in all 48 states where prisoners are denied the right to vote.  And those communities where the votes are being diluted by these statutes, they must develop legal strategies and take action through the legal process.  Joint legal action by prisoners and their communities would be ideal.

It is the legislative approach to dismantling the disenfranchisement statutes that must be addressed by the national civil rights organizations, and this will require the development of a social movement, a social movement not from the top down but in partnership with those directly impacted by vote denial and vote dilution. Those most impacted by the felon disenfranchisement statutes specifically; parolees, prisoners, probationers, and the families of these groups must play a key role in any movement to eliminate these statutes.  This group must constitute the core group of any grassroots social movement to legislatively have these statutes removed from the books.

The civil rights movement of the sixties was, for the most part, an outgrowth of a grass roots movement of students, the churches, and those most impacted by apartheid in America, in partnership with the traditional civil rights organizations.  It was a cooperative movement from the bottom up, and the top down.  Presently, the bottom is not significantly represented here nor in the national organizations that are claiming this issue.

It is estimated that over 600,000 prisoners a year will be released back into the communities from which they come. In all but two states these returning prisoners will not be allowed to vote for the most part, and some will be disenfranchised for life.  This group has to be organized. This is the army. These are the men and women that we must focus our attention on in building our social movement for legislative change throughout this country.  Who is best able and best qualified to organize these former prisoners, these parolees, probationers, prisoners and the families of prisoners?  I suggest that parolees and prisoners themselves are best qualified and best situated to begin the process of organizing and building the organizational structure, the national membership group of prisoners, parolees, probationers and their families.

I’m not suggesting that they alone should constitute the movement.  By all means they must align themselves with African Americans and people of color who come from our community that have built institutions that have a history of struggle and the intellectual and academic gifts needed to put together a movement.  The major civil rights organizations have the organizational structure and resources and are capable of lending support and guidance to this social movement but, the social movement should not come from them alone, it should come in partnership with prisoners, parolees, probationers and their families in the communities that are impacted by these statutes.  All the research has been done, for the most part; has been done by social researchers who do not come from our communities and are not directly impacted by what has taken place there.

Is there an organization that has taken steps to begin this organizing process? I suggest to you yes there is. This organization is called the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow.  It is an organization in its formative stages that has reached out and identified over 125 former prisoners nationwide who are now CEO’s, and executive directors of community based organizations that provide human services to the population of prisoners, and parolees.  These men and women have demonstrated the ability, the skill and the willingness to turn back and transform themselves and have taken on the task of trying to transform the system that has traditionally been at odds with our community.  They serve in transitional housing, aids programs, drug abuse programs, juvenile delinquency intervention programs, prison outreach, voter registration every aspect of community service.  So, the possibility of building a national movement already exists.

The beginnings of a grass roots movement already exist, this energy has to be harnessed, it has to be structured and fine tuned and I think in conjunction with the national organizations that we can begin to do the work, the legislative lobbying, the education, the media development and the development of this entire issue, raising it to a national level and at the same time developing individual organizations that will quarterback this project in each individual state.  Prisoners are there, they’re waiting; parolees are there, they are underrepresented, probationers are there, they too are underrepresented.  The issue is ripe, the time is ripe but it may not stay ripe indefinitely if this window of opportunity, this kairos moment is not taken advantage of now.  Who knows what will happen in the near future aside from the fact that the number of disenfranchised will continues to grow?

This situation can never become any more pregnant then it is now.  They say by the year 2020, 2030 somewhere around there 50% of the African American males will be under the control of the criminal justice system and, by extension, disenfranchised, and our communities will become increasingly weaker and weaker politically, unable to address the social problems that exist in our communities through the political process as a result of this continuous weakening.

Prisoners have long been aware of this issue in fact, I started my research over twenty years ago into the issue, perhaps even longer, and I recognized the impact of the numbers that were being reported by the sentencing project and other organizations that were doing research into criminal justice.  The impact of the data they reported was very dramatic.  No one at that time was asking what effects those numbers had on the voting power of African Americans, and increasingly Latinos.  It seemed that the researchers were content to do the research and the sound bites – “one out of every three African American males were under the control of the criminal justice system”.  But as the significance of the numbers sank in – it became obvious to conscious men and women behind bars, who were being denied their right to vote, who were taking a look at the criminal justice system from the prisoner/activist perspective, the political significance of these numbers for them and their communities.

Some of us immediately saw the relationship between massive incarceration and felon disenfranchisement and its impact on the communities from which we came and we begin to reach out, we wrote letters, we contacted all the national organizations:  NAACP, ACLU, and the Urban League.  We reached out to all of our political representatives, our assemblymen, our state senators, and our congressmen. We reached out in all directions and all we got back was sorry but we are busy with Confederate flags on State Buildings, etc. Lani Guineer was the most responsive, but the rest all had excuses that they had other things going on. But the issue was ripe then, and continues to grow.  So we found it necessary to take the first step.  We began the legal process. The original suit was filed by prisoners in Tennessee; Wesley v. Collins.

Wesley was the first to use the voting rights act.   And, they had a winner but their legal team was not able to take it any further because of cut backs in legal services for the indigent, and prisoners.  Then there was Hunter v. Underwood. Underwood was granted based on intentional discrimination. Then, finally in NYS, based on what took place in Wesley v. Collins, the door was open, several of us begin the work in different prisons in New York State, a group in Greenhaven Prison and myself in Eastern Prison.

We put together a think tank in Eastern Correctional Facility, and begin to do the research into the criminal justice system.  We begin our quest for understanding in ancient Greece and Rome and looked at the development of the prison system all the way up to the present.  And in the process, when we completed our journey from the past up to the present it became crystal clear to us that our problem was that we were the group with the least amount of power in this country; aside from children and the mentally ill. We had no input into the political process.  And so just by a natural process it became clear to us that what we needed was the right to vote.  And once we began to look at the question of power the next step was to consider how we change the power relationship between us and the State.

Only two paths suggested themselves, legal and legislative.  Being prisoners, unable to mobilize our communities, those of us who were conscious began to do the legal research and develop the legal strategy.  Baker and a group of prisoners in Greenhaven began the process there and I began the process in Eastern Correctional Facility.  Everywhere my research carried me I found Baker, and wherever they went they found me.  We were moving along parallel lines.  They took a giant leap when they connected with the Yale law school and a group of Yale law students headed by Andrew Shapiro. From that point on the race was theirs.  Ultimately they filed suit, Baker v. Cuomo, which was changed to Baker v. Pataki.  The suit was dismissed in the district court without having fully received due process, and for that reason it was reversed by a three judge panel in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.  An en banc hearing was then called for to determine if the VRA applied to prisoners.  Both sides submitted their arguments to the panel of ten judges who sat en banc.

The outcome was that five judges found in favor of the prisoners, and five judges found in favor of the state.  The arguments submitted by the state were the same ante bellum arguments advanced by the southern states in their defense of slavery, state’s rights.  The five other judges, who were mostly senior judges, said that prisoners did have a cause of action under the VRA.  Their arguments were very persuasive for me, at the time a prisoner.  In any event, it was a five to five draw, which had no presidential value.  But in his opinion Judge Fineberg stated that the opinion had no precedential value and that a new group of prisoners could file a new claim on the same issues; suggesting that another class action was in order.

Well, being a prisoner, one has other issue that are compelling; for me, getting an education before the opportunity disappeared, trying to maintain family ties, and trying to stay on top of what was going on in the world, the nation, and my community.  And also trying to be involved in what was going on in the prison, in terms of education, activism, etc.  I became a lawyer, a prison lawyer, what some like to refer to derogatorily as a “jailhouse” lawyer.  Left with no resources to hire lawyer’s prisoners had to rely on other prisoners who had knowledge of the legal system.  So, for five years this is what I did, I taught, I tutored, I earned a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree.  I then taught as an adjunct professor for the New York Theological Seminary, and I litigated and assisted other prisoners.  Finally before my release I submitted a class action claim challenging the felon disenfranchisement statutes in New York State.  To my knowledge no one had taken any action since the Baker case.  Upon my release I came together with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, in the person of Janai Nelson, she brought in the community Service Society and the Medgar Evers Center for Law and Social Justice.  We signed an agreement and have set about the work.

The years of research, teaching, organizing and trying to develop support for this argument has uniquely shaped me, and has become a central part of my thinking, essentially a mission for me to see that this becomes a national movement, like the civil rights movement that preceded it.  The civil rights movement, in retrospect, had its short-comings, but one of the things that it did do was get us the right to vote, everyone except prisoners.  When this civil rights struggle reached the prison walls it stopped, it refused to go over.  One can suggest many reasons for why it stalled at the prison walls, I would suggest that the civil rights movement came under attack, the focus shifted to the war on crime, the war on drugs, both euphemisms for a war on people of color, the social dynamite that set cities on fire during the 60’s.  Civil rights organizations tend to take the path of least resistance some times, and I think that is what happened as the criminal justice system expanded exponentially.  Nobody saw prisoners as being a group that was worthy of their attention.  It took the lives of prisoners at Attica to put prisons on trial and to usher in a short-lived period of reform,

The failure of Al Gore, Janet Reno, and the Democrats to address this issue has resulted in their defeat and our failure to address this issue will result in our defeat.  Racism is alive and well in America.  There is a need for change and a need for fresh movement. Our leadership is ineffective, it is time to stop verbalizing, intellectualizing and beating this problem to death, what they call the paralysis of analysis.   The numbers are clear and simple, after you do all of your research and move everything aside and look at the results and, the results are clear, it is time for action.  For all of you that have done the research, and the pontificating about the problem, it is time for you to lead, follow, or get out of the way.  Thank you.