EmbraceRace

"It's A Shared Sentence:" Kids, Parents, And The Cost Of Incarceration

A toddler looks back at the camera while walking and holding hands with two adults.

With well over two million people in state and federal prisons, juvenile correctional facilities, local jails, detention facilities, and other spaces of confinement, the United States incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country in the world - and it's not close. The harms done by mass incarceration extend to every domain of social life, not least to the bonds between children and their parents. Most often, these parents and kids are people of color.

Andrew and Melissa of EmbraceRace spoke to guests Amani Sawari and Beth Navon on August 27, 2019. Drawing on their extensive experience with the prison and juvenile justice systems, and with the parents and children in them, Amani and Beth offer sobering insights into the impact of prisons on family life - and some ideas about how we can help make things better.

Watch the video, check out all the resources in the tip sheet or continue below to read a lightly edited transcript and to learn more about guests Amani Sawari and Beth Navon. 

EmbraceRace: The United States has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of its prison population, of its incarcerated people. That's obviously a huge number. There's been a fair bit of attention to that. There's been attention to the the literal costs, the amount of money we spend incarcerating people. There has been relatively little attention though to the subject that we'll be dealing with today which is the effect of incarceration on families. Both in terms of juveniles who are confined and what that means to the relationship that they have with their parents and families and to adult prisoners who are themselves parents and the effect that incarceration has on the bonds that they have with their children. That's what we'll be talking with our guests about today.

First, Amani Sawari founded and writes for the site Sawarimi.org. She's a coordinator for the Right2Vote campaign. She graduated from the University of Washington with her Bachelor's degree in both Media Communications Studies and Law Economics and Public Policy. She was selected as jailhouse lawyers speaker spokesperson for the 2018 National Prison Strike in April 2018 after the Lee County Prison Riot provoked incarcerated activists to partner with organizations on the outside. Her coordination of over 300 endorsing organizations led to the successful participation of incarcerated activists in 17 states and 3 regions abroad. 

Beth Navon is an LMSW who spent more than 30 years as a nonprofit administrator recognized for her expertise in the mental health field and juvenile justice advocacy. She created a nationally recognized service delivery model for youth re-entering the community after incarceration and has published several pieces on how to replicate the model. She was Executive Director of The Lineage Project, a nonprofit offering yoga and meditation training for incarcerated young people and those at high risk for incarceration. Beth retired in 2015 but she has continued in the work and she has also had more time to pursue her interests in choreographing modern dance and consulting with various non-profits around juvenile justice.

So we are thrilled to have you both here. Amani is joining us from Detroit and Beth is joining us from Durham.

First we want to ask you both, how did you get into this work?

Beth Navon: Well I was raised in a Jewish family where the tradition of compassion, of working for social justice was emphasized all of my life. And as a result not unrelated, I got a social work degree. I felt very strongly about working with folks in their communities. Again to work with children and families. And then moved to New York. And when I moved to New York in the 1980's, it was really at a horrific time when get tough on crime was really decimating communities and families. And I learned about it all and just decided that was the area that I wanted to work in If I could be some kind of advocate for children, families of color, which is who were being incarcerated at just rapid, rapid rates. And so I found places to do that and have been very lucky that I've been able to work.

Amani Sawari: So for me, I was roped into doing this work by incarcerated folks. I started Sawarimi.org right after graduating from college and I just wanted a place to put my writing. I've always loved writing and I was writing a lot about the events that I would go to, rallies, when there were police brutality cases, when there were cases that were happening within the prison that I felt like needed to be amplified and prisoners were watching me on my site.

I had no idea! And they reached out to me and asked if I would write a newsletter for them and put my writings into something that more prisoners could see that didn't have access. So I did that in 2016. I did the No Shackles Newsletter. And I was asked to speak at The Millions for Prisoner's Human Rights March. And since then I've been roped into other events like the National Prison Strike. And so prisoners just grew to trust me. They liked my work, and I was more than happy and more than willing to support and advocate for them and amplify their thoughts.

EmbraceRace: What were you writing about in 2016 as you were discovered?

Amani Sawari: Yes. So the fall of 2016, prisoners reached out to me to write the No Shackled Newsletter and that was the newsletter leading up to the Millions for Prisoners Human Rights March. That was in August 2017. It was a year's worth of monthly newsletters to let prisoners know this march is happening and it was in Washington, D.C. And so that is how I got roped into my first newsletter. 

EmbraceRace: Amani, what were you writing about when they found you and asked you to write the No Shackles Newsletter?

Amani Sawari: So prisoners had done the mannequin challenge inside a prison and it was this viral video that went around and people were stunned that prisoners, for one, had a phone, and that prisoners were participating in a social media challenge. And I wrote an article about how it's more than just a social media challenge. They were able to show people their conditions. They were able to show people that they could work together, that they were unified, the food that they ate, the games that they played. We saw this in the snapshot of the mannequin challenge. So I wrote about that and they said, "We love your writing style and we love what you were able to pull out of that."

EmbraceRace: You mentioned the glimpse of the conditions they were living in sort of around the edges of the mannequin challenge that you're writing about.

We're talking tonight about a particular slice on those conditions, right, which is how those conditions interrupt, disrupt unnecessarily, we know, the relationships that families have. Folks who are outside and folks that are inside who are members of the same family or in the same network. And I wonder, you know in preparing for this conversation, you've both said that with respect to juvenile justice and juvenile confinement and Amani with respect to adult incarceration- You pointed to a bunch of things that are in place that unnecessarily disrupt those relationships. Can you say a little bit about what are you talking about?

Amani Sawari: Yes. So while incarcerated, prisoners have to work very hard to stay connected with people on the outside. They don't have cell phones, which is our lifeline on the outside. They don't have access to e-mail, Gmail, social media, Facebook. All these things that we have as convenient that they don't have access to. And so they have to go the extra step to be creative in keeping these relationships together. In preparation for this webinar, I put a call out in my current Right2Vote Report to my readers who are incarcerated asking them how they were impacted and how their families were impacted as a result of their incarceration. And I'd love to bring James Perry into the room. He's at Wisconsin Secure Program Facility, which is a prison in Wisconsin. And I'd love to read a few of his words:

"I was convicted in 1999, my father died in 2005. And I have been estranged from my family since. When sentenced for a crime, all sorts of inconveniences will start existing to create disposable relations from society in itself. Incoming and outgoing mail is read in certain custody levels and subject to be confiscated and ??? conduct report that ??? a loved one further. Screening inbound visitors is paramount to cruel and inhumane treatment. Females bringing children undergo a rigorous vetting procedure and background check and prior to visit, are subject to abnormal body pat down searches prior to entry. Collect phone calls amount to 18 cents a minute. Businesses have a monopoly on the phone rates. So the ??? bureaucrats can drown you in reams of red tape or other paperwork to encourage you to lose contact with the disenfranchised loved ones when they need you the most."

So that's James Perry in Wisconsin. And this is just going over some of the things that prisoners have to endure in order to keep in contact, whether that's phone rates. 

Here in Michigan, it costs 26 cents per minute to be on the phone. And knowing that prisoners only make about 11 cents an hour, it costs a lot to talk on the phone for even 5 minutes if it costs a whole shift worth of your labor.

EmbraceRace: To repeat a couple of things that seem really important. So you said that prisoners in Michigan make 11 cents an hour. And the cost of the phone calls is 26 cents a minute.

Amani Sawari: Yes.

EmbraceRace: So we have to wrap your mind around that. And some of the other pieces you said, even that James said, incoming and outgoing mail right is screened. They're screening, the pat downs of people who come in, vetting and background checks of people who want to come in visit. You mentioned fees for the phone call. You mentioned paperwork. Right. Sort of ridiculous amounts of paperwork, all of which is going to be obviously off putting.

Thank you for that. 

Beth, you know I wonder if you can tell us what folks confined to juvenile are facing and maybe even before you do that, because I think probably a lot of us don't have much of an understanding of even what the juvenile confinement scene looks like. We know that you did a lot of work in New York. Can you give us a flavor for what's going on there?

Beth Navon: Yes. Juvenile detention was established a long time ago with the idea that it was going to be very different than adult prisons. It was supposed to be set up as a rehabilitation model. Well, in fact, in my experience, it's become very similar to the adult system- it's prison. And what happens in the process is when a young person is either in school or on the street or wherever that young person is arrested, they are then taken potentially to an intake officer and to a detention center which is a locked facility where they have to wait until they can see a judge.

So you have some children and some children can be as young as 7 in New York and other states. You can have a 7-year-old and it's later at night and they have to go into a locked- really prison- setting until the morning comes when they get to the judge and the judge can say, "Okay. Go home." Or they can say, "I'm going to put you on probation, an alternative to incarceration program or I'm going to put you back in detention." Now during that period, their families may or may not know where they are. So you can potentially have a young person who is by themselves without any adult familiar face around them. And that's pretty much how it can go. That there is very little contact and there's very little impact that families can have at that beginning point. 

EmbraceRace: I think a lot of people know the phrase, "Tried as an adult." What are the range of ages of kids that are committed or incarcerated in juvenile detention centers?

Beth Novan: In this country, each state has a different range but they're pretty much in the same. One state left will incarcerate a 6-year-old. Detain and put them in a prison facility and up to the age of 15, you're considered a juvenile. I'm sorry that was the case. The 2 states who actually adjudicated you as an adult as soon as 16, that's now been changed. So essentially it's between the ages of 6 and 17.

EmbraceRace: So 6 and you mentioned 7 in New York. So what are 6, 7, 8 year old’s doing that land them in a detention center.

Beth Navon: Well in this school and the whole zero tolerance movement which I think people know, you can be a 7-year-old and have a serious fight and you can have the police called to your school and you can be arrested and taken to detention. Now the next morning as I say, you could be sent home. But you're still picked up. You're arrested. There is something called steering in communities where somebody will come up and ask a child, "Where do I get drugs? Who is the dealer?" If the child points to somebody who is, they can be arrested. And it's called steering. So everything from truancy, fighting, you name it. But for the younger ones, it's often to related to things ???

EmbraceRace: That is crazy. That is crazy. How long, Beth? You mentioned the child could be brought in and then the next morning picked up. How long can confinement last?

Beth Navon: You can be in detention awaiting adjudication, waiting going before a judge for anywhere from overnight to probably 6 months. You're not supposed to be held for over a year, technically, but it can be a bit of time.

EmbraceRace: What are the other things that make it hard for juveniles to maintain their family relationships in the process?

Beth Novan: I think one of the biggest overall things is that parents are often perceived by a lot of the system's players as at fault because they are the parent who created this child who is doing things that are against the law. So if you start with that assumption and you are in an incarcerated setting, you're not going to necessarily want to partner with that person. Somewhere is a feeling that they have to keep them away from that parent. 

Parents can attend the hearing for their child. But in a study that was done on this, 8 out of 10 parents said a judge never asked them, "What should we do with your child?" Never directly asked them. Parents don't have access to the public defenders. Public defenders don't often have a lot of time to interact with families. And then the things that Amani mentioned about barriers for adult prisoners is also an issue for young people. Transportation. Young people are often far away from home. There's the cost involved. Food. These are families you know statistically who are limited in their resources. Their resources are taxed by having to think about their children in a detention center.

EmbraceRace: That certainly doesn't sound very rehabilitating...

Beth Navon: No.

EmbraceRace:...to deprive people of human connection.

Beth Navon: Each state is very different, and there has been a lot of activity going on to change these things. But in some places if the child acts out in the detention facility or does XYZ, the visitation rights will be taken away. The young person cannot see the parent. The parents once again are left powerless. It's really a terrible feeling of powerlessness and inability to care for the child who is their responsibility. It's theirs. They are the responsible, loving person and it's wrested out of their hands.

EmbraceRace: Amani, I want to come back to you about for transportation. So it is one of these issues in the adult context that's gotten some attention right. So the building of prisons in places that are far away from where the prisoners came from. I mean there are towns that are fighting for new prison construction because it means a lot of jobs. But then it obviously can raise real transportation questions. How are the family members going to visit the person when the person may be far away?

And then there are all sorts of political issues with that too. It affects voting strength because the prisoners are counted here but not where they actually live. Those home communities are being disenfranchised. Are you seeing anything be done? Is there some sort of movement, advocacy to make it easier for prisoners and their families to stay together through all that?

Amani Sawari: Yes. 

We know there are millions of people in prison. So there are millions of people that are impacted by their loved ones being incarcerated. And so just to speak to transportation specifically. There are a few movements where people have taken it upon themselves to create routes to allow families that may not have a car or may not have a way of getting to the prison otherwise because they don't have someone to ride with them on this long road trip.

Here in Michigan, the majority of prisoners are from urban areas, but they're shipped off to rural areas and sometimes even the upper peninsula, which is a 6-hour drive from Detroit. So if you have to drive 6 hours, some people's cars can't even take that toll, that have their loved one incarcerated, to go see them. And so there have been ride shares. People often work together to collaborate on getting to their person in the upper peninsula or in this rural area. And people are really taking it upon themselves to try to alleviate the burden of transportation. And so that's one point. People are doing that privately among each other.

But then speaking to the other points of how people are creatively trying to keep their relationships intact. Letters are the predominant way that prisoners correspond on the outside but it's definitely not popular. A lot of people out here, we love digital communication. And so prisoners are being creative in poetry, books, song writing. Prisoners will record songs to send to their loved ones or to their children, record them reading a book that their child can listen to over audio. And so these are ways that people are trying to maintain those family bonds. And then when it comes to gerrymandering and voting rights, there have been movements. I know in Washington, just recently, now their [prisoner's] bodies are counted for where their home address is and not for where the prison is. So there has been legislation passed in maybe 2 or 3 states.

So there still are a lot of states left that are gerrymandering when it comes to counting prisoner's bodies in a specific area, pulling that funding and those resources out of the area where they're from, where their families are, and putting that into the rural area where the prison is. And prisoners aren't seeing these investments where they live. They're not seeing these investments in the prison. 

It's the outside community that is benefiting from that. And there might be thousands of people incarcerated in that prison and then maybe 900 people on the outside community that are benefiting from those extra bodies incarcerated around the corner.

EmbraceRace I'm wondering also Beth about what people are doing. You said there's some movement in some states. It's getting better for kids, right?

Beth Navon: Yeah. There's actually a wonderful collaboration of organizations called Justice for Families. And it's interesting, if you try to find information on the impact on children to have incarcerated parents, there are things and studies that have been done. There is virtually nothing on the impact of a parent, lover, loving person, caretaker with a child inside. So Justice for Families, with the help of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, did a really comprehensive study and wrote up a really a blueprint for change. 

They've also worked with a group in Texas who wrote "A Parents of Incarcerated Children Bill of Rights" and they have been disseminating that. They do blogs. They do webinars. They are really trying to educate public defenders. So there's a lot of educational efforts out there and groups that are trying in partnership with this one organization Justice for Families. It was started by families. It's run by families. It is all families who've been deeply impacted. They're a wonderful collaborative powerful group of people who are trying to affect the way things have been.

EmbraceRace: I also wondered, just following up and thinking about what Amani was saying about gerrymandering. I wonder how much the greater public's understanding of how problematic and racialized our mass incarceration system, how it's really a problem of mass criminalization of poor and black and brown people, is affecting the prisoner rights movement. Are you seeing people you didn't expect coming to meetings to get involved in prisoner rights issues?

Amani Sawari: Yeah I definitely see that. Just earlier today, I had a criminal justice reform meeting here in Detroit and a mother came and she said she had no idea about all of the issues going on with our criminal justice system until her son was incarcerated 6 months ago. And I tell people that's usually what happens. People don't understand and don't have an inkling to get involved until it affects them directly. And books like that of Michelle Alexander's and films like that of Ava DuVernay are closing that gap and widening our network and allowing people to see that this is a problem before it impacts them.

Because this is a system that's eating, eating, eating up more and more people. Criminalizing, mass criminalization, mass incarceration, they go hand in hand. And it shouldn't take me losing my brother for me to open my eyes and want to do something about this. And I don't want that to happen to people. I don't want that to be what it takes. We are all indirectly impacted by mass incarceration. It shouldn't take us being directly impacted in order for us to get involved.

But that has been the trend up until this point and I'm thankful for media makers and authors putting out content that can help to close that gap of understanding for people that are not yet directly impacted.

Community Q&A  

EmbraceRace: We have some questions which we'll get to in just a moment. I wanted to bring the race piece into this explicitly. You know, Beth, at the beginning you said that you were drawn to this work both because you sort of come with your family it sounds like comes with a sort of the social justice sensibility which led you to social work and then you got to New York and realized that black and brown people were especially implicated in these issues. I imagine most of our audience knows that black and brown people are, certainly in the adult system, hugely overrepresented. It's my sense that in juvenile justice, that black and brown are also overrepresented, but perhaps less so. Somewhat less than in the adult system.

Here's my question. Clearly this is a system that sees significant variation by state. I remember being blown away the first time I heard that the only 2 states, and I think I'll have them right. I think it's, 2 of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. 2 of them. I never remember.

Amani Sawari: Maine and Vermont. You got it.

EmbraceRace: Maine and Vermont are the only 2 states that allow prisoners to vote and they are not coincidentally perhaps the 2 whitest states in the country. So that alone tells you that there is a correspondence between the whiteness of the population and the state's choices about how to treat the population. 

I'm wondering if you know, and it's an out of the blue question so no reason you would really know this, but are there patterns around state treatment of families? And again confined juveniles, detained juveniles and adult prisoners. Are there patterns around sort of the racial makeup of the population incarcerated? Do we know anything about that?

Amani Sawari: I can speak to it. So in Washington State, the population of African-American citizens is 3 percent. The prison population is 41 percent [African American]. And so it's dramatic and it's obvious. But even just seeing that Washington isn't a very black state, it is a place that has taken some radical reforms. About 20 years ago, prisoners could wear street clothes in the prison. And I'm sure the demographic was different when it came to the makeups. The demographic I shared was recent (2018). But they could wear street clothes in the prison. Media could come in and out of the prisons. They had jobs, a barber shop and things like that. They had different classes. They have University Behind Bars in Washington.

Here in Michigan, the black population is, Detroit is the blackest city in The United States. There's over 700 thousand African-Americans living in the city and the most incarcerated citizens come from the city of Detroit and they're shipped to rural areas. And here in Michigan, the only standard for education in the prison is a GED. That is what you'll see in every prison. You're not going to see an AA program. You're not going to see a Bachelor's degree. But we see in states like Washington, those sort of higher education opportunities and programming opportunities happening. Even if there isn't a University Behind Bars in the prison, they partner with universities across the country to offer those curriculums to prisoners. And so I see that correlation myself just in the 2 states that I work with the most, with the programming that's offered and how willing legislators are to offer and partner with universities to offer higher education opportunities to people on the inside.

EmbraceRace: One question is, 

"What are some ways schools can support youth and their families when they return from incarcerated and or juvenile detention settings? What are some do's and don'ts? Best practices for school leaders and teachers to ensure these students feel supported academically, emotionally, and socially?"

Beth Navon: The biggest thing I think about with a question like that is my experience of how utterly difficult it is to reintegrate a young person back into their school. More often than not that young person was expelled, suspended, arrested. There were people who talked about those principals who would take youngsters who'd been incarcerated and those who wouldn't. Now that's not official policy. But the issue of getting a young person back in,

The biggest thing that can be done is really for people to put a lot of pressure on their Boards of Education in each state to recognize a young person's right to reenter school. I mean, there are plenty of things in my opinion that schools could have done with youngsters and families before this happened. So they should have done or they didn't do it but now they have to assist them to get back in.

And it's really the responsibility of the Education Department to work through systems. I've seen, unfortunately, a lot of systems have failed at making a smooth transition back. So I can't really say what people can do except to know what to expect I suppose and to work with schools to indicate that they have an obligation to work with families and young people to get them back in the public system.

EmbraceRace: Thank you, Beth. Amani, coming to you with this next question from Lisa which is, "What did you learn from the Lee County prison riot?" She's listening from South Carolina. You can tell folks a little bit about what that was and what do we take from that?

Amani Sawari: So April 15th, 2018, there was an event at Lee County Prison that many people called a prison riot. Jailhouse lawyers as well as myself prefer to call this event the Lee County Prison Massacre because what happened was there was a long-term lockdown happening at the prison. So prisoners were locked in their cells 23 hours a day. And during a long-term lockdown, you don't even get to leave your cell to use the bathroom, to eat. You can only shower 3 times a week. So there are tensions that build up and during that period of time, there were room switches. And so what prisoners called these rooms switches were gladiator switches because they saw that staff were moving prisoners from spaces where they were more or less comfortable to spaces with rival groups.

EmbraceRace: Sorry to interrupt. Can you just say a word about why there was this lockdown?

Amani Sawari: This lockdown occurred because when there's a fight on prison grounds, there will be a lockdown that occurs. Long term lockdowns usually occur when there are multiple fights happening throughout the weeks. And with Lee County's Correctional Facility, it's one of the toughest areas. It's called the slave capital of the world, South Carolina. And Lee County Prison is a prison where there isn't a lot of programming. Prisoners are forced to have mandatory minimums in that prison as well. So there's a lack of hope in the prison and Lee County, they just came off of a lockdown in August. They prepare to do lockdowns in certain periods of the year because there's this unrest and conflict going on among prisoners that are just depleted of hope. And so there were fights that were going on throughout the week.

And so the staff decided, you know there's too many fights happening. We're putting you all in long term lockdown. And so because of this, a fight broke out in the prison and instead of prison staff intervening immediately, the fights went on for not 1 or 2 hours. 7 plus hours! And every single hour someone died. So 7 prisoners died as a result of this massacre that happened and prisoners blame this on complete staff neglect. Prisoners were fighting so much that they were stacking bodies near the gate because they knew that no one was going to come in so they were trying to put people in critical condition as close to the entry as possible. And still no medical staff came in.

And so these fights went on for hours and after the staff did come in to intervene with the SWAT team and everything to shut things down, prisoners realized that this isn't just Lee County. This isn't just South Carolina. This can happen anywhere across the country where a fight could break out and just no one intervenes out of retaliation or bias or whatever it is. 

Prison staff could say, and they did say at that time, they chose not to intervene because they did not feel equipped to handle what was going on. And prisoners die and there's no accountability for it. No one's going to go to prison for the killing of a prisoner. And so prisoners just felt unsafe and they felt like they needed to do something about it to raise awareness and draw attention. And as a result of that massacre, there was The National Prison Strike.

And so prisoners showed that they could unify, that they could work together in order to raise awareness about their conditions on the inside.

EmbraceRace: And right. And that's what you ended up becoming very involved in. Yeah. I wonder, I mean you guys have spoken a bit about what people can do, what's being done. But I guess there's a question of what can people do? I know you guys created a tip sheet that we can send the link out to folks, but I wonder if you could just tell us a few of the top things that come to mind for people who maybe don't have so much experience, maybe don't have loved ones who are system involved but still want to be able to help and show up at that meetings. Where should they be showing up?

Beth Navon: Well there are a lot of groups throughout this country, nonprofit organizations, advocacy organizations. Again, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has been a leader in these issues and looking at alternatives to incarceration. They do all kinds of connecting people to nonprofits. There are a list of places who are doing advocacy work and any kind of volunteering, any kind of calling, any kind of seeing what needs to be done in your own community is helpful. I think it does have to go through the ??? Probably of a nonprofit just to get into the juvenile justice system and work that way or even political framework is very hard. But there are a lot of people out there who want to work together and need help. You know.

EmbraceRace: I think it's so hard. So Amani was talking about her your brother and I also I grew up in a neighborhood where a lot of people were system-involved and then had someone close to me involved in the system. Not incarcerated, but just having to go through lots of hoops that went on forever and continue. And I think it's really true that it's just really hard to understand unless you know people going through it or have gone through it yourself. I recommend getting to know people who've been caught up in our penal systems. Hearing their stories, getting involved.

Beth Navon: I'm sorry one of the things that I did a lot of was in one of the programs I ran we had youth leaders. These were young people who are incarcerated and then we trained them and we went out and about to all kinds of school groups, non-profits, community centers, housing centers and had the young people themselves talk about the impact. And if you were in their presence, whether you had any kind of direct experience or not, you were there. 

And I think really encouraging the young people, certainly who've been directly impacted, but to have opportunities to go around and to educate folks and to reach out and have those people really experience what is their truth.

EmbraceRace: Thank you for that. Amani, I want to come to you and the Right2Vote campaign. You know, I mentioned earlier that in 48 states, prisoners cannot vote. There's nothing constitutionally mandated by that. I think it's the 14th Amendment that allows for continued servitude under certain conditions and stripping the right to vote. Again, 48 states have chosen to do that, to allow their prisoners to vote. A lot of people you know after the 2000 election when George Bush, the second Bush beat Gore, on the basis of what happened in Florida. Very, very close right, hanging chads and all of that in Florida. And it was there that a lot of people found out that I believe it's one third of all black men in Florida were permanently disenfranchised, right.

So these are people that are already paid their dues in prison but were forever forbidden to vote in Florida too. We know that it was a massive win, the restoration made it possible for ex-felons to be to vote again. And we know that the Republican controlled legislature in Florida is pushing very hard to curtail that. Which is to say it's important, right. If we can restore, and I must say, I mean I've never understood that. You know why should it be that for the vast majority of prisoners, current prisoners, active prisoners who are citizens, why being incarcerated should strip you of this fundamental right of citizenship? It makes no sense. Can you say a little bit about the Right2Vote campaign?

Amani Sawari: Yes. So the Right2Vote campaign is a prisoner initiated new suffrage movement and it was the 10th demand of The National Prison Strike calling for all detained citizens to have the right to vote. Because we're living in a democracy, and a democracy needs everyone's voice. A democracy means that everyone's voice is involved. And that's just not true here in this country. A lot of people across the country are permanently disenfranchised as a result of their former incarceration. But even when they are inside, we believe that it's important for them to have voting rights. There's this idea that taking away someone's right to vote is a form of punishment to help them understand or reflect on the crimes that they've committed. But the vast majority of crimes, way vast majority of crimes, had nothing to do with voting or elections. 

So for someone's voting rights to be taken away because they did something that was completely unrelated, there's no connect there and we see that people who are civically engaged actually are less likely to commit crimes because they feel like they belong to this society.

This is also another way that parents can be involved in their children's lives. They may not be able to go to that PTA meeting but they can vote on the district official or the superintendent. Or they can vote on the the school policies that are coming out in local elections. This is an important way for prisoners to be involved in society. And right now, in states like Kentucky, people are still permanently disenfranchised. In Iowa and Alaska and Delaware, Mississippi. People can't vote. And even in more states, in over a dozen states people can't vote while they're on probation or parole. And so right now, the Right2Vote Campaign has 11 states that have introduced legislation to restore people's voting rights either while they're currently incarcerated. That's in New Jersey and Massachusetts. Or while they're on probation and parole.

What we're doing is looking at where states are right now. For example California, you can't vote while you're on parole and trying to bump them up past that level. And so we're going to chip away at this until we can get everyone their voting rights back in a democracy. Everyone should have the right to vote. And we feel like because prisoners don't have this right, elected officials are not held accountable to the conditions that they suffer. And there is no pathway for rectifying those conditions, for rectifying abuse because their voice is completely silenced. And because their bodies are counted they also pay taxes on their salaries, their 11 cents is taxed. When they buy products, they're are taxed on those products. 

So if all of these other functions of being in a democracy are being forced upon them, why can't their voices be heard in the legislative processes that are governing their lives?

EmbraceRace: And that's really well said, Amani. And you said that the right to vote piece was the 10th in a list of demands. Can you give us a sense of what some of the other demands are?

Amani Sawari: Yes. So the other demands. The 1st primary demand is an end to the gross conditions of imprisonment. The 2nd is an end to prisoner slavery. So prisoners want to be paid a prevailing wage for the work that they are doing. They would love to be able to support their children by sending money to them rather than their children having to keep the phone account full. They would love to be able to contribute to their families monetarily because we know that their income is taken away from these families, a lot of which are from impoverished communities. There's also a repealing truth in sentencing laws. Prisoners want to be able to earn time off of their sentences for good behavior, extended periods of good behavior. For taking classes, for getting degrees.

They also want Pell grants back. Some states have Pell grants. A lot of states do not. So prisoners don't have access to higher education because they simply cannot afford it. And we don't think that this should be the case. A lot of people are in prison because they didn't have access to higher education on the outside. If they were introduced to that on the inside, this would decrease their chances of being involved in criminal activity when they get out. Also repealing the Prison Litigation Reform Act which bars prisoners from being able to sue or have a case when they're abused, whether it's sexually or physically by a staff member. They have to go through an internal grievance process which is actually submitting paperwork to your abusers about your abuse and hoping for some sort of resolution. And that usually doesn't it doesn't work.

Other demands that they have are more programming in the prison. They want to see increased funding go to rehabilitative programs. So those are the demands that prisoners had during the National Prison Strike and these continue to be planned. And the 10th amendment is actually 10th because it was seen as one of the more radical asks. And it's amazing to see that this is becoming a public conversation within presidential campaigns. The right to vote has actually been one of the more mentioned asks.

EmbraceRace: That's great. So we're almost out of time but we have a question/comment here that came in. Someone saying, 

"Hundreds of hypotheses have surfaced on social media but I have yet to see anyone from law enforcement to community activists acknowledge the impact of mass incarcerations on our communities. This after 12 years of this person speaking in churches, holding community forums, meeting with police chiefs, etc. Why is it so difficult for society to accept the outcomes of tearing apart families and housing human beings in cages? How do we get through to them? It's not the schools. It's not the parents. You cannot be a parent when you are not in the home. You have little chance of parenting well when you have never had a model. You cannot teach children's minds until you reach their hearts." 

So someone speaking to what's happening in their community. It just feels so obvious that kids need parents and that adults need their families.

As you just said Amani, with respect to civic participation. It's about the ties we have, right. You know you don't want to take someone who has transgressed right, has done something wrong and separate them from the healthy links they have to community. Right. So whether that's about civic participation and being involved in the school, the community life or the family ties. Those are constructive ties. If the point really is "rehabilitation," right. Supporting someone to become a productive contributor. Why would you want to take away those things that hold the best hope for keeping the person linked to community? It doesn't make any sense. That's a rhetorical question. But I think part of it is what I was alluding to before, and you've alluded to, is that it's really somewhere deep down, a lot of us think we're better than that. Until it sort of happens to people you love or to you, you sort of think, "Well that wouldn't happen to me. Like not in any circumstances would that happen to me." And don't you think that that's kind of a really hard thing to get over? We've been taught to criminalize people who are not us and to other. I think we have to look in the mirror ...

Beth Navon: I think it's very much the other, "us and them". Why aren't we fixing the social problems? A person can't get into public housing after they've been in the system. If the parent wants the child back, the parent gets thrown out of public housing. they cannot take their child. Why aren’t we looking at that in the big picture of what society, over so many years, has said and done not to have integration or fairness for all of its citizens? It's huge. And it's wonderful to be able to talk about it. It's wonderful that your people who are out listening are asking questions and it's really heartening for me to see someone, I've said this to you, Amani, who is really making it into a very specific, very concrete movement. 

EmbraceRace: The future is bright. You know, our time is done. I'm going to try to squeeze in one more very quick question. And either of you can answer or punt.

A lot of attention has been brought to the way that the opioid epidemic seems to be, to some degree, changing the conversation about criminal justice. Is that for example, a health problem or a criminality problem. And a lot of people are pointed to the fact that because the opioid epidemic disproportionately affects white people and you know there's a different class slant to it. All right. So more middle class and even upper middle-class people are be implicated whether because they're family members or so on, that you're seeing a somewhat different response than you used to know with respect to crack cocaine back in the 1990's or late 1980's and so on. Do you have a sense of whether or not, for that reason the opioid epidemic and a different kind of response to it, or for any other reason, does it feel generally speaking like these things are moving in the right direction?

Beth Navon: Yes. I mean just statistically 10 years ago there were probably 75 thousand young people in block detention across this country. Last year there were 30 thousand. That's very significant. So something is happening after these years of great distress for so many people. That is changing and there may be less distress and less limitation for both lives and futures.

EmbraceRace: Thank you, Beth. Amani, I'll give you the last word.

Amani Sawari: I agree. I think that we are going in a better direction. The incarceration rate hasn't gone down. It's still going up much much more slightly. However there are more people getting involved. 

There are more prisoners understanding their power and their worth in changing the system. And there are more people, sadly, getting directly impacted that are getting involved. And we are also seeing more legislators speak on the issue of criminal justice reform. The tough on crime narrative is no longer attractive. And so we're changing that narrative. That narrative has changed and I think that's a very positive change that we're seeing.

EmbraceRace: Well, thank you so much. Thanks everyone who joined us and to Amani and Beth. Check out the great resources they provide on their tip sheet!

Amani Sawari

Amani Sawari founded and writes for the site, sawarimi.org, and is Coordinator for the Right2Vote Campaign. She was selected as Jailhouse Lawyers Speak’s spokesperson for the 2018 National Prison Strike in April 2018 after the Lee County Prison Riot provoked incarcerated activists to partner with organizers on the outside. Her coordination of over 300 endorsing organizations led to the successful participation of incarcerated activists in 17 states and 3 regions abroad.

Beth Navon

Beth Navon, LMSW spent more than 30 years as a nonprofit administrator recognized for her expertise in the mental health field and juvenile justice advocacy. She created a nationally recognized service delivery model for youth re-entering the community after incarceration and has published several pieces on how to replicate the model.
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