Juneteenth has become a federal holiday—yet prison slavery under the 13th Amendment continues. Uprooting the prison industrial complex is vital to completing the abolition of slavery. In California, the Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) coalition aims to close 10 state prisons in the next 5 years as part of the People’s Plan for Prison Closure. CURB Executive Director Amber-Rose Howard joins Rattling the Bars to discuss this bold plan.
Amber-Rose Howard is a poet, public speaker and organizer from Pomona, California. She currently serves as Executive Director of CURB.
Production: Cameron Granadino
Studio Production: David Hebden
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Mansa Musa: Welcome to this edition of Rattling The Bars, I’m Mansa Musa. When we hear “June 19th” or “Juneteenth”, we are given the impression that we should be celebrating the end of slavery in one town, one part of Texas. What is being celebrated is, in essence, people remained in slavery well after they were freed. This is the case when it comes to mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex. The 13th Amendment legalized slavery and with slavery comes abolition. The tagline being offered by Californians United for a Responsible Budget or CURB is, we’re calling on California to close 10 prisons in five years. Here to talk about this is Amber-Rose Howard, Executive Director of CURB. Welcome, Amber.
Amber-Rose Howard: Thank you so much for having me on. It’s such an honor to speak with you today.
Mansa Musa: I opened up with, this is going to be out June 19, all things considered. As I said earlier, I outlined that we are celebrating something that, most people and most activists, realize that it’s a misrepresentation of reality. That the people that were told on June 19 that you’re free, were being held up for more labor until they didn’t have a choice but to tell them. Because eventually, somebody will come down there and say, oh, y’all got to go. First of all, tell us a little bit about yourself and about CURB.
Amber-Rose Howard: Okay. Sure, sure. Thanks again for having me on. Folks, my name is Amber-Rose Howard, you can call me Amber-Rose. Executive Director here at CURB, Californians United for a Responsible Budget. We are a coalition of over 80 member organizations across the state of California. We have a three-point mission, which is to reduce the number of people incarcerated in California; that includes prisons, jails, and immigrant prisons, to reduce the number of institutions like that, that exist, then to get the state to redirect all the money they’ve been spending on prisons and jails and put it into the community because that’s where we know safety really is. If we have what we need, then the people will be safe. That’s our mission.
I got into this work because I am formerly incarcerated. I was convicted of a serious violent felony when I was 18 years old. It propelled me into life to think about how we tear down the prison-industrial complex. Realizing that it is an extension of slavery, realizing that it is racially charged, realizing that it does target Black people. I said this is the new fight. This is where the fight has been handed off from our elders and ancestors. So, this is where I am.
Mansa Musa: Okay. Amber-Rose, CURB has what they call The People’s Plan. First, let’s talk about The People’s Plan, and then roll that over into some of the recent developments, and implementation of The People’s Plan.
Amber-Rose Howard: Absolutely. Okay. CURB got together– We were filed in 2003. The opportunity for CURB, for folks that got together to found the organization, there was an opportunity to close a prison down here in Southern California, but it fell through. Folks said, well, how do we build from there? Well, this is 20 years ago in 2003, when folks were building up to closing prisons. Not until 2019 did the governor say, finally, we’re going to start to close some prisons in California.
That is strictly because of the advocacy of people. Let’s never think that any state governor is going to say, let’s do the right thing, and free people and close prisons, on their own. That’s full people power. The thing is, they kept looking to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, with a small rehabilitation. They kept looking to the CDCR department for a plan on how to select prisons, which ones to close, how is that going to happen, and what it was going to look like. And, meeting after meeting at the budget committee hearings and all that, at the Capitol, they never came up with a plan.
So, we got together in our coalition and said, let’s give them the people’s plan. Because we know that they’re not going to include our voices. They’re not going to people who are directly impacted by this prison system. So, it’s up to us to hand them the plan, because they don’t know what they’re doing. So, we got together and created The People’s Plan for Prison Closure, which really outlines, in order for us to keep closing prisons, we have to reduce the number of people inside. So, we’re giving suggestions on, pass these laws, pass those laws, in order to reduce that population. This is how you do it safely to make sure that people have resources when they come out. Once we do that, we can start to shut down prisons.
That leads back up to 2019 when the governor finally announced some prison closures. Now, again, they didn’t have a plan for it. So, even after our People’s Plan for Prison Closure, we had to produce another document to say, this is the roadmap. If you all are a little bit confused by this lengthy report produced, here is something that can be straightforward for you. We can really lay it down for you, to say there are a few phases to this. One phase is selecting prisons for closure. Now, we have centered the voices of not only folks who are formerly incarcerated and on the outside, like myself, but we sent you the voices of people who are currently incarcerated in California state prisons.
We sent in to all 35 prisons and we got almost 3,000 responses back. So, the folks were saying, these are the criteria that you should consider when you’re closing prisons, outside of how much it’s going to cost to rebuild the prison or the operations of the prison. The state thinks about the money part. The people said, no, we need to consider, how far is it from your loved ones? How far do they have us sitting away from people who are going to support us in the community? Those should be closed. Thinking about how many homicides and suicides happen in these prisons. What is the violence looking like in these prisons? We should consider those. And then, what is the climate and environmental justice looking like around these prisons? Because in California, we have brush fires happening every single summer when it gets too hot. We have two prisons right now, up in the Central Valley, that are about to be flooded.
So, the people inside said, these are the extra things that you all should be thinking of in the state in order to close a prison. So, we offered that. The second phase is prison population reduction. Passing policies that would attack all of those harmful policies that came out between the ‘70s and the ‘90s in retaliation to the Black Liberation Movement: laws that will criminalize more people, because they realized Black folks are standing up, we don’t like this. How do we get rid of them? So, we said, well, let’s reverse those policies. That’s how we’re looking at it. We have reversed many of them, which continues to bring down the population.
The third part we say is, we need a just transition to support impacted communities. Now, the state is really focused on, these neighborhoods, these towns where prisons exist, how do we keep their economy going after a prison is closed? Many of these towns are fighting back to say, no, we need this economy. Don’t close our prison. And, for me, you all sound like slave owners.
Mansa Musa: That’s what they are. Come on, talk, tell the truth. That’s what they are. Slave owners, plantations.
Amber-Rose Howard: You all been [inaudible] from the slave economy. So, we’re like, no, you don’t need a slave economy. There are plenty of other ways to produce for this town and the people in it, rather than this form of slavery. So, we talk about what are the economic opportunities that the state can provide, that can be pulled from federal funds, in order to keep a town going without a prison.
Mansa Musa: Let me hold you up right there.
Amber-Rose Howard: Yeah.
Mansa Musa: The reason why I want to hold you up right there is because, in the conversation of abolition, that’s the one thing that you hear. We know that in these towns if you take these prisons out, that tumbleweed will follow. As soon as the last prisoner’s there, a tumbleweed’s going to replace. And that’s why I wanted to stop you right there because I want people to understand that CURB is not inhumane in terms of what they want to get done. This is a humane call. This is not a vengeance call. This is not a, we’re going to pull out and leave your ass in there, and let you feel what we felt. No, we’re then reimagining the abolition, reimagining prisons going, we’re reimagining a holistic society, and this is a part of it. Go ahead, continue.
Amber-Rose Howard: That’s right. Exactly. You’re totally right in saying that. I appreciate you bringing that in, because people think, oh, we want to get our people out, move on, whatever. No, we’re talking about changing the entire structure of society here. We’re saying, listen, we need our people free, we need our people living outside of prisons, we need resources in the community. And, we know that people who work for the Department of Corrections, and corrections officers, they have one of the highest suicide rates in the state of California.
Mansa Musa: Come on. That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. They’re doing a bit. They’re doing a bit.
Amber-Rose Howard: It’s unhealthy for everybody. It’s a disruptive system for everybody. Folks who work for that system are, what am I going to do for a job? Wouldn’t you like a job that doesn’t cause you the type of stress that you get from being a slave owner? Really? The overseer? Wouldn’t you want something different for yourself, for your family, to prolong your life? So, this is a revisioning that can benefit everybody.
Mansa Musa: Didn’t you all come up with a victory in terms of the budget or the divestment? I want to echo that point because this is our conversation about Juneteenth. We’re saying that we’re coming. We’re not looking for somebody to come and tell us that we’re free; we’re saying that we are free. And now we’re saying that not only are we free, but that we’re going to dismantle the 13th Amendment by taking away the profit margin that keeps the 13th Amendment alive. Once that profit margin is gone, the 13th Amendment will be gone in and of itself. Go ahead and talk about the recent initiative that you all took.
Amber-Rose Howard: Absolutely. We took the people to the Capitol. We got together folks from across the state and said, let’s go up here and have conversations with these people in person. We do online advocacy a lot where folks can send in letters and make phone calls, but we went to the Capitol to advocate. California had this idea that they would spend $360 million to rebuild San Quentin State Prison. Which is ridiculous.
Mansa Musa: What?
Amber-Rose Howard: Yes. Which is the oldest prison in the state. We said, no, this is ridiculous. You can’t rebuild a structure and say, we’re going to rehabilitate you all if we do more construction on this prison. That has nothing to do with it. When the people are inside, the people get their minds free, together with themselves in a community. It has nothing to do with this system of imprisonment. It has nothing to do with the physical prison.
So, we went to advocate to say, no. We have to fight back. We can say that the people’s power helped push them in the right direction. The State, the Assembly, and the Senate told the governor, we reject this proposal. We don’t need $360 million more on San Quentin. That is a victory. Of course, there’s a long way to go there. Another victory, I’d say, is that the people pushed the governor to announce more prison closures. So, as of now, there were already two closures. One happened and one is in the process. The governor announced an additional two closures and a bunch of yard closures at different prisons.
Mansa Musa: Hey, come on.
Amber-Rose Howard: What we’re looking forward to is another five closures happening by 2027. We know that it’s possible because even the state’s own Legislative Analyst’s Office, which is nonpartisan, said, we have 20,000 empty prison beds in the state of California. You all have to close more prisons. So, we’re getting the state’s analysis to say this is the right direction to move in. So, we do really feel like the people’s power is pushing toward that. I tweeted something a couple of years back about Juneteenth, and I was thinking about James Baldwin when he [quoted Frederick Douglass] “What is the 4th of July to the slave?” So, I said, well, what is Juneteenth to the incarcerated Black person?
Mansa Musa: Yeah. What is it? Yeah.
Amber-Rose Howard: What is Juneteenth to me if I’m sitting in a prison cell? If I’m in chains, if I’m behind bars, it doesn’t have any significance. So, I say to everyone who wants to celebrate Juneteenth, to everyone who wants to go out and party, and eat your food and celebrate, that’s cute. We like that, but –
Mansa Musa: Yeah, we don’t have a problem with people celebrating.
Amber-Rose Howard: I don’t have a problem with a little plate.
Mansa Musa: Yeah.
Amber-Rose Howard: – But I do implore people to think about the fact that we have thousands –
Mansa Musa: 2.5 million people in prison. 2.5 million people locked up because of the 13th Amendment. It’s reimagination, that’s what we’re doing. The whole thing about this conversation we’re having today is saying, this is the implementation of our reimagination. It’s not a stretch of the imagination.
Amber-Rose Howard: It’s happening.
Mansa Musa: My director sent me this quote saying that we live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. But then, so did the divine right of the king. See, at one time it was a saying, the sun never set on the British Empire because of how massive it was. That’s how much territory they had colonialized. The power they got right now is probably one outhouse. That’s how much power they got because of people coming together and getting their liberation and people coming together and imagining another life.
So, I want to push on this issue about reimagination going forward. Because you outlined some critical things that you all implemented. But okay, we get to 2027, and we got what we want. What are we going to do with our people when they come out? We don’t want them to take one incident and then make that one incident become the reason why they should revisit the plantations. So, what do we have in place for our people when they come out? Because we know we’re going to need help.
Amber-Rose Howard: Absolutely. That’s the importance of the work we’re doing around the budget. Because in California, for example, we spent $18.5 billion a year on incarceral structure. So we’re saying, with prisons closing and populations reducing, people going back to the community, let’s get these millions of dollars that we paid and put them into the community. We’re talking about permanent, safe, and secure housing. We’re talking about resources in the community where people can have mental healthcare, physical healthcare, and emotional wellness. Where the youth can have places to go to express their creativity, and further their education.
That’s what we need that money to be spent on. The state is taking steps to do that, but we know that it’s going to take a lot more work from the people to get here. We know that infrastructure in the community is what’s going to keep us safe. If people weren’t in crisis, then they wouldn’t be harming each other. If we all have what we need, there’s no space for harm. So, that’s what we’re pushing the state to do: reinvest those funds into the community so that returning citizens and returning people can experience life, and thrive in it. Because we do have those resources. We’ve been spending them the wrong way.
Mansa Musa: I’m thinking, as you’re talking because I remember somewhere along the line in history – And you can correct me if my rendition of history is incorrect – But I remember somewhere along the line in history when they freed us, they said they’re going to give us 40 acres and a mule. $18.5 billion is a whole lot of acres and a whole lot of mules to be given to the population of California. More importantly, to your point, you create jobs. A friend of mine would tell me, when a person has a job and has an income, they feel good about themselves. They got a life. When you’re taking the money that you are putting into maintaining the prison-industrial complex, the military-industrial complex of the California system, the prison system as we know it, then all you’re doing is taking it and furthering the narrative about the 13th Amendment and legalized slavery.
Amber-Rose Howard: Yep.
Mansa Musa: But now, because of CURB, we can see the reimagination taking shape in the form that you outlined. Talk a little bit more about going forward what you all are going to be doing.
Amber-Rose Howard: Absolutely. Going forward, we plan to continue to engage the state, the governor’s administration, and the budget committees where they make the decisions about public safety. We have pretty good relationships there now but we have to continue to push them to spread that money out. There are a few roadblocks: the people have to apply for the funds that have been released and have been redirected. We’re trying to fight those barriers, to say it should be a lot easier for people to apply for this. For organizations, all these strict guidelines aren’t going to help us. We’d like to be able to funnel the money to the communities a lot faster. So, that’s what we’re going to be working toward. Also, if they do agree to close five more prisons by ’27, that means that the state will have closed eight prisons in less than a 10-year span.
Mansa Musa: That’s phenomenal. That’s phenomenal. That’s right. Right here. Hey, that’s a June 16th. That’s a June 16th when 2027 get here. Every time they close a prison, we’re like, yeah! Fireworks. Marching around with whatever flag we want. Hail to the King and a whole bunch of other stuff.
Amber-Rose Howard: Exactly. It’s a reason to celebrate, but it’s also something that pushes us to say, wow, if we can go from 35 prisons and cut that down by eight, then what’s that? 27 left? Then we can do 10 more in the next eight years. Then, we can do 10 more after that.
Mansa Musa: You know what this does, in terms of effect? Because I did 48 years before I got out, and when changes were coming in, in terms of us knowing we were getting ready to get out, this is what it does. It changes the mentality of the people that are locked up. It changes the mentality of the people that are on the plantation. Because now it’s a difference between me never getting out, or me being in an environment where it’s fight or flight, where you put me in the system and say, oh you a gang member. Versus saying, oh, there’s this group, CURB. This infrastructure in California closed five, they’re coming down the road and they’re getting ready to close these.
It’s different when you hear that resonating through the population, saying, if I’m alive I can get out, so I’m going to stay alive to get out. But more importantly, I’m going to create an environment where everybody thinks like that. Oh, we getting ready to get out of prison. Why are we at each other’s throats? Why are we battling over turf war in a prison when we got a reality before us to say, I’m going to be able to get out there and raise my kids. I’ll be out there to hug my mother. I’m going to be out there to hug my wife. I’m going to be out there networking with my sister.
The impact of this, what you all are doing, is resonating in prison. Because you even outlined it when you said in your strategy you all went inside. Tell us how this looks inside and worked your way outside to develop a policy and a perspective. More importantly, you ain’t said this word out of your mouth, which I was proud of. You never said “reform” because we’re not trying to reform a plantation.
Amber-Rose Howard: We don’t need no reform. We’re not reforming a dang thing. We want to tear it down and show the world what we really can build up. Absolutely.
Mansa Musa: Yeah. We thank you for coming on. Tell us how can we get in touch with you, and tell our audience what they can do to get in touch with you all and support your effort.
Amber-Rose Howard: Absolutely. You all can look us up at curbprisonspending.org. If you want to reach me directly, you can reach me at email@example.com.
Mansa Musa: There you have it, Amber-Rose.
Amber-Rose Howard: Thank you so much for having me.
Mansa Musa: Yes. We’re saying this here, you rattled the bars today. George Jackson said that they will hear the rumbling of our feet. We know for right now, that George Jackson is proud of the members of CURB. Because we know that when you all had taken the initiative to say you’re not putting one more penny into that decadent-ass San Quentin, when you all made that statement and stepped forward, that went a long way in terms of the future of the men, and more importantly the women, in the prison system. So we ask you, our audience, to review this information, to review CURB, to look at what they’re doing, and reimagine a society without a prison.
Reimagine a society where $18.5 billion is being invested in schools, hospitals, grocery stores, and infrastructures or playgrounds where your children can play. Reimagine that the monies that are being put into the prison-industrial complex, the military-industrial complex, are being put back inside society and being reinvested. And, the reinvestment would yield this, the reinvestment will yield a quality life for people; not only the people that are getting out, but the people that are left behind. In the communities where the prisons were, you can have a quality life. You can reimagine having an industry and living in a town where you don’t have to wake up and think about whether or not your loved one would come out of prison alive because of the brutal conditions that they work under. We thank you, and we continue to ask you to continue to support Rattling The Bars.
Amber-Rose Howard: Absolutely.
Mansa Musa: Because it’s the only way that you’re going to get Amber-Rose and a CURB report, on Rattling the Bars. You’re not going to get it from no other major network. Nobody is going to talk about $18.5 billion being taken away from a prison-industrial complex. Nobody is going to sit up here and talk about the devastation of prison. They’re not going to give you this information on a major news network. You’re only going to get this information on The Real News, and you’re only going to get this information when you rattle the bars. Thank you very much, and thank you, Amber, for enlightening us, and giving us this opportunity.
Amber-Rose Howard: Thank you so much for having me on.