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Brandi Mack from Designing Justice talks about how their work designing restorative justice spaces centers people who have been directly impacted by the system.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. I’m Eddie Conway coming to you from Baltimore for the Real News Network. We have been watching, and of course the whole world is watching COVID-19 and the impacts this has been having around the world, but we have been watching in particular the impact it has been having on prisons in the United States. And so, one of the things that I need to bring up right now, so I don’t forget it, is that San Quentin currently has the highest number of cases than any of other prisons in the United States of America. We’ll do a story on that in the near future. Right now, we’re concerned with restorative justice and the spaces and the design of prisons in the future. And so recently, Governor Newsom of California has shut down three juvenile prisons.
Other governors in other states are looking at redesigning their police force. There’s been designing spaces for restorative justice in Georgia and Atlanta, et cetera. And so, what we want to do today is look at what might replace those three juvenile prisons and juvenile centers in California. And so, joining me, representing design and justice, and designing spaces, is Brandi Mack. Brandi, thanks for joining me.

Brandi Mack: Thanks for having me.

Eddie Conway: Okay. So Brandy, the first thing that I’m curious about is do you have, does your organization have, plans or ideas of what’s going to replace these three juvenile centers? Are they going to be replaced? And if so, do you all have any input into that?

Brandi Mack: Thank you so much. We’re excited that our governor decided to do that, particularly as we look at San Quentin, and the spike of our healthcare with our people. We are beginning designing for Decarceration Nation. Eddie, we were on your show a few months back talking about the work we’re doing in Atlanta, Georgia, with mayor, Keisha Bottoms, as Women on the Rise, a local organization rallying to close down the jail, and said, “Let’s put this initiative together, and let’s reimagine what the Atlanta City Detention Center could be as a center of equity.”

We spent a year working on the ground with our beloved community, those who were most impacted as the experts, to begin radically re-imagining what does a center of equity look like. Is it this one shop where folks are able to work, live, play, heal from the ills of this mass incarceration system? So, we have began working in communities from Atlanta, Georgia, to Mississippi, with organizations who are already doing the programmatic work, but don’t have the place. What we do know is that our communities have amazing programs, but we don’t have the buildings and the places to activate the healing that’s over-needed for our community.

Eddie Conway: Is this pandemic, COVID-19, is this creating an opportunity, and I hate to say it like that, to rethink how we incarcerate, how we imprison people? Is this an opportunity that may help your organization take advantage of it in relationship to women, juvenile, and other prison systems, camp centers, [inaudible 00:00:03:55], so on? Can you see an opportunity coming out of this pandemic?

Brandi Mack: Absolutely. The fire’s turned on, Eddie. We’ve been working on and designing different restorative justice cities with our community partners who are offering the programs going on six years now. In Oakland, we have the very first restorative justice building where Ella Baker and several other nonprofits are housed along with a Colors restaurant. We’re talking about multiple use and availabilities, that this is a time for our city and lawmakers to go look at all of the documents and articles we’ve published. Look at the pictures. In fact, they can go to the Restore Oakland building and say, “Here’s an example of what it looks like to create a restorative justice city.” Where do people go when they get out? Our reentry program is at fault for creating a reentry back into the system, that if places were designed so that folks didn’t reenter back into the system, meaning there were distributed care models around the city, buildings that are funded by public money, because the public money is building the prison.

So, we’re asking for a divest invest. Divest from building prisons, and invest in building restorative peace centers.

Eddie Conway: Toward that end, and this is something that most people outside don’t really consider. And I understand it, that, oh, your organization is probably doing a better job of this. How much involvement is ex-offenders, or inside prison, or personnel? How much are they involved in this restorative justice design?

Brandi Mack: In our projects, the center of every design are the folks who have been most inflicted by the system, that we are clear that our work is technical assistance using our skills of our community has gone through. So as we work at community, for example, in Atlanta, our community engagement is the crook, or we call the secret sauce of our work in design, because we recognize that architecture and design has been used to weaponize in our community. As a Black woman led organization, we’re very clear to go to our community.
We go to our community to begin the design, which is what we did in Atlanta, Georgia. Our community partners have the work. The programs exist. They are not resourced. If we are resource rich, we can watch the healing wave through the United States for Black and Brown people, because we’re no shortage of nonprofit organization church groups. But, what is missing is the built environment and the investment from the state that has inappropriately taken money to build prisons.

Eddie Conway: One of the things, and I don’t agree with experts seeming to indicate that seriously violent offenders, or rapists, or sex offenders in terms of pedophiles, can’t be rehabilitated. Is there some sort of restorative justice design or plan in mind to deal with that percentage of the population?

Brandi Mack: Well, to really be honest with you, Eddie, again, we’re technical folks. And so, we’re working on the actual infrastructure of the buildings. What feels really good is we have community partners who are tackling this.

When you said sex offenders, I think about an organization, Team Triumph in Stockton, California, that has like a 98% rate of junior sex offenders who never go back into it. Now, they’re operating out of small houses and neighborhoods, unable to really have the space needed to actually amplify their work. So, we don’t hear about the cases of programs that are actually rehabilitating because, well, they don’t have a space. It wasn’t designed that way. Our media, America, was built on the back, as we know, of our ancestors. And so, we’re not hearing the rate of how folks are being healed and rehabilitated. What we hope to do is amplify it by pushing our cities, pushing our government, to say, “Put public money back into public land, into public hands, so that we can do the much needed work that this country has caused us.”

Eddie Conway: Okay. Can you talk a little bit about, and I just heard you say that there’s mobile things that’s popping up, can you talk a little bit about the idea of mobile trailers for women to kind of be reintegrated back into the community?

Brandi Mack: Absolutely. As you may know, Eddie, often when the system lets you out of jail, there is no time. It could be 2:00 in the morning, 1:00 in the morning, and you’re being released to go home. We recognize this ill and worked with community partners who are serving our beloved community. And what was heard again by the women, because we went into the jails and asked, “What do we need you all to make sure that we’re not coming back here?” And what was heard was a mobile refuge room. This is a mobile trailer that was designed to pick up women when being led out of jail, that has all the services they need in this mobile unit.

What we’re saying is access is often the issue in our country. We have more than enough, but who has access? So, this mobile refuge room actually goes directly, picks folks up. On the way back to community, you’re able to get an abundance of services in this mobile refuge van. We use the van also in community with community partners to offer things like acupuncture, pop up right in the community, pregnancy testing, everything needed for our beloved community. So, what we want to do is look at the brick and mortar, but we’re also saying we can build mobile infrastructure and meet people right where they are to make sure that they don’t reenter back into those systems.

Eddie Conway: Okay. But while you’re at it, could you maybe share a little bit about these pop-up villages, and restorative peacemaking centers? Can you talk about that a little bit?

Brandi Mack: Yes. The pop-up village, we have several programs from healthcare to GED programs to entertainment, all targeted to heal us. What we don’t have is the buildings. We have programs that have been operating as spaces as a nonprofit, doing the best they can without the actual space. We saw that, and we designed mobile infrastructure that can house and support our beloved community that are offering HIV testing and GED, but also from this cultural standpoint. See, what we understand is that the master’s tools may not be the same tools that we can use to undo this. So in our design, we’re very clear that the cultural competency in restorative justice is needed. Not just the water downward of restorative justice, but what does it look like to actually have ubuntu, as we would say in our community? And so, the mobile village goes to a blighted parking lot and pops it up and creates a whole design for our community to heal.
People lead everything from a haircut to acupuncture, services, driven by their community. And we’re just providing the infrastructure.

Eddie Conway: Well, give me an idea of what the world would look like if we had more humane, interactive restorative justice kind of programs instead of prisons?

Brandi Mack: Oh gosh, Eddie, that’s a loaded one. You see the butterfly in the back, the transformation, the transformation. It would look like our children living at a right age, is what it would look like. It would look like people working, and dignified home ownership, not just section eight. Cooperation. It would look like … I have three daughters. When you asked this question, I get emotional because this is the reason I do this work in hopes that they can live in a world where as Black women, they don’t have to walk down the street and worry about being shot because of the color of their skin. That a world of restorative justice and peace centers would be outlets for them to go to and heal from the trauma that has decades, hundreds and hundreds of years. They would be able to go to meditation spas instead of juvenile hall. What has been amazing, Eddie, is that our community has the vision. We still dream of a world where freedom is available to us.

Eddie Conway: As a final question, I am going to ask you, what can the public do to support this, or to encourage it coming to their community?

Brandi Mack: Well, one is get with your city representatives and begin to question. I hear the world right now saying, “Defund the police. Divest, invest.” We’re working very, very hard right now to produce an infogram of the restorative justice city. Like, what does it look like? Because often, we get caught in analysis and paralysis, right? We’re talking about it. The police have been defunded. In LA County in particularly, they have actually created a document, Alternatives to Incarceration, where community organizations got together with the city and published a complete document, which I’ll share with you, Eddie. I’ll send it to you if you haven’t seen it. And it literally has mapped through the whole LA County of what would it look like. Now, it’s time for our city officials … The money. Once we stop building the juvenile halls and the prisons, now, where does that money go?

That’s public money. So, we need our folks to go, okay. Yeah. Defund the police. And here, pass that money over here for the built environment. Pass that money to the program where the brother’s mentoring the youth and can barely feed his own children. But, let’s make that happen next. And so, we need our community organizers also to think about the technical piece. See, we often think about a grant and continuing. We’re pushing the admin to say, “More than a grant nonprofit,” because we know that system was designed to keep others away and others not. But, what does it look like for us to have cooperation? We had Black Wall Street. We know how to own businesses. How do we reappropriate that and do it again?

Eddie Conway: Okay. All right. So Brandy, thanks for joining me. Okay.

Brandi Mack: Thanks for having us.

Eddie Conway: And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.

Studio: Cameron Granadino
Production: Cameron Granadino, Ericka Blount Danois

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Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.