The growth of the US prison population under a system of mass incarceration has now gone on for 50 years, according to The Sentencing Project. While awareness and political discourse about US prison expansion has grown in the last decade, we are still far from dismantling this violent and inhumane system of captivity. Nicole Porter from The Sentencing Project joins Rattling the Bars to explain her organization’s new campaign to fight mass incarceration, ’50 years and a wake up.’
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
[Voiceover]: This interview was recorded before the passing of our dear friend and comrade Marshall “Eddie” Conway on Feb. 13, 2023. We didn’t want to alter the episode to remove Eddie in any way from the show he helped to create. TRNN will have more details soon on plans to celebrate Eddie’s incredible life. For now, we will continue his work and strive to make him proud, and we ask our audience to keep Eddie and his family in their prayers.
Mansa Musa: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-hosting for Eddie Conway. And as I always do, I try to make you aware of what’s going on with Eddie Conway. And I ask that whatever spirituality that you identify with, please put Eddie in that space of prayer, or whatever you do, as he goes through his struggle to recover.
Today, we have a remarkable woman on our program, Nicole Porter. She’s with the Sentencing Project, and she’s no stranger to Rattling the Bars. I was on a webinar they had that was called 50 Years and a Wake Up. And here to talk about that is Nicole. Me and Nicole will be going over some things pertaining to what exactly is 50 years and a Wake Up? Welcome, Nicole, to Rattling the Bars.
Nicole Porter: Thank you for having me. Happy to be here with you.
Mansa Musa: Hi. So as I was telling our audience earlier, and I’m assuming it’s the Sentencing Project, have come up with this concept called 50 Years and a Wake Up. Explain to our audience what exactly is 50 years and a Wake Up?
Nicole Porter: Well, my colleagues at the Sentencing Project, our research team has identified 2023 as the 50th year of mass incarceration. It’s because in 1973, that was the first year that the prison population started going up during this mass incarceration era. So the title of this effort, this campaign, this public education campaign is 50 years and a Wake Up.
So, as formerly incarcerated folks in the audience may know, a wake up is what some incarcerated people refer to as their sentence plus the day that they’re leaving. So for example, if people are serving 50 years and a wake up, then the wake up is the planned day to exit prison.
Mansa Musa: Right.
Nicole Porter: So we want to reference that and use it as an intentional effort to call people in who are going to be collaborating with us, who we want to engage with specifically, who are directly impacted by mass incarceration in the 50 years of mass incarceration. Not just folks who’ve survived their sentence and who are in the community, but those who are behind the wall. So we hope that the title of the campaign creates a platform for that, draws specific connections to that as we do this work over the next year. And we’ve released some national reports that provide an overview of incarceration trends, including the growth of incarceration over the last 50 years and some of the specific characteristics of the US and its incarceration system, its carceral system.
And we hope that through this work, through this public education work that the Sentencing Project is embarking on with national organizations around the country and also state and local organizations around the country, that we really shape a narrative that can help push the conversation in a new direction so that we can challenge the last 50 years of mass incarceration, and then identify specific solutions that move us forward over the next 50 years.
Mansa Musa: All right. And speaking on that, moving us forward on the next 50 years because we’re talking about a year-long campaign. So what are some of your specifics, if you can identify some of the specific things that you want to look at in the next year? And I’m asking in this context, Nicole, in the next year as it relates to trying to change the narrative, are we looking at parole? In this year, are we looking at the impact of mandatory sentences? And are we looking at those things that contribute to this behemoth that we see, the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration, or what?
Nicole Porter: Absolutely. Well, this work is going to be focused on organizing a narrative, public education to challenge mass incarceration, and to highlight what the drivers of the United States mass incarceration problems are and the impact, including the racial disparities and the impact on communities.
The Sentencing Project has three priorities, three campaign priorities. But we’re also partnering with other national, state, and local organizations who are working to challenge mass incarceration. And their calls to action, their priorities overlap and intersect with ours, but are also unique to their own organizations and the theory of change that those organizations are moving forward on.
But with the Sentencing Project, for example, we’re challenging felony disenfranchisement and working to expand voting rights so that political rights are extended to everyone regardless of their incarceration status. That means supporting active campaigns that have a very strong possibility of advancing and moving forward this year to expand voting rights to people in the community on probation and parole, but also to people in prison. There are active efforts to reinstate voting rights to people in prison in states like Illinois and Oregon. In two states, people never lost their voting rights, Maine and Vermont. And so this would be an effort to affirmatively expand voting rights to people who are currently sentenced to prison in Illinois and Oregon. Very strong political possibilities for that.
There’s also efforts to expand on youth justice, to reduce out-of-home placements, detention for youthful defendants, and to address the racial disparities that drive youth justice outcomes in the United States.
And then we also have extreme sentencing. So we are engaged in active efforts around sentencing reform to challenge life without parole sentences, given the large number of people sentenced to life without parole throughout the country. Address sentencing reform to give people a post-incarceration remedy, a post sentence remedy, a second look remedy so that folks who were sentenced to too-long prison terms in the ’80s and the ’90s can have their prison terms revisited.
There’s been activity around that around the country, not just because of new laws that have been adopted, but because some prosecutors have used their authority to reopen cases and to support the re-sentencing of people who suffered from too -long sentences, particularly in the ’80s and ’90s. And their sentences cumulatively helped drive up prison populations around the country.
And we are looking at front-end reforms, supporting efforts to repeal mandatory minimums, supporting efforts to authorize parole for people who are currently ineligible for parole. So there’s a mix of policy reforms that the Sentencing Project is supporting. And then we’re also in partnership with other national, state, and local organizations who have their own policy agendas and their own approach, their own theory of change to challenging mass incarceration.
And I think one of the issues that came up in previous strategy calls that we’ve had with partners is that what needs to happen differently this year, given that it is the 50th year of mass incarceration, is to be more collaborative. To create space and opportunity for partnership across organizations, across movements, the various perspectives that are working to challenge mass incarceration. And that together, that overall conversation that’s happening nationally and within local communities can help shift the conversation, can help shift perspective on why what the United States has been doing for the last 50 years are so problematic, and what the United States needs to be doing differently over the next 50 years to meaningfully address mass incarceration.
Mansa Musa: All right. But look, let’s talk about this then, okay? Because we recognize, like you say, these are some of the drivers. And in terms of this, and I know I’m using the term year, but I know it’s going to be ongoing. Okay, where are y’all at in terms of post incarceration and people getting out? The impact the incarceration has had on them and the trauma that they suffered? Is it something going to be addressed? Is this 50 Years and a Wake Up, is it going to be addressing release, the funding that goes into helping people stay in society and not recidivate? Or is this not on the table?
Nicole Porter: Well, we support organizations who are supporting re-entry and supporting people to address their possibility, their risk of returning to prison. So amongst our partnership organizations, it includes faith organizations who are working closely with recently released individuals, supporting them in wraparound services or overall services that they’re eligible for. Also amongst our partner organizations is a group, We Got Us Now, that is supporting the families of currently incarcerated residents.
Mansa Musa: Very good. Very good group, very good group.
Nicole Porter: And addressing the needs of children, minor and young adult children, who’ve been left behind or who’ve been directly impacted by their parent’s incarceration. Supporting a community, doing training and advocacy support for the children of currently and formerly incarcerated residents.
We are partnering with legal services organizations such as the American Bar Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, who have very legal specific projects where they’re able to support people directly impacted by incarceration in a range of ways. Of course, the scope of this is significant, so it’s going to take partnership to really provide the services and infrastructure necessary to meet the needs of the tens of thousands of individuals currently incarcerated.
But the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has a legal project supporting clemency petitions for currently incarcerated individuals. Some of their chapters are supporting emerging legal support programs to help represent people directly who are seeking a second look at re-sentencing. And that work is happening in a handful of states around the country.
And we welcome the opportunity to partner directly with re-entry service providers who can support the wraparound services, the holistic services that recently released people need in order to build up that community, have that community support, so that their chances of returning back to prison decline. And so we are open to new partnerships, and to think through in ways that can meaningfully help people, and meet people where they are with those reentry needs and those re-entry supports.
Mansa Musa: And what is y’all legislative perspective in terms of the 50 and a Wake Up? How are y’all looking at the political landscape, Congress, local, state, and local entities? Are y’all looking at them?
Nicole Porter: I mean, Congress is very challenging. That’s not going to prevent us from working and having the conversation, with doing the education necessary with all of the Congressional and Senate offices in DC, and then also having these conversations at the state and local level. Working on introduced reforms that state lawmakers have the authority to adopt and enact. Reforms to address the sentencing policies that drive admissions into prison, drive length of stay. Support reforms that address collateral consequences for people living with a conviction history through voting rights and the expansion of other civil rights. And then also addressing the youth justice policies that drive out-of-home placements and detention for children who should be treated as children, not looked at as a problem and potentially marked because of the way that the United States overreacts and over incarcerates. And those policies even extend to the most youthful residents in our communities.
So what this all means is that the Sentencing Project and our staff are engaged in specific policy campaigns supporting introduced measures at the state and federal level. And we’re partnering with national organizations and state and local organizations on this as well. We want to see policy reform. We want to see states change their criminal codes to address specific statutes that drive admissions in the state prison, drive those length of stays. Repeal mandatory minimums. But also give post-conviction relief through statutory changes that allow for sentencing review after a term of years for people who’ve been sentenced to prison. And making that retroactive, so the people who were incarcerated in the ’80s and ’90s and who are still there have some remedy, some ability to have their sentence reviewed and considered for release from incarceration.
And then we’re working on specific policy solutions with introduced legislation in a range of states for youth justice reforms. And then also for the expansion of civil rights to formerly incarcerated individuals or people living with criminal conviction history. Most specifically, the expansion of voting rights to people living with a criminal conviction history in states like New Mexico, Oregon, Nebraska, and Texas.
Mansa Musa: No stone unturned when it comes to the criminal justice system. Let’s speak in terms of where you expect to be or where we expect to be in one year? Is this the prelude to a national movement for the abolition of prisons? And maybe out of this conversation that we had this year, we’ll come up with strategies on what that would look like, and what would take place if some of these institutions are eradicated? Is this the start of that conversation? Or is this just wishful thinking?
Nicole Porter: Well, it’s not wishful thinking. I mean, the Sentencing Project is dedicating resources to having these national conversations and to have significant and strategic solutions that help drive policy reforms and policy solutions at the federal level and also within states. So a year from now, I hope that we are partnering with additional national, state, and local groups who want to work with us to challenge mass incarceration and challenge the next 50 years of mass incarceration.
A year from now, I hope that we’ve moved forward on state specific campaigns that support sentencing reform that expand post-conviction sentencing remedies for people who are currently in prison, who might have been in prison for the last 20 to 30 years during this 50 year mass incarceration era. And it would be a more than reasonable expectation to have a review of whether or not those individuals need to continue to be in prison for a range of reasons, including they may have aged into disability and no longer pose a public safety risk, they may be able to demonstrate above and beyond steps they’ve taken towards the rehabilitation and personal development and have made amends for any harm caused that led to their conviction and no longer need to be in prison.
And frankly, that the 50 states who are considering sentencing reforms as well as overall the nation, have reconsidered that the length of time that people have been subjected to over the last 20 to 30 years for many offense types is extremely excessive. Because we have very lengthy possibilities for sentencing people to too-long prison terms. So it is about individual changes, but it’s also about the state addressing that its policies have been too extreme and too excessive over the last 20 to 30 years – 50 years, given challenging the last 50 years of incarceration.
And that in a year from now that we’ve expanded voting rights to people in the community who are on probation and parole, but we’ve also expanded voting rights to people behind the walls in states like Illinois and Oregon, and that we are supporting the voting rights infrastructure that needs to be put in place to guarantee their ballot access. And that in the fall of ’24, that we actually guarantee ballot access for newly eligible voters, whether or not they are living with a criminal conviction in the community or they’re living with the criminal conviction behind the walls.
And also a year from now, hoping that we’ve made the world for our youth a little bit more fair, a little bit more just in changing the standards within states at the local level around a presumption of out-of-home placements, around a presumption of providing services for youth as a response to any contact with the youth justice system as opposed to over-incarceration and extending the criminal legal system to interactions with youth who may need services, rather than more exposure to harsh and punitive responses.
Mansa Musa: And you know what, as we close, I’m thinking we saying 50 years, right? And I did 48 years. I’m sitting back thinking about, I came right in at the start. I was like one of the ones that started that they rounded up on the… Like they came to Africa and rounded everybody up, brought them here. I was one of the ones they rounded up in the Black community and brought into this massive plantation.
Nicole Porter: How old were you when you started?
Mansa Musa: I had just turned 19. Yeah. Hey, well, in closing, Nicole, educate our listeners on what they can expect and how they can get involved.
Nicole Porter: Yeah. Well, folks, join us at sentencingproject.org. You’ll find information on the 50 years and a Wake Up work that we’re doing over the next year. You can have conversations in your community around the fact that the United States is going into the next 50 years, and that we should be challenging what happened since 1973.
We want you to join us, stay in touch. We’ll be posting upcoming events, having talks in communities around the country, perhaps your community. If you want to invite us to have a conversation with your local community, perhaps with your church community or with some other civic organization in your community, we’re certainly open to considering those requests. Because we want to make sure to be having these conversations with our national partners, but also around the country, in state and local communities so that this national conversation can continue.
Mansa Musa: There you go. Have it, the real news. 50 years and a Wake Up. Nicole Porter made a succinct case on why we should be organizing around this, the effectiveness we expect the organization to have, what we’ll be looking at in a year from now. And more importantly, how you can become involved in stopping another 50 years of mass incarceration in the massive prison-industrial company.
Thank you, Nicole, for this educational conversation. And also thank you for the work that you’re doing on our behalf.
Nicole Porter: Thank you. I appreciate you.
Mansa Musa: Okay. There we have it.
Nicole Porter: All right.