A $110 million plan to add a new mental health wing to the New Orleans Parish Jail is facing staunch opposition from formerly incarcerated people. Organized under the mantle of VOTE (Voices of the Experienced), formerly incarcerated people are leading the charge to stop the jail expansion, and they’re organizing voter power to do it. VOTE founder and Executive Director Norris Henderson and Chief Policy Analyst Ronald Marshall join Rattling the Bars to discuss the struggle unfolding.
Studio Production: Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Mansa Musa: Historically, we can trace the abolishment of chattel slavery in this country back to the systematic, concrete, and organized effort of those who opposed slavery and gave birth to a movement: the abolition movement. The movement was not one thing; it took many forms. We are now seeing a similar movement growing throughout the world around ending mass incarceration, the new chattel slavery, and the prison-industrial complex, the new plantation.
We see the fight to dismantle these oppressive systems with The Sentencing Project, 50 Years and a Wake Up, with the organizations like CURB, FAMM, and more, all of which serve to educate and mobilize people into a fighting formation to oppose fascism, racism, and capitalism. One group fighting this fight in the state of Louisiana is called VOTE, Voices Of The Experienced: a grassroots organization founded and ran by formerly incarcerated people, their families, and their allies. They also have a (c)(4) political arm called VOTE, Voters Organized to Educate, which I would characterize as the Baton Rouge fighting formation brigade.
Joining me to talk about some of their works and their latest initiative which is focused on stopping the construction of the controversial Phase III mental health wing at New Orleans Parish Jail in Louisiana, is Norris Henderson, executive director and founder of VOTE; and Ronald Marshall, chief policy analyst of VOTE. Welcome to Rattling the Bars, Norris and Ronald.
Norris Henderson: Good morning.
Mansa Musa: Let’s start with you, Norris. Tell our audience a little bit about yourself, who you are, and what VOTE is.
Norris Henderson: My name is Norris. I’m the executive director and founder of VOTE, which is the acronym for Voice Of The Experienced. This organization was actually founded while I was in prison. We are a progeny of the Angola Special Civic Project which was like the political arm inside prison. I got out in 2003, and one year to the date after my release, I incorporated VOTE. And for the last 20 years, man, we’ve been trying to be that drum major in the sense of how do we change and disrupt this criminal legal system the way that it exists.
Mansa Musa: Okay. And Ronald?
Ronald Marshall: Yeah, my name is Ronald Marshall, chief policy analyst at VOTE. I was formerly incarcerated, been home for two years now. But on the inside, I was also a part of the Angola Special Civic Project. You know, when you’re in prison you feel a certain way about the system. Upon my release I felt like, hey, this is the best thing for me to do is get involved with this work, with y’all changing and disrupting the practices that are harming our communities. I’ve been doing this work a little over 25 years now.
Mansa Musa: Right. And comrade George Jackson in his essay, Toward the United Front, spoke about the sheer numbers of those of us incarcerated, and the core relationship between those of us incarcerated and those of us who identify with those of us who are incarcerated. It made common sense that we were organized. When he was making this analysis, he was talking about a million people. We’re talking about 2.5 million people and growing. Let’s talk about some of the work that VOTE is doing, as we evolve into talking about the latest initiative y’all are taking around Phase III. What’s some of y’all things that y’all are doing, Norris?
Norris Henderson: One of the main issues around Phase III is they want to add … Well, let me back up. Phase III is an addition to the Orleans Justice Center. Used to call it the Orleans Parish Prison, but now they call it the Orleans Justice Center. After Hurricane Katrina, the jail was really damaged from the floodwaters and the city was trying to move to build a bigger jail. So we were like okay, yeah, it needs to be a jail, but it doesn’t need to be as big as it was. Pre-Katrina, our jail had the capacity for 8,000 people. That was larger than the population in the maximum-security state penitentiary so we fought to downsize this construction to 1,438 beds, with the proviso that before they open up all the other jail beds, this thing will be demolished.
Fast forward, the conditions inside prisons deteriorate really fast and so does the mental health crisis here within the state, probably likely all over this country. So folks suggested, well, we need to build a mental health wing in the jail. Right, okay, fine. Put it inside the jail. Phase III is the idea that they want to construct a $110 million wing to the jail, for 56 people. Our work is trying to stop that. Last week we filed for a temporary restraining order and got them to halt the construction. Then we went in front of a judge who … The way he ruled, really to me, is if he had a vested interest in trying to see this project go forward. So we’re in the appeal process with that. That’s what started this Stop Phase III. Phase III is actually in addition to the building that they’re trying to do and that’s what we’re trying to circumvent.
Mansa Musa: Okay. In that regard, as I was doing my background on this, all this evolved out of, like you say, the dilapidation of the jail. A consent decree came out relative to the status of mental health prisoners, finding space for them, and the consent decree mandated that certain things take place. Despite opposition from the community and the people who have a vested interest in their loved ones being treated humanely, despite them saying, well, they don’t want this particular design, it’s still going forward. Talk about that, Ron.
Ronald Marshall: So what’s happening from our perspective, the federal court is overstepping its boundaries in causing the city to finance a jail without going through the rules and procedures. We have a home charter rule here in New Orleans that governs our elected officials’ behaviors as well as their responsibilities. In this case, the judge said, listen, if you don’t give me what I want, I’m going to hold the entire city in contempt of court, including the city council and the mayor. The mayor took $32 million of money without getting an amendment to the capital budget and she gave this money away.
That’s what our whole fight is about, forcing them to follow the rules of engagement when it comes to elected officials. VOTE stands as the sentinels of justice. It’s like we’re on this high mountain overlooking the city, watching for all forms of injustice. If we see an injustice happen on our watch, we call it out. That’s what we’re basically doing in New Orleans right now: We are calling out the injustice that we are seeing happen on our watch. We are saying to the city, the city council, as well as the mayor, you’re not going to do it on our watch without hearing our voice. That’s what we doing around Phase III. We’re making sure they hear our voice and making sure we name their practices, which they’re violating the rules of engagement, and we’re holding these people accountable. That’s what we do.
Mansa Musa: And you know what? All of us come out of the same space. I did 48 years prior to being released. December 5, I’ve been out for four years. During that period I was incarcerated, the one thing we were trying to get which y’all have been able to get is – And we are just starting to get to that point now because a large contingent of us got out that was active in the joint – But we were trying to get a legitimate organization to be the oversight of the legislative process, to be the oversight of the state and local government in order to ensure that the money being allocated is allocated appropriately for the people that’s affected by it.
Like in this case, where you’re going to take and misappropriate money where you have a high unemployment rate and dilapidated schools. You have a lot of things you could do with that money. But talk about how VOTE is able to get this traction in terms of mobilizing people. Because I was looking at some of y’all initiatives. Y’all had a demonstration last month around this issue. Talk about that, Norris.
Norris Henderson: Well, the thing about that is we’re a base-building organization, and our base is us: formerly incarcerated people. We have been blessed to be able to wake up this sleeping giant. The whole thing inside was, hey man, look. We don’t really have a real power in here. Our power is the extension of our family. Let’s organize them, and we can make something happen. Fast forward, we get out and the same message we were passing along while we were inside, now it’s like it’s the inside outside. We are reaching back, telling those guys inside, hey man, look. Y’all got to get y’all families involved. Y’all direct that traffic towards us, and we can help like God.
That’s where the blessing has really been. We’ve been able to utilize family and friends to build this not only local network here within Louisiana but even this national network, man, of trying to … You mentioned George’s address, it was like it was a million or so people. We’ve got almost over like now, man, 200 million people come in contact with this criminal legal system in this country who have a vested interest in trying to dismantle it in some shape, form, or fashion. That’s why we’re strategizing. I was strategizing with those who were closer to the problem. They’re much closer to the solution, we’re farther away from the resources.
Mansa Musa: Let me ask you this here because you have a lot of cynicism around the electoral process. In most cases, rightly so. I was listening the other day where Biden is in trouble. Kamala Harris went to the Black community, drum-beating for the Black community to get involved in the electoral process. But when we look at the plight of the Black community overall – Now I’m talking about nationwide – We’re still in the same state that we were in prior to anybody being in there; Obama, whoever was in there, our state hasn’t changed. What is it about the vote? What is it about the electoral process? Is it y’all strategy – Specifically the electoral process – Or is this a tactic in y’all strategy? What is about in Baton Rouge, in Louisiana, that y’all think that y’all are able to get some traction? Either one of y’all can answer that.
Norris Henderson: Yeah. So –
Ronald Marshall: Go ahead, Mr. Norris.
Norris Henderson: – You can go ahead. Go ahead.
Ronald Marshall: We’re based in New Orleans; Lafayette and Baton Rouge. Right now, Mr. Norris and I are sitting in New Orleans and we have a saying within our organization that if we cannot change the policies, we focus on changing the policy-makers. So the electoral cycle is first on our agenda. That’s where we go to, that’s our work. You look at our leadership and we identify the people who do not belong in those positions. We organize in their districts to unseat them and seat the people we believe whose mission aligns with VOTE’s mission. So voting the electoral process, this is our wheelhouse. This is what we do every day.
Mansa Musa: You know what? I like that strategy. I was thinking that’s where y’all was at in that regard because I recall that in the Black Panther Party at one point when we circled our wagons and made Oakland our base of operations, the strategy that came out of that was that because we had a cadre of people throughout the country that was politically educated, they could go out into their communities and organize their communities in the fashion to help develop what George called atomic infrastructure. But more importantly, it gave direction. Bobby Seale ran for mayor. It wasn’t him running for mayor that he thought he was going to get elected mayor. It was mobilizing the people to understand what you said: Impacting the policies or changing the policymakers. In that regard, y’all had one victory where y’all had – And Mr. Norris, you can talk about this – The sheriff was elected and is advocating for changes in this whole jail situation. Talk about that.
Norris Henderson: Well, that election was very, very important. Primarily because I tell people all the time, it’s easy to get somebody elected; Taking somebody down really takes some work. So we were able to focus on the 17 years of failure that this guy had on his watch. The advantage for us, again, was most of us have been through that jail so we knew it. So we became educators about what were the wants, needs, and desires of the people in there, and what it was going to take to bear it. At the end of the day, it was like we had a bad leader in that position. And folks were like, oh, he is a nice man. So our campaign was like, yeah, he might be the nicest man in the world. But he’s a lousy sheriff. And we were able to take him out of office.
So we believe that when you take down the lion, the whole jungle quakes in fear. He was the lion to us, and we took him down. And when we took him down, what it did was it encouraged our people, those who were on the fence about the political process, were like man, y’all ain’t getting nothing done, and people going to do what they want to do. When they saw that victory, it was like, wait a minute, man. This is the entry into changing this whole dynamic. Not only with the sheriff’s race but every other race for judge, DA, you name it. If we engage, we can play a part. In most cases, we’ve been blessed to almost dictate the outcome. We’re really high on the civic engagement piece of it.
Mansa Musa: I could see the correlation between that and the civil rights movement in regard to mobilization, not so much as into allowing maybe some question of tactics, but the mobilization. From what I’m looking at y’all, I can see y’all tactics being effective. Because like you say, we are concentrating on those who are impacted. If you come to me and you’re saying you want to get the jail policies changed, it’s not hard for a person that slept in one of the cells, that was denied medical treatment, that had garbage for food, was in a gladiator-type environment; it’s not hard for them to be able to say, tell somebody to vote. Say, look. You need to vote to get these people out of here. Because if not, my grandson might wind up in that jail, or your great-grandson might wind up in jail. But talk about this (c)(4). What’s (c)(4)?
Norris Henderson: The (c)(4) organization is the political arm of our organization. Our (c)(3) is the base building, doing the organizing. Our (c)(4) allows us to actually do election work. We can actually campaign against people, we can endorse people. And that’s really been our strength in the sense that if we can’t change the policy, we change the policymaker. But our (c)(4) is a nonprofit. Also, the biggest difference between the (c)(3) and (c)(4) is the fact that you can do more political activity than you can do with your (c)(3).
Mansa Musa: Okay, because yeah –
Norris Henderson: (c)(3) is more about education.
Mansa Musa: – Right. Because I know that if you are a nonprofit, they have certain prohibitions on endorsements and doing political work as a nonprofit. But you’re saying that the (c)(4) gives you all that coverage in terms of being able to do that?
Norris Henderson: Right.
Mansa Musa: Talk about how y’all, the men and women that are coming off these plantations, how are y’all absorbing them? And what type of resources do y’all have to help them transition back into society? Because like I said, I did almost 50 years and when I got out, I got out right before COVID hit. Literally, I was scared to go down in the subway. Because I ain’t think if I go – Not so much come back out of the subway – But if I got on the subway line I would go somewhere and wouldn’t be able to get back until somebody educated me and said go on the other side. The one that took you out, go on the other side. It’s going to bring you back.
I got comfortable with that concept right there, literally. It took me a minute to get down. So talk about that because I know that’s important in terms of maintaining and supporting y’all organizing. Even though all of us come out of the same space. I might know you from the institution but I ain’t got nothing to eat. If you tell me it’s going to help somebody I left behind, that’s all well and good. But if I don’t have anything, I don’t see any type of empowerment, then I’m not going to be inclined to be as diligent as I see ya’ll are today. So I want you to educate our audience on that.
Norris Henderson: Right. Well, one thing was my transition was almost flawless. I had a job waiting for me for 10 years with my attorney who had represented me. I had food, clothing, and shelter in place and ran into it like the scenario you were describing. A guy I knew inside came home looking for me. We’d go to breakfast and were chit-chatting and the guy literally told me he was homeless and had been homeless for three years. And that hit me in a way that man, this shouldn’t be.
So myself and five other formerly incarcerated brothers put together and opened up a transition house for men. That’s been over the last seven years. And either last year or the year before last, we opened up a transition house for women right behind our building. So one of the things that we try to do to help people get acclimated, is create this overhead-free environment where they come and live for six months overhead-free. We connect them to all the social services that they need and try to steer them. Again, we’ve been blessed. But what happened, is our work has created a burden in a sense, which is a good one, that we were able to get some legislation passed over the last 7-8 years that our people start flooding out. We had more people than we had space to absorb.
But for most folks, some of the folks went back to family, and some of them are maybe still couch-hopping. But that’s one of the things because we could self-identify with the wants, needs, and desires of people coming out. The other thing, more than anything else, is that we provide camaraderie in the sense that nobody else could give it. Like the example you gave about coming out and trying to hit the subway at the beginning of COVID is like holy shit, what I’m about to get myself into? We’re like that shell within the ear to help them navigate this terrain. That, hey man, I’m not out here by happenstance. There’s a roadmap that we’ve built, and that roadmap is built on success. That’s where we do it. We do a lot of going back inside, teaching, and preparing guys. That’s what Ronald does on the weekends: He goes back inside trying to get these guys mentally ready to come back out here. So when they come out here, it’s not like the cultural shock of … Because we’ve got some of our guys been gone 50 … One just got out, he’d been down 60 years. You know?
Mansa Musa: Yeah, that’s insane.
Norris Henderson: So that’s a whole different world than you’d come from. But no, that’s what we’re –
Ronald Marshall: Yeah.
Norris Henderson: – Go ahead, Ron. I’m sorry.
Mansa Musa: Go ahead, Ron.
Ronald Marshall: To speak to your point, before the guys and women even come out of prison, we engage them by going back into the prison. Mr. Norris is through VOTE. We’ve hired a JPay team. And this team here at VOTE, their only job is to communicate with brothers and sisters on the inside. I’m talking about 900 men and women on JPay who we communicate with on a weekly basis at least three times a week. We send them emails, answer emails back and forth, and to Mr. Norris’s point, I go into prison on the weekends. I teach a trauma-informed curriculum because I know how prison is like PTSD on steroids. It injures every basic human need that we have. And my goal is to go to prison and teach these guys how to survive. I’m trying to save their lives because one of the links associated with trauma is it causes medical conditions. A lot of people who are dying in prisons are dying as a result of high stress levels. So my goal when I go into prison is to try to save your life and talk about the impact and the effects of trauma. You want to come home but I’m going to give you a blueprint so that you can come home into society and then you can have access to all the resources. But first, you got to get out here.
Mansa Musa: As we close out, I want to say this, and I’m going to give y’all last word on it. I’m looking at y’alls strategy and I take my hat off to y’all because this is what we do on this end; We organize. And I see y’all got y’alls organizational structure down in terms of operating on all phases. That’s come from lived experience. When we’re in this environment, when we’re in prison, we try to create as many avenues to get exposure as humanly possible. And we find ourselves creating self-help groups, create organizations, whatever it might be, to try to get people to come in so we can get them to understand what’s going on. And I see y’all doing that.
As we close out, Norris, talk about where y’all going. We already know that y’all are on Phase III. Talk about where y’all think y’all going be at this time next year if you can put your futuristic hat on in terms of Phase III. And how we can get in touch with you, and stay in touch with your organization?
Norris Henderson: Well, first of all, how to get in touch with us: Our website is www.voiceoftheexperienced.org. You can Google us: VOTE, or Voice of the Experienced, and it’ll pop up. Our (c)(4) is Voters Organized to Educate. Where we see ourselves next year, our general counsel right now is waiting on the transcript from the little temporary restraining order hearing we had last week so we can lodge the appeal. But while we’re doing that, we’re in the throes of creating another congressional minority-majority district. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals the other day said let’s move forward. We’re trying to create this district. They have this incoming governor coming, he says he’s going to call a special session, but because I’m a plaintiff in the case, our attorneys are trying to get a status hearing scheduled this week so we can figure out where we’re at.
So the biggest thing is trying to build this momentum for next year going into these congressional maps and carving out another congressional district of African American people within this state. So we’re steadily seizing all these opportunities to continue to build power. And we can tell the story to our people, hey man, we all started this inside the education building inside prison. So they can see our trajectory in the sense of, this is why you need to engage. Ronald will say it again, he mentioned JPay. But for those folks who may not understand what JPay is, JPay is emails, a system that’s inside prisons. We have 900 members inside across the system who are emailing us all day every day and we have hired a team of people to address those concerns. And that’s how we develop our policies moving forward, listening to those guys. We are the shell within the ear for those guys. They give us direction.
Mansa Musa: And Ronald, you can come on in with your amen as we close out. What’s your amen on this point of subject matter?
Ronald Marshall: First of all man, I appreciate what you’re doing, giving us a platform to talk about some of these issues that affect our community. But we’re going to continue to do this work until this work no longer exists. And it’s sad that we’re in 2023 and we’re still waging a war that was being waged when our ancestors were on the plantation. That bothers me, man. It bothers me every day I walk into this office to know that we are still carrying a torch that’s been passed on to us from the ’60s, from the ’30s, from the 1800s. You know what I’m saying? When it’s going to end? When it’s going to end? Until it ends, I’m going to be here raising war with this organization, because I love my organization. I love what we do. Like I said, we are definitely the sentinels of justice. We on that high mountain overlooking, watching out for all forms of injustice. I love the work we do here. So on that note, I appreciate you all for hearing us. Thank you.
Mansa Musa: I’m going to throw a historical analysis out there. At the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, when the French called the North Vietnamese a ragtime operation, they beat the French and subsequently liberated the whole of Vietnam. I see this happening with y’all. Y’all rattling the bars today. All of us come out of that same space. We know what it took to get the attention of people when we were in lockup and lockdown. We had to make a lot of noise.
Norris Henderson: Kick them bars. We had to kick them bars.
Mansa Musa: That’s right. Y’all rattling the bars today. Listen to what I’m saying: y’all made my spirit feel good. I see y’all work and this podcast right here, I’m going to dub this one “The Education of Anybody that Wants to Know How to Dismantle the Criminal Injustice System.” Look at this podcast right here, ’cause y’all are on all cylinders. Thank you very much.
And we ask y’all to continue to support Rattling the Bars and The Real News. Do you see what we’re working with? Look, we’re working with a stacked deck. I don’t care how you cut these cards, it’s all going to come out. We’re winning and these brothers showed us today how to win. And it’s only because of this, Rattling the Bars, and The Real News, that you’re going to get this coverage. We ask that you continue to support us and continue to look at what’s going on, and then what’s going on. I believe after today when you see this podcast, you’ll believe that anything is possible. The analysis is, you move the mountain one show at a time. Thank you very much.