The start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 exacerbated the existing crisis of incarceration in the US, which has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. During this time, a group of women with loved ones incarcerated in Nevada’s prison system founded the organization Return Strong to fight for decarceration and the successful re-entry of formerly incarcerated people into society. Return Strong Executive Director Jodi Hocking and Community Organizer Ashley Gaddis join Rattling the Bars to discuss the fight against mass incarceration in Nevada.
Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Mansa Musa: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-host with Eddie Conway. As I always do, first, I want to say Happy New Year to all the Rattling the Bars listeners and viewers and The Real News watchers and listeners. I want to update you all on Eddie Conway. I had the opportunity to visit his wife, Dominique, and Eddie Conway is doing great. At some point in time, we hope to have Eddie Conway make a cameo appearance on this program that he created and the network that he loved.
Today, we have an extraordinary group of people, but more importantly, we have an extraordinary example of what George Jackson described in his essay “Toward the United Front”. He said that the sheer number of people that are incarcerated, when you compare that with the people that are incarcerated and their family members, the only logical conclusion you can draw is that we have a massive amount of people that, if organized, could really have impact on the way the system is structured and the way the system treats people.
Here today to talk about just that are two extraordinary women. One is Jodi Hocking, and Ashley Gaddis. Welcome to Rattling the Bars.
Jodi Hocking: Thank you.
Mansa Musa: First, let’s start with you, Ashley. Tell Rattling the Bars a little bit about yourself.
Ashley Gaddis: Well, my name is Ashley and I’m from Las Vegas, and I’m formerly incarcerated. I have been in and through both systems, the federal and state system. I’ve been directly impacted by the conditions of prison and the justice system as a whole. I am part of Return Strong now as staff to try to make a difference within the system and policy and hope for better conditions.
Mansa Musa: Okay. Jodi, tell us a little bit about yourself. Tell the Rattling the Bars viewers and listeners a little bit about yourself.
Jodi Hocking: Yeah. Hello. Thank you for having us. My name is Jodi Hocking. I have been a labor organizer for a very long time and am impacted, my husband’s incarcerated. I founded and now I’m the executive director of Return Strong, which is an organization that is really two-sided. On one side, we really center the voices of formerly incarcerated and currently incarcerated people, and then on the other hand, we work with families of the incarcerated to actually be the hands and feet of this movement.
Mansa Musa: Okay. You’re all primarily located in Nevada, right?
Jodi Hocking: We are primarily located… Well, let me say this. We are focused on work in Nevada because what we have in common is either loved ones who are incarcerated in Nevada, but our activists really are all over the world. Because our loved ones are incarcerated in Nevada, but we don’t all necessarily live there.
Mansa Musa: Okay. That’s good. All right. Let’s start by examining, because we’re talking about Return Strong, which is a grassroots organization that was created by the family members of men and women that are incarcerated. As you outlined just a minute ago, as the men and women return, they become a part of Return Strong.
But let’s talk about… Before we go into talking about the organization, and I’m going to direct this to you, Ashley, because you experienced a lot of the horrendous conditions that take place in the prisons. You can weigh in on it as well, Jodi. But let’s talk about the prison-industrial complex in Nevada. Ashley, you served federal prison and you served state prison as well. Talk about the prison-industrial complex in Nevada as you understand it.
Ashley Gaddis: Okay. From my experience, I started my time in a private prison here in Nevada when it was CCA. I’ve been involved in this system from a privately run institution to a state run institution. Basically, I’ve seen it go from reform to human warehousing, meaning conditions just worsen and worsen and worsen. The problem or the major issues that are happening are there’s a lot of abuse, physical, mentally, and verbal abuse within the institution. A lot of the staff that work there have worked at a man’s prison, so they come there treating the women like men.
Mansa Musa: Right.
Ashley Gaddis: Any complaints that happen, for the most part, get ignored, get shifted around, not heard. Unfortunately, it’s a system that really doesn’t take women prisoners seriously, from our mental needs, our medical needs, our physical needs, and we’re just categorized as one.
Mansa Musa: Let me ask you this here, because I know from doing previous reports on dealing with women’s prison. How many women prisons, to your knowledge, are in Las Vegas, or are in Nevada?
Ashley Gaddis: There’s approximately 800 to 1,000 between the main prison, which is Smiley Road, Florence McClure, and our camp in Jean, Nevada.
Mansa Musa: So 800 to 1,000 women?
Ashley Gaddis: Yes.
Mansa Musa: But how many prisons do they have? Because for example, in the state of Maryland, they have one women’s prison for the state of Maryland, and that one women’s prison consists of security-wise, maximum, minimum and because they don’t have no pre-release system, they don’t have the right to progress through the system.
I’m trying to think and see if this is the consistent concept when it comes to women’s prison throughout the United States. So how many women’s prisons do they have?
Ashley Gaddis: Yes, you’re correct. We have one prison that holds medium, maximum, and we have one camp.
Mansa Musa: Okay. So this goes… Go ahead.
Ashley Gaddis: No, and this goes from… Our Florence McClure prison holds approximately 800 to 850 women now. That’s just recently because of COVID, but they’ve been over-populated, over 1,000, which is not supposed to happen, and housing women in the gym or in other units on bunk beds because of the overcrowding.
Mansa Musa: So this is consistent. When we’re talking about the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration, which is the new form of slavery, the narrative is consistent throughout the nation that, as if prison in and of itself is not [inaudible] and horrendous, and women are discriminated against in society, misogynistic society, racist society, a sexist society. But then they find themselves incarcerated and discriminated against again in the form of not being given no equity. Jodi, talk about how Return Strong came into existence?
Jodi Hocking: We started, like many places did, in reaction to some circumstances that were going on in 2020. One was my own personal response to the murder of George Floyd and feeling, as a middle-aged white woman, what do I do to start to…?
If you remember really the racial divide that was going on in the country at that time, and I had done a lot of anti-racism work. It started with a book club, and I worked with teachers across the country. And then I decided my husband was incarcerated and had just gone back on a violation. I started to really think about how families of the incarcerated, a lot of times, over accentuate personal responsibility and somebody’s personal piece of a crime or conviction, and that they miss some of the systemic issues that happen in addition to that.
I decided to start… Really, it was supposed to be just a family peer learning circle was where it started. My background is in organizing, though. I’m a labor organizer and believe so deeply in the power of collective action and that we’re always stronger together. We started on Aug. 6, 2020, we had our first family meeting. There were about 10 women there. And three weeks later, the Nevada Department of Corrections, in response to Marsy’s Law, implemented an 80% to 100% deduction of any money that went on people’s books, any money they were making from prison industries.
I felt like we had to make a choice. We were either going to fight for everyone or we were going to try to figure out how to pay for ourselves, our loved ones’ restitution. We took on that fight, and we really weren’t even in existence yet. We had had one family meeting. And people who knew us back then, I kept telling people, I don’t know what we’re doing, but we have to do something. Which is my standard answer to everything is, I don’t always know the answers. I just know the only thing we can’t do is stand still and watch this stuff go down. We started fighting that. We actually were able to get a stay within the first month of it happening.
We got a stay from the governor for about five months, and eventually stole a bill out from under NDOC, flipped it, and put statutory caps on restitution and deductions, which was amazing. They had to repay people any money that they had taken without [inaudible]. It was a huge win. I would’ve loved to get it to go to no restitution.
Mansa Musa: Zero. Right.
Jodi Hocking: Sometimes you have to fight for the best case scenario, and then we don’t have control over all of it. But it made a huge difference for people who were in prison and owed any money to the prison system. Because they were literally, if you put a hundred dollars, I know my husband was getting $8 out of that $100, and they were taking all the rest of it.
As soon as we got the stay on that, the COVID outbreak happened in Nevada and Warm Springs Correctional Center went from zero cases to about 400 cases within days. We had been tracking that information, and so had been going to the media saying, NDOC, they’re lying about their numbers. That can’t be true. This isn’t true. So, when the outbreak happened, it created a lot of questions for NDOC. Even though we don’t win every battle we’re in with them, we have gotten the attention of media across the country and then other grassroots organizations. It’s created a situation where we have won multiple fights with them, where nobody has ever won before. It’s just created a huge difference.
Mansa Musa: Ashley, as it stands right now, you’re formerly, you are in the halfway house?
Ashley Gaddis: Yes, I’m in a special… I’m in a specialty program that gave an early release, and this program is through the courts.
Mansa Musa: All right. How did you become involved with Return Strong, or when did you become aware? Because Jodi, you all have been in existence since 2020 what? Two?
Jodi Hocking: 2020. Our non-profit formed in 2022.
Mansa Musa: Okay. Ashley, how did you become involved with Return Strong?
Ashley Gaddis: Okay. There used to be another group called Nevada Cure that helped inmates. They fell off, and then I started to get literature from Return Strong. As an inmate, we’re always leery of these organizations because, are they just talking? What do they do? Are they going to help us? Do they care? All those questions go [inaudible] until we see the existence of it and the actions behind the organization. Like Jodi said, the restitution issue came up that affected many, many, many people. We started getting literature from them, and I’m like, okay, they want to know.
They sent these surveys through asking who has been affected how. And I’m like, wow, okay. They’re engaging, they want to know. I reached out to them. I didn’t necessarily have a restitution issue, but I knew many people that did. They don’t know how to reach out, so I guided other people at first. Here, this is who you need to talk to, this is who you need to contact. And then as I saw Return Strong making moves and really making noise and making a difference, I’m like, yeah, this is who I need to connect with. I stayed connected.
Because I do have my paralegal cert, so I know what kind of system that I’m dealing with. I’m dealing with the system that anything we do is obsolete. But anything Constitutional as far as violations of our rights, I will jump. I got involved with that, be it through the grievance, be it through reaching out to Jodi because that’s what matters, not curling irons and stuff, but [inaudible].
As more problems started progressing, Covid hit, like Jodi said, and we had another issue that was upfront. I organized and I communicated and I got people involved. And stepping out of prison into a specialty court, I stayed connected and reached out to Jodi and here I am. I know Nevada’s policy is real trickery, and it’s a lot of words [crosstalk].
Mansa Musa: What do you mean by that?
Ashley Gaddis: The laws and the AR policies, the prison policies. They use a lot of meaningless language and there’s a lot of confusion with it. But because I’ve done a lot of time in this system, I got very familiar with the language, and that’s what I help Return Strong with is interpreting some of that language where there’s a lot of confusion.
Mansa Musa: Jodi, because Ashley just talked about how, from her own personal experience and being a victim of a lot of the abuses, how when they became aware of you all, the way they vetted you all in terms of making sure that you all was serious about the work that you all was doing, because I’m familiar with that as well, being formerly incarcerated. People oftentimes come in the system, but they’re not prepared to do the heavy lifting in terms of staying the course. They’ll give a lot of lip service to our issues and concerns.
Talk about why it is that you all have been so successful at mobilizing the prison population? Because according to you, you all got over 4,000 people that’s involved. Talk about how you all have been able to mobilize the prison population, to have the impact that it has had in terms of changing policies. We’ll talk about some of you all’s future objectives.
Jodi Hocking: Ash, feel free to contradict me if you don’t think this is accurate. I think what happened is in the beginning, we right away started writing to people. Because I was like, I wanted to hear from people who were being impacted by deductions, by what’s going on with COVID. Are they feeding you? All of the different issues that were happening. And I used to beg them. I would ask questions. Here’s some questions about COVID. What’s going on with bed transfers?
Because we were hearing from… I’m a big Howardson fan. Howardson always talks about, during any period, there’s always the government’s version of history, and there’s the people’s version of history. I was listening to NDOC at every one of their meetings, and I was like, they are lying. That’s not what people are telling us. They would come to meetings and give this false testimony.
I got my team together and we just started begging people, practically, to just communicate with us, tell us what’s going on with COVID. Tell us what’s going on with bed transfers, food, medical care, whatever it was. We wanted to know what was going on.
I used to tell them, and I still do the same thing when we send newsletters in, is I can’t promise we’re going to work on every issue right now. Tell us the story. We now use a database that catalogs every letter that we get. If you wanted to know about how many people have written to us about solitary confinement conditions, I can run a report, we can pull those letters, and I can answer that. When we first started it was a box of letters. But we now get thousands of letters. I think we’re probably close to 4,000 letters in 2022.
We tell people, we set the expectation that we’re not going to be able to answer everyone. We’re working full-time jobs. This is not… Up until a few months ago we were unfunded. We were just open and honest. I think I wrote to people more like I was writing to friends of mine than I was writing a professional letter, which is the way that I interact anyway. But it was a two-way street. They would share information with us, and we would use that information to move forward an agenda that took the most important thing that they were bringing.
In addition, we had to balance that with areas that we thought we could win and what resources. But then I would explain to them, this is why we’re doing this instead of this, or we’re trying to file a complaint with the DOJ, we’re trying to do… It’s something where we worked together. So really what we did is organize, and we really used a union structure to organize inside the prisons.
As people would write to us, we had people that were jailhouse lawyers or unit organizers, so I would have a contact, and our goal is always to grow that. If I need to get a message in, Ashley was a unit organizer and a jailhouse lawyer. Another role we have is key documenters. Those people who can take what the issues are and break them down into ways that, when we read them for people who haven’t been incarcerated, that we’re like, that’s what they mean. That’s what matters. Right? [inaudible] of issues and we use their letters to change hearts and minds. We’re the hands and feet of this work, but formerly incarcerated [inaudible].
Mansa Musa: Sound like, in terms of organizing, you all have the perfect union. Jodi, what’s your strategy going forward?
Jodi Hocking: I think going into 2023 and ’24, we’re a biennial legislature, so we only have legislature every other year. This year we have a double opportunity, which I always like to look at everything as opportunities. We have a new governor. He is 30 years in law enforcement, so there are some challenges that are going to be there. But we also have a new Director of Prison. Right before COVID hit, we had a new director who was forced to resign, I believe in October of last year. There’s some hope there that they don’t want the bad press that the old administration had.
There’ve already been some moves. The new director is already meeting, and we’re planning some meetings. But we have a plan that we are delivering a letter and asking them for certain meetings in the first 100 days of their administration. The first thing we’re asking for them to do is to meet with formerly incarcerated people and stakeholders. We’re also asking them to come to the table with NDOC to talk about issues that are happening within facilities. And then to also hold a public meeting where people can come and actually express what their concerns are and what the stress has been of the past several years in order to really pivot the direction of corrections.
With this new administration, I feel like it is an opportunity to pivot into a new direction of what we want corrections to look like in Nevada in five years and 10 years and 15 years. We don’t want more of the abuses that are going on now. We don’t want our prisons to be on the top 20 worst prisons in the United States that Ely is always on the list of.
It’s time to do something different. While we’re dealing with an administration that may be more conservative in some ways, as an organizer, I look at, there are going to be parts where we completely disagree, but the sweet spot of where we can make change is in the areas that we agree. We agree that [inaudible] need to be treated humanely, that solitary confinement isn’t the answer. That rehabilitation is more important than punishment and pain. Focusing on those areas that we can change. We’re working on that in the 100-day plan.
The other thing that we are working on is… I think one of the struggles for our organization has been that corrections can keep us fighting things that are the tip of the iceberg. They’re not feeding people, they’re not doing this, all the things they’re doing wrong, the restitution, COVID. We could fight those things at the tip of the iceberg, and we’ll never run out of fights. But one of the really core changes that we want to make is, how do we change the culture around incarceration? We’re abolitionists. Well, not all of us are, but we’re founded on abolitionist beliefs, that we have to deconstruct these systems while we’re also building communities that are ready for worlds without prison. How do we educate people who are not touched by incarceration? I think…
Mansa Musa: Right, and I think that conversation is going to be a larger conversation, because that’s a conversation that’s starting to take shape nationwide. But Ashley, talk about what you see in terms of the prison population and the future as it relates to your role in Return Strong.
Ashley Gaddis: Well, I am hoping that the system becomes more conducive with reform and eliminating the stereotyping of high risk offenders, not giving them the opportunity to reform and keeping that stigma there, as well as the conditions. I mean, it’s just something has to break. What’s going on right now can’t continue to be happening. And the whole thing with COVID, a lot is being blamed on COVID. Well, we’re out of COVID, and it is time to move forward in a new direction.
Mansa Musa: Right.
Ashley Gaddis: Yeah.
Mansa Musa: And [inaudible].
Ashley Gaddis: I just [inaudible].
Mansa Musa: Go ahead, come on.
Ashley Gaddis: I’d like to highlight something real quick with Nevada and the women, okay. Because it doesn’t start in prison. It starts with the sentencing and the courts. It starts with the inappropriateness of the sentence structures. You have women and men committing crimes together.
You have the man with a record and he’s getting less time than a woman, than a mother, a wife. And that’s a big number in Nevada’s prison of women that are on co-defendant conspiracy charges. You have women coming in there just broken off the top, broken. Spiritually, mentally, physically, all of that. And then you have a system that is abusive and neglectful, and there’s no dignity there. There’s no humaneness there. So what do they expect to happen [inaudible]?
Mansa Musa: I think this is an attitude nationwide when it comes to women in general, and this deals with this racist, sexist, misogynistic society that we find ourselves in. Like I told you, they got one women’s prison in Maryland, maximum security and medium security and minimum security. But women can’t get a work release because you don’t have no work release environment.
But Jodi, give us a contact for your organization and how people can get in touch with you all, and what you want people to know, what you want people to do in terms of supporting you all.
Jodi Hocking: I think there’s a few things. One, we always are looking for volunteers and you would easily reach our social media on our website, everything is the same. It’s Return Strong NV [@returnstrongnv] for Nevada. Maybe someday we’ll drop the NV and just be nationwide. Who knows? That’s the easiest way. If you go to the website, we’re on Instagram, we’re on Twitter, and we’re on Facebook with that same [handle].
The other thing that we are opening up this year and that really people are welcome nationwide is, we are going to be implementing, they’re called peer learning circles. One of the things about the change that needs to happen is that it’s not just… I think it needs to be led by people who are impacted, but peer learning circles are really a space where everybody’s a learner. You can learn from a harm reduction specialist, somebody can learn from you if you have a loved one that’s incarcerated or you were formerly incarcerated. We will be starting peer learning circles… I think the first one is actually in February, and we’re going to open that up to anybody. It’s going to be on Zoom. We can have up to 100 people. We can break out into small groups.
It’ll be once a quarter. But it gives you the opportunity to really, not even network, but just come and learn from other people. No matter how you learn, what you learn, it’s a space that really respects that. I think that is how we start getting to the root of the problem is…
Mansa Musa: Okay. There you have it. The real news about Return Strong and the Nevada prison system as we just was given this information by Jodi and Ashley. We wanted to remind our listeners and our viewers to be mindful of, we’re talking about prison-industrial complex, and we’re talking about mass incarceration. We are also talking about the blatant discrimination against women in the Nevada prison system, as Ashley just outlined. We encourage everyone to go to the Return Strong website and check out what they got to offer. Thank you ladies for this delightful conversation.
Jodi Hocking: Thank you so much for having us.
Ashley Gaddis: Thank you.