Walter Lomax of the Maryland Restorative Justice initiative says that he has watched ex-prisoners suffer from slashed social services despite the knowledge that such programs promote reintegration into society
SEAN YOES: This is Sean Yoes of the Real News Network, and I’m having a conversation with Walter Lomax. He’s director of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative. Walter, welcome. WALTER LOMAX: Thank you for inviting me, Sean. YOES: Thank you for taking time to speak with us. Why don’t we explain or have you explain what the work you do for Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative? LOMAX: Our organization was formally formed in 2007. It’s called the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative. What we do is we advocate for sensible criminal justice policies. Specifically, for folk that are incarcerated and in particular for folk who are serving parole eligible life sentences and long term incarceration. We advocated to remove the politics away from this process. YOES: So in that work you obviously have impacted the lives of many people returning back from prison from being incarcerated. Over the last five years have you seen an increase in the returning population or has it stayed basically the same? LOMAX: Well it’s definitely been an increase but specifically for this particular population that we advocated on behalf of, we’ve definitely seen an increase in this population. Specifically, when we began advocating for this work, more than 5 years ago. It really started in 1993 and began to take some sort of shape in 1995. And then took I guess some progressive steps after 2006. What happened was there was tradition policy of a procedure that exists down in the Maryland prison system where an individual serving these type of sentences would come into the system into maximum security progress to medium security, minimum security, and work release, and family leaves, and eventually released on parole. And it’s an extensive vetting process. This process took 15 to 20 years before folks was actually being released back into the community. Well in 1995 that changed. These folk are no longer – first in 1993 they were no longer eligible for these programs, work release and family leave. And then in 1995 they weren’t even to be considered for parole. The current governor of that time issued an edit that life means life and he would consider releasing anyone on parole. And this still exists for over 23 years at this point. But what happened along the way while we were advocating for change in that policy and a change in the procedure. Specifically having legislation introduced. In 2012 a decision that was decided by the Maryland Court of Appeals called the Unger decision. And what that meant was prior to 1980, anyone that was convicted by jury would be entitled to new trials because the enduring instructions were erroneous. So in 2013, some of these individuals began to be released. In fact, it was May 2013, and since May of 2013 we had well over 150. I think my last count was about 155 of these individuals have been released back into the community. YOES: So lay out some of the specific challenges that your clients, the people that you work with face when they return, and how do you specifically help them make the adjustment coming back into our community. LOMAX: Some of the challenges, the primary one is that they’ve been incarcerated 20, 30, 40 years or more. So this means that they didn’t have access to the technology that exists today. As well as the changes socially and otherwise in society. So there we turn back into society kind of like a cultural show. They come in being an environment where it’s controlled for an extend period of time and then having decisions for the most part being made for you. Being told where to go, when to go, and in some cases, how to go. For an extended period of time having all of your basic needs met. And then finally finding yourself in to situation where you have to do all of these things on your own. And once again that’s some of the specific challenges. What we’ve been able to do which is unique for people returning to society. In fact, it was mentioned to us. We met with the complete body of the parole commissions and they looked at what we had been doing for these folk that had been returning back to the community and said that if this model existed for everyone then probably no one would recidivate. And that is prior to their release, a release plan is put together. And we have social workers and case managers that works with them once they’re actually released back into the community. There’s a lot of challenges because some are younger and some are much older. Those who are much older that qualify for all of the existing programs, social security, SSI, and things of that particular nature. So they fall right within that and they’re entitled to – well not necessarily. In fact, we had a 70-year-old gentleman was working and I asked him, he said he was looking for a job. And I was like what the hell are you looking for a job for? He said well, I don’t have enough points. What do you mean you don’t have enough points? To withdraw social security. So he’d been in prison all these years and he wanted to apply to social security. He realized that he didn’t have enough points. He had to work to get those points just to get the benefits. However, that’s the exception and not necessarily the rule for folks who actually qualify. Most people are able to get those benefits. But we do have some younger clients that are unable to get those. So this means that they have to get into the job market. And I’m hammering on this because I’m watching this scenario play out with the Baltimore City Council about this minimum wage and as to why they can’t agree on $15 as an – even $15 is still like poverty level living so to say and I’m thinking to myself as I’m watching this play out as to say that if you took anyone of them and said look you survive, you just live for a year on minimum wage and see how the hell that feels and once you see that, then you’ll realize that it’s incomparable to think that you can’t pay folk that money. But getting back to my point is that what this means though is that they’re going – even when they get employment they are basically at the minimum wage level starting off and it’s really not a livable wage. Now if you take a situation where people that are incarcerated specifically in Maryland prisons, for the most part, are able to live at a poverty level living standard of living. And if they have support from the outside they can even live above the poverty level. So if you are a returning individual that had lived at that standard of living for an extended period of time and then released them into an environment and you’re asking them to reduce their level, standard of living, that’s challenging. YOES: I want to transition into, obviously, the release of the Department of Justice Pattern of Practice Report was last week. It was found that the Baltimore City Police Department had routinely violated the civil rights of mostly black, mostly poor people in the city over the period of decades really. As you have gone through the report, obviously most people who are familiar with the Baltimore City Police Department, criminal justice system in Baltimore, realize that there weren’t any surprises necessarily, but still reading it in black and white. Give me some of your thoughts of what you were thinking and what was going through your mind as you read what the DOJ was saying? LOMAX: I want to acknowledge up front is that I’m certainly not an authority on that. There are far more social advocacy organizes that have been really in the trenches moving this forward. But [nationally] not only have I observed a lot of these young men who was getting involved in the criminal justice system and how it began to impact their lives as a result of it because once the arrest take place it’s still a part of their record and as a result of it, it kind of locks them out of certain avenues in the system. But one of the things that stuck out to me the most, and it’s kind of like a history lesson too because our families, we moved to Maryland in the mid ’50s so it was still heavily segregated during that time. And even though it did not have the type of effects that it had on folk prior to that because we had our own social involvement that we existed in. So we were impacted by it but we did not feel the social stigma, that it affected us at that level. But here’s the point that sticks out the most to me. It’s like if I hire a contractor to do a job, and it’s you. And their workers mess up my bathroom, mess up my living room, mess up my house, and I complain about it. But because they’re a union worker one of the excuses that they use is that the union says well, he’s a union person, you can’t fire him, whatever the case might be. And I’m saying why the hell not? He did something wrong. So the Baltimore City Police is hired to do a specific job. They’re public servants. We pay their salary. So if they do something wrong, there should be no Bill of Rights that you can’t get rid of them. YOES: Referring to Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights. LOMAX: Bill of Rights. Exactly. So they actually had the police commissioner and the Mayor hostage. If somebody does wrong your boss should be able to fire you. Simple as that. Now I think that we should have unions because some people treat their workers really, really bad. So you need some type of protection. But if you are a worker and you do something wrong then you should immediately be fired. YOES: So ultimately, the power of the FOP is at the root of a lot of the issues that the Baltimore City Police Department and the community that it effects that it’s supposed to serve and protect faces, really. LOMAX: Absolutely. And it’s not just the Baltimore Police Department because that culture is endemic across the spectrum. The transit authority exercise unbridled disrespect and disregard for the community. The Baltimore City Police Department, I mean the Baltimore School Department. I watched the video a couple of months ago and this officer was slapping this little kid around like a rag doll and when he finally realized that he was caught on tape they came up with that, the child spit on him. And I’m saying well so the hell what. This is a child. And after he finished smacking him around he kicked him. So how could you have someone like this working around our kids? And how can you try to defend their actions? So when that type of behavior occurs, think that there should be some type of system where those folk are immediately removed and the training that should come into place starting at the beginning is that look, you are a public servant. That’s what you do. You’re a public servant. You are not part of a force that comes in and executes your own law. Not based on how you might be feeling that day. And if you don’t do what you’re required to do as a public servant then it is time for you to find other work. YOES: Let me ask you this–and we only have a couple minutes left. When you speak of the systemic issues within the department, and within the city generally, but within the department, are you confident that the remedies can be applied in a short period of time in opposed to maybe over many years? LOMAX: Yeah, I think that some things can be applied in a short period of time. And that is that the Fraternal Order of Police actually come to the table and acknowledge that the system is broken. And come to a consensus as to what we need to do in order to fix it. YOES: That’s a major if, though. LOMAX: Well naturally, naturally. YOES: Walter Lomax is the director of Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative. Walter, thank you for joining us, we appreciate it. LOMAX: Thank you, Sean. YOES: Thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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