By Grayson Kanter
The United States of America leads the world in most incarcerated persons, with well over two million prisoners nationwide. In a smaller frame, Louisiana is currently ranked as the state across the nation with the highest incarceration rate per capita. 564 per 100k residents.
According to Vera, a nationwide non-profit organization battling mass incarceration with an office in New Orleans found that between 1938 and 2015, there has been a 152 percent increase in prison populations in Louisiana. Not only are these numbers unfortunately high, but the disparity among race and gender is also highlighted among their statistics, as it reveals systemic issues that exist nationwide (placing those belonging to racial minorities at an extreme disadvantage). Further, in Louisiana, Vera reported that Black people accounted for 33 percent of the state population, but a whopping 67 percent of people in prison (similar patterns follow in jail, with a reported 52 percent of people being Black).
Now more than ever, it is important for the citizens of Louisiana, and society nationwide, to address these crippling systemic inequalities. A few weeks ago, the 2023 Louisiana Legislative Session began and will continue until the first week of June. As the Director of Communications at VOTE, Anisha Shetty, explained it, “this session will be a lot more defense in terms of content,” expressing the urgency of voting against harsh crime and prison-related bills being presented. Anisha, originally from Virginia, moved to New Orleans recently to join VOTE, giving up her previous work in the private sector of consulting and marketing to pursue knowledge in the criminal and legal systems. “The fact that VOTE is really movement-based,” is what inspired her. In addition, Anisha explained the “family and community-like feeling,” from working with a group of people who have been both directly and indirectly impacted. “That was super important to me,” she expressed, as she herself was directly impacted as a young girl when her father was incarcerated.
VOTE (Voice of The Experienced), an organization local to New Orleans, is working tirelessly this year to fight for incarcerated people and their families. They aim to “build power through community organizing, policy advocacy, and civic engagement,” according to their website. During this session, Anisha explained they will be focusing on a select few bills that aim to increase voting access and mental health resources for both formerly and currently incarcerated people. Anisha specifically highlighted Act 396, “which essentially hopes to reinstitute those with felony convictions to vote… there is a lot of paperwork required to ensure you get an absentee ballot which can be very confusing… Act 396 will clean up those boundaries and get rid of that paperwork barrier.” She also explained that if someone is currently incarcerated and is also a first-time voter, the process can be extremely arduous, and many have to give up because of a lack of knowledge regarding the process available to the public.
Another bill they are focusing on is HB 55 being represented by Rep. Selders, which advocates for ongoing mental health assessments. “It is super important to ensure that folks get more resources for the trauma they experience, both prior and during their time incarcerated… Conditions like PTSD are not even recognized in prison in terms of necessary care,” she said, highlighting the urgency for screenings and treatments.
Seeking treatment behind bars is simply one of the many difficulties prisoners face in New Orleans. After they are released, according to Anisha, they have a hard time finding housing. HB 180 brought forth by Representative Willard aims for conviction history to be eradicated in housing applications, so that no formerly incarcerated person may be discriminated against.
“We are part of various Coalitions… we have a Power Coalition where we strategize how to support each other’s bills,” Anisha said regarding VOTE’s partnering with other non-profit organizations in the area also working towards giving a voice to the incarcerated community. Anisha explained that in working with other grassroots organizations, they are able to have important “joint” meetings where they can go over what bills they are supporting and opposing, and even host events together. “There are other organizations in our building, and in the area too… we all meet on Fridays to discuss the political agenda and other important announcements.”
In describing what sets VOTE apart from other local nonprofits, Anisha said, “What makes us different is the fact that we are a C4… C4 gives us a different level of ability to do things… it’s a political arm.” Essentially, the C4 sector of the organization brings in educated voters for social welfare purposes. These kinds of organizations identify candidates for office, help organize city watch, participate in city hall meetings, and other important political activities.
May 2nd was Advocacy Day at VOTE, where they brought their community to the Capitol to speak about “progress so far, what we’re hoping to achieve, and get to hear from some people who have been directly impacted, and the importance of justice reform.” VOTE will continue to keep their community, and the city of New Orleans updated on their website legislative tracker, where bills are organized by their status, showing whether the organization aims to have them opposed or approved (using a color-coded system).
In order to understand the effect that incarceration has on the local community, I visited The First 72, a local non-profit organization founded by Tyronne Smith and a few others that had been formerly incarcerated, including his own brother. In their weekly Wednesday meetings, members can expect to focus on one of the “twelve steps” that are discussed in order to be prepared to re-enter society. This past week’s focus was on Toxic Relationships, and how toxic relationships they may have had in the past are partly responsible for their time in prison.
In going around in a circle to share personal experiences and general advice, one member said, “People come into our lives for two reasons: to complement or complicate us…it’s all about life balance…you either have control or you lose it. Those who are a complement to you, keep them, and those who complicate your life, get rid of em.” A lot of time in the group was dedicated to sharing personal experiences in regards to toxic relationships, and how they plan to avoid them in the future. Another member shared his own story about his daughter, who ended up in an abusive relationship. Since he was incarcerated for most of his daughter’s life, she was raised by her Aunt, who “always seemed to be dating some drug dealer, someone who yelled at her and beat her.” As a result, this man’s daughter’s only example of “love” and relationships were abusive ones, which is why she ended up in an abusive marriage. “He would beat her, lock her up in their apartment, and wouldn’t let her leave because he didn’t trust her,” the member shared. Eventually, the member explained, he was able to help his daughter escape. “Now she’s a single mother, doing really well, has a great job, and a beautiful house to raise her son in, and teach him the proper ways to love someone.”
During the meeting, one member shared his experience with toxic relationships and said that he had just gotten out of jail the day before. “I got out yesterday and came straight here,” he said and continued on to express the family-like community at The First 72. After the meeting was over, everyone stayed to have lunch, and Tyronne showed me around their newest building, recently donated by the Sheriff’s department down the road. The new addition features a large room to hold weekly meetings, two kitchens, a computer room for members to use, and space to house 8 men. “It breaks my heart having to turn people away,” Tyronne said in regard to his experience. “It hurts mostly because I know they have nowhere to go.”
Tyronne himself went on to share his experiences in re-entering society: “I was lucky to have people to go to, but if I didn’t I don’t know what I would have done. They gave me a bus ticket and a check for ten dollars. But I couldn’t cash it because I didn’t have an ID, and those cost around 14 dollars at the time.” His experience truly highlights not only how difficult it is for formerly incarcerated people to get back on their feet, but also how broken the prison system is. That’s why the organization is called The First 72, because the prison system is designed for formerly incarcerated persons to fail, and end up back in jail within the first three days of being released. The organization’s newest building will be up and running in the next month after they have their grand opening.
On a more individual level, Tulane University and Social Activist Professor Jarrod Wall aims to fight for the end to mass incarceration as well as increase access to higher education within the prison system.
He said, “I was incarcerated for most of my life, that’s why I believe so much in higher education in prison…I felt like it kept me sane. I was a kid, only 17. I walked out with an Associate’s, two Bachelor’s, and a Master’s degree,” he expressed in recalling his own experience. He also had the chance to run a college program within the maximum security prison for 12 years during his sentence.
Mr. Wall is currently at Tulane University to complete his Ph.D., as well as teach sociology classes to undergraduate and graduate students. “My motto is to let my experience inform my research, and my research inform my experience,” he said in response to being asked to explain his relationship to his topic of choice for his studies. “It’s a bilateral relationship there… I am using insights I have gained from my life to guide my research. I am really fortunate to have fallen in love with learning.”
He recalled being stuck in a 6-foot by 6-foot cell but immersing himself in scholarly material as an escape. “Prison is such a monotonous existence…so black and white,” he said. “It can suck the life out of you, especially if you are a curious person who loves to learn. To me, that was the worst part… and college for me was like technicolor. Everything felt brighter.”
In explaining his motivations for studying throughout his time in prison, he said, “Learning is a lifelong journey for me. Getting my Ph.D. has been a goal of mine since I have been 17, and I just turned 52.” Professor Wall explained the barriers he faced as a formerly incarcerated person, despite the fact that he was exceptionally qualified to be accepted to doctorate-level programs. At first, Mr. Wall wanted to be a psychotherapist, and ended up getting “so many” denials, and got halfway through when he decided to take his educational path in a different direction. “Is it enough to help the individual?” He remembers being asked by his mentor, because he had “always wanted to help the greater population… I [he] needed to work on the systemic level… to really do good.”
He continued on to express, “Most of these issues were not on the individual level in terms of re-entry. They couldn’t get a job. They couldn’t get housing. That is why VOTE is so important because they are fighting for so many policies and laws.” In going back to his education, Mr. Wall expressed that it took him over three years to be accepted to a Ph.D. program, and that “Louisiana was the first state in the nation that banned the box for universities… so I knew the people who did that down here. They got a hold of me and told me they could get me in down here… and I ended up getting in through another woman who was directly impacted, not incarcerated, but had a few charges from when she was young.”
He describes Louisiana as the “incarceral center of the world,” and that “so many lives have been affected, and now these families are banding together for grassroots work like VOTE, and because we are in New Orleans the community isn’t like anywhere else in the country.” He explained that he didn’t even know about Tulane before he was recommended to the program: “I didn’t even know how to spell Tulane, and came to find out it would be the Harvard of the South.” He still works at the University and aims to finish his research and Ph.D. next year while also still working heavily with currently incarcerated persons, hoping to further their education during their time in prison, like he did his own.
Mr. Wall also highlighted the “racial disparity,” within the incarcerated community.“It should have been addressed by now. I really believe in doing research that informs policy…utilitarian…it has an actual purpose and can change things. That’s kind of the social activist side in me,” he said. In regard to his social activism, Mr. Wall is also part of a local support group called the Formerly Incarcerated Peer Support Group.
In speaking about the group, he said, “I did 26 years, and I am in the middle. There are guys that have served 40+ years…it is horrible how much time guys do down here. This group helps us adjust to life out here. We just talk and it’s really helpful because it validates each other’s experience.” He expressed that it’s great to be among people who “get it” because their shared experience has brought them together in a way that is so unique. He also urged allies to attend these meetings, as he wants to bring more cultural awareness to the long-term effects of mass incarceration, as well as the fight for future policy change.