Who’s Electing Judges in the Cleveland Area? Not Those Ensnared in the System

Who’s Electing Judges in the Cleveland Area? Not Those Ensnared in the System

In Cuyahoga County, voting patterns have resulted in mostly White judges deciding the fate of mostly Black criminal defendants

By Rachel Dissell, Ilica Mahajan, Anna Flagg and Wesley Lowery
By Rachel Dissell, Ilica Mahajan, Anna Flagg and Wesley Lowery

This story is published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom covering the U.S. criminal justice system. You can learn more about Testify or subscribe to follow our Cleveland reporting here.

Few people in Cuyahoga County wield as much power over as many lives as the 34 elected judges who preside over felony cases. These Common Pleas judges consider the cases of thousands of people a year, making decisions about bail, plea deals and sentencing. They determine who feels the full weight of the law and who receives leniency. 


But when it comes time for residents to vote those judges in — or out — of office, the people with the most at stake often don’t cast ballots.


Take Ward 5, a majority Black area about three miles east of Cleveland’s downtown Justice Center. In the past six years, an unusually high proportion of defendants listed the ward as their home address — the second-highest in the county. Yet just about a quarter of the ward’s registered voters marked a ballot for a judge in 2020. To put that into perspective, Ward 17 saw more than half of its registered voters cast a ballot for judge in 2020.


Attorneys, academics and people who have experienced the system firsthand offered fundamental reasons for low turnout: a glaring lack of useful information about how the courts operate and the individual track records of judges themselves, compounded by a deep distrust of the entire criminal justice system. That’s also what more than 40 residents told us in interviews conducted by the Cleveland Documenters, a group that pays people to attend local government meetings and gather civic information.


Christopher Thorpes, a community activist and lifelong resident of Ward 5, told The Marshall Project even though he has worked on political campaigns, he doesn’t vote for judges. Residents tell him, he said, that they know firsthand how unfair the system is, so why should they legitimize it? “Nobody wants to vote for a person who might end up locking them up,” he said.

Black residents of Cuyahoga County are arrested and sent to prison at disproportionate rates. To understand what role the court system — and its elected judges — play in these lopsided outcomes, The Marshall Project collected and analyzed more than six years of court data.


The Marshall Project spent months using tools to “scrape” the court records, one case at a time, from public internet dockets to assemble a database. We also compared defendants’ home addresses with county elections data to understand which voters were casting ballots in judicial races. We intend to use these analyses to answer questions we’ve gathered from community members and explore the points where injustice warps the system.

Here’s what we found:

  • Court outcomes worsen existing racial disparities. Though Black people make up only about 30% of the county’s residents, almost two-thirds of the people who are arrested by police and charged with felonies by prosecutors are Black. Then, after judges impose sentences, state records show three-quarters of people in state prisons convicted in Cuyahoga County are Black.
  • Individual judges make a big difference — for example, some judges almost never send defendants to prison for common charges like theft and low-level felony drug possession, while others incarcerate 30% or more.
  • While Cleveland residents make up two-thirds of defendants in the court, votes from the city account for less than a quarter of those cast in judges’ races. That means the vote in the predominantly White suburbs in judges’ races effectively carries three times the power of the vote in the majority Black city.

Voters have more power than they may think. If everyone who showed up to vote had cast ballots for judges as well, that could have swung the outcome in 9 of 15 contested judicial races since 2016 — without turning out a single additional voter.


Judge Brendan J. Sheehan, administrative judge of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, said there’s no straightforward way to determine the role of judges in sentencing disparities. “A wide variety of variables then comes into play with each case,” he said. “Simply put, there is a unique story behind each sentence that raw data cannot capture.


”Cuyahoga County’s voting patterns have resulted in mostly White judges deciding the guilt or innocence of the county’s mostly Black criminal defendants. Of the 34 judges currently on the bench in Cuyahoga County, 30 are White and four are Black.


The disparity in power between county and city voters creates a big problem, because few judges on the ballot understand the experiences of people who appear in court — often people of color living in the city, said Erika Anthony, who co-founded Cleveland VOTES.


“Essentially, our bench is dominated by White, Westside Irish Catholic individuals,” Anthony said, referring to the county’s long tradition of electing judges with the same Irish and Italian surnames, like Gallagher and Russo.

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 07: Christopher Thorpe, resident and community activist at a pubic rest area at the corner of E. 40th Street & Central Ave. December 07, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (CREDIT: Amber N. Ford for The Marshall Project)

Ohio, like most states, allows voters to elect its judges. Twice, in 1938 and 1987, attempts to switch back to an appointment system have appeared on the ballot, only to be soundly defeated.


But even after fighting to keep the right to elect judges, county voters consistently show up less often for judicial elections. Many judicial races in Cuyahoga County aren’t contested — 20 of the 35 county-level criminal court judicial races since 2016 had a single candidate. That often results in less participation in those elections and easy victories for incumbents.


“It’s almost impossible to vote out a judge,” said Jerry Primm II, who has managed and consulted on judicial campaigns and said there is an unwritten rule among local Democrats to never challenge a sitting judge. “And they know this. They’re keenly aware. They know they have that job for 30 or 40 years, depending on what their age is.


”Every voting precinct in Cuyahoga County — as they do largely across the country — sees a drop off in voting in judicial races. In November 2020, 29% of county voters marked their ballot for president, but not for judges. In a precinct in Cleveland’s predominantly Latino Clark-Fulton neighborhood, nearly half of voters who cast ballots in 2020’s presidential election left the judicial races blank. In contrast, in a precinct in the Ludlow neighborhood in suburban Shaker Heights, slightly more than 13% didn’t vote for judges.


It just isn’t possible for many voters to keep track of the multiple candidates and judges’ races, experts and civic leaders say.


A 2013 report by the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association concluded “it is hard to conceive how even the most industrious and conscientious voter could possibly collect enough information to make informed decisions” — noting that the county has nearly 100 judicial elections each six-year period, with every voter eligible to pick judges at the local, county and state level.


“Voters kind of lose heart after a while,” said Lawrence Baum, emeritus professor of political science at Ohio State University. The sheer number of judicial races and the fact they fall to the bottom of the ballot increases fatigue, he said, and sends voters on “a desperate search for relevant information.


”State and local nonpartisan groups have stepped up efforts in recent years to give voters more information on judicial candidates, Sheehan said.


“I want as many people as possible who are eligible to vote to do just that,” Sheehan said. “We should pursue all avenues to get those voters the information they need to make informed choices.”

Fred Ward and team in KHNEMU Lighthouse Center during a meeting for Building Freedom Ohio in Cleveland, OH Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021 (Photo/Daniel Lozada)

Still, more than half of the 46 city and county residents interviewed by Cleveland Documenters said there wasn’t enough information available to help them decide which judges to vote for.


Those who voted for judges said they did research using campaign ads, news articles or websites like Vote411.org or Judge4Yourself.com, which rates candidates based on interviews with local bar associations. Often, those sources didn’t answer specific questions they had about candidates or measure how current judges were doing their jobs.


“I would like to know their records of how they sentence, and how strict they are, or how lenient they are, or if they are more prejudiced one way or another way,” said Sara R. Jackson, 79, of University Circle.


“There needs to be an unbiased committee, organization, agency or something that looks at their record –– reviews the judge’s performance,” said Donna Speigner, 56, of Warrensville Heights.


The chasm between who experiences the county’s criminal justice system and who elects its judges is most stark in Cleveland’s 7-V precinct, which includes the 350-bed men’s homeless shelter in a former metal sorting warehouse on a treeless stretch of Lakeside Avenue.


The downtown shelter makes this a unique voting precinct — many of the county’s people experiencing homelessness list it as their address both in court records and on voter registration forms. The precinct had by far the highest share of criminal defendants in 2018 and 2020 of any in the county, and also contributed one of the lowest shares of votes cast in judicial races.


About 80% of those homeless throughout the county are people of color. They also are highly likely to face the justice system, often for so-called poverty crimes, like falling asleep on a public bus, said Molly Martin, of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.


But despite their frequent contact with the justice system, Martin said homeless residents may not pay close attention to local races for powerful justice system players such as judges and county prosecutors. (The last time there was a contested county prosecutor’s race, in 2016, it garnered even fewer votes than the average judicial race.)


“If folks don’t have a consistent phone, or are living in survival mode, they’re not thinking about the election,” said Martin, who has helped lead voter registration efforts across the city during recent election cycles.


But not all areas with substantial numbers of defendants have low rates of voting for judges. There are pockets in Cleveland and the suburbs that are home to more court defendants but also vote for judges at above-average rates.


The Clark-Fulton neighborhood is home to St. Rocco, a century-old church built by working-class Italian immigrants, known for producing lawyers and revered judges, like Salvatore Calandra, who sat on the municipal court for a quarter of a century.


Today, voters in the precinct where the church stands no longer turn out in force to elect judges. Nearly half of voters in the precinct who cast ballots in last year’s presidential election left the judicial races blank. More than 1 in 20 adults in this precinct appeared before a judge between 2019 and 2020, one of the highest rates in the county.

Latinos now make up more than half the population in the neighborhood; residents speak Spanish in most of the corner stores. County voters got access to bilingual ballots about a decade ago, but only after the U.S. Justice Department threatened to sue the county’s Board of Elections.


Still, many residents are new to participating in elections for city council, mayor, and judicial races, said Selina Pagan, director for the Young Latino Network. Many likely “don’t even realize that they have power to shift these dynamics within our court system” by voting for judges, she said.


Cleveland’s Latino communities are not a monolith, she said. Puerto Rican residents often voted at much higher levels on the island, but may not feel a part of democracy in Cleveland, she said. Residents from Guatemala, Colombia or Mexico sometimes live in households with family members who are applying for U.S. citizenship or who are undocumented and can’t vote, so that habit isn’t naturally passed on to children.

Pagan sees this dynamic in her own family. “I still have to jump through hoops to talk about this stuff with my family because it’s exhausting to them,” she said. “They don’t have any hope in the system.


”Few judicial candidates prioritize campaigning in the community, which is mainly in Ward 14, perhaps because of the historically low turnout, Adam Davenport, a neighborhood planner, said.


“I’ve been working in the neighborhood for over ten years, and I’ve had maybe two judges make active efforts to come to block clubs,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a judge, maybe one, that had any campaign literature in Spanish.”


Thorpes said judicial candidates also rarely show up in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood, a majority Black stretch on the near east side of the city, which is thick with low-income housing complexes. He theorized that’s because voter turnout is historically low — less than 5% of registered voters in Central turned out in November’s mayoral election. That lack of engagement means fewer chances for residents to learn about the roles judges play in the system. Or to size up how the sitting judges have treated members of their community.

“If you want my vote, you need to get out. And you know what? Even let the people do a survey on you,” Thorpes said.

Common Pleas Judge William Vodrey, elected in 2020 after his second run, said he tried to campaign “anywhere I thought I might find voters,” whether the most affluent or the poorest neighborhoods in the county.


It was easier to do, he said, in places with already active Democratic ward clubs, most of which are in the suburbs. (Vodrey said he does remember attending one information session in Ward 5, which includes Central.)Vodrey said he sent out some campaign mailers in Spanish and Arabic. “I don’t know how many voters that might have reached,” he said. “But I thought it was important to meet people where they were at.


”Residents in Central have some of the most pressing reasons to care about which judges are elected. About 1 in 8 residents faced charges before a judge in the past six years, and that experience ripples out into the community, to their families and friends. It’s hard to expect people who are returning from incarceration or who have encountered police or courts to act alone to change the system, said Fred Ward, a founder of the Formerly Incarcerated Individuals Necessary Political Action Committee, which started interviewing and endorsing judicial candidates a little over a year ago.

It can be discouraging, he said, when formerly incarcerated residents see judges who they’ve found to be unfair get political endorsements and major party backing. “They don’t feel like they have a voice,” he said. Ward said that can shift with collective action. Ward’s PAC campaigned against Common Pleas Judge John O’Donnell, who lost two bids for the Ohio Supreme Court, based on his decision to acquit Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo.


The officer stood trial after he and other officers fired 137 bullets into a car following a 2012 police chase, leaving two unarmed people, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, dead. Ward’s PAC also pushed for Issue 24, a police accountability ballot initiative that passed in November.


“People in power only care about two things,” Ward said. “Whether you have the capacity to keep them in power or whether you have the capacity to take them out of power.”

Testify is The Marshall Project’s investigation into Cuyahoga County’s Criminal Courts. Learn more about this project and how to contact us directly. Have questions? Attend our office hours on February 3rd or February 8th.


Thousands of prisoners caught in broken clemency system as Congress pushes Biden to make change

Thousands of prisoners caught in broken clemency system as Congress pushes Biden to make change

Biden has yet to process thousands of applications, members of Congress introduced the FIX Clemency Act to speed up that process

By Jared Sellick
By Jared Sellick

Sellick is a journalist and writer based in Tampa, Florida.

Congress Members and the president rode into office last year on the promises of passing serious criminal justice reform. But as the months passed, a slow walking administration and procedural hurdles led to growing frustration.


As even heralded policy agendas like Build Back Better, a social spending bill meant to address child care, drug pricing negotiations and green energy, and the rest of the President’s proposed agenda is left behind by the political grindstone in the Capitol, criminal justice reform seems to be falling ever further into the background.


However, a component of criminal justice reform can be implemented by the White House without a single vote from Congress. As of Feb. 2, 18,233 clemency petitions await processing at the Department of Justice. Many of the inmates sending these clemency petitions are non-violent drug offenders. 


If Congress is indeed incapable of passing any criminal justice reform legislation in the next year before the midterms the pardon power of the Presidency may be the President’s best bet at making a difference when it comes to mass incarceration. 


If the Biden administration takes up the challenge of processing this large backlog of clemency requests, he could make a difference in thousands of families’ lives. 


“If you had a fully staffed office of Pardon Attorney who was committed to reviewing petitions and you had a president who said ‘I want 100 petitions on my desk at the end of each month,’ I think we’d see better output,” the President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), Kevin Ring, said. 

Clemency is a power given to the President in the U.S. Constitution to “grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States.” Presidents are able to end imprisonment for people in the federal system. 


In 2021, the Biden Administration’s Justice department received 191 petitions for pardons and 2,952 petitions for a commutation of sentence, according to The Office of the Pardon Attorney. Among those petitions, zero were granted. The Biden administration rejected 63 pardon petitions and 1,128 commutation sentences in the year 2021.


A commutation of a sentence means the president only reduces the time served rather than completely wiping a record clean whereas a pardon completely exonerates a person of a crime. These pardons are often used after a sentence is already complete as well to clear the record of the ex-inmate. 


But the clemency process is slow and haphazard, as Trump demonstrated with his 143 pardons from Lil Wayne to Stephen Bannon in the waning hours of his presidency while in comparison, most inmates and their families wait years for their claim to even be processed much less granted. During the Trump Administration among the 10,109 clemency petitions filed,  7,498 were closed without presidential action and 98 clemency petitions were rejected. There were 94 clemency petitions granted. 


President’s have taken radical moves with the Pardon power before. During the Carter Administration, the President pardoned all draft dodgers of the Vietnam War. In theory this cleared the record of hundreds of thousands of young men, though the vast majority of draft dodgers were never charged. 

On December 10th of 2021, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) and Rep. Hakeem Jefferies (D-NY) announced legislation to attempt to expedite the clemency process called the Fix Clemency Act.

At the legislation announcement, Rep. Bush spoke directly to the incarcerated people that are impacted by the lack of urgency in the clemency system, “You are not inmates, you are not convicts or felons […] you are people who are incarcerated, people who deserve the right to vote, people who do not deserve to die behind bars, people with families who depend on them and people who need us to care, center and protect them.” 

These members of Congress are calling for a new, independent clemency board to replace the current Department of Justice process. The proposed board, which would be appointed by the executive branch, would be run by experts in behavioral health, rehabilitation, and reentry. 

The legislation would aim to expand access to the applications for clemency and would ensure that all applications would be reviewed within 18 months of the time they were submitted.

The board established by this legislation would have the power to compel federal judicial officers and federal agencies to give information that may be relevant to an applicant’s case.

The board would consist of nine members and would have to contain at least one individual who has been incarcerated in the past, one individual who has been directly impacted by crime, an individual who has served on a Federal defender organization and an individual who will represent the Department of Justice. 

The bill would have no ability to ensure that an incoming president would have to abide by the board that was created. Kevin Ring explains, “One concern we have about some of these bills is how prescriptive they get about the process the president needs to follow. The President can do what he wants. He can use a board, not use a board, or use existing systems,” he said.

“I’m not sure it’s congress’s job to tell them how to review these or what the process should be. I think that’s the President’s job. So, I appreciate the spirit of it and I think we’re all pushing in the same direction,” Ring added. 

Since the bill’s introduction on Dec. 9 2021, it has picked up little traction. Since its introduction, it has received 20 sponsors in the House of Representatives. The bill is currently in committee.


This legislation is a small part of a greater promise from all levels of the Democratic party to reform the American criminal justice system and like much of the Biden campaign’s agenda, its progress has been slowed by infighting and bureaucratic hurdles.


The obstacles are often cited by the Biden administration as the reason these agenda items cannot pass. Even without the implementation of this legislation, the Biden Administration could be more proactive with clemency applications.


“We want to see more clemency grants given and that would probably benefit from a better process,” Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said. “But I think what we lack is political will.” He thinks that the lack of political will to grant clemencies is a bigger problem than the process. 

“There’s a lot of focus among people about moving it out of the Department of Justice and into the White House, and I think that sounds great, move it to NASA for all I care, just get a President that wants to grant these things,” Ring said.


Presidents have been proactive in granting clemency in the past. The Obama Administration granted 1,715 commutations and 212 pardons, the majority of which took place at the tail end of his presidency. 


“Had he dedicated the resources to doing that throughout his eight years, he could have gone through the whole backlog,” Ring said.


Members of the Democratic Caucus in the house have made their requests for the President to take dramatic executive action for nearly a year. On Feb. 18, 2021, 35 members of Congress signed a letter requesting the president to pardon all Federal non-violent cannabis convictions.


But a year into his presidency Biden is not ramping up the number of clemencies he is granting. Perhaps he will have a similar blitz during his lame duck session like his predecessors did, but it is unlikely the administration would review every outstanding clemency application. 


The administration has been proactive in other regards, for instance the Department of Justice allowing prisoners to remain on house arrest if they were granted such accommodations due to covid. When it comes to clemency, President Biden has conformed to the status quo which leaves over 18,000 inmates waiting in prison for their applications to be processed.


“With his clemency authority, President Biden has a powerful tool available to him to reduce the federal prison population and to rectify the injustices created by the criminal legal system,” Pressley argued at the event announcing the FIX Clemency Act.


My car got robbed, I didn’t call the police​

My car got robbed, I didn’t call the police​

rethinking justice and taking responsibility for our communities health and wellbeing as a whole

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

I discovered my truck, back windows popped out and broken into a thousand pea sized glass pieces, late the night following Christmas on a one way in downtown DC.


It seemed inevitable, part of the price to pay for living in the city. Car break ins are common enough in DC. Drive around the right block, on a particular early morning, and piles of broken window glass will scatter about the road like rain puddles.



The crime statistics say that only one car burglary has been reported on that side of the block in the last two years. In the last year, crime stats for the city report only 492 thefts from cars. I’ve seen at least a dozen break-ins on that street in the last six months. People in my neighborhood know that spot is ripe for break-ins and avoid it.



This means DC is either failing to log these nonviolent crimes or the owners of these robbed cars made the same decision I did and did not call the police or file a police report.



A lot was stolen from my car, a huge box of Goodwill clothes, a very old and broken bike, bear spray and a six year old Bluetooth speaker. All in all, the person who wormed through my back cab pickup windows and tossed my car didn’t make away with anything of significant value.



I on the other hand am footing the bill of fixing multiple windows and replacing the few items I used – totaling close to $800. I didn’t call the police because I knew they’d be incapable of delivering justice or righting the situation.



For one, we know that police departments are understaffed and over worked right now, so a call or report would have likely been lost in the shuffle. But even if they’d pursued an investigation the likely hood of solving the case was low. AND even if they found the person who robbed my truck, they would have been thrown in jail and entered the court system, costing me and other tax payers more money.



I doubt the person who took old clothes, a broken bike and picked the most beat up car on the block to rob was swimming in a ton of money.


The current legal system does not offer me what I needed or wanted in this situation: enough money to fix my car from the person that broke it. I don’t even have grand aspirations of an apology.

The current legal system does not offer me what I needed or wanted in this situation: enough money to fix my car from the person that broke it. I don’t even have grand aspirations of an apology.
When I think more deeply about who robbed my truck, I think about gentrification and the violence of “progress” in predominantly Black cities like DC as prices soar and original Black communities are replaced by elites of all races, but mostly white people.


What is my price to pay for the impact of me living as a white women in a Black city as an outsider? In some ways, did I owe whoever was hard enough up on money to rob my truck? What does social accountability look like for me?


As we embark on a new year of 2022, I encourage all of us to consider what justice means to us. Is it punishment or accountability? Is it an emotional vindictive crusade for our ego or a journey to actually morally right a wrong? How are those two different?


I encourage all of us to look at what conditions and pressures make fertile ground for crime and how all of us as a society are responsible for giving birth to those situations. Crime is often looked at as an individual’s responsibility. But what if we addressed it as a community problem we all share responsibility in solving?

The True Agony of Facing COVID-19 While Locked Up

The True Agony of Facing COVID-19 While Locked Up

Covid is surging in prisons and jails across the 

country again, we revisit an essay exploring what that 

means for the mental health of the people inside. 

By Karim Diggs

Karim Diggs has spent the last 45 years in prison in Pennsylvania. He is an acclaimed legal prison scholar who has helped many prisoners find freedom in case appeals. He is a contributor to The Des. This is part one of Karim’s dispatch from inside. Next week we go over his proposed solutions for the incarcerated during the pandemic.

March 2020, changed my prison existence as I knew it. Immediate lockdown took place, and I was stuck in the cell with another person 24/7. This close living situation does not take well with anyone who has a drop of common sense and decency. I asked myself how long will I be in lockdown, and what type of disease is this ravaging the human population? How will state officials treat prisoners? Each day ticked by with no assurance or relief in sight, and the information on CNN provided me with unwelcome news. The news from the White House gave one story and the popular media gave another. My confusion grew, and I had no idea what to think. The image before me was death could come from the virus and prisoners were in the condition to suffer the most.

The overdose of news coverage and the fear gained from misinformation did very little to combat the prison officials humble request that we be patient. The officials made a commitment to address all our concerns and that our health was their priority. They would do every thing they could to make our situation as comfortable and safe as possible. We were given masks and told what to do to protect ourselves. The prison TV station was constantly giving us instructions and updates. I was given some confidence in the message because it appeared everyone in the administration was on board to do all they could to manage this crisis. I had to respect the professionalism and efforts.

But entire experience left out the psychological impact of forced confinement, and the agony of the unknown. Probably the worst part of this nightmare is the fear that I would get COVID-19 from another prisoner or a staff member.

I wondered if COVID-19 was as radioactive and deadly as it seems it would be? How would I handle it if I caught it and what would I tell my family? These were worries I had. While the Pandemic was catching fire, I was given a new cellie and he was young and seemed like a nice person. We got along well, until one night he was smoking some type of drug and I had to inform him I do not allow any drug use in my cell. He agreed to obey the rules. I caught him again. I told him we must get the housing manager to remove him to another cell. He was eventually moved to another cell. Before he left we argued again about the lighting situation. He slept on the top bunk which puts him directly in the eye of the light in the ceiling.

I wondered if COVID-19 was as radioactive and deadly as it seems it would be? How would I handle it if I caught it and what would I tell my family? These were worries I had. While the Pandemic was catching fire, I was given a new cellie and he was young and seemed like a nice person. We got along well, until one night he was smoking some type of drug and I had to inform him I do not allow any drug use in my cell. He agreed to obey the rules. I caught him again. I told him we must get the housing manager to remove him to another cell. He was eventually moved to another cell. Before he left we argued again about the lighting situation. He slept on the top bunk which puts him directly in the eye of the light in the ceiling.

Karim speaking at an event in SCI Phoenix.

A very bright light when you sleep on the top bunk. We came to an agreement on how we would manage the lighting system. I had to read and write and do legal petitions in my cell etc. The system puts anybody in a cell without their psychological profile being considered. This is dangerous and it causes extreme conflict and stress.


In my opinion, the failure to consider how to deal with the mental health aspect of close confinement on an entire prison population is cruel and punitive at best and allows a silent deterioration self-worth and sense of being. Any sense of having control of your life is eliminated by the daily confinement in such a small space. Breathing, moving in the cell, sharing every inch of the cell, creates a limited world that brings no degree of peace or self-worth.


Men and women should not suffer without fresh air or space to be at peace within your own skin. These mental health requirements are absence in the plan to deal with prisoners. It appears that it is not even an issue. Just as the use of the vaccine for the prisoner population has been at the bottom of the list. I have yet to hear a whisper of the need to bring the vaccine to the prisoner citizens. I think of these issues and I feel the disregard for humanity as part of a society who is bragging about human rights all over the world. We condemn China, Russia, Korea and other places as savage nations when it comes to human rights. We need to be consistent in our position when it relates to people no matter where we find them or put them.


Vitamins are not part of the treatment of people in prison. We lack sufficient vitamins especially D. The lack of sunshine is lost due to the confinement we endure. The food is not supplying the needed Vitamin D which is necessary for good mental health. The psychological effects from this deficiency is not put into the equation in how the state could help preserve our mental health while in the lockdown. Aging and other health problems are coming from the long and sustained diet of starches and other foods that do not give us the vitamins we need.


At any time of the day, you will find nearly 99% of the cells are dark with no lights are on. The prisoners are sleep and they turn off the lights. For whatever reasons, the dark is the place most find peace and comfort. Nobody is reading too much and when going to the library it is not to do much research, but simply to talk with a friend or homey. There is an intellectual breakdown as a result of the inadequate handling of the large prison population.


Social distance is the major way to prevent the spread of the disease. I agree with the masks and separation form each other. I do believe the state should develop a computer system that we can operate our own small computer in our cells. This would create activity in the cell that keeps the brain alive and working.


The man on the top bunk from suffering overdose of light in his or her eyes. It would also prevent arguments and people sleeping all day in the dark!


I have seen most of the men who are dying and going to the hospital are elderly men. These have been working and exercising for decades, but the March 2020 Pandemic lockdown has revealed sickness, disease and other problems that were not known or not brought forth until now. 


The Pandemic also has driven some men to refuse further treatment for cancer and they have died in my opinion from hopelessness. They were convinced there is no relief and absolutely no compassionate consideration in releasing men and women due to the ending of their lives.

Compassionate release is a legislative law that permits after certain requirements are met, a prisoner can be released on a medical court order decree. But very few prisoners are granted such relief.


Section Pennsylvania Statute codified as 42 Pa. C.S .& 977 allows a sentencing judge to grant relief in a properly filed Motion. You must be seriously ill and not expected to live more than on year. And medically, your needs can be treated more appropriately in an outside facility. What usually destroys the last reason to release you is the DOC medical doctor will not say they are unable to treat you. They always alleged we provide the best treatment available and thus your application for compassionate release will fail.

Punished and not let out

Pete with his granddaughter.

Punished and not let out

Struggles with alcohol landed this Montana man in the justice system, but what kept him there? 

By Pete Leek
By Pete Leek

Pete lives in Montana.

[Pete’s wife interviewed him. This is a summary from the full audio that is available to listen below. Pete has been reluctant to share his story due to fear of retaliation through parole, but he is now sharing hoping that his story will encourage change.]

"He felt like his defense lawyer was against him from the beginning"

Pete Leek’s addiction to alcohol eventually landing him in Montana’s State Prison. He was convicted of aggravated assault after threatening his ex-girlfriend in a drunken altercation. He started drinking at a young age after his mom kicked him out. He drank to drown out the pain, “It drowned [out] all my pain and everything I had growing up as a child. So I just kept drinking.” It cost him relationships with loved ones and his children, and then sent him to prison. He felt like his defense lawyer was against him from the beginning, scaring him with a maximum sentence of 150 years if he did not plea despite him having a completely clean record – minus killing a gopher on a ranch as a minor which was thrown out only after he spent over two months in jail.

He received 20 years with ten suspended. “Prison sucked,” he said. “It’s nothing but kids.” He was sent to Montana’s sole private prison, a CoreCivic facility. He said the medical care and food was horrible – chicken with feathers in it.  “They’re just money swindlers,” he said of the private corporation.

Pete said there were financial inconsistencies with a dog program from the Montana Inmate Well fair Fund that he believes originated from prison officials stealing money from the fund.

He was assaulted while in prison – kicked in the head 15 times – but simply stayed in his cell for a month to recover so he could avoid being thrown in solitary. The prison put three bunks to one cell which made it so crammed some inmates would act out just to go to solitary to be alone.

"When Pete got out after ten years, he was shocked"

After being denied parole twice, when Pete got out after ten years, he was shocked. The last time he saw people wearing yoga pants was when spandex raged in the eighties. “I almost passed out a couple times when I was in Walmart because my anxiety had me really freaked out.” He wants private prisons like the one in Montana where he experienced poor medical care and dental treatment to disappear.

“I wasn’t the monster they thought I was. It was just a bunch of alcohol."

Listen to the full interview here.


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A new investigation reveals gun seizures under Bowser’s police department broke the law

Journalists Alex Coma and Mitch Ryals published an investigative story uncovering a criminal investigation of 19 D.C. police officers for misconduct while serving in a crime suppression unit. Originally an internal MPD inquiry, the investigation has since been upgraded to a criminal inquiry, with allegations including taking firearms without making arrests and filing false reports.

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Wake Up: The Sentencing Project launches new campaign to end mass incarceration

A new project launched by The Sentencing Project is a campaign to end mass incarceration in the United States. The project, called “Wake Up,” aims to raise awareness about the negative impacts of mass incarceration on individuals, families, and communities and to push for reforms that will reduce the number of people behind bars.

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Prison Is No Substitute For Health Care and treatment of HIV

Prison Is No Substitute For Health Care and treatment of HIV

Over half of U.S. states still criminalize HIV. More resources should be allotted to care, treatment, and prevention not prison time

By Stephen Hicks
By Stephen Hicks

Stephen Hicks is a researcher, writer, and public speaker. He is the 2021 Narrative Justice Fellow at the Counter Narrative Project. His bylines have appeared in TheBody, TheBodyPro, HuffPost, Architect Magazine, and VICE.

We would only use the criminal justice system to solve public health concerns if we’re stuck on stupid or set on continuing oppressive practices. But what a choice we still choose.


In over half of the United States, a person can find themselves in court due to their HIV status. Criminalization of non-criminal acts is a deeply rooted practice in America – the criminalization of HIV, a disease most often transmitted through exchange of bodily fluids, is no different. Americans address this public health issue with the criminal justice system instead of public health solutions.


Twenty-six states throughout the U.S. have laws on their books aimed at criminalizing HIV, according to The Center for HIV Law and Policy. Guilt is often based on not disclosing one’s status and a host of what-if scenarios. Proving a person’s intention to transmit HIV  — is near-impossible; but the legal system, not health experts, determine whether a person will serve prison time for living amongst the general public with HIV. 


These HIV criminalization laws render people disposable solely based on a health condition. Yet, if we go beyond mere surface analysis, the health status of living with HIV is further complicated by racism, homophobia, transphobia and poverty. HIV criminalization statutes prioritize outdated hysteria rather than evidence-based research. These type of laws in the South and Midwest are exceptionally horrible and stretch from Washington, D.C. to Mississippi.


“We know that HIV criminalization laws are a hodge-podge of antiquated, draconian policies that unnecessarily regulate HIV-positive people’s sexual citizenship—denying them basic rights to sexual health, wellness and pleasure,” Riko Boone, a researcher at George Washington University who conducted extensive research on HIV criminalization’s consequences, said.


The U.S. has a sick obsession with targeting the most marginalized communities while simultaneously underfunding their resources and gaslighting them, asserting that it’s their fault they haven’t done enough.


The prison industrial complex thrives from this negligence of people living with HIV. Meanwhile, those living with stigmatized health conditions are pushed into the shadows with deadly consequences. Any criminalization of HIV further brands people who live with it and blocks them from care.

Those incarcerated due to these laws contribute to the America hosting the largest prison population in the world per capita. 


At the end of 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that 2.2 million people were locked up in the U.S., including 1.5 million in federal and state prisons and close to 741,000 in locally run jails. Another four million people were under supervision, either on parole or probation. Black males are specifically incarcerated at disproportionate rates. Though Black males made up only 12% of the adult U.S. population in 2016, they represented 33% of the individuals behind bars.


“By and large, Black people have always faced and continue to face huge inequities in both regards. And therefore, HIV criminalization laws – much like the criminal justice system writ-large – [are] inherently anti-Black and yet another example of how structural racism is baked into nearly every system in the U.S.,” Boone added.

ACT UP 30th Anniversary Gathering Rally at the NYC AIDS Memorial at St. Vincent Triangle Park at 200 - 218 West 12th Street in the West Village in Manhattan, New York City, NY on Thursday afternoon, 30 March 2017. by Elvert Barnes

 This past July marked the 40th year since The New York Times reported on HIV impacting gay men. As more people who were not gay men were diagnosed, a sense of urgency ensued, but bigotry disguising itself as genuine care also emerged. HIV wasn’t a concern until it was discovered the disease didn’t discriminate.      


We, as an electorate on the local, state, and federal levels, have trekked further in this discriminatory direction policy-wise despite other progressive evolutions, which adds more obstacles to people living with HIV. We’re long overdue to head in another direction. This direction should include greater health equity resources like expanding Medicaid, better cost-sharing with pharmaceutical companies and housing-first policies which prioritize housing for people no matter their health status.


About one in seven persons living with HIV pass through a correctional or detention facility each year, reports The Center for HIV Law and Policy. And when these people look to re-enter society, they face even more issues due to the criminalizing of their health status.


Incarceration often interrupts HIV care and treatment and provides greater difficulties for returning citizens from prisons and jails. There is no solid, consistent pipeline to get people back into care after release. Therefore, criminalization heightens the following challenges: family support, neighborhood violence, relationship with law enforcement, employment, mental health concerns and medical care and medication management.

Most recently this year, Missouri and Illinois chipped away at their respective HIV criminalization laws; however, it’s important to note chipping away doesn’t mean overturning the laws. This is called modernization. In Missouri’s case, their modernization means reducing the charges and sentencing faced by a person accused of exposing someone to the virus. This isn’t a complete overhaul of a ridiculous law. To quote Molly M. Pearson of Missouri HIV Justice Coalition: “the modernization law doesn’t go far enough.”

Pearson writes in TheBody: “People living with HIV deserve to be seen and valued more than a little blue pill. I want every person living with HIV to celebrate their birthday, go to the movies, have great sex, and lay on the beach with a cold beverage. I want people living with HIV to live, and it’s on us to build a world where they can, without fear.”

The Missouri HIV Justice Coalition has been pushing for HIV decriminalization for a decade and deserve much of the credit for advocacy in challenging the standing statutes.

Maybe, living in a global pandemic that has infected at least 219 Million people worldwide should drive home why criminalizing a disease won’t work. This criminalization focuses upon those already experiencing state violence, over policing and discrimination – namely Black and brown folks, sex workers, and drug users. And the resources never seem equitably distributed to these communities dealing with mounting oppression. Instead, they receive the worst of it all: criminalization, ridicule and stigma.


More states need to re-evaluate their HIV criminalization laws. What’s currently in place deprives people of their human dignity, stamping them as pariahs which creates a less healthy and equitable America for everyone.

Can mental health training reduce use of force by police?

Can mental health training reduce use of force by police?

Colorado Springs law enforcement trains officers in mental health crisis to better respond to 911-calls – your weekly justice news

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

This week I wrote about law enforcement participating in a week-long training to give officers better tools to deal with citizens in mental health crisis for the Colorado Springs Indy.

This type of training is a sort of middle road between defund the police and keeping things as they are. It acknowledges the reality that police respond to the majority of mental health crisis without the training of a mental health professional.

To read about the training click the link. But to cut to the chase. There is no proof that this training actually lowers the rate of DEADLY use of force on people with severe mental health issues who law enforcement respond to.

The officers, if not reluctant at first, feel more prepared by the end and research shows that their outlook improves. It is difficult to find time for officers and requires more funding than just the non-traditional police training. Though this training seems like a win-win, advocates, who believe police will never be the answer, say it’s not enough.

The head of this training noted that even if this assists officers in better dealing with people, the officers still need more resources to send individuals to at the end of a call.

Last year, I covered efforts in Denver to develop a non-police response to mental health 911-calls. The mother who I talked with said that police lights and uniformed officers would always trigger her son, who like many people with severe mental health issues, had numerous negative and traumatic encounters with law enforcement. She believed only a response without law enforcement would protect her son in crisis and get him safely to the care he needed. Read about the training.


Protests: One dead after protests in Denver turned violent. The alleged shooter was a security guard, but right wing twitter exploded with accusations that he was ANTIFA. Denver Post

Analysis: How do we address people incarcerated for violent crimes in the context of COVID-19 and releases? “If we understand that COVID-19 has turned nearly any sentence into a potential death sentence, then we are faced with a crisis of both arbitrary and excessive punishment—a situation in which people are being subject to a consequence that exceeds what any court envisioned when it imposed sentence.” Common Justice

Keep going: Vermont’s interim corrections commissioner extends the private prison contract in Mississippi where inmates face record levels of violence and COVID-19 cases. VTDigger

Commentary: Trump has appointed a quarter of active federal appellate judges who consistently vote down civil rights lawsuits that try to find release for inmates in the face of COVID-19. The Appeal

Changing narrative: The way police reported a shooting inconsistently fueled misinformation and white vigilantes in rural Pennsylvania The Philadelphia Inquirer

Applying principal: She was sexually assaulted but knew the legal system would likely revictimize her and pick up the wrong guy. Did she decided to press charges? The Atlantic

‘Water smells like feces:’ Georgia women’s prison is ravaged by COVID-19 in a rural county. AJC

History lesson: ‘Law and Order’ continues to be thrown around by Trump and Pence. The actual history behind it stretches back to the ‘60s and efforts to reach suburban voters. The Marshall Project

Not mandatory: Half of states fail to require mask use by correctional staff a survey of 20 states found. Prison Policy Initiative

Elections: A prosecutor race in L.A. has been upended by a summer of racial justice protests. Once a sure winner, the incumbent is now facing a opponent who is gaining support nationwide. The Appeal

Long read: Trained to inflict violence, what happens when use of force comes from a police dog? Read their main findings below. The Marshall Project

  • Though our data shows dog bites in nearly every state, some cities use biting dogs far more often than others. Police in Chicago almost never deploy dogs for arrests and had only one incident from 2017 to 2019. Washington had five. Seattle had 23. New York City, where policy limits their use mostly to felony cases, reported 25. By contrast, Indianapolis had more than 220 bites, and Los Angeles reported more than 200 bites or dog-related injuries, while Phoenix had 169. The Sheriff’s Department in Jacksonville, Florida, had 160 bites in this period.

  • Police dog bites can be more like shark attacks than nips from a family pet, according to experts and medical researchersA dog chewed on an Indiana man’s neck for 30 seconds, puncturing his trachea and slicing his carotid artery. A dog ripped off an Arizona man’s face. A police dog in California took off a man’s testicle. Dog bites cause more hospital visits than any other use of force by police, according to a 2008 academic analysis of 30 departments.

  • Many people bitten were unarmed, accused of non-violent crimes or weren’t suspects at all. Court records show cases often start as minor incidents—a problem with a license plate, a claim of public urinationa man looking for a lost cat. Although some departments, like SeattleOakland, California, and St. Paul, Minnesota, now have strict criteria about when dogs can bite, many continue to give officers wide discretion.

  • Some dogs won’t stop biting and must be pulled off by a handler, worsening injuries. Although training experts said dogs should release a person after a verbal command, we found dozens of cases where handlers had to yank dogs off, hit them on the head, choke them or use shock collars.

  • Men are the most common targets of police dog bites—and studies suggest that in some places, victims have been disproportionately Black. Investigations into the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have both found that dogs bit non-White people almost exclusively. Police dog bites sent roughly 3,600 Americans to emergency rooms every year from 2005 to 2013, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine; almost all were male, and Black men were overrepresented.

  • For many bite victims, there’s little accountability or compensation. Federal civil rights laws don’t typically cover innocent bystanders. In many parts of the country, criminal suspects can’t bring federal claims if they plead guilty or are convicted of a crime related to the biting incident. And even when victims can bring cases, lawyers say they struggle because jurors tend to love police dogs—something they call the Lassie effect.

Educate yourself: Legally, until convicted, people in jail are allowed to vote, but the reality of incarceration disenfranchises thousands on election day. This report reviews all states barriers to voting. Prison Policy Initiative


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House of pain

House of Pain: an introduction

My name is Bernard Jemison and I will briefly explain my story. I’ve been incarcerated since May 13, 1998, over 25 years now for felony murder that should have been self-defense. I was sentenced to serve life with the possibility of parole in the Alabama department of corrections.

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Redemption denied

Redemption denied

A Colorado woman’s search for clemency after 30 years inside

By Robin Farris
By Robin Farris

Robin Farris writes from prison at Denver Women's Correctional Facility

“We shall Overcome” epitomized the racial climate during the 60s. When these words were spoken, two questions arose: which class of people did “we” include, and what is inferred by “shall overcome?”

To me it meant that we shall overcome racial inequality, gender biasing, poverty, anti-Semitism, mass incarceration, disproportional prison sentences among African Americans, hatred, and all forms of discriminatory ideologies, and that to overcome any obstacles impeding forward progress we must take on a collective attitude. From the anguish of a single voice, “I can’t breathe,” emerged a new diverse generation of protesters this summer. This message traveled globally to affirm a 21st century intolerance toward racial injustice.

The death of George Floyd followed the disproportionate infliction of disturbing events upon African Americans. This form of systemic racism includes incarceration. African Americans must first jump over hurdles of prejudice when confronting the judicial system. The perspective of African Americans in this country follows those individuals into the courtroom. This stereotype typically assumes certain lifestyle choices like being a drug dealer, a prostitute or dependent on social assistance.

In 1991, I was sentenced to forty years in prison. But I am not a stereotype. I am a college graduate, and prior to my arrest, I was a group home counselor. I am also one of two African American women who have been incarcerated the longest in the state of Colorado — the last thirty years I have been incarcerated. 

"I am not a stereotype"

The origins of maltreatment against African Americans began centuries ago when slaves arrived on this continent. African’s Indigenous language became a concern for slave traders. Therefore it was concluded that all slaves should be silenced. The fear was their vocal protest, spoken in a language not understood by their capacitors. 

To prevent any uprising against enslavement, a device was created to silence those disembarking from slave ships. A crude metal clamp was fashioned with a locking mechanism. This device affixed around the mouth securing their lips shut. A practice referred to as muzzling. We witnessed the continuation of this practice as a Black man was face down on the pavement, straining to speak the words “I can’t breathe.”

In 1991, during my trial, the District Attorney instructed me to rise from my seat. My height, weight, and additional physical attributes, were displayed for the Caucasian jury. I felt dehumanized as if I were a slave placed on a block before auctioning began. I was left speechless.

Racial silencing enacted four hundred years ago is actually a modern day outcry for justice. Prison is not a social media like free speech environment. I’m determined to have my voice heard. Women sentenced to large amounts of time rarely reoffend which is often overlooked when reviewing requests for clemency. I have applied for Executive Clemency for a second time faced with this obstacle. Colorado has never selected a Black woman for clemency. Former Colorado Governor and current U.S. Senate candidate, John Hickenlooper, could have chosen to speak for those unable to do so by granting my clemency. He did not. 

The past cannot be the only catalyst for change. Inequalities taking place today should be a new inspiration for protest. Equal scales of justice must be restored. I am aware of the enormous variables that must be considered when determining who will be granted clemency. The highest level of rehabilitation must be met. Rehabilitation is synonymous with restoration.

Prison is a justified consequence for my actions. Three decades of incarceration has changed my soul. During the last three decades I have educated myself in juvenile law, computer aided drafting and business technology.

"Three decades of incarceration has changed my soul"

I was granted an academic scholarship from the University of Colorado Boulder. I’ve earned accreditation in counseling, totaling over 2,000 hours. Additionally, I was awarded numerous certificates signed by former District Attorney Council members. I pray my future allows me to return to usefulness outside of prison.

Whether it is said, “We shall Overcome” or “Black Lives Matter,” when the truth is finally realized will I be allowed to speak?


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Still locked out of the ballot box

 An estimated 4.6 million Americans are still unable to vote due to felony records despite reforms. This includes more than one in 10 Black adults in eight states – Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia.


Bail industry gets away with murder, costing defendants and citizens alike

An investigation was published indicating that six NYC bail bond companies were using fake trade names in order to continue operations without being shut down by state officials for large amounts of debt. The ability of agencies to continue to profit off of the bail system despite state laws that allow officials to suspend agencies owing large sums of money is the sixth loophole emphasized by the report.


Mass incarceration punishes kids too

The arrest of a parent can be traumatic and severe for children whose parents are incarcerated, causing emotional, physical, educational and financial well-being difficulties. According to a  new study, kids of incarcerated parents are likely to become incarcerated themselves.

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Jailhouse lawyers

Jailhouse lawyers

Empowering those inside to understand the system that took away their freedom

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

We talked with Jhody Polk last winter about legal empowerment as a pathway to freedom inside and after release.

Quick explainer: n every prison there is a jailhouse lawyer or a law clerk responsible for helping people inside access legal resources. After you are sentenced, there are still a load of legal processes you go through to appeal your conviction or when coming up for parole, BUT you are no longer afforded a public defender – you’re on your own.

When Jhody Polk began reaching out to law clerks inside prisons also known as jailhouse lawyers, she was shocked by the basic resources like dictionaries that they were missing and the basic questions they asked – they were supposed to be the experts. 

“When you think about it, these are law clerks and jailhouse lawyers, and the institutions are responsible for their training, and it is a part of their role to provide certain services to incarcerated individuals, and they were really just asking for knowledge: it was very shocking,” Polk said.  

"No one is educating the individuals on the inside of how these laws are changing"

These post conviction legal processes directly impact the length of time an individual is held in prison. After sentencing, a person’s clock starts counting down to file appeals, mitigation, and habeas corpus. If they do not file on their own for these legal processes, they miss their chance to reduce their sentence. 

The inadequate education and resources given to law clerks inside impacts individuals inside, and keeps more people incarcerated for longer. It also negatively impacts the way inmates and clerks are taken in court. 

“It creates this narrative inside of the court that jailhouse lawyers and law clerks and pro-se litigants are filing frivolous motions and so they don’t take our filings seriously,” Polk said. [cont. below]

Law clerks play a big role in not just helping people with procedure, but also helping people to interpret the law and understand it and act,” Polk said which becomes even more important considering the high illiteracy rates in prisons. 

Through her own journey of incarceration, Polk was able to find closure through learning the law. “I found peace when I was able to, through the law, realize that my eight year sentence in the Florida Department of Corrections was justified based off the crimes that I had committed. And I was guilty.” 

“It gave me this freedom and this peace to do my time in a way that allowed me to be Jhody and not be just a convict and to think about what rehabilitation was to me and what I needed in that,” she said. 

“Through legal identity I was able to see myself,” Polk said.

As a law clerk she also realized her clients were finding the same legal empowerment she had in the legal process. She would make the women she helped write their own legal paperwork even if she had to rewrite it. 

She was able to us her skills that she used for her own legal proceedings to help others understand their own. 

“And that was powerful because the same laws that they used to incarcerate those women were the same laws that we were using as jailhouse lawyers for their freedom.” 

“I approached legal empowerment as a way for women to heal,” Polk said. She hoped that the women continued to use the skills on the outside whether “they found themselves back in the criminal justice system or even the civil [court system] and social justice spaces.”

She thinks that legal empowerment can “interrupt’ the cycle of incarceration. 

“I think that jailhouse lawyers being able to effectively and confidently do legal empowerment in prison could change the lives of those two million people that we see in the criminal justice system,” Polk said. 

“Those jailhouse lawyers can change the culture and empower incarcerated people who then return back into our community legally empowered and prepared to resist. But also take ownership and partnership in community justice,” she said.

“Like that, that gives me freaking hope.” 

Polk has worked in Florida on Amendment 4 to restore felons’ voting rights, is a member of Namati, was a 2018 Soros Justice Fellow, and is the founder and director of the Legal Empowerment and Advocacy Hub (LEAH) which holds her Jailhouse Lawyer’s Initiative. JLI is over a year old and in over 26 states. Read more about her legal empowerment work

We are dedicating this newsletter with love to the memory of Janet van der Laak. May we all be as strong, passionate and dedicated to taking care of the most vulnerable of our communities.

A little over a year ago, I met Janet van der Laak while reporting a story on removing police from 911-calls.

This month Janet died. I am lucky that she let me into her life and journey to care for her son. She left me with that story, but she also left me with the undying memory of her dedication to see every person struggling on the streets as a human worthy of love – the infinite love of a mother. She fought for her son in a system that told her and him he didn’t matter. She took up arms against the inevitable with faith and love and hope. She is the most honorable among us. Her life, her work and her love will never be forgotten. [P.S – Matt is doing well and in the care of his dad, Onne.]

Janet, Matt and Onne her husband.

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left to die

new report finds ten of thousands of people over fifty who are sentenced to life without parole face increasingly grim conditions

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To be shot at

Azria stands protesting on May 30 in Denver, Colorado

To be shot at

The violence of the justice system spills into the streets – a young protester writes on facing the police brutality


Azria, is 19-years-old and works full time in the Denver area. Growing up in the “Sunnyside” neighborhood of Denver, Arroyo now lives in Wheat Ridge Colorado. Read Azria’s account below.

Thursday May 28, was the first day of the protests in Denver. It was a peaceful, calm and organized gathering. Once law enforcement showed up, chaos began to erupt almost immediately. Police arrived in full riot gear forming a line in front of the protesters. The standoff began.

"Unprovoked, officers began to shove us"

Unprovoked, officers began to shove us. We kept our hands up as a display of non-violence while officers became increasingly aggressive. They charged people from behind, throwing them onto the ground, and attempted to run their police truck into the crowd. Tensions grew when four officers attacked an elderly black man in a wheelchair as he tried to cross the street.

Saturday, May 30, was my second day at the protest, I went knowing there was a very real possibility of getting hurt. It felt necessary to go not only to stand in solidarity with the BLM movement, but to stand against our Police departments history of misconduct, discrimination, abuse of power, and their militarized response to what began as a peaceful gathering against police brutality. The first time we were tear gassed was at 4 p.m., four hours before the newly ordered 8 p.m. curfew. The energy was positive as we marched through the streets. We approached the police station. There was a line of officers in full riot gear, and armed officers on rooftops surrounding the area. Officers covered their badge numbers as we tried to note them. Another protester yelled, “That’s  illegal!”

Some officers were smirking at us, as if they were enjoying themselves. Suddenly, everyone was frantically running as officers shot into the crowd and deployed tear gas canisters. While running, I tripped over several people. I panicked as three canisters of tear gas landed at my feet, releasing thick smoke burning my eyes and skin. When I tried to breathe the pressure in my chest and lungs felt as though I was drowning.

Many vomited in the streets. A volunteer medic rinsed my eyes out. The effects subsided over the next hour, but lingered days after. We re-gathered and marched towards the Capitol building. We arrived at a swarm of police, Denver SWAT, and Colorado National Guard armed with “less than lethal” weapons. Standing head to head with officers, we chanted “We don’t see no riot here, why are you in riot gear?”.

Officers who lay near bushes with weapons aimed at us looked like a scene out of a war zone. The standoff continued, until officers started indiscriminately firing “less than lethal” ammunition into the crowd. We ran into the park. Tear gas canisters and rubber bullets flew into the street. Some protesters picked them up and threw them back. Cops started charging into the park. I saw 40 millimeter baton rounds cut through the crowd. Protesters near me were hit in the eyes and head and fell down.

"We see no riot here, why are you in riot gear?"

Volunteer medics came to their aid, making an improvised stretcher from fencing. I saw something flying toward me. I quickly ran backwards, but my leg was hit with a 40mm baton round, that knocked me off of my feet. It was surreal.

There was a girl crying next to me and someone yelled, “She was hit with a rubber bullet.”

The remainder of the day was chaos. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I found out later, about someone who had been at the protest that day having eye removal surgery, as a result of less than lethal ammunition fired by police. I wasn’t surprised by his story. I felt lucky to only have a bruise and a swollen leg, while others left with permanent reminders of what they’d endured that day. 

Azria said that she had trouble breathing days after being tear-gassed and had nose bleeds. She is biracial, with parents from Senegal and Mexico, and has faced discrimination growing up.

Denver protests on May 30, 2020

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New report debunks 2020 youth crime wave

politicians and pundits are peddling youth gone wild but a new report says the most recent data doesn’t support their claims and harsher sentences won’t stop crime


The number of women behind bars continues to rise in U.S.

Just because prison overpopulation is usually discussed in regards to males, America also has a glaring problem of over incarcerating mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and grandmas. There are currently 108,000 women in prison in the United States — accounting for nearly 30% of the world’s incarcerated females.

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