‘so in your face you can’t ignore it’
an interview with Pam Bailey about empowering D.C. inmates in the federal system as a voting bloc and voice for change through helping them tell their stories
The Des: Why did you found More Than Our Crimes?
Bailey: It all started actually when I was doing some volunteer work and answering letters from D.C. men in prison. And one of the letters I responded to was from Robert Burton, who has been in prison since two months past his 16th birthday. He went in on felony murder, which means he didn’t actually shoot, He was just in the car. He is still in prison now, 26 years later.
And what I recognized in his letter was a very strong, articulate, thoughtful voice, and we partnered together. I’m a storyteller by profession, I’m a writer for a national international nonprofit by day, my paid job.
This was back before this last election. There was a real opportunity because you had people from both parties talking about criminal justice reform, which is really good. But the thing that was missing was everybody was always quick to to limit the conversation to non-violent crimes. In other words, they seemed really interested in reducing mass incarceration, but the reality is you can’t actually significantly reduce mass incarceration if you do not include people who once committed violent crimes. Because they’re, I think it’s like two thirds of the people in the prison population. So you can’t ignore that.
Number two, there’s really sort of a false distinction, because even people who were labeled as committing violent crimes can change. They can be rehabilitated, they can become different people, they can be productive members of society and it’s ridiculous to exclude them and think that they deserve to be in prison the rest of their lives with the key thrown away.
So the initial purpose of teaming up together was to use storytelling about Rob and the other people that he started introducing me to, to try to really show the humanity behind the labels.
A secondary part of it is focusing on DC people because that’s who I was getting to know. But DC people have an extra set of problems I think other people don’t:
DC doesn’t have its own prisons, so they’re sending them to the federal system which means they’re all over the country. And it’s like, out of sight out of mind. I mean, it’s this sort of that way for really anybody in prison, but it’s particularly true for the DC people because the federal system doesn’t get much attention. Number one, because most people are in state prisons and most of the focus is on state prisons. And two, the federal system is so hard to change because it’s Congress.
We started a blog, we have the website, but the blog is where we mostly publish. We just got a grant. The people in prison there don’t vote. We thought this is a perfect opportunity to really use this network that Rob and I grew: we have about 200 people now, the DC guys. What we’ve done is we want to get them to vote.
So with the grant, what we’re doing now is we send a newsletter in to all the guys on our list to really keep them in tune with all the issues. So they understand that there’s actually issues that affect them, or will affect them, they should care about. So when midterms come up, they’re going to want to vote.
The Des: What is your greatest achievement in criminal justice reform so far?
Bailey: I think that we’re pretty new and I guess what I’ve been most pleased about is the fact that we do have a blog on Medium and we have a growing mailing list and growing people who actually reading these stories and opinions of people behind bars.
It’s very hard when you’re new. The thing about this, this space in DC in a way is on the one hand, it’s great that we have a whole bunch of organizations and people who are involved in this issue in some way. But the challenging part is it’s sort of territorial. It’s pretty hard to get established. And so, it’s gratifying to finally start getting established enough that people are noticing you. The niches that we represent is people who are still in prison, not the DC jail, but still in the BOP system. We give them a chance to have a voice and also to be as informed.
That’s the biggest piece of feedback I’ve been getting to our newsletter is no one’s been telling them any of this. They pick up what they can, I have them subscribe to The [Washington] Post, it’s always like, like four or five days late, but there’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s not covered there. So they don’t know.
And so I think in terms of achievements, I’m just happy that we’re getting established enough and being recognized.
The Des: What do you think is the most pressing issue in the Washington D.C. criminal justice system?
Bailey: I think DC blames a lot on the fact that it’s a not state yet.. And BOP would absolutely let DC people come home if they would just bite the bullet and do the right thing. And there’s still a lot of planning. They have a plan to replace the jail and expand it and bring everybody home by 2030, that’s a really long time. DC is a weird mix of really progressive fantastic things and then dragging its feet on others.
I think another thing DC really needs to improve on is it gets a lot of praise for its services for returning citizens, but as I get to know the guys in prison what I’ve noticed is a real lack of coordination among tons of different services. They’re not coordinated at all. And these poor guys have to run all over. They’re just out, they’re confused, they don’t know technology, and they’re forced to run all these different places. It’s crazy, why they don’t have a centralized case management system, I don’t know.
But the other thing is housing. You got 500 people who are eligible for second look. I’m not sure what percent to actually get approved, but let’s say the majority of them are. I would say I guess a third to a half maybe, either don’t have family to come to, or they have family but they’re not appropriate. The thing is there’s no housing. They need housing. I don’t understand why the city has done nothing to prepare for that. It’s the worst problem. It’s bigger than the employment issue. I had one of my friends go to one of those shelters. There were stabbings once a week. The first day he was there, he went to take a shower and his belongings were stolen. This is not stable.
The Des: What is your organization doing to solve this problem?
Bailey: If we can develop these guys into a real voting block, who actually vote, we may be able to hold some of the city officials’ feet to the fire that way and say, look you talk the game, but you gotta do it guys. I’ve been in so many forums where they talk about the housing problem. It’s just too much talk talk talk, we almost need to take a page from the old AIDS days, Act Up days, in this be in their face. We cannot be invisible.
There’s been a real lack of voices of people who are incarcerated. And maybe by getting more and more op-eds and whatever, that voice can’t be ignored anymore. And I’m hoping that that will be one more lever, one more pressure point that will force some change. Maybe there should be a whole campaign of returning citizens. It’s that kind of thinking back to the old days: The Act Up Group. They started with the policy talk and said, okay, we admit, enough talk, we need to make it so in your face that you can’t ignore us.
The Des: What is your advice for the average citizen, who has little or no experience with activism, but wants to get involved?
Bailey: I think it’s really important to do this work if you don’t have some direct connections so you understand the complexity of all the factors, the dynamics that go into [some one insides] trajectory. But also you start hearing what they want and think is important, which may not be the same as what you think. Number one, would be to get involved with an organization that allows you some direct contact then do some deep listening and hear things in their voice instead of just reading about them.
Sometimes I think we narrow ourselves down to just talking to the choir all the time, we’re always talking to fellow activists, fellow advocates, it’s like an echo chamber. We all are violently in agreement with each other and find audiences like around the Christmas table. One of the best ways to help change things is to try to get out of your echo chamber and talk to people.
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