Inside The Historic Presidential Town Hall Where Incarcerated People Ask The Questions

'If people want us to show up for them in November 2020, they need to think about showing up for us in October 2019'

By Zaron Burnett III

The “land of the free” has never been so for the 2.3 million Americans currently in prison. The United States boasts the highest prison population rate in the world with 10.6 million jail admissions each year, and nearly a third of working-age Americans having to navigate life with a rap sheet of some kind. As a result, there are as many Americans who have spent time behind bars as there are people with a college diploma.

And once you’re in that system, there’s a high chance you’ll be in it for the rest of your life. A lack of services to aid a person’s transition back into society often means it’s extremely likely that they’ll return to prison at some point. A 2014 study on recidivism conducted in 30 states found that 77 percent of state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within five years; 37 percent of those arrests occurred within six months of their release, and 57 percent occurred within the first year. Making matters worse, some of those incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people will lose their voting rights as a result of their incarceration, rendering them silent at the polls and politically disempowered overall.

This current era of mass incarceration in the U.S. was born of a bipartisan effort to be “tough on crime,” with a cornerstone piece of legislation spearheaded by then-Senator Joe Biden that in particular targeted violent crime, drug crime, gangs, and youth violence, with mandated minimum sentencing and increased funding for local police. But rather than curb crime rates, being tough on crime instead led to a prison population explosion and a lack of adequate rehabilitation resources. Today, the cost to maintain America’s broken penal system is estimated at $182 billion dollars a year. A number of 2020 presidential Democratic candidates have already begun to articulate what they’d do differently if elected; Senator Cory Booker has called 1994 crime bill “awful,” and “shameful,” and pointed out in particular how it “accelerated mass incarceration and inflicted immeasurable harm on Black, brown and low-income communities.”

No matter how well-meaning the plans or policies, it’s crucial that we all remember to center the people who would be most impacted by such reforms: The incarcerated people themselves. For that reason, Voters Organized To Educate along with The Marshall Project are hosting Justice Votes 2020, the first-ever town hall on criminal justice reform, on Monday (October 28). The event is being held at Eastern State Penitentiary, a former prison in Philadelphia. Only a few candidates in the crowded field expressed their interest and plan to attend: Booker, Kamala Harris, and Tom Steyer. It’s the first time in election history that candidates will be posed questions by formerly incarcerated people, who will serve as both the moderators and audience.

One of the moderators is Norris Henderson, the co-founder and executive director of Vote NOLA and a national leader in prison reform and voting rights efforts for formerly incarcerated citizens. After a wrongful conviction resulted in him spending 27 years, 10 months, and 18 days in prison, Henderson was freed in 2003 and has spent the last 16 years working to bring criminal justice reform to the center stage of American politics. Candid, concerned, and comprehensive in his understanding of what criminal reform is up against, Henderson prefers to focus on the positive — for instance, getting presidential candidates to set foot in a prison at all. He confirmed to MTV News that prior to the event’s organizers had extended invitations to all Democratic candidates, and added, “There has to be some reciprocity in this. If people want us to show up for them in November 2020, they need to think about showing up for us in October 2019.”

Henderson spoke with MTV News ahead of the town hall about the importance of giving voice to the presently and formerly incarcerated, and actually listening to them.

MTV News: How did this town hall come about? It’s such a powerful visual symbol: Politicians answering to an audience of formerly incarcerated people.

Norris Henderson: A lot of the candidates were trying to reach out to us, sending us their criminal justice platform, asking us to vet it. So we said, "Let's pull this thing together," because everybody's talking about criminal justice reform, but they’re not talking to the people who've been impacted by criminal justice reform.

We looked at all the town halls going on in this primary season. The week before last, there was the Equity Conference –– that was about the LGBTQ community. They had another one focused on education. So, it was like, “Okay, let's have one on criminal justice.” But it needs to be with people who've been impacted by the system. That's the challenge that we've issued to the party: In every instance, when you went to have a conversation with people, you had a conversation with the people who were directly impacted by that circumstance. All we're asking is, treat us the same way.

MTV News: The audience for this town hall will be exclusively formerly incarcerated citizens?

Henderson: Yes, everybody. The whole event. The only portion of the event that won't be formerly incarcerated people are the folks that we've contracted with to help us pull the thing off. But everybody sitting in the chairs inside that prison for the town hall will be formerly incarcerated. I'm one of the four moderators that will be up onstage with the candidates.

MTV News: There is a vast assortment of issues that exist under the umbrella of criminal justice reform. What do you believe are the priorities to ask candidates about?

Henderson: One, do they actually understand what caused this population to grow from 200,000 to 2.4 million people over 40 years? To see whether or not they have any institutional knowledge about how this system actually works. That’s the first thing, to set the stage: How did we get here? Do you all really know how we got here? We got here, primarily, because the federal government incentivized states to start locking people up. They built prisons. They gave states money for tougher sentencing. They created so many prohibitions with zero tolerance. All those failed policies are responsible for where we're at today. The big ask from us is going to be: Are you all willing to undo the crime bill? That's the start of things right there.

MTV News: Some of the issues you commonly advocate for include money bail reform, rethinking mandatory minimum sentencing, addressing prison conditions and medical care offered to incarcerated people, and putting an end to mass incarceration and the death penalty. What are the major reform issues this town hall plans to focus on?

Henderson: Everybody's like, “we need to decriminalize marijuana.” That's not even a question! We don't even want to talk about marijuana. They've legalized marijuana in half the states across this country or decriminalized it, that is not a starting point. Like you said, we’ll ask what they’re going to do about cash bail, about draconian sentencing. Let's own this. We've been doing this stuff wrong. And we need to fix it, because we harm people.

MTV News: In that past, Democratic politicians have worried about losing centrist voters if they weren’t “tough on crime.” Do you feel like that’s changing?

Henderson: They're testing the water, putting their feet in the tub, trying to see if it's lukewarm. And based upon polling, people see the harm [incarceration] has caused and are willing to say, “Let's try something else.” During the crack epidemic, the solution was “We're going to build more jail beds, and we're going to put them in prison!” Now, with this opioid crisis, it’s like, “Oh no, we need to find them some treatment,” to the extent they're suing the pharmaceutical companies.

So the prison population has shifted, as far as who's going into these places. All of a sudden everybody's concerned. The concern should have been there. And I applaud people who want to step up now, and fix it. But we really got to fix it. We can't put a Band-aid it. We have to fix it. And the only way you're going to fix it is to sit down and talk to people who can tell you what's broke.

MTV News: More and more people from all walks of life are using their platforms to shed light on the penal system. Ava DuVernay has really helped Americans grasp the problem and the need for prison reform, in particular, with her documentary 13th and her Netflix series, When They See Us

Henderson: I’ve seen all those stories, 13th, When They See Us –– that one was really a tearjerker. It tore at the hearts of people. Now people are starting to see the injustice that's going on right in front of their faces. Now, everybody got an iPhone or a smartphone and they document what’s going on, so it's not like this stuff is just in the back alley no more. It is live. It is on TV.

MTV News: Two major causes of mass incarceration in America are profits and racism. Are Americans beginning to understand slavery’s pervasive influence on incarceration?

Henderson: For years, people would talk about race or they would talk about criminal justice — but they wouldn't talk about the nexus between one and the other. Now these conversations are starting to happen. Ava’s 13th, her documentary, helped change that. Today's technology has taken us to places that we would have never been able to go.

MTV News: In 2018, Florida voters passed a referendum to allow former felons to vote. But the state legislature has moved to block it, and it’s now being litigated in the courts. It seems terribly un-democratic to not protect voting rights, but there is a racist history of that in America. 

Henderson: The thing that redlines people now is the fact that they’ve come in contact with the criminal justice system. Voting is an inalienable right in this country, [but there’s a] history of all these Jim Crow policies to strip people of color of their voting rights. Lately, they’ve just took it to another level. That shouldn't be happening in a country where, just several years ago, when they toppled Saddam Hussein, everybody in Congress held up a purple thumb in solidarity with the people in another country, applauding their democracy, their right to vote, and they won't give that very same right to people that live in this country.

MTV News: How do you view prison abolition functions in the town hall, as well as the conversation at large?

Henderson: It's more like: How do we get there? I think if we start putting policies in place, bail reform, pre-trial stuff, it will diminish prison through attrition. It's become obvious that prisons have become a growth industry in this country. People need to own that for what it is. This beast has been eating for a long time. And you've got to starve him. The way you starve him is on the front end, not on the back end. Nobody has to go in.

MTV News: You've often said, “Although people want to help us, they can't speak for us.” What do people on the inside want people on the outside to know? 

Henderson: One thing I tell people all the time, what they often miss, is that we want to be safe in our communities, too. Some of our folks have been impacted on both sides of the coin. Some of our folks have harmed people, and some of our folks in that same household have been harmed. So how do you reconcile with that family, who has a family member that's in prison, and then has another family member who got harmed?

When we’re out registering people to vote, and when we get to that box that asks which party affiliation, take a guess what most people check. They check Independent. When you ask them why they say, “Because what happened to us was bipartisan, so I'm not leaning left, I'm not leaning right, I'm leaning forward.”

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