Ronald Simpson-Bey remembers the day the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act was signed into law. “April 24, 1996,” he recalls. At the time he was entering his second decade behind bars and working for Prison Legal Services of Michigan, helping fellow prisoners with their appeals. The landmark legislation, signed by President Bill Clinton in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, sharply curtailed the federal habeas appeals of people in prison, including those facing execution. Simpson-Bey’s office was already so swamped there was a five-year waitlist for new clients. Suddenly, all these people faced a one-year deadline to challenge their cases in federal court. “We panicked,” he recalls. “We were like, oh hell no.” Incarcerated since 1985 for shooting at a police officer (a crime he insisted was carried out by an associate who turned state’s witness), Simpson-Bey was a self-taught paralegal, able to adapt to the stringent new standards the AEDPA imposed on his own case. But for others who did not understand the law, it swiftly closed the door on their federal appeals. “It was so traumatic,” Simpson-Bey says. “Heartbreaking.”
We were discussing Hillary Clinton’s recent vow to “end the era of mass incarceration,” a lofty promise that would mean undoing decades of criminal justice policy, including sweeping measures enacted by her husband, largely with her support. The groundwork for mass incarceration may have started years before, but “Clinton was the biggest prison builder in the country,” Simpson-Bey says.
The AEDPA was not the first time Clinton had shown how punitive a Democrat could be. Two years earlier, Clinton had signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (known as the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill) — a grab bag of “tough on crime” legislation that poured billions of federal dollars into new prison construction and hundreds of millions in incentive grants for states to pass Truth-in-Sentencing laws. Then there was the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which made it more difficult for prisoners to challenge their conditions of confinement. Supporters said it would curb “frivolous lawsuits.” But Simpson-Bey, who was part of a historic class-action in Michigan demanding better psychiatric services and less time in segregation, knew it was about much more than that. “This was an era where they were building these prisons and, at the same time, making it harder for people to get out by denying access to courts,” Simpson-Bey explains.
Simpson-Bey finally left prison three years ago, taking a plea deal after his conviction was overturned. In total he spent 27 years behind bars. Today he works for the American Friends Service Committee and is active in groups like the recently launched JustLeadershipUSA, which seeks to cut the U.S. prison population in half by 2030. Simpson-Bey was among the attendees last week at the InterNational Prisoner’s Family Conference in Dallas, Texas, a volunteer-run gathering of activists, ministries and people with loved ones behind bars. Many participants were once in prison themselves. The presentations were in many ways a devastating reflection of what the Clinton era wrought: Families suffering the stigma and isolation of having a loved one on a sex offender registry (the 1994 Crime Bill mandated that states begin tracking sex offenders); fathers trying to overcome barriers to reentry (Clinton’s 1995 welfare reform banned federal benefits like housing assistance and food stamps to felons); death row families on the “disenfranchised grief” of those whose relatives are condemned to die (Clinton personified the Democrats’ embrace of capital punishment, attending the execution of a brain-damaged man while on the campaign trail and expanding capital crimes).
As the conference got underway, Clinton himself was making headlines for telling CNN that his 1994 Crime Bill “cast too wide a net” and put “too many people in prison.” On the heels of Hillary’s big criminal justice speech, the political calculus was clear. But in Dallas, no one seemed to be paying much attention to what either Clinton had to say. Instead, there were tips to share about navigating the prison bureaucracy that rules so much of their lives. There was the need to grapple with the “ripple effect” of incarceration (often referred to by the more clinical “collateral consequences”) — the way the criminal justice system splits families into pieces. When veteran activist Barbara Allen described in her thick New York accent how her late husband’s imprisonment in 1966 marked the start of her serving her time, the audience murmured with recognition.
Allen founded Prison Families Anonymous on Long Island 40 years ago. Although she rejects the label “support group” — “we’re a family” — it provides a space to help other women and families cope with a loved one’s imprisonment. Despite the overwhelming number of people touched by mass incarceration, prisoners’ family members often feel invisible — and compelled to stay that way. One woman recalled making small talk about her work at a dentist appointment. The dental hygienist waited for her boss to leave the room before whispering to her, “I’ve got a brother in prison.” Shame and stigma make the already difficult work of political organizing even harder. But there is strength in visibility, and in numbers: In Dallas, the same women whose voices shook because they were new to public speaking later approached other nervous presenters to encourage them, to say they’d done a great job.
In this environment, where people shared their most intimate trauma and talked seriously about healing, bringing up 2016 felt almost crass and out of place. When I did, the phrase “jumping on the bandwagon” came up again and again. “I’m not a political animal,” said Carolyn Esparza, the conference founder, when asked about the election. “I know Hillary said she wants to end mass incarceration. But to be honest with you, I don’t trust any politician. Any.” Esparza, a social worker who has spent her career inside prisons, advocates for juveniles serving long sentences, including for violent crimes — an issue untouched by candidates for any office.
“She’s trying to get elected,” scoffed Yvette Reeves about Hillary Clinton. Reeves is married to a man serving a 216-year sentence in California for a crime he insists he did not commit. Her life sounds like an exhausting mix of work, prison visits (he’s incarcerated more than 280 miles away), and efforts to start her own advocacy group, tentatively called Prisoner Family Nation. She is also determined to fight somehow for the repeal of AEDPA, which stands directly in the way of her husband’s innocence claim, and which she says was passed with no real consideration. “Everyone was so hyped up about Oklahoma and it being domestic terrorism, they didn’t read it thoroughly,” she said. Just trying to understand the law has taken enormous energy — “I spend so much time at the law library it’s ridiculous” — and it angers her that people in prison are expected to apply concepts that attorneys spend years in law school to comprehend. Hillary may not have been directly responsible for AEDPA, Reeves says, but as an attorney she could have looked at the bill more closely. “When I found out that Bill Clinton was the one that signed it, I was like, how could you do this? You were my favorite president!”
When politics was on the conference program, it was mainly to share strategies at the most practical level: How to get the attention of a local representative or legislative aide; convincing Department of Correction officials who feel like “the enemy” to post information for families on their websites. Successes can be fleeting — lawmakers will finally grasp the need for reform only to leave office before a bill can be passed. “Then we have to start all over again.”
To hear what it takes to win even incremental reforms in a single locale — then try to multiply the need across the vast map of U.S. prisons and jails — was to begin to see the contours of mass incarceration on its true, horrifying scale. It also helped explain the disconnect between the conference and the presidential race: For decades, “tough on crime” policies — under Reagan, under Clinton — passed easily, rapidly creating a prison system of unprecedented proportions. The damage will be much, much harder to undo. Much of it — in collective trauma, in ruined lives — cannot be undone. And even a president who is completely sincere about curbing mass incarceration would have limited means to do so. Dismantling specific policies will require new legislation — most of it at the state level. Federal prisons account for only a fraction of the incarcerated population. And prosecutors still wield enormous power to decide who goes to prison, for how long.
Still, there are some obvious places to start. Michigan activist Lois DeMott, whose teenage son, Kevin, spent traumatic bouts in solitary confinement as a result of his mental illness, pointed to an aspect of the 1994 Crime Bill that should be reversed: “Bill Clinton was the one who really cut the funding for the college programs,” she says, referring to the elimination of Pell grants that provided access to higher education to people behind bars. When it comes to Hillary, “I’m just like, okay, is this for real? Does she understand that her husband did something that really set back and harmed not only the people inside, but their families, by cutting off that education? I don’t know. I’d like to ask her about that.”
To Xavier McElrath-Bey, who scraped by and got his degree in an Illinois prison right before the funding dried up, taking college courses from prisoners was the cruelest, most counterproductive thing politicians could do. Sentenced to 25 years at the age of 13 for a gang-related murder on Chicago’s South Side, McElrath-Bey grew up amid extreme poverty, abuse and neglect — he had previously been arrested 19 times, beginning at age nine. Yet he described how children like him were pathologized as intrinsically bad. “We’ve come from a generation that they were saying were ‘superpredators,’” he told attendees on the last day of the conference. “They said that we were incorrigible, that we were beyond repair. They stated that we were godless, fatherless, heartless monsters. These were professors and researchers who fed the media the hype of an impending flood of juvenile crime that never actually occurred.”
The superpredator myth — long since discredited — was perpetuated by Hillary Clinton herself. The same day McElrath-Bey spoke, Buzzfeed pulled up a speech she delivered at Keene State University in 1996, in which she boasted that her husband’s crime policy was designed to rein in juvenile criminals who “are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy.”
Dehumanizing kids had consequences. Speaking alongside McElrath-Bey was Sara Kruzan, who became a victim of sex trafficking at age 11, at the hands of a man she ultimately shot dead at 16. For this, she was given a life without parole sentence in California. (I wrote about Kruzan here.) Both Kruzan and McElrath-Bey are among the lucky ones: Kruzan was released in 2013 after her sentence was commuted. McElrath-Bey left prison by age 30. Both have devoted themselves to helping kids avoid a similar fate.
If politicians are to be taken seriously, McElrath-Bey told me, they will have to move past the rhetoric. “If you recognize today that [mass incarceration] is truly something that needs to be addressed, then you need not just to talk about it,” he said. “You need to get involved in addressing these policies. Just as much as we’re expected as offenders and ex-offenders to take responsibility.”
The closing keynote was Ronald Simpson-Bey. His speech spoke to the way the criminal justice system divides people into false categories, drawing sharp distinctions between “victims” and “criminals.” He described how his mother, after years of enduring abuse, had shot and killed his father. He described how his own adult son was killed by a 14-year-old and how, for all his rage, Simpson-Bey fought to prevent the teenager from going to adult prison because that would only create more harm. Above all, he emphasized what so many other attendees did — from the formerly incarcerated supporting hunger strikers in California to families fighting against video visitation in New York: the people most impacted by mass incarceration must lead the fight against it. He quoted JustLeadershipUSA founder Glenn Martin: “Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”