A Presidential Town Hall on Mass Incarceration — Who Will Show Up?

Formerly incarcerated people want Democratic presidential candidates to speak with them about mass incarceration.

The Eastern State Penitentiary central observation tower is seen in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania April 30, 2014. Opened in 1829, with the original corrective system of "confinement in solitude with labor," the penitentiary housed about 75,000 inmates in its 142 years of operation. At Eastern State reunions, former inmates, staff and guard gather to share memories and trade stories and get a chance to describe their experiences in question-and-answer sessions with the public. Picture taken April 30, 2014.  REUTERS/Mark Makela   (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW ANNIVERSARY SOCIETY) - TM4EA4U1LVT01
The Eastern State Penitentiary central observation tower in Philadelphia, on April 30, 2014. Photo: Mark Makela/Reuters

A group of formerly incarcerated men and women will moderate a presidential town hall for the first time ever next week, questioning candidates about their positions on the U.S. justice system before an audience made up exclusively of people with firsthand experience of the country’s prisons and jails.

The event, to be held on October 28 at the Eastern State Penitentiary, a historic former prison in Philadelphia, aims to put questions of mass incarceration, broken courts, and racist policing at the forefront of the debate in an election season that has largely seen them eclipsed by other issues. So far, only Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have committed to be there.

If the notion that the U.S. incarcerates far too many people for far too long is by now widely recognized, those most directly impacted by the system have not always been included in conversations about how to fix it, say members of Voters Organized To Educate, a coalition of formerly incarcerated people who convened the town hall. But taking on the country’s troubled justice system has hardly been a priority for 2020 candidates — and the fact that only two have agreed to participate in the town hall is perhaps a reflection of that low priority.

“Most have not been heavily involved in the movement to end mass incarceration,” the four town hall moderators wrote in a recent op-ed, referring to the Democratic field. “At long last, the American public has started to recognize the harmful impact of tough-on-crime policies. … It is no longer a risk for Democrats to say that mass incarceration must end.”

“We want to let these candidates know that formerly incarcerated people, people who are convicted, represent a real tangible voting bloc that they need to be responsive to.”

Talk of criminal justice reform has gained steam in recent years amid a growing reckoning with the realities of an overburdened, overly punitive, and deeply unfair criminal legal system. Consequently, a bipartisan group of political actors has rallied behind moderate legislative reforms. At the state and local levels, where most criminal justice decisions are made, advocates for a more fair and humane system have helped push some progressive prosecutors into office and are now aiming to raise voters’ awareness around sheriffs and judges elections.

As the presidential primary heats up, top Democratic candidates have promised to tackle some of the system’s most egregious flaws. Nearly all support eliminating cash bail and legalizing marijuana, and several are in favor of reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and curtailing private prisons. But few have made criminal justice their signature issue, and several have careers and voting records inconsistent with the more progressive positions they are now embracing. And, formerly incarcerated organizers say, few candidates have shown readiness to engage directly with those who know the system best.

“They are not talking to us,” said Vivian Nixon, a town hall moderator and executive director of College & Community Fellowship, a group that helps formerly incarcerated women earn college degrees.

“You certainly wouldn’t have a conversation about veterans without sitting down with veteran groups — that would be absurd,” she added. “But I have never seen or heard of a candidate sitting down with people who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system.”


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In fact, people directly impacted by the system are not just any interest group — they are an enormous one. Half of all American adults have an immediate family member who is currently or formerly incarcerated. There are 2.2 million people in prison, another 5 million on probation, and some 70 million living with criminal records. While most states restrict the voting rights of incarcerated individuals, all but two — Iowa and Kentucky — eventually restore those rights. And while access to the ballot is often difficult from jail — something voting rights advocates are trying to change — nearly 400,000 people in pretrial detention in jails across the country remain eligible to vote.

“All of those people have family members, and some of those people have their own voting rights,” said Daryl Atkinson, another moderator and co-director of Forward Justice, a social justice group focused on the U.S. South. “We want to let these candidates know that formerly incarcerated people, people who are convicted, represent a real tangible voting bloc that they need to be responsive to.”

More Than Reform

Formerly incarcerated people have often been at the forefront of the fight to change the country’s broken justice system — whether by campaigning to restore voting rights to those with felony convictions or organizing to close jails from New York to Atlanta. Meanwhile, incarcerated people have led fights of their own, including from the isolation of solitary confinement, most notably through a series of prison strikes. But while a growing number of actors across the political spectrum have taken up the cause of criminal justice reform — with varied vision and results — some of those most directly impacted by the system worry about policy proposals that exclude their perspectives.

To some organizers, the lukewarm response to the Philadelphia town hall invitation is a sign that candidates aren’t taking that perspective seriously enough.

“It speaks volumes,” said Norris Henderson, who was wrongfully incarcerated in Louisiana for 27 years and is one of the town hall’s moderators.

“If you look at what some folks are saying, I don’t think they’re going far enough,” he told The Intercept. “Everyone’s starting to realize that the system is actually devastating, but nobody wants to take that giant step to repair it. Everybody’s like, ‘I want to make these incremental steps.’”

In fact, where directly impacted people have taken the lead, they have often pushed for more than the incremental reforms that critics say validate a system that should be dismantled. Most importantly, they have contributed to fundamentally shifting the narrative around those caught up in the criminal justice system.


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After a coalition of formerly incarcerated people rallied historic support last year for an amendment to the Florida state constitution that would restore voting rights to most individuals with felony convictions, the state’s Republican legislature sought to reverse their victory — and is currently losing that battle in court. But the Florida referendum also sparked an unprecedented nationwide conversation about whether people with criminal convictions should be deprived of the right to vote at all and for how long, forcing candidates to answer questions about their position on the matter.

So far, only Sen. Bernie Sanders said incarcerated people should keep their right to vote, while most other candidates said they should earn that right back after leaving prison. In New York City, formerly incarcerated people have for years led the fight to close the troubled Rikers Island jail, and now that legislators have agreed to do so, they are fighting to make sure that it doesn’t get replaced by new jails.

Transforming the country’s criminal justice system, rather than making piecemeal fixes to it, will require changing the way we talk about the people it affects and who gets to talk about it, Atkinson told The Intercept.

“There are so many of us that have come out and not only rebuilt our lives, but are working to be a social good towards our entire society,” he said. “These are the folks that push their shopping cart down the grocery aisle just like you, drop their kids off at day care, and want to participate in the American dream.”

And transforming the country’s criminal justice system will require addressing not only questions of bail reform and minimum sentencing, but also how to tackle mass incarceration throughout broader political platforms, including housing, education, labor, and health care.

“My question to the candidates would be, ‘As president, will you promise to examine all of our social systems? Will you promise to examine all those systems that disparately impact people of color and poor people?’” said Nixon. “If we land this all smack dab in the middle of criminal justice policy, we’re missing a real opportunity to correct things before they become a problem.”

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