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Virtual Roundtable: Seeking Justice for the Incarcerated and Decarcerated

“I hate when people say, ‘I can’t wait to go back to normal.’ If you’re a black person, a brown person, a woman, or any person that’s in the margins, you know that ‘normal’ has never been your friend. We can’t afford to go back to that.”

Communities from coast to coast are feeling the effects of COVID-19 in countless ways. At Tom Tom, we believe that there’s a more pressing need for connection and conversation among peer community leaders than ever before. What specific struggles are they facing? Which of their turn-on-a-dime efforts have been fruitful? And how do nonprofits, who rely heavily on fundraising to cover operating costs, survive with asks for support coming from all sectors?

Last week, our justice roundtable brought together a dozen advocates, organizers, and experts who are working tirelessly to reform the system and to help incarcerated individuals as well as those who have been released. See an excerpt from the discussion below.

If you’d like to join us for our next justice roundtable, or a roundtable focusing on another theme related to innovation in America’s cities (economic development, education, justice, etc.), please reach out to

Meet the Justice Roundtable Participants:

Tom Tom:

  • Rachel Baker, Summit Director, Tom Tom Foundation (Charlottesville, VA)

  • (Facilitator) Ben Wilkes, Program Manager, Tom Tom Foundation (Charlottesville, VA)

Tom Tom: How is the COVID-19 pandemic changing your work—and what implications does it have going forward?

Sue Ellen Allen, Founder, Reinventing Reentry: I call this “luxury lockdown,” by the way, and I’m annoyed with all the people who are going crazy and who have not served time in prison and have no idea what they’re talking about, because this is luxury lockdown. We are so blessed.

Chris Fitz, Director of Strategic Initiatives, Advoz: We’re a recently merged organization of two Lancaster, Pennsylvania based nonprofits: one doing mediation and the other doing restorative justice. We do primarily community-referred mediation, as well as court-referred restorative justice cases, primarily from the juvenile system. We see probably about 150-200 cases a year in juvenile justice, and ultimately the work that we do with those cases is victim and offender conferencing. I’m really excited to hear from other perspectives on this call.

Jasmine Heiss, Campaign Director – In Our Backyards, Vera Institute of Justice: We focus specifically on small city and rural jail populations. Prior to coronavirus, one of the things that we were looking at was not only the sort of precipitous rise of incarceration in smaller cities and rural communities, but the quiet jail boom that has come with that. In this moment, it feels like so much of what we’re doing is trying to figure out how to hold the line on some of the decarceration that’s happened and to prevent the metastasizing of some of the negative policy consequences of this, including, you know, the massive expansion of electronic monitoring, and how quickly people are being coerced into taking pleas to things they might not otherwise. Right now, I am feeling a combination of hope about the the new potential for decarceration and some concern, both about the way in which this virus continues to spread both in prisons and jails, and the things that we can’t see very well or are still struggling to document, that are the system reconstituting itself.

Chas Moore, Executive Director and Founder, The Austin Justice Coalition: We mainly focus on police reform, criminal legal system reform, just trying to be a good community resource, and just like basic community organizing 101. We live in Austin, where we have almost a million people, but the black population is about 8%. We have been currently working to put direct resources in the hands of people that are gonna get left out of a lot of these relief efforts. Austin just passed this huge RISE fund, but you still have to apply, you still have to have access to like bank accounts. We’ve been trying to fill in those holes.

Joanne Page, President and CEO, The Fortune Society: I’m in New York City and we’re neck-deep in the middle of the pandemic. We’re also neck-deep in the middle because we work inside prisons and jails and we see about 8,000 people walking through our doors a year. We are working remotely a lot, but we also deliver housing. We deliver about 12 different areas of wraparound services and then we just opened housing for another 35 people. I feel like we’re whitewater rafting, like the water is moving really fast and we’re trying not to crash into rocks. We’re seeing the digital divide; we’re delivering phones because a lot of our folks have no way of staying in touch. Homelessness is a massive issue; we are an advocacy organization as well as a service organization, and we’re part of larger coalitions that have been trying to get vulnerable people released, and we’re seeing successes. We just are hearing another 40 people who are 55 or older at state prison are getting out in the next couple of days, but most of them are homeless and half the people coming out of state prisons in New York City are being dumped in the city shelters before this happened and now we’re seeing a whole lot of people sleeping on the subways. They’re afraid to go to the shelters, so I’m feeling a mixture of adrenaline and exhaustion.

Stephanie Morales, Commonwealth’s Attorney in Portsmouth, VA: I’ve been serving as Commonwealth’s Attorney in Portsmouth for five years and when I first got elected there wasn’t a thing called “progressive prosecutors” yet, so I’ve been trying to do this work with a very different approach to decarcerate and work on restorative justice for the past five years. Immediately when this pandemic hit, it became apparent that this was going to shine light on some issues that we already have, that we need to be looking ourselves in the mirror and considering why we have people incarcerated in the first place. As somebody who’s been advocating for compassionate release for years, this was an opportunity to revisit and reapproach the conversations around compassionate release, around why people who are nonviolent are incarcerated, and it’s an opportunity to stand together with our public defenders and not just sit idly by and either not object, or submit to the court, but to join in motions and have motions together. Since March, I have been consistently making joint motions with my public defender to get as many people out as we can. I’ve been signing on to whatever sign-on letters I can can sign on to, to advocate for people at the state level who will listen, and just have downright just been in the trenches in every way possible, It’s been a labor of love to show that it’s not only our responsibility to advocate for victims, but that we owe a service to those who are incarcerated. The members of our community who are incarcerated, we serve them too as elected prosecutors—not just people who we traditionally think of as voters or community members.

Dawn Blagrove, Attorney and Executive Director, EmancipateNC: Our organization is dedicated to dismantling mass incarceration and ending structural racism. Typically we do that through education in the communities and direct policymaking with the people. However, because of this virus, what is taking up the lion’s share of our time is litigation that we’re involved in with the ACLU and Forward Justice, as well as disabilities rights and some individual plaintiffs who are suing the state of North Carolina, Governor Cooper, and the Director of the Department of Public Safety to get them to release as many people as possible from our prison system. Right now, Neuse Correctional is a prison here in North Carolina that has, I think as of this morning, over 500 cases of Covid inside of the prison. So North Carolina is right now leading the way in our dereliction of duty to care for incarcerated people here. We are also advocating in massaging relationships that we have with local sheriffs and local district attorneys to try to help move along or clear out some of our jails, and to help get some of those folks that never should have been charged in the first place dismissed. And trying to avoid the easiest path for many district attorneys and sheriffs, which would just be to coerce guilty pleas. I just came back from doing a demonstration at the Durham County Jail where we know that there are at least six officers who are infected with Covid right now. They’re saying that no incarcerated people or detainees are infected, but we find that hard to believe. So we did a car protest, where we taped signs to our cars, drove around the jail, honked the horn a lot, waved, and let the “in the cage” folks know that they’re not alone and we haven’t forgotten them.

Melba Pearson, Candidate, Miami-Dade State Attorney, and Former Deputy Director, ACLU of Florida: My campaign is a fully progressive campaign, with embracing bail reform and ending juvenile justice issues around direct file, more transparency with data and racial outcomes, as well as holding police officers and corrupt elected officials accountable for their actions. In a light of Covid, we’ve been engaging in a lot of the car protests that are going on in Miami. We have guards and staff that have tested positive for the virus in each of the three jails. The numbers that are being released about the people incarcerated that are affected by Covid, we think are greatly deflated; we know the problem is much worse. The incumbent state attorney is moving incrementally to release people as the virus multiplies, so we’ve been keeping constant pressure on her and continuing to shine a light on this issue, as well as talking about the inequities that got people incarcerated in the first place: the problems with the cash bail system and how purchasing your freedom is not a reality for people who are of lower income, and that has no correlation to community safety.

Josh Spickler, Executive Director, Just City-Memphis: We’ve been really busy since early March. As soon as we sort of realized what was coming, we doubled down on our bail fund. We knew that that was going to be the one area where we could do the most good during this time. Ordinarily, we do a whole lot of expungements, a lot of record clearing. We got more inquiries in the first quarter of 2020 than we’ve ever gotten in a single quarter before, and then everything shut down; so that project is a little bit on hold. We’ve bailed out 73 or 74 people since March 1. We’ve raised more than $150,000 locally and nationally to do that. Our jail population, like most of y’all’s, has gone down. Like most of you, we are not testing and we don’t believe the numbers that are coming out there. One sheriff’s deputy passed away this week from the virus, and he worked in one of our detention facilities. We’re talking to people and hearing awful, awful things about how they’re quarantining people, about the insufficient measures they’re taking. So, trying to keep our finger on that pulse, and trying to get as many folks out of there with money as we can in hopes that when this is all over, we can look back and ask ourselves as a community, “Why even in the midst of something like this, did $100 mean someone was risking death?

Erika Viccellio, Executive Director, The Fountain Fund: We do low-interest loans and financial education for formerly incarcerated people, but in the beginning of March we realized that there were going to be a lot of immediate pressing needs so we set up an emergency assistance fund and we’ve been busy helping people with immediate cash payments—rent and groceries are the top two things, and utilities and other bills come after that. We also set up a loan payment relief fund so that people’s credit wouldn’t be impacted if they couldn’t make their payments, and in fact, most people can’t. We’ll be doing a 90 day deferral, but also creating a match. For people who are paying, we will match their payment to hopefully shorten the length of their loan, as well as continue to boost their credit because when they come out of this, credit is going to be more important than ever. We’re trying to think about every way that we can wrap our arms around our client-partners—that’s what we call people who have loans with us.

Sheba Williams, Executive Director, Nolef Turns, Inc.: We do reentry services and pre-entry services to wrap people who have never been impacted by the justice system, with people who are coming from incarceration, around kids who have incarcerated parents, kids who are being pushed out of school through detention and expulsion, and kids who are having behavior issues. I work at a diversion program in the state called United Methodist Family Services. When COVID-19 hit, we all had to figure out how to go no-contact, how to do videos, and FaceTime, for people who were coming home, who had well over a decade or more—who didn’t know how to use a phone. That has been a very interesting, sometimes comical, thing. Virginia’s governor has made the boldest statement on release: proposing releasing close to 2,000 people, according to the parole board. They still have to be reviewed and it still may take months to get people out, but they’re pushing to release over 2,000 people, which means that reentry services will be shattered. So we realized we had to create a program where people who are coming home to permanent homes need it to take five to fourteen days to be in self quarantine, so that if they go back to their permanent homes they don’t run the risk of infecting their families. We’ve been providing hotel stays for people: If they’re asymptomatic for five days, they go home on the sixth day. If they show signs of illness in that five-day period, which is supposed to be the incubation period, we extend the stay for 14 days. That has been keeping people from worrying about getting their people sick. We delivered over 120 boxes of food last Monday. We’ve been still getting people signed up for the services that they need—SNAP and these stimulus payments.

Harold Folley, Community Organizer, Legal Aid Justice Center: We’re at work here in Charlottesville to get like the last 15 people out. They won’t let them out unless they have a home plan, and so that means they’re homeless, so they don’t have an address because the jail has given people home electronic monitoring, but it’s free. They don’t have to pay for it. One of the things that came up was what happens when somebody, who is in the jail at present who’s on medication, and they get out, how do they get that medication? That was the question that we came up with, like kind of smacked us in the face. It’s not only about release, it’s how do we help them figure out even the simple things: how to get a meal? If they do get relief to our hotel, you know, how do they get their personal stuff?

Williams: So when a person is released from jail or prison, if they are signed up for Medicaid, which a lot of them are while they’re in the system, it is up to that facility to change the coding to make sure that their Medicaid doesn’t lapse. We often have to remind them because they conveniently forget. Sometimes people have to go back and reapply, but they get Medicaid while they’re in the system.

Heiss: Harold, this is such an interesting and horrifying question and challenge in so many parts of the country right now. I think in our work, which is like often a 30,000 foot view, highlights how we are not in a criminal justice system, we’re in 3,000 criminal justice systems. In places where local foundations and harm reduction folks are stepping up to think about reentry, some of those things are being put in place. Huge shout-out to the Fortune Society for everything y’all are doing in New York right now, because it is remarkable. Right now when we see judges, for example, denying people’s release because they say “Oh, they’ll overdose if they go home.” Instead “how do we connect people to Narcan? How do we connect people to the treatment and revocation they need? How do we connect people to housing, and see that as a responsibility of the system, rather than as a reason to just keep people in?”

Allen: I’m really happy you all brought this up. I, as someone in the older generation, really worry about the people there saying “release release release,” but if you are ill and sick and a senior and you’ve been down a long time, what are you going to do? Where are you going to go? There has to be a plan and it would be really nice if we could have a universal plan. You’re dealing with 50 states. In Arizona, they didn’t let anybody have masks at first. Finally, because of the uproar, they are allowing the officers to wear masks. The inmates are making masks. They’ve made over 50,000. The inmates aren’t allowed to wear them. So we have a whole different situation here inside, and nobody’s getting out.

Page: Advocacy is so important on this. We see a lot of people who’ve done decades. We have one person who’s done 50 years and it’s a rough way home in the best of times. I think having somebody who’s done significant time talk to somebody who’s just getting out after doing significant time makes a huge difference, because it’s a way of knowing that people can survive. It’s a way of getting guidance about things like how you use a cell phone, and having the advocacy to help people get their meds. The ability to have people who reach out, and are there for people, especially who are homeless and in the hotels or in the shelters, just to do advocacy and especially people who have lived experience, who can offer hope as well.

Allen: Joanne, when I was in prison I looked so forward to the newsletter from Fortune, from you all. I just jumped on it. I was so happy, always, to receive it. Thank you.

Page: I’m so glad. I’ll let people know that.

Moore: Joanne, I agree with you in full, but I think we also have to put into consideration the cultural landscape, right? Because in Texas, we had some judges doing some good work around letting people out, but the governor says “no we’re not going to do that,” and it went all the way up to the Supreme Court where they actually upheld his decision. While we are having people from judges, county judges, district judges, talk to him and let him know like this is the right thing to do, he just won’t budge. To wear anything that is progressive, or left, or black lives matter movement, or anything of the people for the people, is going to be zeroed in on, right? So it’s just like how do you strategically advocate and uplift and do all the amazing things we need to do? While understanding where we are, right? What we need right now is unrestricted funds. if I have a mother of three kids that needs money for groceries, but some of these funds are telling me that I can’t use this money to give it directly to somebody, like I have to give this in the form of a gift card or whatever, that’s kind of problematic. A lot of people don’t know how to use those. A fee comes with a lot of gift cards, and somebody that’s been in poverty, the $2 that’s coming out of fees is a big $2, especially during this time if I’m not working. Again, I speak for the whole bottom right portion of the US, we know when it comes to funding, from Texas up to the Carolinas, we don’t get any. If you’re doing advocacy work, it’s just like “good luck.” Historically, we know that the South is the hardest place to do almost anything when you talk about moving the needle forward.

Nora Demleitner, Professor of Law, Washington & Lee University: I’ve been on a fair number of calls around the country and what strikes me every time is not just the difference between the states, but literally adjacent counties. It’s so blatant. We have one of the progressive prosecutors, a former Head of the Defense Office, in town. The county next to us, my understanding is the prosecutor almost has a chart where he marks off what he calls “victories,” meaning convictions and jail sentences. He said if he’s the last prosecutor in Virginia, he will not consent to releasing anyone from the local jail. That’s just insane, but that is still the reality in so many places.

Blagrove: One thing it’s important for all of us to be doing is thinking about the lessons that we learned during this Covid virus: how we apply them to the way that we advocate and educate people moving forward. From my organization, we do a lot of work with bail reform. A lot of that work has been done with law enforcement: getting them to use an employee cite and release, instead of actually detaining people. What we found is that in some rural counties, there’s a ton of pushback. Some are very progressive, but what we found right now during Covid is that everybody is now, because it’s a matter of their personal safety—of law enforcement safety—everybody is trying to use cite and release as much as they can. We’ve had rural counties where we’ve seen the jail population is reduced in half, in a matter of two weeks, and what we need to be mindful of and what we need to keep track of I think, as organizers, is that these things can be done. These same people who a month ago were telling us it was impossible to reduce our jail populations, it’s impossible to have jail reform, that none of us would be safe if we don’t throw thousands and thousands of people in jail every day. Now all of a sudden, all of those things are not only doable, but being done in our realities. So what we have to do is hold on to the real progress that we are making as organizers, and hold these folks accountable, to say “remember last month, when you said you couldn’t do this, and then we did it? Remember? Let’s keep doing it.” Just because the virus was the catalyst for these changes doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be able to advocate and push strongly to make sure that these changes stay in place. We need to be intentional about collecting the teachable moments, and making sure that we do not lose them as examples of successes as we move forward and out of this Covid experience.

Page: You are so right, and this is not a sprint, this is a marathon. This is gonna stay this way maybe another year until there’s a way of giving people some protection against this virus. In New York, we have a jail population that hasn’t been this low since World War II. How do we anchor it in this year so that it becomes the norm?

Sue Ellen: I am encouraged by all of that but I’ve been out for eleven years. Eleven years ago, I just felt like I was a voice in the wilderness. Now there are all these voices, but we’re still in silos. We’re still isolated by our state, our county; if we could think of another way to get us out of those silos and get together on more than just a one-time basis, that might be extremely helpful to us.

Pearson: Also just to piggyback on Dawn’s point, not only should we be connected, collecting the anecdotes, and all of that, but we should be collecting that data. Right now arrests are down, and crime is down. We should be focusing on other metrics, other than the things that we’ve relied on in the past that no longer serve us. People can’t fight with the data. 

Moore: This whole virus is nothing more than a light that’s exposing how much things just don’t work.  I’ve been scratching my head, trying to understand how have we released so many people in the span of 2-3 weeks, when people have been fighting this fight for decades? How is it that we’ve been talking about basically a living wage for people and now we got people getting checks out of nowhere? How is it all these things that we’ve said were not possible are possible in a matter of literally days? We all know we’ve been lied to about what we can’t do. I hate when people say, ‘I can’t wait to go back to normal.’ If you’re a black person, a brown person, a woman, or any person that’s in the margins, you know that ‘normal’ has never been your friend. We can’t afford to go back to that. I think we have to be proactive in setting up systems and institutions and things that really enable us to be healthy and whole, as people and as a society. It’s what all of you said earlier: it’s great that we’re letting people out of jail, but if they don’t have access to housing, food, shelter, and all these things, then it’s just like what’s the point? I think Mark Cuban said it right: How can we get to America 2.0? We are well overdue for an upgrade.


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