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Locked Up and Finding Their Way Together

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 04/10/2021 - 7:00pm in

Jon Grobman was certain he would never again see the world beyond the walls of Lancaster’s maximum-security prison. In 2005, the former hotel and casino manager was sentenced to 190 years behind bars with no possibility for parole. “Grand theft, burglary, forgery, embezzlement, meth possession,” he ticks off his rap sheet highlights. “All non-violent crimes, but under California’s Three Strikes Law, I got a life sentence for each offense.” 

Now Grobman, 54, lives in Napa Valley with his family. He is the first lifer in California whose harsh sentence was overturned four years ago by a barely known legal clause called “Recall of Commitment.” Grobman, who qualified for the commutation due to his “extraordinary behavior,” believes he owes it all to the first dog who started his journey to rehabilitation: Oreo, a black-and-white lab mix.

prison dogsJon Grobman instructs some of the incarcerated men on how to train their dogs. Photo credit: Rita

In 2014, dog rescue volunteer Alex Tonner set out to temporarily house dogs in prison as a way to save them from overcrowded shelters where they would be killed for lack of space. “I was only interested in saving the dogs,” the blonde Brit admits with refreshing honesty and a self-deprecating laugh. “I really didn’t care about the guys. But that quickly changed.” 

In a way, animal shelters resemble prisons: dogs and cats are often warehoused behind bars,  many of them facing a death sentence for crimes they didn’t commit. “They’re cast away because society doesn’t want them anymore,” Grobman says. “Just like us.”

In 2014, Tonner founded the non-profit Paws for Life K9 Rescue and launched California’s first dog rehabilitation program in the men’s maximum-security prison in Lancaster. Incarcerated people commit to spending at least six weeks with a pup from a high-kill shelter, working with a trainer so the dogs get the Good Canine Certificate and become more adoptable. 

39 Paws for Life participants, most of whom were serving life sentences, have had those sentences commuted — more than any other prison program in California. Photo: Rita Earl Blackwell

Since its inception, the program has expanded exponentially. It has now saved and placed more than 680 dogs, expanded to three prisons (Lancaster, Mule Creek, and Vacaville), enrolled 185 incarcerated people as trainers, and added a service dog program where the dogs spend up to a year with the prison trainers to eventually help veterans and first responders suffering from PTSD.  Every dog has found a home. But the most surprising result of the program is the effect it has on the humans: 39 Paws for Life participants, most of whom were serving life sentences, have had those sentences commuted — more than any other prison program in California. “Paws up!” all the prison residents yell with their hands raised when the dogs graduate or when someone gets released.

When the program started, Grobman was not even eager to participate, but they couldn’t find enough guys to enroll. “It all changed when they brought in the first dogs,” he remembers. “Oreo bit me several times, but I was already hooked. There was too much joy involved in every aspect of having a dog.” Emotion coats his voice when he speaks of the “healing that took place. To receive unconditional love from an animal is life-changing when 10 or 20 years ago, you were the animal, and you didn’t deserve a second chance.”

One of the dog trainers in the California State Prison at Lancaster. Photo: Rita Earl Blackwell

In the PBS documentary Shelter Me, musician John Legend says, “This program gives both dogs and humans a second chance at finding purpose and happiness.” You see, for instance, how Alex Tonner brings a shy gray pitbull named Asher into the prison. “He was scared, his tail tucked in; it reminded me so much of myself when I first came in,” says his prison trainer Miguel Rendon. Six weeks later, Asher confidently wags his tail as he performs the sit and down commands Rendon has taught him, but Rendon breaks down crying as he hands over Asher’s leash to his new owner. “It works on a part of your soul that’s been neglected, sometimes for decades and decades,” fellow participant Louie Brash chimes in. “Everybody knows that the dogs are helping us.”

The prison went from struggling to find its first 14 participants to eventually having a waiting list of 200 men. In prison, Grobman says, “You’re just a number. But a dog doesn’t know that. He doesn’t ask what crime you committed.” Especially in his case, “the judge specifically said I had no worth to society. He was very clear that if he thought I would ever have a prospect of being successful, he would not have given me that much time. That was my mindset: I’m worthless.”

Not a single Paws for Life participant has reoffended. Still image from “Shelter Me”

Not only did the dogs emerge as better behaved companions, they fundamentally transformed the atmosphere in the prison. “Hurt people hurt people,” Grobman says. “A large percentage of inmates grew up in violent households or were abused. It’s about breaking that cycle. So many didn’t have someone they could trust. The program humanizes you and makes you feel you’re worthy of love.”

The program is no longer just about dog training. “There is so much racism, violence and anger in prison,” Grobman says. “The biggest challenge we had to overcome was to create a culture of family within our program. We did that by putting the dog first.” When he put together a team of three, he would “choose a white guy, a Hispanic and a Black person, on purpose… They work together for the dog, and they learn to respect each other.” A prison warden confirms in the documentary, “The inmates are totally different in here. They are very respectful; it’s a totally different world.” And Alex Tonner now calls them family. “I’m in awe of them,” she says. “I feel people shouldn’t just be locked up, and you throw away the keys. They should have a chance to rehabilitate themselves.” 

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In Shelter Me, Grobman visits former governor Jerry Brown who calls the dog program “part of the transformation that is underway in our prisons. It has a very significant impact.” 

Tonner’s and Grobman’s vision is that other prisons and states will use their experience as a template. There are already programs in other states with slightly different models, like TAILS (Teaching Animals and Inmates Life Skills) in Florida, or Puppies Behind Bars, where incarcerated folks train young puppies from the age of eight weeks for two years as service dogs for veterans and first responders, and explosive-detection canines for law enforcement

prison dogs“A large percentage of inmates grew up in violent households or were abused. It’s about breaking that cycle. The program humanizes you and makes you feel you’re worthy of love.” Still image from “Shelter Me”

But in 2018, a violent incident at another prison program shocked the rescue community: an incarcerated man in Lebanon, Ohio, beat a young German shepherd to death in his cell. The rescue organization there immediately suspended all prison activities.

Tonner assures me that no animal abuse has taken place in their program. “I’ve pulled a guy out of the program just for holding the leash too tight,” she says. She has safety measures in place: Only people who have had zero disciplinary actions against them for at least two years can apply, and those who have been sentenced for child or animal abuse are excluded. Two to three guys form a team to train each dog. Participating in the program has become a perk none of the prisoners wants to lose.

Jon Grobman is now Paws for Life’s program director on the outside and regularly visits his old pals. He shakes his head as he sits in his tiny former prison cell at Lancaster, number 135, and the heavy blue metal doors clank shut. “For a long time, I cried every time I left prison. Survivor’s guilt. There are so many men in there who deserve an opportunity. But I also understand the hope and inspiration I bring when I go back in.” He is especially proud that not a single Paws for Life participant has reoffended. Many of the participants who were able to have their sentences commuted use their training experience to work as dog trainers or groomers, or run boarding facilities.

Paws 4 life Prison program dogsThe program originally struggled to find its first 14 participants. Now it has a waiting list of 200 men. Photo: Rita Earl Blackwell

Grobman helps his incarcerated friends transition when they are released. “I remember standing at the self-checkout kiosk at Target and being so embarrassed because I couldn’t figure it out. So I give back to other brothers who are getting out, help people navigate the barriers of society.” In fact, Paws for Life just finished building a dog training center in Mission Hills, The People and Pet Innovation Center, that doubles up as a reentry program.

Grobman got a farewell gift from the prison, too. When he was scheduled to appear before a judge after 11 years at Lancaster for his “Recall of Commitment” hearing, he tried not to get his hopes up and expected this would be the first of many court hearings with a minimal chance of success. But the judge (who hadn’t previously heard of this legal clause either) was so impressed with Grobman that he released him on the spot. “Ten hours later I was standing on the street with my father, my lawyer and my girlfriend, crying my eyes out,” he says. The judge didn’t even put him on parole. He was a free man. “I couldn’t believe it.” 

At the time, Grobman had been taking care of a Belgian Malinois who had been shot in the chest on the streets of Stockton. In prison, Grobman nursed him back to health, and when Grobman didn’t return, the dog stopped eating. The prison administration decided they had no choice but to send Mallie out to live with Grobman. “Before that I used to tell Alex, every dog that leaves prison takes a piece of my heart with them, not thinking I would ever be free.”

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Turning Prisons into Pure Potential

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 09/09/2021 - 1:23am in

Picturing prison abolition

Prison abolition is a big dream, and some communities are finding small ways to realize it — or at least reflect it — as friend-of-RTBC publication Scalawag details. 

In Atlanta, a group founded and run by formerly incarcerated women has been instrumental in the process of shutting down an Atlanta jail. In May 2019 they helped get the city to set a closing date for the facility. “We came together and we strategized for specific goals for our community,” one of the group’s community organizers said. In North Carolina, a former prison has been turned into a farm run by at-risk teenagers, and some 95 percent of the youth involved with the program have avoided recidivism. Finally, in New Orleans, an artist is working with incarcerated folks, having them design gardens that could fit exactly within the parameters of their cells. She then plants these gardens outside the prison walls to symbolize the idea that growth can only happen in a place of freedom.

Scalawag ties together all three of these projects as examples of a movement that is finding its footing as it steps into the mainstream. “I would argue that abolition, much like growing a plant, requires daily attention and care,” said the New Orleans artist, jackie sumell. “Much like love, hope and compassion, social equity, like a garden, needs practice, time and nurturing to fully blossom.” 

Read more at Scalawag

The coast is clear

A group of scientists has discovered that a simple tweak to the way we restore coastal areas could dramatically improve the success of those restoration projects, with little to no extra effort.

Typically, marine environments are restored in much the same way we restore land-based ecosystems like forests and grasslands. Which is to say, the newly introduced lifeforms — seagrass, mangroves, oysters — are widely dispersed. But watery environments are more volatile than land: marshes fluctuate with the wind and rain, reefs are pummeled by waves and seabeds shift in harsh storms.

For this reason, the scientists found, clumping plantings together allows them to support each other: roots and stems interweave to offer each other stability. Clumps of marine plants can even pool oxygen in the soil beneath them. The results of the studies showed that clumping doubled survival rates of many of the restored environments. Now, the researchers say, the challenge is to win over decision-makers, who may not want to abandon the conventional process to venture toward more fertile ground.

Read more at Hakai

Steel this idea

Here’s a sobering statistic: nearly 10 percent of all the world’s carbon emissions are generated by just 553 steel-producing factories. Now the good news: Sweden just delivered the world’s first batch of steel produced entirely without fossil fuels, and industrial quantities of it could be on the market within five years.

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Steel is incredibly bad for the climate, requiring enormous quantities of fossil fuels to produce, including coking coal. And production of it is expected to surge by one-third by 2050. Finding greener ways of making it is an environmental imperative. Swedish steelmaker SSAB produced its emissions-free steel with a new technology that creates iron pellets (the key ingredient of steel) using green hydrogen. The breakthrough, if scaled up, could dramatically reduce Sweden’s total carbon emissions — SSAB was responsible for nine million of the 45 million metric tons of CO2 that Sweden generated last year.

Read more at Forbes

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The Black Barbershop Guide to Post-Prison Life

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/08/2021 - 6:00pm in

Generational change

Juwan Bennett, a group facilitator with the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project in Philadelphia, compares their “intergenerational healing circle” to a barbershop in a Black neighborhood. “If you’ve ever been to a Black barbershop it’s intergenerational,” he told The Philadelphia Citizen. “Everybody’s on equal footing.” 

The intergenerational healing circle is one in which young men who were recently released from prison join in dialogue with older men, also recently released, who served sentences that lasted decades. No matter their age, all of the men are trying to figure out a way forward post-incarceration, and by putting them face to face, the group aims to offer a different perspective to both. “Everybody has a perspective and can join in the conversation and we laugh together,” said Bennett. “We experience raw emotions together and we keep it honest with each other. What happens with the intergenerational healing circle is that it’s intentional. We’re intentionally building community and intentionally creating space.”

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The learning flows both ways: the older men offer the younger ones employment leads, while the younger men teach the older ones how to set up social media accounts so they can see what their loved ones are up to. “While in prison, we often had to suppress our vulnerabilities and exacerbate our masculinity,” said one participant, “so this space for us is truly healing.”

Read more at The Philadelphia Citizen

Circle of life

The lower edge of the Sahara Desert is creeping ever southward, a process known as desertification that saps the ground of moisture, killing vegetation. Since 2007, a program called the Great Green Wall initiative has sought to halt this process with a 5,000-mile line of trees extending across the continent from Senegal to Djibouti. Senegal has put a local spin on its part of the wall with circular gardens, which the country’s reforestation agency says are proving particularly effective.

These spiraling gardens contain plants and trees like papaya, mango, moringa and sage, all of which can withstand hot, dry weather. The circular beds encourage the roots to grow inwards, trapping liquids and beneficial bacteria inside. The result is a mini oasis that requires little water thriving in an arid landscape. 

The gardens are assessed every three months by officials, who report that most of them are flourishing. Not only are they helping to prevent desertification, they’re boosting local food security by allowing locals to continue farming where they live. “The day people realize the full potential of the Great Green Wall, they will stop these dangerous migration routes where you can lose your life at sea,” said one gardener. “It’s better to stay, work the soil, cultivate and see what you can earn.”

Read more at Al Jazeera

Diagnosis disparity

Black children are 70 percent less likely to receive a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than white children, a disparity health officials chalk up to racial bias, lack of access to care, and distrust of the health system in Black communities. The gap means that fewer Black kids with ADHD receive treatment at an early age, putting them at risk of falling behind in school or ending up in a disciplinary doom loop.

Now, some Black ADHD sufferers are speaking up and spreading awareness. One is Rene Brooks, whose blog Black Girl, Lost Keys has created a community for women like her. At weekly virtual meetings, members share stories of racialized encounters stemming from their ADHD, from being branded an “angry Black woman” to having pharmacists hesitate to fill their prescriptions for stimulants. For some of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever spoken with another Black person about their diagnosis, a revelation that helps them feel less alone.

“When you start receiving treatment, the biggest impact is to your self-esteem, because you’re no longer concerned that you’re just lazy, or that you’re just unmotivated,” Brooks told Kaiser Health News. “You know this is a problem, and problems have solutions, whereas character flaws do not.”

Read more at Kaiser Health News

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What It’s Like to Vote from Jail

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 09/08/2021 - 6:00pm in

The chapel and law library at the Cook County Jail look like any other polling places around the country, with a couple notable exceptions: the monochrome uniforms of the voters and the alert officers keeping an eye on them.

Although Illinoisans convicted of felonies lose their right to vote while serving prison sentences, most of the 6,000 people detained at the jail on Chicago’s southwest side maintain their voting privileges as they await trial or serve time for misdemeanors.

During November’s presidential election, around 2,200 people voted from four polling places across the jail’s eight-block campus. Corrections officials have opened the jail to visitors for monthly voter registration drives and civics lessons. They also offer two weekends of early voting and provide voter education materials, including informational videos that can be played on common-area TVs.

“If we’re going to have a significant role in returning individuals to our communities as stronger citizens, there’s no better way to do that than voting,” said Marlena Jentz, first assistant executive director for the Cook County Jail.

This commitment to ballot access by corrections officials is unusual in the United States. Illinois’ largest county is among just a few jurisdictions, including Los Angeles County and Washington, D.C., that allow in-person voting for some of those in jail.

Nationwide, there are around 746,000 people in local jails, and most are eligible to vote, according to a 2020 report from the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that advocates for alternatives to incarceration, and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a civil rights organization formed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. But very few exercise their right to vote, the report found.

While national pressure grows to restore voting rights for people with previous felony convictions after their release from prison, less attention has been given to people sitting in local jails who are awaiting trial or have been convicted of misdemeanors that don’t affect their right to vote.

From the nine states that prevent people in jail from casting absentee ballots to the widespread confusion among those in detention about their voting eligibility, criminal justice activists say there are many barriers to ballot access in jails.

“Sheriffs have to work to understand who is eligible to vote and make that information clear to people in custody,” said Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative. “Otherwise, we’re disenfranchising thousands of people who actually have the highest stakes in these elections.”

In Wisconsin, where most of the 13,000 people detained in jails are eligible to vote, voting rights groups All Voting is Local, League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin submitted records requests to each of the state’s 72 county sheriffs earlier this year. The group found that just over half the sheriffs said they had policies in place to encourage jail-based voting. For many incarcerated people, the group found several hurdles, including the state’s voter ID law.

The Badger State does not permit a jail ID as an acceptable form of identification to vote. People in jail who want to register to vote or request an absentee ballot must ask corrections personnel to make a copy of their confiscated driver’s license or other state-issued ID.

“This hasn’t been at the forefront of the discussion around voter accessibility,” said Shauntay Nelson, the Wisconsin state director for All Voting is Local. “This is the responsibility of the county jails, as well as election officials, administrators and the legislature. We have to work collaboratively.”

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After getting a records request from Wisconsin voting rights groups last year, Capt. Dave Riewestahl, the jail administrator for the Eau Claire County sheriff’s office, found that his 418-bed jail did not have voting policies. As an Army veteran who served overseas in Kosovo, he said he knows the value of the democratic process and defending constitutional rights. But, he said, the state laws presented serious challenges.

Because Wisconsin elections are administered at the city level, to offer in-person voting Riewestahl would have to invite workers from the county’s 18 towns to the jail. So, it made sense to limit voting to absentee by mail.

Still, with the help of local election officials and voting rights groups, Riewestahl has hosted two voter registration drives. Sitting behind a plexiglass and barred barrier in the visitor’s area, volunteers and election officials have registered more than a dozen new voters, sliding important documents through small slits in the divider and speaking through a closed-circuit telephone.

And while scanning the state-issued IDs of incarcerated individuals to meet the state’s voter ID laws does place a burden on his staff, Riewestahl is happy to help. He also has made the state’s voter registration website one of the three approved sites available on wall-mounted tablets in the communal area.

“The people in jail are the people in the community,” he said in an interview. “Voting is an important life skill that needs to be utilized whether someone is in jail or out of custody. If you are eligible and want to vote, the jail has the resources and support to make that happen.”

In New York City, the Legal Aid Society earlier this year lambasted City Hall, the Department of Correction and the state Board of Elections for failing to distribute voter registration information in the city’s jails before last month’s mayoral primary. Corrections officials disputed the letter, telling Gothamist they had “gone above and beyond to facilitate voter engagement.”

In Illinois, establishing polling locations in jails took legislation. In 2019, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law a measure that allows Cook County to set up polling locations in its facilities. The law allows this only for counties with a population over 3 million people — which is only Cook County. Last March’s primary was the first election that the Chicago jail offered in-person voting.

Pritzker signed another measure requiring counties throughout the state to provide three 90-minute civics courses before people are released from prison. The state also requires jails and prisons to provide a voter registration form to people leaving prison or who are in jail.

“It’s a moment of light in a dark situation,” said Jen Dean, co-deputy director of Chicago Votes, which has registered close to 6,000 voters at the Cook County Jail since 2017. Dean has trained organizers in 30 counties across the country, in states from South Carolina to California, on how to make voting easier in local jails.

“Jail is an echo chamber of violence and trauma,” she added, “and this is a moment when people can realize that they can have an impact.”

Pritzker last month signed a sweeping voting bill with a provision allowing county sheriffs across the Prairie State to set up polling places for the 20,000 people in local jails. Previously, people in those jails could vote only by absentee ballot.

“Tell me why those awaiting trial, who are innocent until proven guilty, shouldn’t have the right to vote?” said Democratic state Rep. Maurice West, who sponsored the legislation.

No Republicans voted in favor of the final bill, and no GOP offices contacted by Stateline responded to requests for comment.

The new law allows local jails to expand in-person voting, but doesn’t require it. West, one of the bill’s sponsors, hopes the legislature will later make that expansion mandatory. He worries sheriffs outside of the Chicago area will be reluctant to expand voting access in their jails because of resource shortages and the stigma, especially in conservative areas, of allowing incarcerated people to vote.

As is done in many communities throughout rural Illinois, jail personnel in Tazewell County in the central part of the state hand out absentee ballots to incarcerated people who are eligible to vote. Corrections officers then return completed ballots to county election officials.

John Ackerman, the Tazewell County clerk, said it does not make logistical or financial sense to open a polling location within a jail that has just a 226-bed capacity. His precincts usually comprise 800 voters, cost $11,000 per election and require at least three election judges. He does not expect the county to take advantage of Illinois’ new law and expand in-person voting.

“We’ve been doing it for a number of years that way,” he said. “I don’t see a reason why we’d change that.”

Arizona and Colorado sheriffs are required by law to coordinate with county clerks to provide registration and mail-in ballot access to people who are detained, while Philadelphia and Rhode Island jails have held voter registration drives. Voting rights groups have also held registration drives in around 10 other states.

Misinformation around voting rights is rampant among people in the criminal justice system, said Brian Harrington, 29, who was released from prison in Illinois last April after 13 years of incarceration. Some people awaiting trial in county jails wrongly assume they can’t vote, he said, while others in prison incorrectly think they’ll never have the right to vote after they are released.

“I was clueless,” said Harrington, who now lives in Rockford, Illinois. “There’s this myth that you can’t vote because there’s so many things you can’t do when you get a felony. I just assumed I couldn’t vote.”

Twenty-one states, including Illinois, reinstate voting rights for people with felony convictions after they leave prison. But people with felony convictions lose their voting rights indefinitely in 11 states, while in 16 other states their voting rights are restored only after they complete parole, probation or all fines are paid. People never lose their voting rights in D.C., Maine and Vermont.

Harrington now works with Chicago Votes as a civic leader manager, working to boost political engagement among formerly incarcerated people and pressure state lawmakers to allow all adult citizens, including those serving time in prison, the right to vote. An effort to restore voting rights to those serving prison sentences fell short this legislative session, but the fight continues, Harrington said.

“The everyday person thinks of the person in prison as an afterthought, so the people in prison think of themselves as an afterthought,” he said. “We can show them the power of their voice. This can give them an opportunity to feel engaged in their communities.”

Julie Shelton, a retired lawyer and a member of the League of Women Voters of Chicago, has for several years helped facilitate voter registration drives at Cook County Jail. She recently assisted with in-person voting during the 2020 elections.

She has seen women do happy little dances after casting their ballots, singing, “I voted, I voted.” But she has also unsuccessfully tried to persuade others to register to vote.

Some men she spoke to either didn’t feel they knew enough about the candidates to vote or felt that their voice wouldn’t make a difference.

“Their freedom has been taken away,” Shelton said. “Their ability to be with their families and friends has been taken away. Their ability to create wealth or really to continue to be in society in any meaningful way has been taken away. Most of them are going to be let out of prison and we want them to be productive, contributing members of society. But they have to feel like they belong to society.”

This story was originally published in Stateline. It is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

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Save America’s Lesbian Bars!

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 30/06/2021 - 6:00pm in

Last call? Not yet

America’s lesbian bars are vanishing. Many had shut down even before the pandemic, and a year of lockdowns shuttered even more. Once numbering in the hundreds, by one count there are only 21 left. 

Now, some organizations are trying to save the ones that remain. The Lesbian Bar Project started as a 90-second micro-doc celebrating the history and vibrancy of these establishments. When it went viral, donations poured in — by last fall, it had raised $117,000 for the bars it profiles, and is hoping to hit $200,000 by the end of this month. Another group, Queer to Stay, received over 100 grant applications from bars looking for assistance during the pandemic, from Blush & Blu in Denver to My Sister’s Room in Atlanta. Ten of these businesses were awarded grants, and Queer to Stay has since announced that this year it will double the amount it disburses — as well as the number of establishments it supports.

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Part of the reason for the decline in lesbian bars is positive: as acceptance has risen for the LGBTQ community, the number of gay establishments has fallen across the board — by one count, by 37 percent since 2007. For lesbian bars, however, the challenges may be unique. “Women business owners have a much tougher go at it,” said the co-owner of Nashville’s Lipstick Lounge. “As someone in Nashville, it definitely would have been easier if I had been a male.”

Room to grow

Ca Saw, a refugee from Myanmar, says he wouldn’t still be living in Kansas City if not for Juniper Gardens, a nine-acre site where, for 14 years, refugees have learned how to farm in a Midwestern climate. Part of a program founded by the resettlement group New Roots for Refugees, Juniper Gardens is more than a place to grow lettuce — it’s a business incubator for new arrivals.

“They come here, they have their own plot, they have access to shared infrastructure, like a greenhouse, coolers, a wash stand, equipment, and they’re starting their farm business here,” said one of the program managers. 

Participants, of which there are currently 13, sell the produce they grow at local markets, and are offered coaching to strengthen their sales strategies and networking skills. All revenues are theirs to keep, and are meant to supplement another income, either theirs or their spouse’s. In their first year, most make up to $6,000, though in their final year some make $20,000. For those that want to improve their English, the scheme serves as ESL practice as well. 

The program has been successful enough that it will soon move to a farming site ten times as large. The new location will allow graduates to grow their produce in the same space as other students, helping to integrate them into the community. As a former farmer himself, Ca Saw is grateful for the help transitioning his skills to his new home. “I don’t want to go to, like, a factory job,” he said. “I would buy a plot and raise pigs and chickens, maybe goats. Grow produce. That is my goal.”

Read more at the Kansas City Beacon

Get out and vote

In the U.S., where incarcerated people — and even people who’ve already served their time — often can’t vote, a number of states have made strides toward expanded voting rights for these groups. Between 2016 and 2020, at least 13 states expanded the right to vote for people with felony convictions, amounting to millions of newly enfranchised citizens all across the country. Thousands of these folks live in key swing states like Nevada and Iowa. And many are reclaiming their voting rights just as the officials who oversee the justice system are coming up for election: judges, district attorneys, sheriffs and the county commissioners.

The downside, according to an analysis by The Marshall Project, is that the justice system is failing to adequately inform these newly empowered voters that their rights have been restored. In Iowa, for instance, the last state that still banned people with felony convictions from voting for life, only 5,000 of the estimated 45,000 affected people have re-registered to vote. Without sufficient official support, getting groups re-registered has fallen to community activists. And many of those with felony convictions worry about accidentally breaking the law by voting.

“When you get a law passed, the hardest part is getting people to implement it,” said one person with a felony conviction in New Jersey. “I had to actually tell my parole officer that he is supposed to be telling people they have the right. He didn’t even know we had the right to vote.”

Read more at The Marshall Project

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Clearing a Path from Prison to the Bar Exam

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 21/06/2021 - 6:00pm in

Last week, we brought you two stories about Juneteenth from our friends and collaborators at WURD Radio and URL Media. This week, we’re publishing content inspired by the work of another URL outlet, Scalawag, which publishes journalism in pursuit of a more liberated South. This year, Scalawag challenged media outlets to embrace Abolition Week by focusing on alternatives to the deep injustices of the prison system — something we at RTBC report on a lot

Learn more about URL Media in the words of the founders here and here. If we had one wish this Juneteenth, it would be for every RTBC reader to follow and support them in their journey.

As a teenager, Phil Miller dreamt of becoming a CIA field officer — a spy, he says. But incarceration derailed that dream. It seemed to derail any future ones he’d have, too. 

“I was arrested at 19. I was given a 20-year sentence,” says Miller. “I definitely thought my life was over. During those years, you hear you lost all your rights because of your conviction, and there’s a whole world of opportunities that are just closed off to you.” 

The CIA off the table, Miller became a jailhouse lawyer — an incarcerated person who informally helps others challenge their convictions while in prison. It suited him: He had success winning appeals and sentence reductions from inside. Still, he assumed his own sentence had imploded his future, especially the idea of one day taking his law practice beyond the prison walls.

Phil Miller

Miller wasn’t wrong to assume this: The National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction catalogues around 40,000 official restrictions limiting or excluding people with convictions from accessing employment, education and more in the United States. For aspiring lawyers with convictions, the pinnacle of their restriction manifests as the “character and fitness” portion of the Bar Exam, a labyrinthine mandatory background check that often excludes people with criminal records. That is to say, the bar to pass the Bar as someone with a record often feels almost impossibly high.

And yet, Miller might have been wrong about his own future. This year, he’s finishing his first year of law school at the City University of New York, deciding between a specialty in criminal or entertainment law. But, he says, he wouldn’t be where he is without support: at CUNY Law that came from the Formerly Incarcerated Law Students Advocacy Association (FILSAA). Today, a future that once seemed impossible is close within Miller’s grasp. 

FILSAA is part of a growing movement of organizations working to change the overwhelming scrutiny that discourages — and often disqualifies — people with records from pursuing a law degree.

While other organizations work to tackle the barriers to the Bar on a political level, FILSAA works on a deceptively simple level, offering free LSAT training, mentorship and a needed supportive space at school for people with records.

Accustomed to hiding his past, Miller felt not just welcomed by FILSAA, but understood.

“It was like, ‘Oh wow, I can truly be myself among this group of people,’” he says. 

Research backs up FILSAA’s model. Unlocking the Bar, a 2019 study from Stanford Law School, found “concerns about satisfying moral character requirements,” as well as a lack of resources for those with records to navigate the character and fitness assessment, and unequal employment opportunities that “deter interested individuals from applying to law school.” Because people of color are more likely to interact with the legal system, they also bear the disproportionate weight of the problem.

Elsewhere across the country, others doing similar work are also finding success, on both individual and political levels. 

For Roland Acevedo, a solo attorney based in New York City, that means personally prepping people with convictions for the character and fitness process. Acevedo uses his experience having served time to guide others. He estimates he’s worked with around 50 prospective lawyers, “the vast majority” of whom passed the Bar.

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While he understands people’s hesitation and agrees the character and fitness assessment is overly restrictive, he says passing is achievable by relying on a few key principles: candor, consistency and a “non-adversarial” approach that emphasizes growth. 

Dr. James Binnall also mentors prospective lawyers with convictions and claims a nearly perfect success rate, too. Binnall is the co-executive director of the California System-Involved Bar Association, an industry group dedicated to getting more formerly incarcerated people into the legal profession. For him, progress has come through fostering community within the organization and moving the needle statewide. 

Internally, CSIBA’s organization runs a listserv numbering around 200 participants. Those participants get advice and support from each other and CSIBA’s 40 organizational members. Externally, their statewide educational campaigns paired with the Unlock the Bar study have reached the California State Bar, resulting in changes including less adversarial character and fitness conferences for people with convictions, and more consideration of rehabilitation and treatment progress.  

“The [California] Bar is now far more receptive to people with records as a general proposition being admitted,” Binnall summarized.

unlocking the barThe first annual convening of CSIBA at the UCLA School of Law, with James Binnall sitting front center. Photo courtesy James Binnall

Seeing both success and need, more organizations are springing up. At Columbia University, the Paralegal Pathways Initiative, designed to help formerly incarcerated people become paralegals, is in its pilot phase. The National Justice Impacted Bar Association (NJIBA) recently launched a division for current and prospective law students, already counting around 300 members. 

Acevedo says that, with preparation, direct experience can actually help prospective law students stand out in the application process and be an immeasurable benefit should they become lawyers.

“You have one thing other lawyers don’t have,” says Acevedo. “You have instant credibility with a lot of your clients. They understand you’ve taken the journey, and they appreciate the fact that you’ve basically overcome. You can’t un-ring the bell, so you might as well use it to your advantage.”

 Because there is no public disclosure of convictions for prospective lawyers, it’s impossible to say with certainty whether industry representation has grown overall. And funding remains a huge obstacle. While support and community go a long way, many formerly incarcerated people remain restricted by the financial burden of law school.

“It’s really easy to say if you believe in yourself and work hard enough, anything is possible,” says FILSAA co-chair Colby Williams. “But, that’s just not the reality for some people.”

FILSAA’s impact has been small in numbers but deep in value. A mentorship program they organize has four formerly incarcerated participants. Their free LSAT training attracted seven. Thanks to what Williams calls “mythbusting” YouTube videos, they’ve heard this year from 12 currently or formerly incarcerated people expressing interest, two formerly incarcerated students applied to CUNY Law and one has been accepted so far.

Still, FILSAA sees their model as simple and replicable. Virtually any law school could launch a similar concept. But Williams says it’s important to remember the purpose of the work and expertise at hand.

“I think early in the organization it was sort of a catch-all for people… who want to support disenfranchised people,” says Williams. “All that’s great, but it seems like when a formerly incarcerated person has an idea and the other members rally around them, we’ve made the largest strides.”

Phil Miller was one of them. He credits FILSAA with helping him to help others coming from similar situations. 

“A lot of guys come out, they struggle, they stay in the same situation that led to their incarceration, and don’t really aspire to do much more. One of the reasons is because they don’t have the hope or the example that it can be done. That’s definitely the biggest value. Once you realize it’s a possibility, it really inspires and motivates you to achieve it.” 

 “I’m sure you hear this all the time,” said one email FILSAA received, “but it means everything to learn that there is a team of people at the school who understand the challenges we face as formerly incarcerated people on this journey. Learning about FILSAA has been a game changer.” 

Williams says that their understanding of opportunity’s value keeps FILSAA working.

“Hope is a necessity. It’s like food and air but for whatever it is we call our spirits,” he says. “Finding out there’s something big that you’re able to do, you’re allowed to do, and that other people value you for, that can help you take yourself seriously.”

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