The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The activists fighting mass incarceration? They’re not who you think.

Far from the national spotlight, grass-roots activists are leading the way on prison reform

The fight for prison reform often has often been led by the incarcerated and their families. (REUTERS/Robert Galbraith/Files)

Last month, the New York Times published a story on Michelle Jones, an African American women recently released from the Indiana Women’s Prison. Jones is now in the PhD program in American studies at New York University, after being accepted (and then rejected because of her formerly incarcerated status) by Harvard.

Thanks to local laws and prison regulations, Jones was able to earn her GED and bachelor’s degree while incarcerated. The rules of the Indiana Women’s Prison, which differ dramatically from other prisons across the country, allowed Jones to conduct archival research, publish in academic journals and present her work to the public.

But all of these opportunities would have vanished if Jones had been incarcerated in the Indiana Women’s Prison a few years later — rule changes would have prevented her from attaining a degree — or if she were incarcerated in a prison with stricter rules. State and local laws, alongside prison regulations, shaped the course of Jones’s future, as they do for all incarcerated people.

That might not come as a surprise, but this will: The fight for the rights of the incarcerated is not the result of recent attention from journalists, scholars and politicians, but rather the work of grass-roots activists at the local level, often led by the mothers, sons, friends and family of incarcerated people. What’s more, these efforts are often spearheaded by incarcerated people themselves. And this local activism has often laid the groundwork for broader action in the field of civil rights.

The nature of this ground-up activism can be seen in the push for civil rights in New Orleans. The rights of the incarcerated were foundational to the development of one of the city’s most well-known civil rights organizations. In 1911, local activists founded the New Orleans chapter of the NAACP. While popularly associated with school desegregation and nonviolent resistance, the chapter’s first act was actually circulating a petition against the use of African American incarcerated women as street cleaners.

When the NAACP shifted focus to school desegregation and other elements of the civil rights movement, the Louisiana ACLU picked up the fight against mass incarceration, lobbying for the rights of incarcerated people in New Orleans. When Lafayette Parish Prison was accused of holding LGBT prisoners in solitary confinement in the 1980s, the ACLU fought for reforms. In 1987, when the Louisiana State Penitentiary inexplicably banned all used books, the ACLU again intervened to push back against the ban. And the ACLU worked on behalf of incarcerated people mistreated during Hurricane Katrina.

The Black Panther Party was likewise vocal about an end to both mass incarceration and police violence in the 1960s and 1970s. When Albert Woodfox, Robert Hillary King and Herman Wallace, members of the Louisiana State Penitentiary Black Panther Party chapter, were sentenced to life in solitary confinement for the murder of prison guard Brent Miller, former members of the New Orleans Black Panther Party helped create the Committee to Free the Angola 3.

In the early 1970s, the mothers of Woodfox and Wallace organized to raise funds for their sons’ bail. In the process, their mothers gave them the moniker the Angola 2, a name that has changed form over the years but has become synonymous with political prisoners. Their efforts are an example of the care work that women often do for their incarcerated children, partners and siblings, an unrecognized form of activism that enables incarcerated people to survive.

While these activists had different ideologies, methods of resistance — legal cases, petitions, protests — and even goals, they were connected by their shared concern for the (primarily African American) incarcerated population in Louisiana.

Not all of this activism “worked.” But much of it did. Albert Woodfox was finally released from prison in February 2017. Tallulah juvenile facility was closed in the early 2000s. Though used books are still banned from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Books 2 Prisoners has worked to get new books to the incarcerated at Angola.

The fight continues today. In 2017, the ACLU has been fighting for the rights of incarcerated people in Orleans Parish Prison. An organization known as VOTE (Voice of the Experienced), formed “by and for” the formerly incarcerated to educate the community on the rights of former prisoners, developed out of the Angola Special Civics Project. Former members of the Black Panther Party, like Woodfox, King and Malik Rahim, are still actively involved in anti-carceral activism. And hyper-local organizations like Resurrection After Exoneration, Books 2 Prisoners and the Cornerstone Bus Project work to directly improve the lives of the incarcerated and their families by helping the formerly incarcerated find employment, gain access to books and stay in contact with their loved ones.

It is easy to miss the role of local activism in the fight for justice for the incarcerated. After all, Michelle Jones’s story was published at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement had garnered national attention, seven years after Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow” made “mass incarceration” a buzzword. Even many conservatives have lately begun voicing their opposition to mass incarceration. But they were all latecomers to a movement that had been thriving for decades.

This isn’t to say that national activism isn’t important. It is. But we must recognize that both the unjust incarceration of African Americans in the United States and the fight for their rights has a long — and local — history in the African American activist tradition. As we look to the future of prisoner rights activism, we should think to look to the activism of formerly incarcerated people themselves. Academics, writers and politicians on a national stage did not “discover” these issues, but learned from the legacy of grass-roots political activism in the African American community.

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