Learn about Prop 47– the Safe Neighborhoods Act–on the ballot in November!

This photo was taken from safetyandschools.com

This photo was taken from safetyandschools.com

Prop 47 — the Safe Neighborhoods Act — is on the ballot this November! Here’s why you should vote YES! This is a historic opportunity for Californians to bring about needed and long-overdue criminal justice reform! By voting Yes on Proposition 47, the measure would:

  • Improve public safety
  • Reduce prison spending
  • Increase our investment in K-12 schools, victims’ services and mental health and drug treatment.

This measure would change the lowest-level, nonviolent crimes such as simple drug possession and petty theft from felonies to misdemeanors. The reform maintains the current law for anyone with prior convictions for rape, murder or child molestation. At the same time, Prop 47 reduces the barriers that many people with a low-level, non-violent felony conviction face in becoming stable and productive citizens, such as a lack of employment, housing, and access to assistance programs and professional trades.

Yes on Proposition 47 is supported by numerous law enforcement leaders, crime victims, teachers, rehabilitation experts, business leaders, faith-based leaders and civil rights organizations, as well as the ACLU of California. This reform will focus our law enforcement resources on violent and serious crime, then use the savings in prison spending to prevent crime. If Prop 47 passes, California will lead the nation in ending felony sentencing for the lowest level, non-violent crimes, permanently reduce incarceration, and shift $1 billion (in the next five years alone!) from the state corrections department to K-12 school programs and mental health and drug treatment.

Don’t forget to Vote Yes on Proposition 47 on Nov. 4. The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 20 and You can register to vote online.

P.S. Come along to The Reentry Conference this Saturday! It will offer an opportunity to learn about reentry resources available in the Bay Area, discuss issues related to reentry as it affects all constituents (including the Safe Neighborhoods Act), and build relationships between service providers and reentering individuals looking to connect with services. The conference runs from 8:00 AM – 3:00 PM on Saturday, September 27th at St. Mary’s Cathedral 1111 Gough St., San Francisco, CA.

Faith through Adversity: Reflections on Parole, Spirituality & Difficult Times

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Charles “Talib” Brooks and the Root & Rebound team!

Charles “Talib” Brooks, has been a volunteer with Root & Rebound since June 2014. Today, we share a guest blog post from this amazing volunteer with our readers.

In the news today, we often see cases of African American men and boys who died at the hands of police or whose cases never found justice in court—Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, brothers Henry McCollum & Leon Brown, Bobby McClelland. The public—especially those in African American communities—has grown wary of the very people entrusted to uphold the law and our constitutional liberty, losing faith in police, lawyers, courts, and the criminal justice system at large. Like so many others, my own trust in the system has been tested. In fact, my spiritual and personal faith has been strengthened by my experiences with the law and my sense of distrust and isolation—When I felt alone in prison or on parole, I looked to God.

My name is Charles “Talib” Brooks. I served twenty years in state prison for second-degree murder. Although my criminal case was later deemed a “miscarriage of justice,” in 1994 I lost out on my chance to appeal because of a late filing in court. I first went into prison in 1989 as a troubled and drug-addicted 22-year-old, and I stayed there until I was released onto parole in 2009. While serving time, I quickly learned that the “justice” system wasn’t built to support people like me: black, poor, illiterate, and suffering from addiction.

In May 2010, my mentally impaired daughter went missing and was trafficked through sex slavery. Despite years without using drugs, the trauma my daughter had experienced was too much for me, and I relapsed. Immediately, my parole officer ordered me to a six-month sentence at a residential drug treatment program. But after successfully completing one month of drug treatment, I was abruptly removed from the program and re-incarcerated. Consequently, I lost my publishing business, my home, my new wife, and my struggling child to the streets.

I paroled again in June 2011. Soon after, I was accused of turning in a second dirty drug test. Parole sent me before the Board of Parole Hearings for a “parole revocation proceeding,” and the presiding Commissioner offered me a deal—avoid prison and instead get “Credit for Time Served, plus six months residential drug treatment.” I accepted the plea deal and gave up my rights to challenge the charge. Unexpectedly, at the next hearing, I was sent back to state prison instead of the residential drug treatment promised to me, without a chance to challenge the allegations.

From that day forward, I spent an additional two and a half years in San Quentin State Prison’s Reception Center. At that time, I was assaulted and shot in the face with tear gas during a “chow hall” (cafeteria) riot between a group of Whites and a group of Mexican Americans. Others and I were also “gassed”—which, in prison terms, means that a mixture of urine and feces were thrown in our faces; I was “gassed” daily, for around 2 months. Racial divisions in prison are harsh and often encouraged. I brought complaints to the Corrections Officers and Counselor, but these were met only with retaliation (including a false report and write-up). By this time, I had completely lost faith in our legal system.

Despite the embittered feelings I had about how my initial criminal case and parole revocations cases were handled, my time in prison was not all bad. I spent years on the inside working to better myself—attending therapy, parenting classes, and teaching myself how to read and write. By 2010, through the grace of God, I went from a formerly illiterate prisoner to a Congressional award-winning author and self-publisher of a set of coloring books: Mr. President (Barack Obama): Educational Coloring Books. It was in prison that I had my spiritual re-awakening.

It was also in prison that I met “Al,” who, after spending 30 plus years on death row, had a successful appeal that overturned his death sentence and capital conviction; he was re-sentenced to 25-30 years time served, and is likely to get out on parole soon. Al told me, “Brother, I had the best attorney ever. His name is Michael W. Clough.” At the time Al told me about his great lawyer, I had no idea that a few years later I would be paroled and having coffee with this same attorney.

How My Faith in Attorneys was Restored

For the past few years, I have continued to pursue my legal case “pro per” (without an attorney), seeking relief for how my parole revocation was mishandled. I sought legal advice or an attorney who could help represent me. That’s when my friend, a fellow “ex-lifer,” recommended that I “check out Root & Rebound. Their attorneys are always trying to help people like us with parole issues.”

When I entered the Root & Rebound office in Berkeley, I was greeted with warm smiles and introduced to the Founder and Executive Director, Katherine, and the Deputy Director, Sonja. All the staff and interns listened intently to my story. When I was finished, Vanessa, the summer law clerk, patiently sat down with me and arranged over 500 pages in all my legal files.

Katherine and Sonja informed me: “Charles, we have a wait list right now for new clients. We need more attorneys to do this kind of work. We can’t guarantee anything, but we’ll review your papers to see if we can help in any way. You are welcome to use our resources here, and we can devote a few hours to help you with legal research at the very least.” They honestly informed me: “We don’t feel that we could provide the attention this case needs with the filing due date so fast approaching, and with one of our only two attorneys going on leave soon. However, what we can and will do, with your approval, is make calls and write emails to see if other attorneys may be able to help.”

I remembered the serenity prayer that I learned long ago, quietly said it to myself, and smiled. “Win or lose, thanks to you, I have gained hope and trust in attorneys again,” I said. “For many years, I have been misrepresented by lawyers;” I sighed aloud, “However, today my spirit rejoices because I know there are some good lawyers who really give a damn about the people they serve.”

Even though they couldn’t take on my case, Root & Rebound was relentless in helping me shop my case to others. They ultimately connected me with my attorney, Michael W. Clough, who is looking over case materials for me—the same attorney who helped my friend Al, the man I met back at San Quentin after he was released from Death Row. Through the help of these attorneys, the U.S. District Court issued me an Order to Show Cause.

That night, I thought about all the men still stuck behind prison walls: Good men of various faiths, gay and straight, with whom I sat and shared the same love and compassion I found in Root & Rebound. It’s the same spiritual love and compassion I found throughout Oakland Masjids and Options Recovery Services. I used to care so much about proving my legal case, righting the wrongs I felt had been done to me by lawyers, prison, and “the system.” But through my faith, I have arrived at a different place.

Regardless of the outcome for my legal battles and parole challenges, I have peace within. Finally, I can move forward with my life by continuing to commit myself to God and recovery, and sharing my story of faith lost and found.

— Charles “Talib” Brooks

Thank you for sharing your story, Charles! — The R&R Team

Unlocking Potential: Lessons from San Quentin: Interview with Jody Lewen of the Prison University Project

Photo taken from prisonuniversityproject.org

Photo taken from prisonuniversityproject.org

Dear Readers, Today we want to share with you an insightful interview conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice, with Jody Lewen, Executive Director of the Prison University Project.The interview is part of The Unlocking Potential: Perspectives on Education in Prison blog series, within Vera’s Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project.

Jody Lewen is the executive director of the Prison University Project, an inspiring nonprofit organization that operates the College Program at California’s San Quentin State Prison. The program offers a college preparatory program and courses leading to an Associate of Arts degree in liberal arts. We are so pleased to showcase Jody’s interview as a valuable Board member for Root & Rebound. Also, the Prison University Project is an inspiring community partner who not only made it possible for Root & Rebound to raise funds over the last 6 months, but one who we continue to turn to and collaborate with in improving the lives of those returning to the community from prison and jail.

We hope the interview will impact you – feel free to share with your friends and networks!

Beyond academic achievement, how do students benefit from taking college courses while in prison? 

Even after taking just a few classes, their written and verbal communication skills are much stronger. They become more confident. Their self-esteem is strengthened. They have a broader sense of what their professional opportunities might be. They are more able to negotiate complex systems and institutions, both for themselves and for their families—even from prison. They are more likely to be active in their communities and involved in various types of advocacy work. They are more engaged with their children’s education. To me, these are success stories: if the person is healthy and happy and living a productive life.

In what ways is teaching college courses inside prison rewarding for teachers? 

For teachers, prison college programs offer an opportunity to serve communities that are, almost by definition, radically excluded from quality education in the United States. It’s also incredibly satisfying to have students who are highly motivated and deeply grateful for the opportunity to go to college! The educational climate is very serious, rich, and satisfying, for both students and teachers.

What challenges do educators and colleges face when trying to implement college programs in prison? 

There are massive logistical issues: getting the students to class, getting teachers into the institution, the lack of technology, the simple fact that the institution has completely different priorities and values. You have all kinds of constantly changing constraints on what equipment and materials may be allowed inside. Pedagogically speaking, teachers who’ve taught only in conventional settings are often not prepared to serve students with such diverse learning styles; they may also not be prepared for the range of psychological obstacles that students might grapple with, particularly at the beginning—for example, self-doubt, anxiety, or shame.  

Why do you think some people are against access to a college education for people in prison? 

The biggest issue is that in the U.S., higher education is considered a luxury. A lot of people are legitimately resentful that they have not had the opportunity to get a college education, and it makes them uncomfortable—or even furious—to imagine that people in prison might. It seems unfair. There’s also the whole ideology of “deservingness.” People imagine that if you are a good person, you deserve good things and if you are a bad person, you deserve bad things. What frustrates me about this perspective is not just that it’s simplistic and moralistic, but that it essentially ignores the question of what’s in the best interest of the society as a whole. Also, Americans who have not been exposed to the prison system directly—people who haven’t been incarcerated, and have not had a friend or family member who’s been incarcerated—often have their own ideas of who is in prison and what they are like. Our culture is very invested in its global, generalized hatred of people who are in prison, and very invested in the thought of their suffering. People think of education as a stepping stone to economic opportunity and as a source of pleasure, and a lot of people don’t want anybody in prison to have either.  

What will it take to change their minds? 

People need to see firsthand the transformative power of higher education in prison. They need to be exposed to the real live faces, voices, conversations, and stories that will allow them to recognize people in prison as actual human beings. They need to hear not just statistical accounts of what happens when people in prison have the opportunity to go to school. They need to become emotionally invested in the good that it does for the individual’s community, family, and the climate of the prison.

How has the Prison University Project been successful in sharing and changing public discourse around higher education in prison? 

Above all, through publications like our journal of student writing (OpenLine), newsletters, and various special events. Strong communications materials are a way to carry the message of the humanity of the people inside to a much larger audience. If you can bring people into a prison through these kinds of materials, in my experience it’s pretty rare that they hold on to their hostility.

What kind of reentry services and resources do students need to be successful once they leave prison? 

Affordable housing! People with substance abuse and other special issues need supportive housing. And everyone needs some sort of community—they need people they can really talk to, and ask questions, and ask for help. Also, a lot of people get out and want to continue school but they don’t have the money. We need to start creating robust scholarship opportunities for people coming out.

What are the key takeaways that you think any state/prison looking to create a college program in prison needs to consider? 

Prison higher education is an educational intervention and not simply a criminal justice intervention. We do this work not simply to make the public safer. We do it because we are committed to educational excellence, and to supporting the personal, professional, and intellectual development of the individual. What you see a lot in this field are people who want to avoid saying or doing anything that might be politically controversial. They say, “The public will never go for that.” For example, they want to exclude sex offenders, or people serving long sentences, for fear of public outrage. The fact is that a high quality educational program that is open to the whole prison community has the capacity to change the entire culture of that institution. Conversely, programs that exclude academically eligible people for political reasons just build resentment, weaken the pro-social fabric of the prison, and waste precious resources. If we really want to create high quality programs that generate the greatest public benefit, we need to be unapologetically committed to inclusiveness, and we need to hold our ground. We need to keep reminding everyone: we are building a healthier democracy. We are improving public health. Our students’ lives matter. They are human beings.

Happy Friday!

– The R&R Team

Profile: The San Quentin News – The Newspaper of San Quentin Prison

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Dear Readers, 

Today we are excited to spotlight an amazing project: The San Quentin News, the newspaper of San Quentin State Prison; written by men serving time at California’s oldest and best known prison. As ‘the pulse of San Quentin’, the paper is only one of its kind in California and one of very few publications like this in the world, offering a unique voice to those who are all-too-often hidden away from the rest of society. The San Quentin News publishes 20 pages monthly and is distributed to a prison population of 11,500, as well as correctional officers and staff and the wider community. It’s not just for those in San Quentin either — the paper is distributed to 15 other state prisons, where it is considered a must-read by correctional officers and newspaper supporters. 

Several articles about the inspiring project have been recently released. A New York Times article, “Inmates’* Newspaper Covers a World Behind San Quentin Walls”, offers an insight into the world of The San Quentin News, examining journalism at its most raw and poignant. Without access to cell phones or the internet, the writers are committed to “boots on the ground” journalism. As Juan Haines, the 56-year-old managing editor, explains. “It’s about being heard in a place that’s literally shut off from the world,” he said. “We can go right into the yard and get a quote about how inmates* are affected by policy decisions.”  Washington Post?

We encourage our readers to take a look at the paper and share it with your wider community. As written in the LA Times article, Newspaper behind bars boasts compelling storytelling: for the writers and readers of San Quentin news, it’s an amazing reminder that life doesn’t end when people are locked up.

At Root & Rebound, we see first-hand how people, who have served time in prison and jail, struggle to find their voice and their place back in the community after they are released. The San Quentin News powerfully conveys the common humanity that inextricably connects all of us, through personal storytelling and intelligent journalism.

The paper is available through their website: http://sanquentinnews.com. Catch the August edition here and  read through past issues here.

*Please note: Root & Rebound would like to reiterate the powerful message of a letter we posted a few months ago from the Center on Nu Leadership on Urban Solutions, which asks that others be mindful of the language we use when discussing the experiences of individuals who are currently or previously incarcerated. We encourage all to avoid terms such as “inmate”, “prisoner”, and other words or terms that in any way take away from the humanity of people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. 

Happy reading!

– The R&R Team