How a Group of Lifers Cracked the Code of Prison Reform

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How a Group of Lifers Cracked the Code of Prison Reform

The NLA, founded 40 years ago by five men at the State Prison of Southern Michigan in Jackson, Michigan, is a pioneer in the movement for prison reform driven by people who are themselves in prison. There are nearly no records to take the full measure of such groups, but the NLA, despite the name, is largely confined to Michigan, and it’s on the leading edge of organizations like Veterans in Prison, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. Dukes discovered one of the NLA’s purposes at his first meeting: It’s a network for mutual support and growth in prisons, where the people who live their longest tend to have the fewest available opportunities.

The group also organizes for social change, sometimes with the help of outside reformers, developing their family members, friends and allies on the outside into a political force—and culminating in a statewide effort that could put one of the Lifers’ longtime priorities on Michigan’s November 2020 ballot.

The idea that people who have lived experience should take the lead in determining the priorities and polices that affect their lives is increasingly embraced in modern social movements. But for criminal justice organizations, this is difficult to practice, given the inherent restrictions of people in prison. Incarcerated people can’t serve on staff in the usual way, or on the board of directors, or canvass door-to-door. Their freedom to assemble, protest, and organize is severely curtailed. They can’t vote. While formerly incarcerated people may have leadership roles at advocacy organizations, as well as family members of those inside, they’re the first to tell you that they can’t speak for those who are inside today. And people with long, life, and indeterminate sentences are particularly at risk of being shut out of the conversation, even though they have the most at stake.

The NLA is an alternative model. “It’s ran by us and created by us,” says Dukes, who is now the vice president of the NLA’s Chippewa chapter, #1016. Today, its scope is difficult to measure, as full membership tallies aren’t kept, but it has chapters at every prison in the state of Michigan. For much of its history, the NLA has pushed a steady stream of policy projects, notching the occasional reform. Central to this is an organizing approach that transcends the boundaries of a prison’s walls to build inside-outside coalitions—and bringing prisoners’ voices into debates that are often about them, but rarely include them.

But in 2020, everything changed. The coronavirus pandemic was an immediate health concern, that, for a time, put Michigan first in the nation for Covid-related prison deaths. It also moved the NLA’s project of coalition-building from the “challenging” category to the nearly impossible.

In-person visits are essential to connect, but they’ve been suspended since March, along with large meetings and programs. Phone time is much more difficult because of a coronavirus response that restricts opportunities to use them and far more people making more calls. “There’s pretty much a run on the phone, a bottleneck,” Dukes said.

Likewise, uncertainty clouds the ballot initiative to restore “good time” credits, which reduce an incarcerated person’s sentence as they serve time without incident and participate in self-improvement programs. By law, the campaign must gather 340,047 valid signatures in order to appear on the November ballot. But with stay-at-home and social distancing orders this spring, garnering signatures by the mandated deadline was essentially impossible. The coalition had collected more than 200,000 signatures by mid-May—and aimed for 300,000 more—when it filed a lawsuit aimed at forcing the state to adapt the rules. On June 11, a federal judge sided with the coalition, ruling that, given the circumstances, the ballot requirements are unconstitutional. The state, which has appealed the decision, was given 60 days to resolve the matter. The coalition continues to collect signatures.

But while the pandemic has made organizing and programming much harder, the extraordinary circumstances of this year are a portal into another possible world. Previously unthinkable changes to criminal justice have, suddenly, become real. In the name of public health, states have released people from prisons and expedited the parole process for those with little time left on their sentences; many jails have released people en masse. In the last three months, Michigan reduced its prison population by 5.2 percent—sometimes by accelerating parole reviews, and sometimes by making use of “good time” credits that were grandfathered in before the practice was banished in 1998. Jails and courts delivered fewer people to prison, too, so that altogether, there are about 2,000 fewer people in Michigan’s prisons today than in March.

At the same time, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has pushed civil rights advocates and local officials throughout the country to imagine wholly new ways of protecting public safety and reckoning with the justice system.

Whatever happens next, people on the other side of the wall—including NLA members who have no release date—want to be part of creating it.

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