The american landscape of public and private prisons holds many stories that inform society's development. In the spring of 2011 I reported a series of three public radio stories for Alaska News Nightly on these issues:
My people and prisons beat reporting that spring culminated in this cover story for the Alaskan newspaper with the third largest circulation, the Anchorage Press, covering ex-offenders' struggles to rejoin society. Cycles of crime and punishment are among my topics of continual research.
By Joshua Tucker, the Anchorage Press, Thursday, March 3, 2011 9:14 am
Kelvin Lee and his wife Lashanda are dancing close. She leans in to adjust his bow-tie. Having spent 15 years in prison for armed robbery himself, Lee is rightfully pleased that tonight's prom marks a turning point for the community of ex-offenders he's helping to "feel normal" again.
This prom is a celebration for three women who are completing their probation and parole. One has survived methamphetamine addiction; all have struggled for years in and out of prison-until they found New Life Development. They are having a ball-literally-to commemorate moving out of the transitional housing facility and into their own apartments.
Kelvin Lee is the president of New Life Development. He founded the organization, which provides resettlement services for people coming out of drug treatment, homelessness and prison.
"In this organization, from the president down, the only person who has not been in prison is my wife," Lee says. "The director of the housing has been in prison. The administrative assistant, she came out of the fed system. Of course, I did my time in Alaska as well. Our director of career development came out of the system, our other case manager, same thing. We just felt like we had to empower people."
At the prom, fedoras are bouncing on the dance floor, while some people sit shyly at tables crisscrossed with rose petals. Eddie Barr is sitting in the corner.
Meeting people struggling to rejoin society after prison, profound moments pop out.
In July of 2009, Barr, an Inupiaq Eskimo who grew up in Kotzebue, was assaulted on the streets of Anchorage by two young people. The hate crime incident became infamous when his assailants posted a video of the attack on YouTube. Both are now in prison.
"It could have happened to anybody. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," Barr says, describing the attack. "I completely forgive them though. I just hope they change their lifestyle instead of going around abusing people."
A felon himself, Barr has spent the last year with New Life Development. Friends helped him get a job as a custodian at Elmendorf Air Force Base, no easy task if you have a criminal record.
Barr chose to invite one of his attackers, Robert Gum, to join him living in New Life Development's transitional housing facility after he is released from prison. Lee verifies that Gum has already filed an application from prison.
"If the young man wants to come to our program, [Barr] cleared the way for him," Lee says, as he works the room.
Whoops and applause burst out as the three prom royals-prom Queen Heather Williams, First Princess runner-up Christina Haire, and Second Princess runner-up Darlene Forthenberry-make their entrance. They came up with the idea to organize a prom when they realized that all three of them had missed their high school proms. Together they formed the prom committee, which did everything from shooting a TV commercial for the prom to arranging for the bubbling chocolate fountain.
Lynn Ferrell attends Lighthouse Christian Fellowship with Lee and most of the guests. She started an organization called Invent You. Using money donated by her employer ConocoPhillips to create the prom, Ferrell spent eight months working with the three prom queens to plan the event.
"There are a lot of halfway houses out there but New Life Development has a real strong spiritual base and a real strong community base," Ferrell said.
Williams, 41, is a vivacious prom queen. She is relishing passing milestones in her transition back to society.
An altercation with her sister landed Williams in prison for three years. She lost her right to vote until she completed her probation and parole.
"I'm able to go down and vote and give my input [now], which is awesome because I think there are some things going on in the community that I think I should be involved in," Williams says, "such as re-entry with folks coming out of prison, the homeless situation going on in the streets today and how our government is actually playing a part in this being a nationwide issue."
Describing voting for the first time after having her rights restored, Williams remembers, "It was awesome, I felt like a productive citizen, like I can do this-normal, like everyone else."
Talking with ex-offenders returning to society reveals a picture of adults struggling through teenage rites of passage for a second time. Completing common rituals like regaining the right to vote, working to get their driver's licenses back and even going to the prom help them rejoin the community with confidence and tools to build a new life.
One of the biggest events in the transition is when they receive "the letter": four brief paragraphs on the State of Alaska's letterhead and signed by their parole officer. It releases them from probation, and restores their rights to vote, serve on a jury and run for office.
Williams grins with pride as she shows me her letter. Part of the last paragraph reads, "Thank you for your cooperation during your parole supervision and best of luck to you in the future."
"I actually have this piece of paper framed so that as individuals come into our program they see it," Williams says. "So when they are looking at this paper on the wall I tell them, ‘This is the paper you want to see at the end of what you are doing because this is the one that is going to make a difference for your life.'"
Kelvin Lee is tall, built strong, with an infectious grin. He has been out of prison for almost eight years.
"New Life was started out of my experience. I've been to prison. I spent 15 years in the place," Lee says. "I fell in 1989, I went in for armed robbery. I was young when I went, only 24; I really didn't know too much."
In prison, Lee joined a black educational development organization. He says he learned ways to give young people coming into prison something to live for.
"If you don't have hope in prison you don't have nothing," Lee says. "When you survive living in the bathroom you take on a spirit to help somebody not experience it. Even if they do experience it, I'm going to help them overcome that experience. I love that I can take my experience and breathe it into a man's life and give him the hope necessary to make those changes."
Remembering coming out of prison, Lee shakes his head. "The lifestyle of prison was so ingrained in me that I came back to the community five or six times and just bumped my head and lost my mind because it didn't make sense to me," Lee says. "I think the main thing I had to deal with is [wondering] what am I going to do with my day, now that I don't have to worry about someone stabbing me."
"Prison is a system, you're either going to conform to that system or it's going to be rough on you," Lee says. "Aggression is the primary driving force in prison. The biggest person on the block is the one who basically tries to control everything or be the big man in the yard. [I went through] all that: lock down, eating on time breakfast at six, lunch at eleven, eating again at four, going to the yard from one to two, going to the yard again six to eight. It's about system."
At New Life, Lee deals with the ways prison changes people every day.
"A lot of people get real used to it," Lee says. "You'll hear words like institutionalized. That's people who have done so much time and been in that system so long and then they come out to a community-that's where New Life comes in. We want to show you that the consistency that the prison system taught you, you can come out here and use that."
The structure that Lee learned in prison shapes his leadership at New Life. He uses it to manage the 38-unit transitional housing program that provides clients with "wraparound services" including substance abuse counseling, employment training, parenting and family reunification classes, anger management courses and legal support.
"We believe that once they get in a position to feel what normal-I'm going to say normal-people experience every day then they can start experiencing what true joy and happiness entails, and voting is one of those things. I'm going to say voting is the most important one."
Lee's right to vote was restored along with his other civil rights when he completed his probation.
"I loved it when I got my letter," says Lee. "I knew there was a possibility I could get [my rights] back, but when you read it, it just means more... When they gave them back I took full responsibility. I enjoyed the fact that I could go in the little booth and vote for whoever I wanted. The first couple years I don't know who I voted for, I just voted because I could. When you lose something that is a basic right it's a big deal."
When the prom royals step forward to make their emotional speeches thanking the community that accepted them after prison, they pass through a gauntlet of arching swords held high by the Junior ROTC Cadets of Service High School. But the gleaming swords are less daunting than the legal barriers they faced to rejoin our democracy.
Fourteen states allow felons to vote as soon as they are released from prison. In Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote and can vote from prison. In England the debate about whether to allow prisoners to vote is raging.
In Alaska, State Senator Bettye Davis (D-Anchorage) has filed a bill, SB7, to allow felons to vote as soon as they are released from prison. Currently felons in Alaska wait, often for years, until they complete their probation and parole before their voting rights can be restored.
Davis has filed her bill twice before but it never made it out of committee. This time she filed it early hoping that even if it did not get voted on in the first 90-day session that it would make its way through by the second session. After two sessions, if a bill does not pass, it must be re-filed. (In Alaska, a legislative session is actually two 90-day sessions, the length of the term of a State House Representative; the current 2011 session is the first of the 27th State Legislature.)
"As long as they have served their jail time they ought to have the right to vote, so that's why I keep introducing it," Davis says. "We count them for everything else, when we do the census they are counted, so why don't they have the right to vote?"
When the bill was introduced before, the same objection always came up. Article Five, Section Two of the Constitution of the State of Alaska reads, "No person may vote who has been convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude unless his civil rights have been restored." This clause prevents more than 10,000 Alaskans from voting.
Moral turpitude is a legal standard that defines crimes as particularly morally offensive, like rape and murder.
Alpheus Bullard is an attorney working with the office of legal services for the Alaska State Legislature. He spoke at the first hearing on Davis's bill this year in the Senate Committee on State Affairs.
"What ‘civil rights being restored' means for the purpose of this clause has not been explored by our state's courts," Bullard says.
State Senator Cathy Giessel (R-Anchorage) serves on the State Affairs Committee. She opposes Davis's bill, believing it does violate the state's constitution.
"One of my biggest concerns in that hearing is that we are not hearing from victims," Giessel says. "I asked a few of my constituents and actually had a few of them write in spontaneously and they were not in favor of this [bill]-they felt it was part of [the criminal's] punishment."
Giessel also raised concerns that many of the crimes for which people lose the right to vote have high recidivism rates. Overall in Alaska 66 percent of people released from prison return at some point, according to statistics from the Alaska Department of Corrections.
State Senator Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage), who chairs the State Affairs Committee, referenced a study with a smaller sample size that said that people who choose to vote after being released from prison are less than half as likely to return to prison.
Carmen Gutierrez is the Department of Corrections' Deputy Commissioner for Rehabilitation. She was surprised by the study Wielechowski mentioned, saying if Alaska's recidivism rate could be reduced even ten percent it would create huge savings for the state.
According to the Department of Corrections, it costs the state $48,987 per year to incarcerate someone in Alaska, nearly double the national average cost. Gutierrez says that the Department of Corrections supports Senator Davis's legislation.
Davis, a career nurse social worker, says she has introduced the bill three times hoping that if it passes, "maybe we won't have those people thinking, ‘Well, I don't count because I am a criminal and I don't have the right to vote.' I would hope they would not feel that way about it and be proud that they can come to the polls and vote should they want to," Davis says.
The bill has not been passed out of the Senate State Affairs Committee.
"I am due to get off probation in June," prom Princess Darlene Forthenberry says between bursts of applause. "I am looking forward to getting my rights back so I can vote, because I think it's important... Because if you shut us out we have no voice and we have to just fall in line with whatever gets passed."
Troy Buckner Nakrumah is president of the Anchorage Urban League. Nationally, the Urban League is a historic civil rights organization dedicated to empowering America's urban poor economically.
Nakrumah says he has a long history of working on prisoners' rights and re-entry issues. Before moving to Anchorage he was the director of Project Rebound in San Francisco, a program that helps ex-offenders get into college.
Nakrumah thinks Davis's bill is a step in the right direction-he sees the struggle of ex-offenders to regain the right to vote as a continuation of the civil rights movement.
"It's just one part of what's called a legal discrimination: you can't get school loans; you can't get food stamps; employers cannot hire you because you have a conviction on your record," Nakrumah says.
Nakrumah serves on the Alaska Prisoner Re-entry Task Force. Pooling resource and information from a diverse coalition ranging from the Alaska State Troopers to the Alaska Native Justice Center, the task force is working toward a stated goal of insuring "Individuals who are incarcerated do not return to custody."
"As a person on that task force, one issue we have raised many times is the right to vote. We see that when people have the right to vote they are more productive and more active. They appreciate that right to vote once it has been taken away for even the smallest amount of time," Nakrumah says.
"We moved away from the rehabilitation model back in the ‘80s, now it's just about lock them up and throw away the key. When you do that people get out and they come out worse then when they went in because you are not trying to rehabilitate them."
In Alaska, the prison population increased from 800 prisoners in 1984 to over 5,000 prisoners in 2008-an increase of over 600 percent.
"It's like if you have a drug addict, and you are not trying to cure them, you are just trying to punish them. Well, what's going to happen after their punishment? They are going to go back to being a drug addict," Nukramah says. "Rehabilitation has to be key, especially when you talk about drug-related crimes."
Michelle Alexander is a long-time civil rights advocate and litigator. Her latest book is called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
"There are more African Americans under correctional control today-in prison or jail, on probation or parole-than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began," Alexander wrote in an article on The Huffington Post.
"As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised [due to felon disenfranchisement laws] than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race," Alexander writes.
The state of Alaska is 74 percent Caucasian; its prison population is 48 percent Caucasian.
Nukrumah sees a web of interconnected issues around incarceration. But he believes restoring ex-offenders' voting rights is a good starting point because once the right to vote is restored, ex-offenders could have a say in how the other issues are addressed.
"[When you deny someone the right to vote] you are saying they literally do not matter, and that has a definite effect on people's involvement in the school district all the way up to who decides who is going to be president of the United States. It's just disenfranchisement," Nakrumah says.
"It's the reason people fought for the right to vote."
Nakrumah wonders if it's a true democracy if some people aren't allowed to vote.
"Can you imagine how disheartening that is for someone who is all of a sudden excited about a candidate and they have never even been excited about an election before in their life? I know people who have been through that. I remember them saying: ‘I wish I could vote, but I am going to make sure everyone I know who can vote is out there voting.' It definitely shows," Nakrumah says.
Earl Bell went to prison for assault, domestic violence and driving while intoxicated, or as he describes it, "I did pretty close to five years for my careless ways, alcoholism and anger."
"I did get my rights back after I got off probation, [prior to that] not to vote in the presidential election, that was a blow to me," Bell says. "Once you get it back it does feel good because you are a part of a system that exercises that right to vote and that's what I am doing... I loved every minute of it and I've kept on ever since and I got it in my back pocket right now."
"Fifteen women have come through New Life. I was the first woman. The three of us [prom queens] are the ones that have actually made it through and transitioned forward," Williams says while posing for her prom photo with her date.
Perhaps it is because success stories are so rare that the prom feels so exciting for the participants.
"I get to relive something that I actually forfeited. I have been given a second chance to do something that I wasn't able to do. It's huge," Williams says.
What is most remarkable about the prom is that the church crowd blends so gracefully with the felons they have welcomed into their community. The rose petals are swept away, but the dance goes on for ex-offenders who want a "normal life."