In 2015, the United States had the highest prison population in the world at 716 per 100,000 people. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the incarceration rate for African American men in California is 4,180 per 100,000. For comparison, White and Latino men are imprisoned at rates of 420 and 1,028 per 100,000 respectively and three out of four male prisoners are non white. As of 7/18/18, California’s prison population was 129,348 and while African American males represent about 6% of the state’s population, they make up 29% of those in state prison.
In 2011, a federal court ordered a reduction in California’s overcrowded prisons through a historic public safety realignment shift where many correctional responsibilities for lower-level felons were transferred from the state to counties. In 2014, Proposition 47 was passed by voters to reduce certain drug possession felonies to misdemeanors and while it remains the subject of much debate, supporters applaud the shift in resources from incarceration to treatment programs. Did Proposition 47 decrease crime and recidivism? According to analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California, it did.
Through these recent policies, large numbers of the reentry population are returning to their communities.
Urban Strategies Council recently welcomed Darris Young as our newest Program Associate. Darris is the lead staff person for the Oakland-Alameda Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, and the Council’s contract with the City of Oakland to conduct a community planning process that informs the strategic direction of its new Department of Violence Prevention. Darris comes to the Council from the Ella Baker Center where he worked as an organizer for four years. In that work, he partnered with the Council to help build the Justice Reinvestment Coalition of Alameda County. He brings considerable community and life experience to the Council, and while our blogs are usually not shared from deep personal experiences, we were humbled and grateful for Darris’s willingness to share the narrative below.
Clang! Clang! Those are the sounds of prison doors opening and closing. Sounds that I swore I would never put myself in a position to hear again when I walked
through my last prison door to freedom six years ago after serving 17 years on a 20 year sentence. However, on June 16, 2018, I spent the day inside San Quentin prison only this time, like many times before in the past two years, I walked through those doors as a free man, choosing to spend the afternoon with men from the violence and crime prevention program called No More Tears.
Founded at San Quentin in 2001, No More Tears is an organization comprised of incarcerated men and community volunteers who believe former perpetrators of
violence are responsible for helping curb violence in the communities where they once were the cause of it. Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson’s community liaison, Shomari Carter coordinates with No More Tears Executive Director, Mick Gardner to bring a contingent of community members into San Quentin quarterly to sit in on the sessions.
This particular Saturday, the day before Father’s Day, our No More Tears group did not convene their usual Saturday workshops where participants learn strategies for nonviolent conflict resolution and receive mentorship. Rather, the group held a memorial to honor No More Tears co-founder, the late David Lewis, who was gunned down on June 9, 2010 by a childhood friend whom was said to be suffering from mental illness.
Lonnie Morris, co-founder, Lead Facilitator, and Executive Steering Committee member of No More Tears has been incarcerated for 41 years and spoke affectionately of David Lewis whom he was at San Quentin with in October of 1989 during the Loma Prieta earthquake. As Morris recalled, it was on that day that Lewis experienced a life changing moment, causing him to make a life changing decision.
Between the ages of 18 and 33 David Lewis spent at least 17 of them incarcerated within California Department of Corrections facilities. Shortly after the earthquake, David was paroled from San Quentin at age 34 never to return again as a prisoner. He went on to found the community based organization Free At Last in his hometown of East Palo Alto. The program was designed for the formerly incarcerated and the most underserved persons in East Palo Alto who were battling drug addiction. David Lewis then went on to carry his work worldwide receiving countless awards for for the impact of his service. .
David came back to prison to give others hope that they too will get out and can go on to live lives that contribute to and uplift society. He was dedicated to this service and so am I. It is for that same reason that I endure the ghost of my prison past once every three months to spend a Saturday with the men of No More Tears, many of whom are 18-35 year old men of color who look to those like David Lewis and my for that glimmer of hope and connection.
Urban Strategies Council works to cut off the human cargo supply of predominantly African-American and Latino boys and men of color to jail and prison. The Alameda County Alliance for Boy’s and Men of Color and our membership, participation, and service as a convener for the Justice Reinvestment Coalition of Alameda County we have won county wide campaigns that have brought more resources for men and women who are returning to the county from prison. Moreover, through our leading a community research project for the City of Oakland’s, new Department of Violence Prevention, our work will provide an opportunity for those in San Quentin State Prison’s No More Tears Program who are from Oakland, to contribute their voices to solutions that will curb and prevent violence in Oakland.