Black History Month: Six Black Leaders in Criminal Justice Reform
This Black History Month, we’d be remiss not to acknowledge the immense contributions Black Americans have made to the fight for freedom, equality, and justice. Indeed, the principles and establishment of our agency are greatly indebted to the work of Black activists, abolitionists, and scholars who have pushed for an end to mass incarceration and have proposed alternatives to incarceration for centuries.
The carceral system in the United States has been used to oppress and harm Black communities. Black people have been over-policed for centuries. In The New Jim Crow: Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Michelle Alexander details the history of how slavery, replaced by Jim Crow, became the United States’ current system of mass incarceration: “Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans…As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
As a reentry organization, we can’t ignore the fact that the same racist policies and systems that incarcerate Black people at disproportionate rates also make it harder for Black people to reenter society post-release. Black justice-involved women face more discrimination upon reentry than white women, including higher unemployment rates and lower median incomes.
Many Black activists, scholars, lawyers, and leaders, past and present, have written extensively about the history and impact of the ways in which incarceration and racism are intertwined, and they provide us with insight into the problems and possible paths forward. Here are some voices across the spectrum of criminal justice reform and prison abolition that are important to know and recognize for their contributions to reform efforts.
1. Angela Davis (1944-present)
Angela Davis is a political activist, prison abolitionist, philosopher, and Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Among many accomplishments, Angela Davis co-founded (along with Ruth Wilson Gilmore) Critical Resistance, a grassroots campaign to build support around ending the prison-industrial complex. In her still relevant 1998 essay “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex,” Dr. Davis writes: “Imprisonment has become the response of first resort to far too many of the social problems that burden people who are ensconced in poverty. These problems often are veiled by being conveniently grouped together under the category “crime” and by the automatic attribution of criminal behavior to people of color.”
2. Bryan Stevenson (1959-present)
Bryan Stevenson, Esq., is the Founder and Executive Director of Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based human rights organization. Mr. Stevenson has argued and won numerous cases in the Supreme Court challenging unfair sentencing, including a 2012 ruling banning life sentences without parole for children under 17. He and his staff have won reversals, reliefs, or releases for over 135 wrongly condemned people on death row. In 2018, he opened the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice to educate the public and honor the lives of those who have suffered from slavery, lynching, and mass incarceration. Read Bryan Stevenson’s bestseller, Just Mercy, and watch the movie starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.
3. Ruth Wilson Gilmore (1950-present)
Ruth Wilson Gilmore is a professor of Geography and director of the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at the City University of New York and a prison abolitionist. Dr. Gilmore invented the study of “carceral geography,” which examines the complex relationships between institutions, spaces, and the political economy to control populations. Dr. Gilmore co-founded Critical Resistance alongside Angela Davis, a grassroots organization that aims to dismantle the prison industrial complex. Dr. Gilmore asks, “Instead of asking whether anyone should be locked up or go free, why don’t we think about why we solve problems by repeating the kind of behavior that brought us the problem in the first place?” Read more about her work on prison abolition and carceral geography or listen to her speak about abolition on the Intercepted podcast.
4. Dollree Mapp (1923-2014)
Dollree Mapp has been called “The Rosa Parks of the Fourth Amendment” for her role in the Supreme Court case Mapp v. Ohio in 1961. The ruling requires that state courts must throw out evidence if it was obtained illegally. Prior to the ruling, it was common for police to enter the homes of Black people illegally and violently to instill widespread fear and social control across Black communities without any legal ramifications. Unfortunately, Black communities continue to be unfairly and often illegally policed today. Ms. Mapp continued advocating for herself and others; while serving time in prison, she successfully organized incarcerated individuals and advocates on the outside to oppose mandatory minimum sentencing laws that were eventually rolled back as a result. Upon her release, she worked for a non-profit organization that provided legal assistance to people who were incarcerated. .
5. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) (1925-1965) & John Elton Bembry (Bimbe) (1912-1989)
While el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (known as Malcolm X) spent time in Norfolk prison in his 20s, he spoke and wrote extensively on abolishing capital punishment, creating humane conditions for people in prison, and the connections between racism and incarceration. El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz went on to be a prominent leader in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, positively impacting the lives of millions. One of el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz’s formative mentors and teachers was John Elton Bembry, nicknamed Bimbe, who he met during their time in state prison. Prior to meeting el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, John Elton Bembry led a work strike in the prison to get more food and better conditions. John Elton Bembry introduced el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz to Thoreau and the resources of the prison library, and he encouraged el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz to share his voice with the world.
6. Local St. Louis Leaders
The foundation of criminal justice reform and prison abolition work doesn’t come from academics philosophizing about change; it’s personal and local, and happening on the ground in St. Louis right now. We celebrate the work and voices of Black leaders in St. Louis working for change in our community.
Many of these leaders are working from their own personal experiences. Barbara Baker, the Center for Women in Trasnsition’s Advocacy Director, has been advocating for alternatives to incarceration for the past 20 years. She also advocates for local and state legislation to reduce the barriers women face upon release, like Senate Bill 61 that reduces barriers to expungements of felonies, and the Primary Caretakers Bill, which provides alternatives to incarceration for primary caretakers of minors. Ms. Baker uses her own experience of being incarcerated for over 15 years to help others. Tracy Stanton, a Center Board member and program graduate, is a bail disruptor for people held in St. Louis jails through the Bail Project, and is an organizer for the St. Louis EXPO chapter (Ex-incarcerated People Organizing) to end mass incarceration. Inez Bordeaux has been a leading advocate for the Close the Workhouse campaign to stop the inhumane and racist conditions she and others have experienced there.
Other leaders, including Kayla Reed of Action STL, Jae Shepherd of Close the Workhouse, Blake Strode of Arch City Defenders, and many more, have also courageously led the fight to close the Workhouse, as well as other efforts to end mass incarceration, unfair policing, and systemic racism in St. Louis. Additionally, we celebrate the work of government leaders who are making efforts to reform the criminal justice system, including Kim Gardner, the first African American circuit attorney in St. Louis City, and Wesley Bell, the first Black prosecuting attorney in St. Louis County, who have both worked to decriminalize nonviolent offenses.
The criminal justice system and the racism that defines it can feel like huge, impossible systemic challenges to confront. Yet, these Black local and national leaders help shed light on the changes that need to be made and provide a path to make that change happen. You, too, can get involved by listening and learning from these leaders, and by volunteering with and supporting these local organizations.