After spending twenty-five years in prison, Eddie Ellis has devoted his life to helping the formerly incarcerated rejoin society. Before his 1969 conviction — for a murder he maintains he did not commit — Ellis was director of community relations for the New York City branch of the Black Panthers, a militant African American political party founded in the mid-1960s. In 1968 J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, declared the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” The bureau’s COINTELPRO, or Counterintelligence Program, tried to discredit and destroy the party by incriminating and even assassinating its leaders. The murder charge against Ellis originated from COINTELPRO activities.
Ellis did his time in some of New York State’s toughest prisons, including Attica; he was there during the infamous 1971 uprising. While behind bars, he decided to look beyond his current predicament and get all the education he could. He earned four college and graduate degrees — the highest a master’s of divinity — and aided other men in prison who sought higher learning and personal transformation. He also founded the organization that in 2008 became the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions (centerfornuleadership.org), the nation’s first academic think tank run by formerly incarcerated men and women.
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Ellis was born in Harlem in 1941, and he grew up in the Harlem River Houses, a public-housing development. He graduated from George Washington High School in upper Manhattan and completed a semester at New York University before his arrest. He had a stable home life but admits to having been a “street hustler,” selling marijuana in his youth. Now seventy-one, he serves as president of the Center for NuLeadership and says he continues to be inspired by the philosophies of the Black Panther Party. He also draws inspiration from the writings and teachings of Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and others who preached self-determination for black people, encouraging them to take control of the politics, institutions, and economies of their communities.
The Center for NuLeadership was founded at City University of New York’s Medgar Evers College, but in 2011 it relocated to private offices in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, one of seven predominantly black New York City communities whose residents, Ellis says, comprise three-quarters of the state’s prison population. He argues that efforts to reform both people in prison and prisons themselves “can’t be done in the abstract, removed from these neighborhoods and their Afrocentric and Latino cultures.” Ellis remains a research fellow at Medgar Evers College’s DuBois Bunche Center for Public Policy. He has also consulted on prison reform for billionaire philanthropist George Soros’s Open Society Institute, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, and the White House Domestic Policy Council under former president George W. Bush.
On the Count, Ellis’s weekly Pacifica Radio/WBAI broadcast, presents crime and punishment from the perspective of those whose lives have been altered by it. Ellis says his goal is to expand the voice of people who have historically been excluded from the discussion and to broaden the public’s willingness to accept the formerly incarcerated back into mainstream society. With a record seven hundred thousand people being released annually from the nation’s prisons, it’s a matter the country urgently needs to address.
A rail-thin man, Ellis describes himself as “reflective, pragmatic, and results-driven.” During roughly seven hours of interviews conducted in person and via telephone, he was by turns serious and funny, pensive and resolute.
Gray: How can we help people who are leaving prison reenter society?
Ellis: We hesitate to refer to the process of returning home from prison as “reentry.” Reenter means “to enter again,” and a majority of the people we work with were never a part of mainstream institutions, functional families, the legal job market, or a supportive faith community in the first place. So for them it’s not a case of reentry but of coming into an entirely new situation.
We need more programs to help with that transition, and the overwhelming majority of the ones we have are run by people with no firsthand knowledge of what the incarcerated have endured and how they’ve been affected by it. The Center for NuLeadership is one of the very few organizations run entirely by the formerly incarcerated. Other groups and programs might do good work, but unless they involve people who have been in prison in their planning, they are unable to address the root of the problem adequately and offer a meaningful fix.
For example, a formerly incarcerated man came into our office the other day complaining that he’d just gotten fired.
“My boss don’t like me,” he said. I asked him why. “Because he’s white and I’m black,” he replied.
It turned out his boss had given him an hour for lunch. The man had left the office at noon to walk to the deli and buy a sandwich. That took him fifteen minutes. Then he went to the park, took a seat on a bench, and stayed there for a full hour, reading the newspaper and eating. In his mind, lunch started the moment he took his first bite of that sandwich. When you’ve never been schooled in the ways of the workplace, you may not know the finer points of its rules and etiquette. And that man had had no work experience other than selling drugs. He’d been busted and sent to prison at the age of nineteen. So it’s not enough for people like him to learn how to fill out a job application and dress for an interview. They need to be educated about real-world decorum.
What compounds the problem for formerly incarcerated black males is that black men in this culture have a harder time finding work, period. One of my collaborators, Bruce Western, a sociologist at Harvard University, has documented that a white job candidate with a GED stands a better chance of getting a job than a black candidate with a bachelor’s degree. He has also documented the wage inequality between workers who have and have not been locked up in the past.
Gray: You’ve campaigned against using terms such as “ex-convict” or “ex-offender,” preferring “formerly incarcerated” instead. Why?
Ellis: To change public policy, we also have to change people’s thinking, and to change their thinking, we have to change the language they use. Otherwise we run up against a brick wall. When you say “convict,” a negative image invariably springs into people’s minds. If you use only such fraught terms as “criminal” or “felon” or “offender” or “inmate,” you are suggesting that these are not human beings capable of being redeemed. Words matter.
A job developer we work with began getting a much better response from potential employers when he adopted the term “formerly incarcerated” rather than “ex-offender” or “person on parole.” By changing the language, you change the conversation.
Gray: Has the election of the nation’s first black president altered the criminal-justice landscape?
Ellis: For a black man to be elected president seemed to suggest a turning point in the American consciousness, a shift in attitude among the majority. And it is a good sign. But in terms of the Obama administration’s record on criminal justice, I am greatly disappointed. His platform of hope and change raised our expectations. When he appointed the first black attorney general, Eric Holder, we assumed Holder would bring to the job a background and life experience that no one previously had. We thought the administration would make fundamental changes to the criminal-justice system, which we more aptly refer to as the “criminal-punishment system.” For example, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court case mandating that people accused of crimes must be represented by an attorney in court, and if they can’t afford one, the state must grant them one. We’ve seen less and less commitment to Gideon. State and federal budgets for legal services have been greatly reduced. The public defenders are so overworked they cannot provide effective counsel for the poor, who make up the vast majority of people accused of crimes in this country. Budgets reflect the political priorities of a president, and Obama’s 2014 budget includes less money for public-defender programs than he gave them four years ago.
Gray: Do you have the same fundamental critique of American culture now that you did when you were a young Black Panther in the 1960s?
Ellis: Yes, I do. But in some respects the political, economic, and social situation for people of color in the U.S. today may be worse than it was in the sixties. Some problems have been solved, at least partially, but there’s no cohesive network of national organizations like we had back then, whether it was the Black Panther Party or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. That militancy no longer exists.
The remedies we proposed then are still relevant and necessary today. People have to organize to confront the powers that be. We need to instill values in our youths and mobilize them to address problems in their local communities. And there must be a vibrant national youth movement. We can see pockets of organizing around the country, but we don’t see that coordinated nationwide push. The Black Panther Party had chapters in almost eighty cities. We had a national newspaper that kept us all informed about what each chapter was doing, so we could come up with complementary strategies. We had a ten-point plan that addressed such issues as police brutality, housing, employment, education, and healthcare. We also had some specific remedies. The free-breakfast program was one of the most successful. Head Start is modeled after the Black Panther Party’s breakfast program. And we did that with no funding from the states, the federal government, or private foundations. That project was created and supported within the community. We ran free health clinics long before this society began discussing how to provide healthcare for the uninsured. Until the Black Panther Party was brought to its knees, largely by the U.S. government, we carried out our mission to help black and brown people determine their own destiny.
Gray: What was your immediate reaction — psychologically, viscerally — to being locked inside a prison cell?
Ellis: It was a terrifying initial experience. I was scared — deep-down scared. Any incarcerated person who says otherwise is lying.
Even so, who you were on the outside generally determines how you are treated in prison. One of my friends and mentors in the street was an enforcer for the Harlem legend Bumpy Johnson, who was sure enough a real gangster but also a man committed to the cause of social justice. Bumpy put a portion of his illegal proceeds toward helping the community. His enforcer’s nickname was “Good Doctor,” and when I went into jail, they didn’t call me Eddie Ellis; they called me “Good Doctor’s Partner.” That conferred on me an automatic status, which was a lucky thing. Prison is full of predators. If you are perceived as weak, you will be taken advantage of physically, sexually, and emotionally. Not having to immediately prove myself took away a lot of my initial fear.
Gray: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian writer and human-rights activist, has written, “Bless you, prison. Bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life was not prosperity, as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the soul.” Does that quote resonate with you?
Ellis: Solzhenitsyn was much more insightful than most people in prison. What I share with him is the feeling that being in prison was a monastic experience. You’re isolated from the world. You’re completely restricted. You lose your freedom of mobility and of choice. But the one invaluable gift that prison grants you is time — time to think and reflect, or time to waste. My deepest human insights and my understanding of myself and others were sharpened as a consequence of my being locked in a cell. I don’t often admit this, because most people wouldn’t understand it, but I may very well be a better person because of my time behind bars. I don’t consciously say, “Bless you, prison,” but prison was a period of divine preparation for me, a blessing in disguise that continues to enhance and enrich my life in ways I can’t articulate.
Gray: What specifically did you do with your time while in prison?
Ellis: I spent most of it reading, studying, teaching, and writing. I also did a lot of sit-ups and push-ups to stay sane. I was instrumental in creating what we called the “Resurrection Study Program” at Green Haven Correctional Facility, which housed some of the worst, most violent, most disruptive men in the system. In the eyes of the prison officials, these men had been born evil. No good could come from them.
Many prison officials resisted any attempt to educate the incarcerated, because they believed it would yield only an educated drug dealer, an educated extortionist, or an educated murderer. We took a different view, obviously. We taught public speaking, political and social analysis, data collection, and leadership skills. Of the thirty men who initially signed up, eighteen completed the course, which we conducted in secret. We met in the church under the guise of being a Bible-study group. We knew the prison administration would let us meet for the purposes of religion, which they thought was safe and calming for the population. During classes we held our Bibles in our laps so the guards who occasionally passed by and peeped in the window could see them. We could parse four or five Bible verses just in case somebody came into the classroom and asked questions. The senior chaplain — a white man we called “John Brown,” after the great white abolitionist — knew what we were doing and supported it.
We eventually were discovered. They split our group of eighteen in two, shipping nine of us out to nine other prisons. And in those nine prisons those men created satellites of the Resurrection Study Program. Today the program is in about twenty-five state prisons.
Years later I was at WBAI radio, taping my show, and a man walked into the recording booth and said, “You don’t know me, but I graduated from one of the Resurrection Study groups you founded.” It was Imani Ward, who is now enrolled in a master’s-degree program in social work. He’s since become a part of NuLeadership and coproduces our On the Count broadcast.
Gray: Though not overtly religious, were those classes a sort of spiritual endeavor?
Ellis: Very much so. While still in prison, I ended up enrolling in a master’s-degree program offered by New York Theological Seminary, because the real prison activism was happening through the church or the mosque. I felt that if we wanted to develop a community that was about reform and change, we couldn’t do it on a strictly secular level; there had to be a spiritual aspect. Also, I had grown up in the church. The pastor of my childhood church, Saint James Presbyterian in Harlem, had been a contemporary of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the first black U.S. congressman from New York State, who’d preached that black people should take our freedom by any means necessary.
As a youngster, I’d always challenged some of the religious mythology and had plenty of questions that no one could adequately answer for me, but I retained a fundamental belief in God. I had two experiences in prison that forced me into prayer. One was when I got profoundly ill and was not expected to live. The other was when I thought I would be killed during the 1971 prison rebellion at Attica. We were demanding basic rights, such as proper health and dental care, edible food, and the right not to have guards address us as “nigger” or “spic.” I thought the authorities would kill me for my involvement in the Black Panther Party. Back then the government targeted black militants not just on the streets but in prison. And prisons were like little kingdoms ruled by wardens who were not much more than outlaws themselves. One kept a .45-caliber pistol strapped to his waist and a German shepherd by his side.
Surviving those two life-threatening events expanded my concept of divinity. It made me understand God in a personal way: not just God over there and me over here, but God within me, the properties and powers of God invested in me. Whenever I have difficulty in this work, I tap into that understanding to strengthen me and clarify my thinking. I’m not a zealot or a proselytizer, but I do sometimes share that spiritual survival technique with formerly incarcerated people who are trying to get centered.
It took me two months to relearn how to travel by subway. I’d get lost and be too embarrassed to ask anyone for directions. It was as if, by asking, I’d be revealing this deep, dark secret: I had gone to prison.
Gray: Was the Attica uprising worth putting your life on the line?
Ellis: That’s a complicated question. Nobody wants to die in prison, where a murder by a guard, especially back then, could easily be swept under the rug. What the Attica rebellion did was eliminate some of the daily indignities. It was a defining moment in the prison-reform movement. It highlighted the many inequities in the prisons and sought to fashion solutions. The reform movement eventually imposed a requirement that prison wardens get an education, at least an associate’s degree. It brought a modicum of accountability to the prison administration, and it triggered the first wave of black prison officials, including Carl Berry, who was deputy superintendent during my stay at Green Haven. I found out later, after we’d become friends, that he was born and raised three blocks from where I grew up. Berry had the foresight to ask the men in prison what kinds of programs they wanted: vocational training, auto repair, and so on. Out of those conversations came the first undergraduate college courses to be offered at Green Haven.
Gray: You say prison made you a better person, but surely there were aspects of life there that did not inspire compassion in you.
Ellis: Absolutely. In that place, the slightest imagined insult can get you stabbed or even killed. Prison is home to a lot of angry, hyperaggressive people. It is a very dangerous place where “might makes right” and violence is the solution to almost every problem.
About twenty-two years into my incarceration, I got transferred to a prison that had a lot of young men in it. Most of them didn’t know me. At my old prison I had established a reputation as a helpful, mild-mannered guy who didn’t challenge something unless it truly needed to be challenged and rarely resorted to violence. I had learned to ignore name-calling, but if anybody, including a guard, put his hands on me, I was going to fight back.
One evening I went to use the telephone, and there was this kid ahead of me. I asked how long he would be, and he said, “A while.”
No problem. I left for about a half-hour and came back. He said, “I told you, man, I’m gonna be a while.” When I asked what “a while” meant, he told me to get the fuck out of his face. I said I would give him fifteen more minutes.
I left for forty-five minutes and went back for a third time and told him either he needed to get off the phone or we were going to have a serious conversation.
He dropped the receiver and said, “Motherfucker, if you don’t let me take care of my business, I’m gonna fuck you up.” I walked away, but I knew that if I let this affront go, I’d have a problem. Someone else, mistaking my mellowness for weakness, would try me, test me down the line.
The next morning I went into this kid’s cell with a pipe. While he was still asleep, I grabbed him in such a way that he was wrapped up in the blanket and told him that if he moved, I was going to smash his head with that pipe. Startled, he asked, “What’s the problem, man? Why you doing this to me?”
I told him he’d made me look weak, like a punk, and now I needed to make an example out of him. Oddly enough he didn’t have a clue as to what he’d done. He apologized, said he hadn’t meant it the way I’d taken it, and I thought there was some sincerity in his voice. I let him go because I was so close to going before the parole board, and because I realized how out of touch he was. He didn’t understand the consequences of what he had said and was just mouthing off. He’d never been in prison before.
Well, several of my friends heard about this, and they beat that kid up, broke his jaw and some ribs, and put him in the hospital. I visited him with a gift of cigarettes, and from then on I tried to school him about prison. When I think back on it, his beating shakes me even now.
For twenty-plus years I’d been unable to afford to have feelings. I’d developed a demeanor that was distant and cold, and that’s the opposite of what you need when you come into this society. For years, as a free man, I was afraid I would unconsciously and reflexively respond to some inconsequential slight with violence.
Gray: How did you adjust to postprison life?
Ellis: I was lucky. When I came out of prison in 1994, my parents were still alive and married and had been together for sixty years. My two brothers, both college grads, were thriving professionally. I had three grown children. While in prison, I had developed a serious romantic relationship and gotten married; so my wife was waiting for me when I got out. In particular my father, an old-school Jamaican immigrant who’d been a Pullman porter on the segregated railroad before becoming an accountant and tax expert, made sure that I landed safely. Through friends I was hired full time at Neighborhood Defender Service, which provides free legal representation and other services to the poor in Harlem. So from the day I walked out of prison, I had family support and a job, two necessities for successful transition back into the community. All of that made my return home an exception.
Nevertheless, it’s often the little things that trip you up. It took me two months to relearn how to travel by subway. I’d get lost and be too embarrassed to ask anyone for directions. It was as if, by asking, I’d be revealing this deep, dark secret: I had gone to prison.
There are aspects of prison life that become so instinctual, so reflexive, you don’t even think about them. Once, soon after my release, I went to dinner at a restaurant with my family. When it came time to leave, I picked up my knife, fork, and spoon. For twenty-five years I’d been forced to drop my silverware at the door of the prison mess hall. The guards had to see me do it, because a utensil could be used as a weapon. Now my daughter saw me walking out with the silverware and asked, “What are you doing?” Talk about being embarrassed. I glanced around to see if anyone was looking and slid it onto the nearest table.
The opportunities I was afforded ultimately kept me from being hamstrung by my own paranoia. That prison mind-set is a big part of what we have to address when the formerly incarcerated come home — and the vast majority of convicted people, more than 95 percent, do come home again.
One of the most difficult parts of my adjustment was getting back in touch with my feelings. For twenty-plus years I’d been unable to afford to have feelings. I’d developed a demeanor that was distant and cold, and that’s the opposite of what you need when you come into this society. For years, as a free man, I was afraid I would unconsciously and reflexively respond to some inconsequential slight with violence.
Gray: How else did prison leave its mark on you?
Ellis: When I came out of prison almost twenty years ago — and this is true even now — I was most at ease in a small, confined setting. I used to spend a lot of time in the bathroom, just sitting on the edge of the tub and thinking. My wife at the time didn’t quite understand that. She wanted to know why I was spending so many hours in the bathroom. I didn’t know the answer. When I mentioned my behavior to other men who had spent long periods of time behind bars, we realized that, in prison, when you had a problem, you’d go into your cell and lock the door behind you and think. So now, at home, I’d take my pad and pencil and sit on the tub and maybe sketch out points of an article I was writing or a speech I was giving or a strategic plan.
For those who are incarcerated long term — I’m talking five years or more, though some criminologists say just three years is enough — the prison socialization, the institutionalization, is hard to escape.
Gray: What effect does being in prison have on romantic relationships? On parenting?
Ellis: While you’re incarcerated, you’re obviously absent from the day-to-day realities of any relationship. No matter how much you try to stay abreast, there’s an enormous gap. In my own case I made a concentrated effort — aided greatly by my parents and my brothers — to stay as involved as I could in the lives of my children. But even under the best of circumstances I saw them just once or twice a month, for four or five hours at a time. We talked on the phone every other day or so. That’s exceptional for someone in prison. Nevertheless, my children — the oldest was five when I got locked up — grew up with an absent father, which is the opposite of the standard my father had passed on to me. Thankfully my brothers were very involved in the lives of my kids and acted as surrogate fathers. That helped us maintain ties.
As for their mother, she divorced me around 1975, about five years after I was locked up. I saw it coming. We’d gotten married as teenagers because she was pregnant, and we’d had a rocky relationship even before I’d gone to prison. Other men had also warned me I could expect to stay married only three or four years. So the divorce was par for the course. I was prepared for it. It’s just another way that prison destroys families.
Gray: Many people, including people of color, are leery of former prisoners moving into their neighborhoods. How do those feelings affect your work?
Ellis: That sentiment has eased somewhat over the last fifteen to twenty years, mostly as a consequence of the mass incarceration of people from communities of color. In every black community in America it’s almost impossible not to know someone who’s been in prison: a father, a boyfriend, a nephew, an uncle, a niece, a cousin, a friend’s kid — somebody. The long-term vitality of these communities is tied to whether the formerly incarcerated will thrive there or return to a life of crime.
An unfortunate aspect of life in many of these underserved communities is that some people in them depend financially on crime. If you’re a single mother of three who’s working a low-wage job or existing on welfare, and your fifteen-year-old son is bringing home an extra hundred dollars a day by selling drugs, you may initially be outraged, but eventually you will take the money, because it puts food on the table or pays the rent or keeps the lights on. It becomes a question of survival.
Yes, there’s still a segment of the community who call the police when they see someone selling drugs on the corner, but many don’t. There’s tremendous polarization. It’s not as simple as media portrayals of drug dealers terrorizing neighborhoods. It is a question of economics and rampant unemployment.
Gray: Why should law-abiding people in the community care about the formerly incarcerated?
Ellis: Because of mass incarceration and the large numbers of people returning from prison — about seven hundred thousand annually — it is in the community’s best interest to dispense with the reflexive hostility toward them, though I do understand why those feelings persist. Our number-one goal is ensuring that some transformation takes place among these returning people who, prior to prison, were relegated to the margins of our society. If you weren’t habilitated to start with, how can you be rehabilitated during your incarceration?
Many of those leaving prison today display a disturbing lack of civility and interpersonal skills. Most of them lacked these skills before they went to prison in the first place. Some of this is due to systemic problems and the absence of fathers in the home. I and most of my peers in the 1960s came from two-parent households. We had good social training, even if we strayed from it. I never fully realized how significant the cost of growing up in a home without a father or proper parental guidance was until I got to prison and met men who’d come from opposite circumstances.
Two and a half generations later, the situation in poor communities is much worse. That lack of strong familial and communal influences is partly responsible for the combustibility and violence on the street. We have to break that cycle. I take the position that it is never too late for our formerly incarcerated brothers and sisters to learn analytical and problem-solving skills, conflict resolution, self-care, self-compassion, and how to stay out of dangerous situations, whether that’s trouble with a wife or life partner or law enforcement or whomever.
Formerly incarcerated people who’ve done their time, who have paid their debt to society, and who are trying to get on the right road are not asking for a dispensation they haven’t earned. They’re looking for fairness, above all, and some equitable treatment as they struggle to make it. Given the number of people leaving prison in this society — which is increasingly comprised of people of color — we cannot afford to have them languish forever on the sidelines. They are capable of being good, contributing citizens.
Gray: What does the Center for NuLeadership do besides assist the recently released?
Ellis: We train police and parole officers, teachers, social workers, clergy, and other activists on cultural sensitivity and the harm of racial profiling. In New York City we’ve opposed the police department’s stop-and-frisk campaign, which has targeted many teens of color who do not know about their right not to be randomly searched. And we train parole officers not to merely watch for the misstep that sends the parolee back to jail but rather to measure their own performance by how many on their caseload successfully complete parole without being sent back to prison.
A lot of our work involves bringing together those polarized segments of the community that I mentioned — the ones who rely on the drug dealers’ proceeds, and the ones who urge the police to crack down on crime — to seek common ground and collaborate in dealing with the problems. We convene forums and focus groups to expose each side to the other’s concerns. Often we’re invited into areas that have serious problems with violence and street gangs. We call for a cessation of the violence, unequivocally. To those who are perpetuating crime and violence we hammer hard on the subject of personal responsibility and offer an alternative: If you want to do better, we tell them, if you desire not to be out on the street selling drugs, then you need much more than the capacity to read on an eighth-grade level. We introduce the dealers to men who used to be dealers but are now college students and community advocates. We tell them that this life is within their realm of possibilities and then instruct them on how to make it happen.
The cornerstone of our work, though, is public-policy reform and advocacy. We’re involved in efforts to immediately restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people across the country. The nonprofit Sentencing Project has reported that almost 6 million formerly incarcerated people could not vote in the 2012 election. We were also instrumental in a 2009 decision to permit New York judges to send people convicted of felony possession of small amounts of drugs to rehab instead of prison.
Gray: What about helping people in prison get an education?
Ellis: Education is another important focus for us. With so many black and brown males in prison, an enlightened penal system would realize it has a captive audience and make prisons into places of learning. Numerous studies have shown that the more we educate a convicted person, the less likely he or she is to commit another crime.
Taking college courses offered by the State University of New York, Marist College, Yale University, and others while I was locked up changed the course of my life. But our national policy has regressed since then. President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994. Its provisions included ending the practice of giving federal Pell Grants to the incarcerated, effectively killing college programs in most prisons around the country. Privately funded college courses are still offered in a few correctional systems, but there aren’t nearly enough to make any major impact.
In a step toward reversing that, one New York legislator drafted a bill in the last session that would make it mandatory for everyone in prison to have the opportunity to get a GED. We actively support that proposal. It remains to be seen whether such a law will catch on across the country.
The Second Chance Act that President Bush signed in 2008 was a step in the right direction, but it allocated no money — not a dime — to implement the programs it recommended. It took three years for any money to come. Even then, the appropriation was about $70 million divided among fifty states, including places like Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota, where reentry programs are almost nonexistent.
Education is the key. These times are drastically different from when I was coming of age. Even though I was a street hustler, I had the benefit of growing up during a time of enormous political change, social consciousness, activism, and progress. We had the civil-rights movement, the women’s movement, the antiwar movement, and the Black Panther Party. That heightened level of political and civil consciousness and activity does not exist today. So too many people go into prison devoid of any sense that they can have power over the direction of their lives.
But even in today’s prison environment people can learn. The best teachers are peers who have undergone their own journey of self-discovery and know it’s possible to move beyond the confines of prison.
Gray: You use Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed as a general framework. What makes his work resonate with you?
Ellis: Freire designed an educational approach for use in the slums of Brazil and other Central and South American countries. His “education for liberation” model is an entirely different concept than the U.S. school system, which is designed to create literate ruling and upper classes and oppressed working and lower classes. Freire said people must be educated in a way that lets them understand the nature of their circumstances and why they are in the positions they are in. Then, after being properly educated, they will have the tools to challenge that oppression. The traditional education system is a hierarchy with the teacher at the top and the student at the bottom. Freire says that relationship has to be replaced by a partnership and a dialogue between teacher and student, because the student may have experiences the teacher doesn’t. The learning-teaching dynamic becomes a two-way street. It allows the teacher to realize, “I don’t have all the answers.”
The formerly incarcerated also have lessons to teach us. We tell them, following Freire’s model, that there is value in their experience, and that they have the capacity to look at that experience critically and ask: What happened? How complicit was I in it? What were the outcomes? Who else was involved? How do I change it? When you begin to realize you have knowledge that the authority figures don’t, you start operating with a better sense of your own power.
Most reentry programs don’t take that approach; most don’t take race, class, gender, or regional culture into account either. A program for urban black New Yorkers won’t work in rural North Dakota, and vice versa. The Vera Institute of Justice, probably the preeminent criminal-justice think tank in the world, once ran a postrelease program for men coming out of prison in New York. They chose as their template what they termed an “evidence-based” program that had been quite successful in Toronto, Canada. As part of their study, they looked at a control group of formerly incarcerated New Yorkers who did not use their reentry program. After two years Vera found that those who went through the program had a higher recidivism rate than those who did not.
This type of one-size-fits-all strategy is a major cause of failures in reentry work. Adjusting for diversity in race, class, culture, and so on takes a little more work, and it’s a little more expensive, but in the long run the outcomes are much, much better.
Gray: What are the current rates of recidivism?
Ellis: Within one year, a third of those released from prison are back inside. Within three years, two-thirds have returned to prison. To me that says more about the failure of prisons, parole supervision, and reentry programs than it does about the failure of individuals. A formerly incarcerated person doesn’t exist in a vacuum but in a community that is under the authority of various institutions. Prison, parole, and probation systems are fundamentally flawed in their current form because of the one-size-fits-all mentality. They make it extremely difficult for the individual to undergo the kind of transformation this society says it wants. If, on top of that, the community to which the person returns has serious social, economic, and political deficits, we can expect repeated offenses. The recently released individual is all too often on a collision course with law enforcement.
In every black community in America it’s almost impossible not to know someone who’s been in prison: a father, a boyfriend, a nephew, an uncle, a niece, a cousin, a friend’s kid — somebody. The long-term vitality of these communities is tied to whether the formerly incarcerated will thrive there or return to a life of crime.
Gray: Ohio State University professor Michelle Alexander, a former criminal-justice fellow with Soros’s Open Society Institute, says that prisons are a contemporary embodiment of the Jim Crow laws that existed in the South under segregation.
Ellis: We’ve been saying the exact same thing for more than twenty-five years. But with her book, Alexander has brought more attention and clarity to this phenomenon than anyone else. She has been able to frame the problem with a narrative that the mainstream white population can understand.
Until Alexander’s book there had been a fundamental failure to acknowledge how often race dictates what transpires in the criminal-punishment system, especially the courts. Racial bias among judges and juries exists, even if most people refuse to admit it. There were 2.3 million incarcerated people in 2010, which is the last year the federal government published such data. Sixty percent of those 2.3 million were not white. Most of that 60 percent were black and brown. How does that happen if not through racial bias? And that’s not even counting the roughly 5 million people who are under supervision of the correctional system, whether on parole or on probation. Those 5 million are also overwhelmingly poor people of color.
Nationally more than half the people in prison are incarcerated on drug convictions, and the figure is as high as 80 percent in certain jurisdictions. In many instances the low-level drug dealers and the addicts are the same people; they were dealing drugs to support their habit. As a result the prison population rose exponentially during the ill-conceived War on Drugs, even as the overall crime rate was declining.
Black and brown street-level drug dealers and substance abusers are easy political targets. But a 2011 Duke University study showed that, although black teens are arrested for drug infractions at ten times the rate of whites, those black teens are less likely to use and become addicted to drugs than their white counterparts.
To sustain its war on drugs, the policymaking machinery had to demonize black men to the point that now any young black man with his pants sagging on his butt and a cap on backward or a hoodie is viewed as a criminal in uniform.
Gray: NuLeadership requires its members to publicly own up to their crimes.
Ellis: We see telling the truth about yourself as an act of liberation. When we plainly state who we are, where we’ve been, and how we went down that path, we gain credibility.
On the street I was a hustler who sold marijuana, but I was never arrested for or convicted of that. I went to prison because the government targeted me as a leader in the Black Panther Party and because the views I espoused were seen as antigovernment. Never in my life did I lay eyes on the person I’m accused of killing, and I had no motive to kill him. As much as I’m willing to talk about the criminal activity that I didn’t get convicted of, I will proclaim my innocence of that murder until the day I die.
Within one year, a third of those released from prison are back inside. Within three years, two-thirds have returned to prison. To me that says more about the failure of prisons, parole supervision, and reentry programs than it does about the failure of individuals.
Gray: Are there some released prisoners who can’t be rehabilitated?
Ellis: The hard-core, violent, antisocial criminal element comprises anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of the prison population. They’ve decided that a life of crime is the best way to go. Some have a psychopathic love of violence. A lot of them have mental-health issues. Prisons are necessary to contain that sort of menace to society.
There’s also a considerably less-violent stratum of people who simply don’t see any other future for themselves. They were petty criminals and drug dealers on the street; they’re petty criminals and drug dealers in prison. You can explain to them that, when you do the cost-benefit analysis, they would be better off in a ten-dollar-an-hour job. But for this group selling drugs is not just a means of income; it’s a way of life. No matter what you offer in the way of reentry services, most will end up back in jail.
The people who succeed in turning their lives around are the ones who come to see themselves in a totally different light. Maybe something cathartic happens that allows them to glimpse another possibility. Or maybe it’s a traumatic event. Maybe their mother dies while they’re in prison, and they can’t attend the funeral. Maybe they seek the counsel of a faith leader in prison. Maybe they decide to learn how to read and write. The people who succeed coming out of prison do so because they develop an alternate vision of their future. There are several examples on our staff: Divine Pryor, executive director of the Center for NuLeadership, will tell you that he used to hijack trucks and fur couriers. He spent twenty years in prison. Robin McGinty, a doctoral candidate in environmental geography at City University of New York’s Graduate Center, is one of just a few formerly incarcerated women who have a high profile in the public-policy-reform movement. I could go on. We have some white advisors, but most of us are black, because this is overwhelmingly a black problem.
Many people look at our organization and the men and women in it and say we are the exception rather than the rule. But we’re hardly the only ones who have resolved to change the course of our lives and then done it. Innumerable others have done the same thing. So it is not restricted to a few highly educated men and women. My optimism about what can be achieved is based on what I’ve experienced and witnessed all over the United States.
Gray: You continue to do this work even though you’re past the age at which most people have retired. What motivates you?
Ellis: It is my life’s work. My own son ended up in prison, for a far briefer time than I was incarcerated. Children who live in underserved communities where a disproportionate number of fathers are behind bars are at risk of following in their parents’ footsteps. And more and more mothers are going to prison too. Women’s prisons have the fastest-growing populations.
I felt tremendously disappointed in my son, but I also felt responsible for his involvement in the drug trade, because he’d heard that I’d been a dealer and that I’d been good at it. He wanted to be like me. But he was not selling marijuana, as I had; he was selling crack. He thought it would make me proud of him, and he resented my attempts to discourage him.
Thank goodness we were able to get him into a program for nonviolent youthful offenders. After he’d spent six months behind bars and five years on parole, his record was expunged. We were fortunate. He’s fifty now, with a wife and two children of his own, a good job, and family stability. So it turned out well.
Because of its flawed policies and dysfunctional institutions, this society incarcerates more people per capita than does any other nation. We can’t continue along this path. We cannot afford to keep viewing these issues in a vacuum. We’ve got to do a better job of connecting the dots. We need to go beyond the news story of some innocent child being shot dead or a law-abiding citizen being a victim of some random act of violence and have a deeper discussion about what promotes and what dissuades criminal behavior. We’ve got to put that in the headlines too if we’re going to change this trend.
As for me, I start from the proposition that no matter how bad things get, they can improve. The question is: How soon and to what extent? My job is to develop the next generation of leaders, who will make tomorrow better than today for the incarcerated, the formerly incarcerated, and everyone connected to that community of human beings.