Bert Skellie, a 70-year-old retired state employee and civil rights activist, had known about bias in our nation’s criminal justice system for a long time.
All you had to do, he said, is witness who shows up in our courtrooms: mostly young black men. Nothing in his mind could justify a criminal justice system that had essentially eviscerated the African-American community, and black men in particular.
In his mind, that still holds true. Only now Skellie is working to bring about change.
One-third of black men in the U.S. are likely to spend time in prison at some point in their lives, the law professor wrote, only to find themselves falling into permanent second-class citizenship after their release.
That wasn’t exactly news to Skellie, but until then no one had presented the evidence – pages of statistical and legal citations – that Alexander had. And it wasn’t just that. Alexander went a step further, arguing that the crackdown had little to do with increased crime. It was a deliberate effort to push back the gains of the civil rights movement.
“Her book captured my attention because she had the credentials as a law professor,” Skellie said.
After attending a discussion about Alexander’s book in 2013, Skellie was done talking.
“We needed a movement to change the system,” he said.
He and others from that discussion group invited individuals and organizations that shared their concern to partner with them to end mass incarceration of African-Americans and the stigma associated with it once and for all.
Together they formed an End the New Jim Crow action group in Atlanta.
That was significant because Skellie didn’t want to be another white “do-gooder” who hadn’t had any personal experience with the system. To be effective, he realized he needed the personal stories and insights of people who had.
James Costen and Bonita Lacy had been there and back.
They believe there should be retribution for crimes committed, but blacks are seldom afforded the same parity and compassion when it comes to punishment.
What’s more, they say, the economic hardship families experience when loved ones are incarcerated often continues after release. A criminal record creates substantial obstacles to employment and decreases earning potential by 10 percent to 40 percent, compared with similar workers.
That isn’t something Costen and Lacy read in a study. They’ve lived it.
Lacy, a former HUD contractor who served seven years in federal prison for conspiracy to possess cocaine with the intent to distribute, said she has been blacklisted from ever working in her profession.
Now she helps other former convicts to become stable in the community and has been a staunch advocate for the Ban the Box campaign which seeks to persuade employers to remove from their hiring applications the check box that asks if applicants have a criminal record.
To this day Costen, who joined the action group two years ago, said he is haunted by his relationship with the criminal justice system dating back to his teen years.
“I didn’t grow up like I was headed for prison,” said the son of a preacher. But he spent a considerable amount of his life in and out of jail until 1996, when he was released after serving two years of a five-year sentence for a drug-related theft-by-coercion crime.
“I knew God was not pleased with my life,” Costen said. “When I got released, I decided to do the work necessary to change.”
Costen returned to school and in 2007 earned a BS degree in sociology from Kennesaw State University, and is close to completing graduate studies in sociology at Georgia State University. His research centered on mass incarceration, a term that refers to the dramatic increase in the number of people jailed in the U.S. over the last 40 years. According to an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic, the U.S. accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s inhabitants and 25 percent of its incarcerated inhabitants, the largest percentage of whom are black.
Despite efforts to turn his life around, Costen said he often felt out of sorts and stigmatized, that people were whispering about his past life.
“Sometimes I still feel like that,” he said. “It’s a scar that never goes away.”
When he was asked to speak at his church, Costen began researching the role of the church in response to mass incarceration, which led to his own ah-ha moment. He was surprised to learn that his late father, the Rev. James Costen Sr., a civil rights activist who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, had been doing this work since the 1980s.
“While I was incarcerated, he was advocating for this movement against mass incarceration,” Costen said.
Costen Jr. would go on to create his own movement to encourage collaboration between community stakeholders and church leaders, to share their convictions about unjust systems of mass incarcerations and to facilitate re-entry for former convicts.
As program director of the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, he trains members of the faith community how to counsel families affected by crime, incarceration, criminalization and stigmatization.
When he learned about Skellie’s action group, he said he was encouraged.
“I felt like I’d come home,” he said. “I still do. There’s such a need for returning citizens to feel like someone has their back. There are major stakeholders in the End New Jim Crow group who genuinely care and have skills and talents to actually make a difference in the system. We have people interested enough to go inside and help with legal defense. Scholars who can lead discussions. We’re beyond marching and we shall overcome.”
Skellie said he hopes the group can affect legislative change that will make the system fairer and less punitive, and will move toward restorative justice.
“We need a system that restores the bond between a person who breaks the law and the community,” he said. “We also should recognize the need for healing from the trauma due to law-breaking as well as from the trauma caused by incarceration.”
If you’re having a problem wrapping your heart and head around this, I recommend Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th.” The film’s title refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery except as punishment for a crime. The documentary details how prisons have largely become plantations, disproportionately warehousing and exploiting African-American men.
It’s eye-opening in the same way Alexander’s book opened Skellie’s eyes five years ago.
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