By Scott Johnson • March 3, 2011
They have turned around their own lives, and now they want to turn around the direction of the U.S. prison system.
That is part of the message being presented by a group of formerly incarcerated people from across the country that employs the slogan “serving our country after serving our time.”
Dubbed the Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People Movement, the group met Monday through Wednesday in Montgomery and Selma.
It is the first time the group has gathered in one location, and the choice of Montgomery and Selma was no accident.
“It is like our path was cut in the civil rights movement, and we are just bringing it back where it started,” said Dorsey Nunn, a rights advocate and former inmate from San Francisco who helped organize the meeting.
The group met Monday in Montgomery to discuss strategy.
Members marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on Tuesday and met with state leaders at the State House on Wednesday.
The Rev. Kenneth Glasgow of Dothan helped organize the gathering. Glasgow is the founder of The Ordinary People Society, an out reach group for inmates and former inmates.
Glasgow said group members Wednesday spoke with legislators, Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb and Gov. Robert Bentley.
Glasgow said the formerly incarcerated bring a valuable voice to discussions about prison reform.
“When they use us (as a re source), they are talking to experts by experience — those who have been there, done that,” Glasgow said.
Group members emphasize their focus on public service, and they visited an alternative school in Selma on Tuesday as part of a gang- prevention effort.
Glasgow said the group also plans to work with victim rights groups to help make amends for crimes.
They also, however, hope to change some public policy and reform the way the nation’s prison systems operate.
To stress the importance of their cause, members point to issues such as the cost of prison overcrowding and how barriers to re-entering society might make felons more likely to return to crime.
Susan Burton created A New Way of Life, a Los Angeles re-entry program, in 1998. She said her drug and alcohol addictions led to six trips to prison, with her last release in 1996.
Burton said the time has come for like-minded people to unite on the issue of prison reform.
“We have no other way to go but to get together and figure it out,” said Burton, who was named a CNN “Top 10 Hero” for 2010.
Glasgow said he and Nunn have worked for a long time to organize such a gathering.
“It has been a vision for years,” said Glasgow, founder of The Ordinary People Society.
Malik Aziz, founder of the National Exhoodus Council, said the group wants to be an active partner with law enforcement without alienating those who still are incarcerated.
“We want to be a community partner — a legitimate, recognized partner (with law enforcement). We won’t be an informer. That is not what our relation with the police is,” said Aziz, a former gang leader from Philadelphia.
Many of the group members talked about the large numbers of prisoners being released back into society.
More than 700,000 prisoners have been released from state and federal custody each year from 2005 to 2009, the most recent year for which the U.S. Department of Justice has gathered statistics.
Many of those people will return to poor economic conditions on top of the barriers to their re-integration into society, said Eddie Ellis of New York.
“There’s been no real discussion of what to do with those people,” said Ellis, co-founder of the Center for Nu Leadership on Urban Solutions at the City University of New York’s Medgar Evers College.
Gabriel Sayegh, New York director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said prison reform is a non-partisan issue.
Sayegh pointed out that critics on both sides of the political aisle have called for prison reform, including Newt Gingrich and the conservative group Right on Crime.
“There is widespread recognition that what we’ve got has failed,” said Sayegh, who was part of a group of sup porters who joined the gathering but are not formerly incarcerated.
The Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit organization with a stated goal of ending the War on Drugs, helped fund the gathering.
Nunn said the three-day gathering was a success be cause it was the first time it has happened.
He said the next one will be in Los Angeles and will be even bigger as group members recruit other activists.
“It will be double or triple the size of the people we had here,” Nunn said.