Tim: When I was five years old I made a decision during ‘cops and robbers’ that I wanted to be a robber. Then I woke up in prison 35 years later and realized that that was the reason I was in prison, and that I needed to figure out how to get free from prison internally before they would actually let me out of prison. So right now I would consider myself a proponent of social justice and an opponent of injustice.
Elizabeth: I’m striving to make a better society in the world – one that’s based on the principles of equality and social justice. So I try to make everything I do contribute to having more understanding and justice within humanity.
ON HISTORY AND INCARCERATION
Elizabeth: I was born in the 80s and I saw the way that crap played out in our family. I saw the way that people were funneled into the criminal justice system based on the socioeconomic circumstances of their lives. And that is something that deeply shaped my childhood.
I didn’t start visiting Tim and other family members who are incarcerated until I was in graduate school. And I hadn’t actually been to a prison before. And when I – the very first time I visited Tim and actually stepped into the California prison system, to see basically generations of dads and their kids and mostly black and brown men, in this space and having to interact with their families under the gaze of guards, I wanted to understand how we came to this place.
This was over 10 years ago – before people were talking about mass incarceration or understood it in the way that they do now.
So I really wanted to understand the process that gave rise to people being systematically putting cages in the land of the free. This was the topic of my dissertation work as a graduate student in this eventually became the basis of a book.
Tim: [My daughter’s work and writing] is validation. It lets me know that there are people that really want to understand what incarceration is about and don’t simply feel like that if you’re in prison that you must be a terrible person.
For a long time I had this belief that there’s something wrong, but there was nothing else that I could do – it was all I knew. So during my last stint of incarceration I really wanted to understand what led to the systemic nature of it. And then I had an epiphany moment: This system figured that we couldn’t be ‘fixed’ as in the old days of social reform. And that actually monetizing this misbehavior actually served the purpose of the system because it provided ‘fuel’ for years to come.
Once I had that moment of realization I knew that I had to change. And figured that if I had been able to influence people to do negative things in the past, that I could transition myself to leave prison using the same kind of energy to make positive change.
And that’s exactly what I did.
CLOSEST TO THE PROBLEM = CLOSEST TO THE SOLUTION
Tim: The reason I know there is so much hope and future for returning citizens - so much opportunity to make at impact - is because I was embraced by LA voice - the organization that gave me a home when I came home.
L.A. Voice does a lot of voter engagement and a voter work. One day Rev. Zachary Hoover (director of LA Voice) trusted me with the responsibility of this work. He asked me, “Do you think you can handle more responsibility?” And I said, “Absolutely”, but that the only way I was willing to run the voter campaign and phone banking is if I could build a team of formerly incarcerated individuals.
So together we put together formerly incarcerated group of between 30 and 35 individuals and did voter outreach for several California propositions. And the team killed it!
Learning the election process and the data of voter engagement, I realized some of these elections of powerful people – and not only the state of California but the local elections – were winning their elections by just hundreds of votes!
I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve been in places – have been in institutions – where there are more people in the yard with me than this person when their election by.’ So what if everyone who was not in prison could actually vote and did vote?
So I started doing research and found out that in the state of California, if you’re in the county jail and have not been sentenced to prison you can still vote. If you’re in active probation in the state of California, you can vote. If you’re discharged from parole, you can vote. So there is an untapped voter power walking around in our cities in California that can turn any election if there engaged and educated and pointed in the right direction.
This is the kind of change we need because nobody is going to legislate us out of this hole that they’ve got a sin. It’s up to us. We have to believe in the power of voting. There’s just too much history – too many lives that have been lost for giving us that right, it’s time for us to take it back.
Elizabeth: One of the slogans that dad says over and over again is that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution. And that’s exactly why I think it’s so important that what ever kind of reforms, people have been through the system – formerly incarcerated people and their families – need to be at the forefront.
Tim: For me it’s the abolition of healthcare – the Affordable Care Act. If Republicans actually figure out a way to dismantle it it’s going to ruin the lives of people who look like me. But not just people like me – Republicans are willing to accept the collateral consequences of those actions even if it affects people who look like them.
I’m also concerned about 45’s potential inclination to federalize neighborhood sweeps in areas of gang activity. Which goes back to feeding the mass incarceration engine and criminalizing what they consider to be misbehavior. And for the most part all individuals want is to be heard.
Everyone wants the same picture – the house the family the kids. But some of us only know a certain means on how to achieve that because the system has barred us first for the color of our skin and because of that kind of discrimination it’s caused us to live a different life and lifestyle. And with that lifestyle come the consequences that they’ve figured out how to take advantage of. So that’s what I fear.
Elizabeth: I share those same those same fears. In Obama’s second term we saw a lot of really positive criminal justice reform. I think it’s what fueled some of the propositions that dad was working on here in California – prop 57 working on the phone bank and all of that.
But I’m really scared to hear the potential return of all of the stuff that I studied historically - of policies we saw under the Nixon administration that got us into this mess in the first place.
This Trump administration and people like Jeff sessions want to go back to these old programs that we know don’t work. That have failed in every respect and in many ways it’s very terrifying. With federalizing the so-called war on gangs coupled with the immigration policies of this administration. Which really translates into a rounding up of my people - those who are oppressed, who were formerly incarcerated, who are poor and don’t necessarily have the resources to have a different kind of future. So I’m really concerned that things might go back to something that’s way worse.
At the same time, organizations like LA voice and people like my dad - other people in my family, loved ones activists and organizers - are out there on the ground and give me hope that were mobilizing to be able to challenge these kinds of policies.
Tim: I mean the ideal description of what I think Donna – a government by the people for the people. That’s what I would think. Like an amazing and the magic part about that is because, in this country there are 70 million people with criminal records – and that means those who were criminalized at some point would have a part in making legislation and be able to help individuals similarly sit situated the lift themselves out of those circumstances. So that’s what I would create
Elizabeth: I would extend that and make sure that everybody… There’s no reason that people in a country as abundant as our is the people are hungry. The people shouldn’t have a decent place to live. Or have access to a quality education that they shouldn’t have resources at their disposal to be able to engage in the kind of life in creative pursuits work pursuits they want to in order to be their best selves. It’s a part of it is making sure that there is a more equitable distribution of resources so that there’s not this kind of stratification inequalities that we see in our society.
ON WORKING FOR CHANGE
Tim: What change looks like for me is voter engagement for returning citizens. A new voting block started in the city of Los Angeles and at some point spreading across all of California for everybody that’s walking around who is in a registered voter to take that power to the polls and make real change. That’s what change looks like to me. Whether it’s 100,000 individuals are amended million individuals – that’s real change.
Elizabeth: I think in order reach that goal of living in a more equitable society we first and foremost have to dismantle racism. And for me as a historian, the horse and traumas of this nation’s past really beginning with the genocide of Native Americans and slavery, is something we need to reckon with in order to move forward. So as a historian I’m committed to using our past to be able to help envision and make a more a future where people can be their best selves.
Elizabeth: My hope comes from my family. My hope comes from my ancestors. So many people have made sets of sacrifices to enable me to be where I am and enable me to not have the experience that a lot of other people in my family did – which is not to go to college like I did, and then go to graduate school, but instead to go to prison or wind up dead at a very young age.
So I guess what fuels me is to honor them in the work that I do and on either legacy in making sure the that kind of – that fate doesn’t the fall others. So first and foremost it’s about my family and my ancestors.
Secondly, because I consider myself to be patriotic – not in the sense of what people say when Donald Trump talks about patriotic – but meaning that I really believe in the values of this country... So because I believe in this country, I fight to hold it accountable for its founding principles and to make it the best America that it can be.
Patriotic means critiquing things. Patriotic means looking at the nightmarish chapters of our past and really dealing with that.
Tim: Faith is the resilience that comes in second chances. And you have to be resilient in order to be standing when that second chance comes.
Now were my hope comes from is that one individual... one concept, one idea... has always change the world. And a lot of times, those who had the idea don’t even make it around long enough to see change.
So when I look throughout history and see all the individuals who came up with these ambitions and ideas and concepts that nobody at the time thought were possible, I know our lives wouldn’t be that they are today without the crazy dreams.
That’s where my hope comes from that it all it takes is one person to impact the world that we live in. And I think that I may be that person. Or someone like me.
ON GETTING FREE
Prison is set up to create a group of individuals who have no direction. There’s no such thing as rehabilitation inside the walls - instead, we’re creating incarceration plantations. Warehouses, where the people are just fuel.
People come back often looking the same on the outside, but those places have the power of doing terrible things to you. And people really need support and understanding
We’re told that we’re supposed to return whole. But how can we when you’ve been in a box for sometimes ten or twenty years? Living in pressing sameness every single day - same people, same food, same traumatizing pain every day without anticipation of when they’ll come to the door and set you free.
And even when they to, you’re not actually free. You may walk away, but prison has claimed everything inside of you. So when people come home, they need all the love and understanding they can get.
LOVE. Sometimes that’s all an individual needs - for you to recognize what they’ve lost and to extend yourself unconditionally to care, to see them, and to help them on their way.