FNew places in America better illustrate the inequalities of America’s prison-industrial complex than San Quentin State Prison in California.
The fortress-like facility sits on the waterfront, surrounded by the million-dollar homes of tech executives, across the bay from the glittering wealth of San Francisco. Inside, San Quentin houses some of the most secure prisoners in the state and, until recently, California’s death row. It was in this prison that the fight to end mass incarceration found an unlikely ally from across the bay: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
In 2015, he and Priscilla Chan, his wife, traveled to San Quentin to see a coding course for incarcerated people and learn more about the sprawling American prison system and its disproportionate impact on people of color.
“Making our criminal justice system fairer and more efficient is a huge challenge for our country,” Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook at the time. “I will continue to learn about this subject, but some things are already clear. We cannot imprison our way to a just society, and our current system is not working. »
A few months later, the couple’s baby girl, Max, was born, and the couple announced the $45 billion Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), a philanthropic vessel through which billionaires would donate 99% of their Facebook shares. Over the years, the CZI has invested more than $160 million in fighting criminal justice work. Billionaires make it one of their key issues, like their contemporaries in other fields, Marc Benioff and the end of homelessness, or Bill Gates and public health.
In 2021, the initiative announced its biggest investment in justice work to date, a commitment of $450 million over the next five years split between FWD.us, an existing immigration reform group and criminal justice under the CZI, and a new team called The Just Trust.
Perhaps Facebook’s business profile is increasingly complicated in the wider culture: is it a site that has brought people together around the world or hastened life’s growing polarization, radicalization and disinformation? American? But Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg are betting, and betting big, that criminal justice is the rare field where a variety of people can come together for something really good: keeping more Americans out of the prison system and giving them a fighting chance. something better.
The thesis of this investment, and in particular The Just Trust, is that Americans of all political stripes are unhappy with the current system of mass incarceration and open to changing things. The group, now one of the biggest funders of criminal justice reform in the country, says it aims to support efforts that “work across the country and across political divides.”
“That’s why criminal justice reform is so unique. We can really bring together a broad coalition of people who might disagree on literally everything else,” said Ana Zamora, CEO of Just Trust. The Independent. “They are in complete agreement about the reality value of criminal justice in America. It’s a huge system that takes a lot of taxpayers’ money and doesn’t deliver on its promise of security.
A test case of this approach can be found in Kentucky. The state, with Republican control of both houses of the legislature, is more conservative than most.
But has also been ravaged by the opioid crisis, with the nation’s second highest drug overdose death rate, According to the CDC. This makes many Kentucky leaders more receptive to an approach to criminal justice focused on treatment and rehabilitation rather than punishment.
Beth Davisson, senior vice president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Foundation, supported by Just Trust, said the state’s extremely low workforce participation rate, combined with the opioid crisis and the pandemic, has made the normally more conservative business community eager to get involved in criminal justice.
“In Kentucky, we have an exorbitant number of people entering the system due to substance use disorders and non-violent crimes,” she said. “In our state, we have a lot of compassionate legislators who really understand the disease of addiction and the role that incarceration and recidivism play in the disease of addiction. That comes from both slides.
The chamber helped push for the automatic erasure of ‘clean slate’ records after prison sentences, opening up professional licensing requirements for people with previous felony convictions and raising the threshold for felony theft to avoid over-incarceration of the poor.
He supported the 2020 Kentucky Comeback program, which has trained more than 2,000 employers in fair hiring and opened nearly 30,000 jobs to formerly incarcerated people.
Of course, viewing mass incarceration as a drag on business isn’t the only way to approach the problem.
The Just Trust has also supported the Kentucky branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which runs a program called Smart Justice Advocates that trains formerly incarcerated people to become criminal justice reform advocates.
“Most lawmakers don’t really understand until they have a loved one who is impacted by these issues, and so is much of the public,” said Marcus Jackson, the organization’s coordinator for the initiative. and participating in the program itself. The Independent. “It’s as if this light had to go out. They have to see that loved one, that person they know, they see that it’s a good person to be in some of these situations, before they really understand that it’s not a bad person. These are just errors. »
He has seen how effective this approach can be.
He remembers a state legislator who once said that incarcerated people should have their limbs cut off so they couldn’t be used to commit crimes. The Smart Justice Advocates program met him and he eventually became the sponsor of a bill that opened up the possibility for people with previous felony convictions to access the KEES education funding program from the State.
The group also threw its narrative muscle behind a 2021 bill that ended the automatic transfer of minors to adult court, and another on improving conditions for pregnant women in prison.
Their next priority is SB 379, a bill that would reduce the courts’ ability to label people as “persistent” criminals, a practice that often ended up with double prison sentences for those convicted of a single prior crime. .
It is a law that would have had a drastic impact on Mr. Jackson’s own life.
He was sent to prison in 1992 for a shooting he did not commit, triggering years of recurrence and pain for his family before someone else signed an affidavit in 2014 saying he had committed the assault.
“My daughter was five when I left and she was 15 when I returned,” he said.
A beloved grandmother, an “old woman from Tennessee” as he put it, who had always supported him and reminded him of the dignity of all, died while he was still inside.
“His words stuck with me,” he said. “They just lived inside of me. Never allowing anyone to make me feel a certain way about myself.
This focus on the dignity and perspective of members of the justice system is behind another Just Trust-supported project, the Prison Journalism Project, which publishes professional-quality reporting from journalists currently incarcerated.
According to founder and editor Yukari Kane, a former the wall street journal journalist.
“There is always a filter there. Outsiders can never enter these communities unless they have been there themselves. First of all, jails and jails are surrounded by physical walls meant to keep people out,” she said. “Most access, when you’re trying to write a criminal justice story, has to have administrative approval, which means you see a very filtered view of what’s going on inside.
The project is in 37 states and Washington DC, and has published nearly 500 writers. It also means training many more people, who have circulated the project’s training material among incarcerated people. Their reporters have written about everything from Covid outbreaks behind bars to personal essays on the race.
“How much is missed when people within communities are not able to tell their own stories,” Ms Kane added.
This type of coalition, bringing together business leaders, those directly affected, storytellers, etc., could be threatened by a cultural return to Tough on Crime-type ideas as places experience an increase in crime in the pandemic era.
“Because of this increase in crime, we’re seeing a media explosion of really frightening high-profile violence, and that’s being dragged into the political space,” Ms Zamora said. “It’s inevitable, these kinds of changes are going to happen. What we’re trying to do is invest and build a movement of defenders, despite the inevitable changes. That’s how you make lasting change. long-term.
Ana Zamora of Just Trust was a guest speaker at the US Labor and Justice Summit 2022 two days gathering of more than 150 business leaderspolicy experts and campaign organizations focused on how businesses can meaningfully engage with justice issues and creating change in the workplace and beyond. The Independent reported from AWJ 2022 as media partner.