National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Special Report
Issue Date:  May 23, 2003

All Aboard!

Building a movement means getting those without means to where the action is

“How do we get everybody here? How do we have family members? How do we have former prisoners? How do we really get people to participate?”

That was the buzz around the community of lawyers, organizers and educators working against the prison industrial complex in Atlanta when they heard last fall that Critical Resistance South would be holding a regional conference. The informal group, most of whom are associated with the Atlanta-based organizations Grassroots Leadership, Project South and the Southern Center for Human Rights, decided early on to rent an affordable bus to bring a contingent of professionals, former prisoners and the families of prison inmates to the gathering.

Immediately, though, the question became: Who would be able to afford to ride to New Orleans for a weekend of networking, strategizing and protest?

“How do you actually create change if you don’t have people that are affected by it involved in the changing process?” asked Kris Roehling, an organizer for the National Casework Program in the Atlanta office of Amnesty International who took the lead on arranging for the bus.

The answer from the Atlanta contingent was to fundraise madly while reaching out to former prisoners and their families in the Atlanta area. The result? When the “bus from Atlanta,” as it became known around the conference, pulled into New Orleans Saturday morning, two-thirds of its passengers were former prisoners, family members, and youth. In a reflection of prison populations, the majority of the riders on the bus were African-American men.

It should come as no surprise, said Marion Clein, that many of the former prisoners on the bus were also homeless. Clein is program coordinator for the Georgians for Equal Justice program Fairness for Prisoners’ Families, a project of the Southern Center for Human Rights that advocates for prisoners’ families on a policy level.

“So many people are decimated by this system,” said Clein. “There’s no support when they get out. They’re former prisoners, they can’t get a job. Well, what happens when you can’t get a job and you don’t have a family to take care of you? You end up homeless.”

One of the hidden aspects of imprisonment is the lifetime ban on voting that applies even to inmates who have served their time and been released. As of December 2000, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia all permanently bar ex-prisoners convicted of felony offenses from voting. The only way they can regain their voting rights is through a clemency procedure. In Florida alone, that means that more than 600,000 former prisoners are barred from voting.

When so many former prisoners are denied the basic civil right of voting, it’s no surprise that political activism seems a stretch. In addition, said Clein, former prisoners and prisoners’ families are often consumed by simply keeping their heads above water. Some are so wrapped up in legal appeals and in otherwise working on behalf of the prisoner in the family that there simply isn’t time for anything else, she said.

“What we really looked at, simply, was that there are a lot of people that can’t afford to get on that bus,” said Vanessa Filley, a paralegal for the Southern Center for Human Rights who rode with the group.

Grants from several justice and civil rights groups were essential to getting the bus on the road, said Roehling. Another human rights organization donated the cost of two seats that weren’t used by their staffers. Most essential, says Roehling, were the many individuals who donated between $5 and $200 each toward making the trip possible.

The seven-hour bus ride evolved into an organizing event in itself, said Roehling. “We used the bus to really build something in Atlanta,” she said. Rather than just watching videos and sleeping, passengers on the bus used the microphone to talk about their organizations and to share their experiences with the prison system. Since returning to Atlanta, the bus group has met once and plans to meet regularly to support one another and share information about the movement.

-- Lili LeGardeur

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 2003

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