Welcome to the fifth installment of NPI at Netroots Nation 2022, a special limited podcast series recorded live from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh. NPI staff journeyed to Steel City this past week to participate in the nation’s largest annual gathering of progressive activists.
As part of our conference coverage, we’re bringing you a series of conversations with key movement leaders and elected officials.
In this installment of NPI@NN, we’re honored to be joined by Nicole Porter, Senior Director of Advocacy at The Sentencing Project. Press play below to listen to the audio, or read the transcript below.
Read the transcript
(Note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity)
CAYA: Welcome to NPI at Netroots 2022, a special limited podcast series from the Northwest Progressive Institute recorded live from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania! I’m your host Caya Berndt. We’re super glad to have you with us. For this installment, we are excited to be joined by Nicole Porter, the Senior Director of Advocacy for The Sentencing Project.
NICOLE: Thank you so much for having me, Caya. Appreciate being here.
CAYA: We really appreciate you being here too! [Why don’t you start by telling us] about who you are and what your organization is? What do you do?
NICOLE: Sure. Well, The Sentencing Project is a research and advocacy organization based in DC.. We’ve been around since the mid-eighties. We do research related to incarceration, and are working on a more humane response to crime and crime prevention through a racial justice and gender justice lens.
I am the Senior Director of Advocacy. I’ve been with the organization for over a decade, and my portfolio is based mostly on state issues and state advocacy. I work with our staff and colleagues and sister organizations to challenge mass incarceration and expand voting rights to people regardless of their criminal or legal background I most recently published a report on prison closures and prison repurposing, which I’m very excited about.
CAYA: Yeah. I’d like to know a little bit more about that report. Can you tell us about what’s in it?
NICOLE: Sure. The key finding of the report is that since 2000, at least twenty-one states fully closed or partially closed at least one correctional facility, and taking over 81,000 prison beds offline. The report also highlights examples of prison reuse in states like New York, Michigan, and Tennessee.
In Tennessee, a closed prison has been repurposed to a whiskey distillery and event space. In New York, a closed prison has been repurposed to a movie studio. And I’m very excited about a current project that the report highlights in Texas, my home state, where a closed a prison, which sits on a nature conservancy, is being repurposed for community space. So the purpose of the report was to document what can happen when a prison is closed. And there have been openings for prison closures dating back to 2000, as the report highlights for many reasons. States over the last twenty, thirty years have gone through fiscal crises, recessions, and that has created pressure to reduce state budgets. And one key way to reduce state budgets is to reduce its correction system.
So, certainly in the 2010–2011 recession, that created pressure for states like New York and states like Texas to close prisons. And once prisons are closed, planning for their reuse is important because if not, they can be reopened for additional correctional purposes. There’s been examples of closed adult prisons in the state criminal legal system being repurposed for immigrant detention.
There’s been examples of closed youth prisons being transferred to the adult criminal legal system. So it’s very important for officials to not just end stakeholders’ decarceration advocates, to not just focus on the closure itself, but to actually plan for what can happen with the correctional facility once it’s closed, to be repurposed for a new use.
CAYA: That’s really interesting. I would’ve never have thought about that. It’s almost like once that vacant space and its purpose is there, it still remains open for continued exploitation. So it’s almost like… shutting it down before that can happen.
NICOLE: Absolutely. And in fact, some prisons, when they’re closed, they do what’s called a “soft closure,” or “warm closure.” In fact, in Washington State, there are examples of this now – I’m sorry, not Washington State, Oregon – there are examples of this, because there’s been one or two prisons in the last year or so that were announced for a warm closure, which means the prison isn’t fully shut down. There are still staff paid to make sure the water runs, to secure the facility, and the announcement of the warm closure, the pretext for that from the governor and from the state officials, was that in case the prison population increases again, we wanna make sure that the prison is ready to disappear new residents to it for further incarceration purposes.
So the reality is this: the United States still has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Even though there’s been a modest decline, since the prison population peaked in 2009, even with that modest decline, there’s still way too high of a prison population. And because we have such a high prison population, the United States overbuilt its prison system in the seventies, eighties, and nineties as a response to the increase in crime, and as a response to the increase in the prison population that started in the early seventies.
Now, other countries also had an increase in crime at the same time that the United States did in the early seventies, but they did not choose to respond with punitiveness that then led to an increase in prison admissions and lengthening terms of stays in state and federal prison systems, which then led to an increase in the number of prison beds in prison facilities around the country.
So what the United States needed to do now, even in the midst of shifting crime trends, rather than rely on the status quo that disappears its most marginalized and disenfranchised residents to prison, the United States should be prioritizing prevention-based public safety solutions, community based public safety solutions that understands that everybody in this country, regardless of what zip code they were born into, or what community they were born into, has a future and deserves a future. And so the United States should be working now to correct for the harms of the last fifty years of the mass incarceration era, even in the midst of concerns about crime, to be focusing its resources on prevention-based solutions, rather than the status quo practice of disappearing people to prison and sustaining the high incarceration rate that the country has.
CAYA: Absolutely. And again, I like what you mentioned about this influx of building prisons, because I think that there can be… people are more concerned about crime than there is actual crime, if that makes sense.
NICOLE: Yes. There is a misperception of crime because of the way crime is covered, particularly on the local news. If you can imagine older people who are homebound, who may not have access to other forms of entertainment, just their local TV stations, are inundated with stories of crime, and have a misperception of the prevalence of crime within the community. Now, the reality is that there are some neighborhoods, even in the midst of a crime decline – because crime started declining in the early nineties – as a progressive, I don’t wanna minimize or dismiss the prevalence of crime in some communities.
The reality is that crime is too high in some communities, but the way in which the United States has responded to that, with the overpolicing, with the extraction of residents for a range of offenses, because we send people to prison for things in this country that they just don’t get sent to prison for in other parts of the world, the lifetime collateral consequences that we subject residents to…it’s a completely outrageous response to crime breaking in a way that dehumanizes residents, and uses the criminal legal system as a pretext for that dehumanization.
Regardless of someone’s [law]breaking, there’s still a human and there’s still a citizen. And the problem in this country – this is because of a through line of the racial caste system – is that the way the criminal legal system currently operates is to not just dehumanize American citizens and American residents, particularly for residents who may not have citizenship, but it also strips people, citizens, of citizenship, and then undermines the ability of residents to become citizens.
That is because of the way the criminal legal system has evolved in the context of this country, given the racial caste system, and given the extension of law enforcement as a way to mediate between the citizen, and the resident, and the state, and their relationship as an American citizen within this country.
CAYA: Thank you, that was a fantastic answer.
And the disenfranchisement and the stripping of citizenhood, that’s what shows up in not extending voting rights to people with different criminal convictions or different felony convictions. To give a bit of my personal experience, I have encountered a lot of pushback when I’ve brought that up with people, even people who might otherwise be well-meaning. They still might be resistant to the idea of letting people with felony convictions vote, because our criminal justice system is modeled in such a way that communicates that some actions make you no longer worthy of participating in our democracy.
And I feel like there are some people that still believe that. So what would be the best way to go about a conversation with somebody who is resistant or hesitant on the idea of giving voting rights back to felons?
NICOLE: Well, the Sentencing Project believes that once someone gets their voting rights, they should certainly never lose them. And the United States is an outlier amongst western democracies that denies voting rights to people with criminal legal conviction histories. In some states, people lose their voting rights for life. So they could have committed a felony offense in their early twenties, which is common in this country, given the over-policing of neighborhoods, particularly starting in the eighties during the start of the War on Drugs.
You can imagine young men, young men of color, driving through a neighborhood in Houston, or Atlanta, or Birmingham, being stopped for a traffic infraction, and the interaction escalating, as many people have witnessed over the last couple of years with the examples of George Floyd, and other high-profile police interactions that quickly escalate, and that young man in Houston, Atlanta, or Birmingham, getting a felony case.
And the reality is that the increase of contact with law enforcement started in the eighties, and has been a driving force in mass incarceration, contributing to the skyrocketing prison system, which then extends to a skyrocketing number of people impacted by collateral consequences, including a loss of voting rights.
In fact, as of 2020, the number of people who could not vote because of a felony conviction in this country was over five million. And the majority of those individuals were living in the community. They were not in prison.
There were about two million in prison. So, more than three million, were living in the community and disenfranchised from voting. Those individuals live in states like Virginia and Kentucky, and are disenfranchised for life unless they get a pardon from the governor, or receive some other remedy. But in Virginia, over 300,000 people are disenfranchised from voting. In Kentucky, over a hundred thousand people were disenfranchised from voting. The state that had the most, that has the largest disenfranchised population, is Florida.
Now, Florida had a major reform in 2018 by expanding voting rights to people once they completed their sentence (most people), and about a million people got their voting rights back. Significant reform.
But it still has a too large voting ban, because people currently serving their sentence on probation or parole in that state can’t vote. But the reform that got adopted a few years ago, by over 60% support of Florida voters, Amendment Four, was significant and huge, and really helped to build momentum for the need to expand voting rights, and end these voting rights bans.
So the reality is that when somebody is arrested and convicted, for breaking a law, for crime breaking, they lose liberty.
They’re subjected to a term of imprisonment, a jail term. They may be subjected to a period of community supervision, probation.
That is the sentence. People’s movement is restricted. If they’re sentenced to prison or jail, they have somebody that has to tell them when to wake up. Somebody puts them in their cell, forces them into their cell, and limits when they can move about. They can’t go, they can’t travel, even if they’re under community supervision, they have to get permission from their probation or parole officer to travel out of their home jurisdiction – certainly out of state.
I work with formerly incarcerated activists who are still on parole supervision. I organized a meeting of people in Denver a few weeks ago. Several of the folks had to get permission from their parole officers in order to come.
And these are grown people, some of them elderly, who had to get permission, like they’re teenagers, and they have to ask their parent for permission to go somewhere. That is a penalty! So the idea that we would attach additional penalties onto that, among the most extreme being the loss of voting rights, other penalties include legal discrimination, literally, for employment because of someone’s criminal background history, legal housing discrimination in public and private housing, because of someone’s criminal background.
That is why it’s the people who are resistant to the idea of voting rights. Why should we care about voting rights? People should care because, rest assured, that the millions of people who are in prison, in jail today, and the additional millions who are living in the community under probation or parole supervision, they are being punished. People in this country do not have to worry about punishment, given the extreme severity of punishment that many people are subjected to. We have over 200,000 people in this country sentenced to life imprisonment. We still sentence people to death.
There’s still been executions this year, in this country.
People should not dismiss or minimize the level of extreme severity that the American legal system subjects its citizens and its residents to. An extension of that are voting bans and felony disenfranchisement. People should be concerned by that, because the way in which the system now functions is that the government, the criminal legal system, can mediate between the citizen and the electorate. And if somebody is under criminal legal supervision, or has contact with the criminal legal system in some states like Virginia or Kentucky, for life. So that’s why people should be concerned. And that was a very long answer!
CAYA: It was fantastic. And I think it really got to the heart of the conversation, and that is the fundamental liberty that everybody is entitled to.
NICOLE: Yeah, people dismiss the liberty part. The fact that people actually lose it when they’re convicted of a crime. And it’s not to say that people shouldn’t be held accountable, but people are being sentenced to decades-long prison terms, and they’re being subjected to lifetime-long collateral consequences. And the loss of liberty is a significant experience that people are subjected to. So people should not minimize that.
CAYA: We’re running close to time here, [so] before we go, I have just have one more question for you: for those listeners who are wanting to learn more about the history of incarceration or some of these topics that you’ve brought up, are there any books, any podcasts, anything that you would recommend for somebody who is wanting to learn more about this subject?
NICOLE: Well, they can visit us online at sentencinggproject.org. We do have a primer on felony disenfranchisement, which is a good explainer, a good background document. Also stay in touch with us, visit us online, sign up for our email list, because we’ll be having an upcoming national report that updates the estimates on people impacted by a felony disenfranchisement in the next couple of months, so stay tuned for that. And books! There’s so many.
What I’m reading right now, I’m reading The 1619 Project, which is the book that updates the work that Nikole Hannah-Jones was doing with the New York Times a couple years ago. It’s fantastic, as of course the series was, or the special insert was. It really provides a great overview of not just justice issues, but a range of other issues, including, traffic and healthcare, in how anti-Black racism influences policy in the United States. So I would recommend listeners read that.
CAYA: Alright, thank you very much.
That was Nicole Porter with the Sentencing Project, and that was this installment of NPI at Netroots Nation 2022! Please feel free to join us for the next installment. For NPI, I’m Caya Berndt.
Readers can view an online version of the report mentioned in this episode (Repurposing Correctional Facilities to Strengthen Communities) at this link.