Parlaying the Prison Experience

Article excerpt

NuLeadership, a think tank staffed with formerly incarcerated researchers, lobbies for ex-prisoners to have a say in criminal justice policymaking.

At the close of almost 25 years of winding through New York state's prisons, former Black Panther Eddie Ellis walked away in 1994 with four college degrees he earned while incarcerated and kept treading his singular path as an activist on the issues of police, courts, crime and punishment. As he had done in prison, he organized felons and former felons. He conducted community workshops, lectured and lobbied. In 2000, before conferees who, except for him, were White criminologists and law enforcement officials, Ellis dared to ask how, given the topics at hand, he was the solitary ex-prisoner and sole Black among the invited analysts.

"None of them, of course, (were) directly related to the Black and Latino communities, the substance-abuse communities, prison communities. So when it was my turn to speak, that had to be the first question I put on the table," says Ellis, 67, founder and executive director of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions. Housed the last five years at Medgar Evers College, the City University of New York's Brooklyn outpost, NuLeadership was officially christened an academic center by CUNY administrators in December.

NuLeadership, the only think tank of its kind devoted to analyzing and helping rejigger a variegated U.S. system of justice, is started full time almost entirely by ex-prisoner researchers.

Its second tier of researchers comprise the NuLeadership Policy Group, a nationwide complement of what its administrators count thus far as 300 ex -prisoners of a certain profile: Each must have been out ol prison at least five years. Each has publicly stated the reasons they landed behind bars. Each holds at least a bachelor's degree. Each is an executive in an organization addressing head-on the policymaking aspects of adjudicating crime. Equally to the point, they are helping shape policies surrounding the re-entry of ex-prisoners into nonprison life. Annually, roughly 700,000 people across the country are returning to their home communities of mainly minorities and poor people. NuLeadership and like-minded policymakers contend these ex-prisoners should have some say m the methods and mechanisms - from mental health counseling to jobs, education and housing programs - involved in that return.

"When criminal justice policymaking happens, it's important that the formerly incarcerated are an essential part of the discussion. It adds a certain cultural competency to that discussion," says Glenn Martin, 38, vice president for development and director of the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy at the Fortune Society, a New York project fixed on post-prison re-entry and alternatives to incarceration, particularly for nonviolent crimes.

He was born in Brooklyn's Bedibrd-Stuyvesant neighborhood and was a criminal from the time he was a teen until an armed robbery conviction brought him six years at Attica. There, through a now moribund prison-based college study program, he earned a bachelor's degree in social science from Jesuit-run Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y. Martin says engagement as a member of the NuLeadership Policy Group is tantamount to a second job. "NuLeadership demands extra time out of my schedule. But it brings an incredible value to my work and affords me a certain type of credibility among my constituents," says Martin, who left prison about nine years ago.

NuLeadership already has calculated the impact of such recent legislative initiatives as a proposed ratcheting up of federal laws against gangsters and gang violence. NuLeadership also was part of a coalition that championed the enactment of prison health care reforms and the reversal of the extra-punitive Rockefeller drug laws. Adopted during the 1970s heroin scourge, the Rockefeller laws ordered mandatory prison sentences for first-time drug offenders, including those convicted of low- level drug crimes. …