Editor’s note: Shandre Delaney’s son, Carrington Keys, was released from prison on May 15, 2018, after serving 20 years. He spent 10 of those years in solitary confinement. Since then, she has become a vocal advocate for her son and all prisoners. Read her piece with the Community Based News Room here. She joins us as a regular contributor on criminal justice.
I woke up in a state of deep fear and outrage. The racist and sexist undertones of the incoming administration made me feel that whatever progress had been made in this country was about to be taken back 50 years. I could see them chipping away at voting rights, civil rights, women’s rights and a woman’s right to choose.
In the age of social media, most of my interaction around voting took place online. There was a lot of debate on my social media feeds about whether folks would vote or not.
Many people I knew didn’t vote for a variety of reasons. Some felt they were used by the Democratic Party, pandered to for votes, then ignored once elected politicians were in office. Some stayed away from the polls because they felt after years of voting, their vote just wouldn’t matter.
There was, and still is, a divide in the African-American community around voting. While there are those that could vote but decided not to, others were incarcerated folks and disenfranchised folks who did want to vote. After the 2016 election outcome, if I was fearful for the future of my civil and human rights, my outlook for the rights of prisoners was even more grim.
Here it is – time to vote again. It is still important, especially at the local level.
Choosing a candidate who reflects our abolitionist vision
As a prison abolitionist and advocate for the incarcerated with Human Rights Coalition, I feel it is imperative to be a part of the political process to demand change and be a part of that change. The court system is the door to the school-to-prison pipeline. The bail system penalizes people for being poor. And police killings with impunity remain an issue of survival.
The district attorney is the most important person in the courts because they make the decisions that will impact a person’s life. Being a single mother who watched her children absorbed into the school-to-prison pipeline, I constantly witnessed injustice. I do not want this life for future generations of my family or community.
These are the reasons why no one can afford to not be engaged. When electing someone into the judicial system, particularly the district attorney, we must be concerned about how they will operate within our communities.
For years, Human Rights Coalition has been discussing ideas on forming a political action committee of prisoner’s families and what that might look like. We recognized that if there are 50,000 prisoners in Pennsylvania, then that amounts to the same number or more of constituents who are family members.
Our work intersects with several other abolitionist organizations in Pennsylvania, and we often work together to achieve common goals. In 2017, we were part of a coalition that participated in the successful campaign to elect civil rights attorney Larry Krasner as Philadelphia district attorney.
Attorney Krasner was known for his lawsuits against the Philadelphia police department and his defense of Black Lives Matter activists. The Philadelphia police have a history of racist brutality, as well as a history of framing people. What was most notable about him was his platform, which called for an end to cash bail, stop-and-frisk and mass incarceration. This was different from the regular “law and order” platform and exactly what we were working toward.
The former district attorney, Seth Williams, who had a long history of overzealous prosecution and protection of the corrupt police department, eventually was incarcerated for misconduct. During his years in the Philadelphia court system, Williams contributed greatly to the prison population. Philadelphia is the number one contributor to the Pennsylvania prisons and jails. Pennsylvania has the fifth-largest population of incarcerated people and the third-largest population of people under carceral control in the United States. Pennsylvania also holds the largest number of juvenile lifers, many sentenced during the “get tough on crime” years.
Prisoners guide the electoral campaign
To be a successful prison abolitionist, it is important that prisoners take the lead in guiding us on the outside. We are the voice and the boots on the ground for those on the inside. Pennsylvania prisoners play a major role in our efforts and strategies because they have a wealth of information that we on the outside don’t have access to. They are our witnesses and eyes on the inside. I’ve learned that prisoners have some of the best strategies and ideas. They are well-read and self-educated to the same degree – or even higher – than some college-educated individuals.
When advocating for prisoners, it is not our struggle, but the prisoners’ struggle, so we have no right to create the narrative. We follow their lead and work on the front lines to make change by being their voice and using our voting power. When we hold town hall discussions, the prisoners submit questions, and they reach out to their family members to attend and be their voice. In outreach efforts, the formerly incarcerated are among the canvassers going door to door.
In Pennsylvania, the formerly incarcerated are fortunate because they can vote once released. It is important that politicians understand that the voices of the incarcerated, the formerly incarcerated and their families matter and that they vote. Maybe one day, we can be our own super PAC.
Importance of working within the political system
In my home state of Pennsylvania, I have rallied at the state Capitol and spoke with our representatives about human and civil rights issues in Pennsylvania prisons. I also have been a part of many coalitions working toward goals of systemic change for our prisoners.
A consistent conclusion is that our fight not only lies in the streets, but in the courts and the justice system. We must work within the system to change the system. We cannot rely on government officials to make decisions regarding our loved ones. They do not have the best interest of prisoners in mind – they have the best interests of prison profiteers and their lobbyists. People must understand that laws are made according to the interest of filling prisons. As constituents and family members, we must be that cog in the wheel to block those capitalistic interests and expose the inhumanity of the prison system.
As across the country, in Pennsylvania, the “tough on crime laws” and “war on drugs” have caused distress in our communities and filled our prisons. Pennsylvania has nearly 50,000 prisoners in economically depressed rural areas, and those prisoners are funneled in from the larger urban areas of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. More than just an economic boom to poor rural towns, prisons are a tax incentive and population surplus that is used for gerrymandering as prisoners are counted as residents.
Taking our campaigns statewide
After our success in Philadelphia, we focused our attention on Pittsburgh. In May 2018, a community forum was held to question state representative candidates on their views toward social justice and reform. Former prisoners, family members, community members and the incarcerated were able to ask questions.
There, I was impressed with two Democratic Socialist candidates, Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato, who both went on to win the primaries, removing two long-term politicians from office. With what I’ve witnessed in Pittsburgh politics, it’s time for the old regime to step aside and hand the baton to our future, and these two are perfect. Both women have such a determined energy and bring something new to the political arena.
When posed questions on community concerns regarding social justice, I was pleased with their answers. We asked about the school-to-prison pipeline and policies that push children from schools into the juvenile justice system:
If elected what legislative solution to the unnecessary politicization of children would you bring to Pennsylvania?
Sara Innamorato said: “Schools become resources for the community. You not only invest in the students but the family and the community. Provide adequate funding for teachers so that they are not financially burdened. Adequate funding for social workers, nurses and counselors.”
Summer Lee: “We have the increasing presence of police. We want to look at the culture inside our schools. Is it a safe environment? Children must go through metal detectors but also past police officers. I would be a strong proponent of getting rid of them. Whenever there are police officers in school, students go to jail. There is a direct correlation there. Also, police officers are acting as first responders when students are having behavioral or mental health issues. They are not trained to take on children like that.”
We are affected by electoral politics whether we vote or not
I cannot claim to be a politically savvy person or even well educated in the political process. What I do understand is that we are affected by the decisions of those in office – whether or not we participate in the election process.
Politicians are employed by us, the people. When we don’t take an active role, we end up being oppressed and blindsided.
Though neither Summer Lee nor Sara Innamorato is in my district, I support them 100 percent. Once they are at the Capitol in Harrisburg, they will be our help in introducing and pushing forward bills that will help our Pennsylvania prisoners.
We have to do more than become more active in voting for change. It’s time for us to be a part of that change.
A statement by Summer Lee sums up my sentiments exactly: “If your politicians are not serving you, get rid of them. And if you don’t have anyone to vote for, run.”
This story was first published by Community Based News Room, a project of Law at the Margins, a nonprofit social justice and media organization based in New York City.