On Tuesday April 18, 2017, a crowd gathered for “ Decarcerated: What Justice Looks like”, a series of personal accounts and conversation at BRIC House Stoop. Moderator of the town hall was Marlon Peterson, a social and criminal justice advocate, writer, educator and host of Decarcerated, a podcast which documents the success of formerly incarcerated people.
The first speaker of the night was advocate Teresa Y. Hodge, the co- founder of Mission Launch, a non-profit organization focused on introducing technology and entrepreneurship to previously incarcerated individuals. In 2007, Teresa had been sentenced to 70 months in federal jail. During her time in prison she began listening to the stories of other women who served time alongside herself.
“I paid particular attention to the stories of women who had already been jailed previously and had come back,” said Teresa. “I understood immediately that there had to be a disconnect with these people who came back to prison. Most of the time the women I spoke to explained to me, that they had a hard time reconnecting with their family and readjusting to life back outside. Our society has normalized prisons so much, there is a need to rehabilitate and humanize the system again.”
Topeka K. Sam, the founder of The Ladies of Hope Ministries (LOHM), an organization which helps marginalized women to transition back into society by providing education and resources, spoke next.
“I was working as a chairperson in a union, while I landed a conspiracy drug charge. I was taken to jail in Virginia. There I got to know the other women well. Most of them were there for petty theft, trying to feed their addictions,” Topeka shared. “When I got out, I started LOHM with the intention of trying to help other women. How do I advocate for others, if I can’t take care of my own basic needs? That’s where LOHM comes in and tries to meet the needs of women coming out of incarceration.”
Brownsville native Andre T. Mitchell, the founder of Man Up! Inc., also shared his experiences. While he always had been a good student in school, he realized, as he got older, that the cool kids were the ones smoking pot and cutting class.
“When I became a father in my late teens, minimum wage jobs weren’t cutting it to support my family. But I knew all the drug dealers in my hood always had money – so I became one of them.”
“When I became a father in my late teens, minimum wage jobs weren’t cutting it to support my family. But I knew all the drug dealers in my hood always had money – so I became one of them.” Suddenly, at a very young age, he faced a murder charge and a very long time in jail. “I ended up going to Rikers at 17 for murder,” Mitchell recalled somberly. “I took my case to trial, got it reduced to manslaughter, and spent the next 15 years incarcerated.”
Cory Greene came from Queens, New York, to tell his story. Cory is a co-founder, co-director, and organizer of How Our Lives Link Altogether! (H.O.L.L.A!), a non-profit organization that develops youth leadership and provides resources for the formerly incarcerated. He and Marlon Peterson met in prison, where the two became friends while sharing their plans on how to pursue success once they left prison.
“At a young age I had learned what it meant to be black in America,” Cory explained. “It was in the sardines I ate for dinner every night.” Growing up poor and with a distant, drug addicted mother, Cory turned to the streets. “At 21 I was involved with a homicide, with a son on the way.”
Khalil Cumberbatch, another Queens resident, came to the U.S. from Guyana when he was four years old. “Some friends of mine and I robbed a woman on Park Avenue and 96th Street. Anyone can tell you that’s a bad place for a robbery. I got 11 years for it, and the judge implied that the sentence was harsh not because it was particularly vicious, but because the woman who I robbed was white.” After his release from prison, Khalil focused on his education. Today Khalil is currently the Manager of Trainings at JustLeaderShip USA, an organization that empowers people affected by incarceration to drive policy reform.
“Meaningful change only happens, when you bring people to the table to talk about issues that affect them.”
As the floor opened up to questions from the audience, the speakers continued to describe how inhumanely society can treat formerly incarcerated people. Topeka, Sam and Khalil particularly stressed their dislike of the terms ‘ex convict’ and ‘felon’.
“Whenever I hear those terms being used, I can feel something being triggered within me,” Topeka described her sentiments. “Those words don’t define me – formerly incarcerated is what I prefer to use. Or better yet, Topeka works.” Khalil nodded in agreement. “When you start to use those terms like parolee or felon, you buy into the criminality, the hierarchy which society puts you on the bottom of,” he explained. “Meaningful change only happens, when you bring the people to the table to talk about the issues that affect them. For that reason we need formerly incarcerated people to come out and advocate along with the support of the public.”
Ending the night with an artistic and inspirational treat, artist Eliza B. performed some of her music and poetry, much to the delight of the crowd.