What Do Prison Families Think of Hillary's Promises About Mass Incarceration?

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Ronald Simpson-Bey remembers the day the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act was signed into law. “April 24, 1996,” he recalls. At the time he was entering his second decade behind bars and working for Prison Legal Services of Michigan, helping fellow prisoners with their appeals. The landmark legislation, signed by President Bill Clinton in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, sharply curtailed the federal habeas appeals of people in prison, including those facing execution. Simpson-Bey’s office was already so swamped there was a five-year waitlist for new clients. Suddenly, all these people faced a one-year deadline to challenge their cases in federal court. “We panicked,” he recalls. “We were like, oh hell no.” Incarcerated since 1985 for shooting at a police officer (a crime he insisted was carried out by an associate who turned state’s witness), Simpson-Bey was a self-taught paralegal, able to adapt to the stringent new standards the AEDPA imposed on his own case. But for others, who did not understand the law, it swiftly closed the door on their federal appeals. “It was so traumatic,” Simpson-Bey says. “Heartbreaking.”

We were discussing Hillary Clinton’s recent vow to “end the era of mass incarceration,” a lofty promise that would mean undoing decades of criminal justice policy, including sweeping measures enacted by her husband, largely with her support. The groundwork for mass incarceration may have started years before, but “Clinton was the biggest prison builder in the country,” Simpson-Bey said.

The AEDPA was not the first time Clinton had shown how punitive a Democrat could be. Two years earlier, Clinton had signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (known as the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill) — a grab bag of “tough on crime” legislation that poured billions of federal dollars into new prison construction and hundreds of millions in incentive grants for states to pass Truth-in-Sentencing laws. Then there was the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which made it more difficult for prisoners to challenge their conditions of confinement. Supporters said it would curb “frivolous lawsuits.” But Simpson-Bey, who was part of a historic class-action in Michigan demanding better psychiatric services and less time in segregation, knew it was about much more than that. “This was an era where they were building these prisons and, at the same time, making it harder for people to get out by denying access to courts,” Simpson-Bey explains.

Simpson-Bey finally left prison three years ago, taking a plea deal after his conviction was overturned. In total he spent 27 years behind bars. Today he works for the American Friends Service Committee and is active in groups like the recently launched JustLeadershipUSA, which seeks to cut the US prison population in half by 2030. Simpson-Bey was among the attendees last week at the InterNational Prisoner’s Family Conference in Dallas, TX, a volunteer-run gathering of activists, ministries, and people with loved ones behind bars. Many participants were once in prison themselves. The presentations were in many ways a devastating reflection of what the Clinton era wrought: families suffering the stigma and isolation of having a loved one on a sex offender registry (the 1994 Crime Bill mandated that states begin tracking sex offenders); fathers trying to overcome barriers to reentry (Clinton’s 1995 welfare reform banned federal benefits like housing assistance and food stamps to felons); death row families on the “disenfranchised grief” of those whose relatives are condemned to die (Clinton personified the Democrats’ embrace of capital punishment, attending the execution of a brain damaged man while on the campaign trail and expanding capital crimes).

As the conference got underway, Clinton himself was making headlines for telling CNN that his 1994 Crime Bill “cast too wide a net” and put “too many people in prison.” On the heels of Hillary’s big criminal justice speech, the political calculus was clear. But in Dallas, no one seemed to be paying much attention to what either Clinton had to say. Instead, there were tips to share about navigating the prison bureaucracy that rules so much of their lives. There was the need to grapple with the “ripple effect” of incarceration (often referred to by the more clinical “collateral consequences”) — the way the criminal justice system splits families into pieces. When veteran activist Barbara Allen described in her thick New York accent how her late husband’s imprisonment in 1966 marked the start of her serving her time, the audience murmured with recognition.

Allen founded Prison Families Anonymous on Long Island 40 years ago. Although she rejects the label “support group” — “we’re a family” https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/05/13/prisoners-family/

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