'so in your face you can't ignore it'
an interview with Pam Bailey about empowering D.C. inmates in the federal system as a voting bloc and voice for change through helping them tell their stories
The Des sat down with co-founder of More Than Our Crimes, Pam Bailey to discuss her work and opinions on the future of D.C. criminal justice reform.
This the second article in our series of Q&A interviews with leaders in D.C. criminal justice. In this series, The Des sheds light on the latest efforts of the D.C. criminal justice community and how our readers can get involved and make a difference.
The Des: Why did you found More Than Our Crimes?
Bailey: It all started actually when I was doing some volunteer work and answering letters from D.C. men in prison. And one of the letters I responded to was from Robert Burton, who has been in prison since two months past his 16th birthday. He went in on felony murder, which means he didn't actually shoot, He was just in the car. He is still in prison now, 26 years later.
And what I recognized in his letter was a very strong, articulate, thoughtful voice, and we partnered together. I'm a storyteller by profession, I'm a writer for a national international nonprofit by day, my paid job.
This was back before this last election. There was a real opportunity because you had people from both parties talking about criminal justice reform, which is really good. But the thing that was missing was everybody was always quick to to limit the conversation to non-violent crimes. In other words, they seemed really interested in reducing mass incarceration, but the reality is you can't actually significantly reduce mass incarceration if you do not include people who once committed violent crimes. Because they're, I think it's like two thirds of the people in the prison population. So you can't ignore that.
Number two, there's really sort of a false distinction, because even people who were labeled as committing violent crimes can change. They can be rehabilitated, they can become different people, they can be productive members of society and it's ridiculous to exclude them and think that they deserve to be in prison the rest of their lives with the key thrown away.
So the initial purpose of teaming up together was to use storytelling about Rob and the other people that he started introducing me to, to try to really show the humanity behind the labels.
A secondary part of it is focusing on DC people because that's who I was getting to know. But DC people have an extra set of problems I think other people don't:
DC doesn't have its own prisons, so they're sending them to the federal system which means they're all over the country. And it's like, out of sight out of mind. I mean, it's this sort of that way for really anybody in prison, but it's particularly true for the DC people because the federal system doesn't get much attention. Number one, because most people are in state prisons and most of the focus is on state prisons. And two, the federal system is so hard to change because it's Congress.
We started a blog, we have the website, but the blog is where we mostly publish. We just got a grant. The people in prison there don't vote. We thought this is a perfect opportunity to really use this network that Rob and I grew: we have about 200 people now, the DC guys. What we've done is we want to get them to vote.
So with the grant, what we're doing now is we send a newsletter in to all the guys on our list to really keep them in tune with all the issues. So they understand that there's actually issues that affect them, or will affect them, they should care about. So when midterms come up, they're going to want to vote.