Prison reform organization celebrates 40th anniversary. From Left to Right: Davey D, Michelle Alexander, Marc Lamont Hill, Vonya Quarles. Photo provided by: Legal Services for Prisoners with Children

Oakland organization celebrates 40 years of prison policy reform and legal advocacy

on October 15, 2018

The members of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC) celebrated their 40th-anniversary last week at the Scottish Rite Center in Oakland. The group provides legal advocacy and works to create policies that will positively affect those who are in prison or have recently been released from it.

“The way that people look at prison right now in this moment is different than how people looked at prison 40 years ago. Having a sold-out event, a room full of people to discuss prison reform, is new,” said Dorsey Nunn, the group’s executive director.

Nunn was sentenced to life in prison with possible parole when he was 19 years old after being convicted of murder for a store robbery turned homicide. He was released on parole at the age of 30. As a formerly incarcerated man, Nunn spoke about the need for prisoners to have humane living environments and proper treatment as prison workers, and his organization’s work to help people when they’re released. “So much history takes place over 40 years. I think that Legal Services is evolving. It’s evolving in a good way, said Nunn.

Nunn described LSPC as a group that has welcomed people who were overlooked by other organizations. “It was formerly incarcerated people that was welcome into the space. It was people coming from the underground that was welcome into the space. It’s the place where people would show up and do work where there was no funding,” he said.

Throughout the evening, about 100 guests, including the families of incarcerated people and representatives from legal groups from all over the Bay Area that offer services for people in the justice system, mingled and networked. They sampled coconut shrimp and salmon cream cheese tartlets, took keepsake photos in a photo booth, and bought shirts with slogans like “All of Us or None.”

LSPC provides help for prisoners who need to find an attorney or need help with litigation. “Any letter from an inmate gets answered. Even if we can’t help them, we tell them about resources that may help them help themselves,” said Oscar Flores, the national organizer for the group. Flores said they also help people get information about child custody and divorce. He said incarcerated people may have children, parents or guardians who leave the country and may need assistance finding them.

The group also does policy work. In 2017, they helped sponsor the bill AB 412, which eventually became a law to help protect low-income people who fail to appear in court from a penalty fee that can otherwise cost as much as $300. The group also worked on The Fair Chance Act in 2017, to stop employers from asking about past convictions or incarceration records until after a conditional offer of employment has been made.

LSPC also runs a family unity project that helps parents in prison who have a hard time maintaining relationships with their families. The group has protested to support the rights of women who give birth while incarcerated and campaigned to extend the visiting privileges of family members to maintain family bonds. The group provides family law classes to prisoners through a six-week program inside California jails and prisons called LifeLines. The program trains incarcerated mothers to speak for themselves in court in order to maintain or gain their parental rights.

“Governments fail to realize that prison does not impact an individual, but it impacts the family,” Flores said. “The impact of mass incarceration is felt in a community. A father getting incarcerated is hard, but the impact of a mother getting incarcerated is worse and has negative consequences of families for generations,” meaning that the trauma from the child’s experience can be carried into adulthood and the next generation of children.  

Flores said incarceration can cause a major disconnect in the family, especially if they’re low-income because it’s too costly to maintain a relationship. There are expenses that go into maintaining a relationship with a person who is incarcerated, like paying for phone calls or traveling to their place of incarceration.

The people in his organization are committed to making sure the group is led by formerly-incarcerated people who make the decisions. Flores said he feels that the organization has lasted 40 years because there is power in leadership. “At least 60 percent of the staff at LSPC are formerly incarcerated or family members of an incarcerated person. The people closest to the problem are the closest to the solution,” said Flores.

“It’s important to teach incarcerated or formerly-incarcerated people to speak for themselves. There are people who want to advocate for legislation and that has a way of backfiring,” Flores continued. “It starts out with great intentions, but the meaning gets lost when negotiations start. There needs to be someone who understands and will not accept something that could help some but will ultimately hold the majority back.”

LSPC used to be headquartered in San Francisco until the group purchased a building in Oakland in August. The group moved to Oakland in the hope that the building could be a safe haven that would provide resources like jobs for those who are formerly incarcerated. Nunn said the choice to move from San Francisco to Oakland was intentional. “If we don’t protect Oakland, we won’t have an urban community to call our own. Black people make up four 4 percent of San Francisco,” he said. “We lost San Francisco, but we have the opportunity to do something great here in Oakland. This is like coming home where our roots are. We haven’t lost Oakland.”

Despite its current focus on helping men and women alike, LSPC was originally founded as an organization for women who were in prison. “Legal Services for Prisoners with Children was originally the Network of Women in Prison,” said communications coordinator Mark Fujiwara. “The original focus was on a small population of women who were overlooked, underserved and unnoticed, women who had families. Over time the organization made the decision to help incarcerated people instead of just women.”  

There were three guest speakers at the gala: Journalist Marc Lamont Hill of BET News, Vonya Quarles, the executive director of Starting Over Inc., and Michelle Alexander, author of the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Each spoke about the work they’re doing to advocate for alternatives to prison and the idea that it is not the only form of punishment that can be used.

Marc Lamont Hill, in particular, spoke about abolishing prisons and creating a new way for the justice system to respond when someone has done something wrong. “We have to get rid of this idea that justice means punishment. Our idea is that justice means punishment and for too many of us punishment means confinement. So what happens is when someone steals our T.V., or when someone does harm to us. Even when cops are killing us, our first thing is lock them up,” said Hill. “Our ultimate goal can’t be a world where cops get locked up for killing us. It has to be that cops are demilitarized and disarmed so they can’t kill us, so prison does not somehow become our end goal. As we move away from this idea of who did it and how do we punish them to a question of who was harmed and how do we make them whole again, we’re in a better position to raise different questions because we have different possibilities in front of us. Abolishment is possible when you open your mind to it.”

LSPC also presented awards to two lawyers who are working to make changes for prisoners, Rachel Meeropol and Jennifer Taylor Milligan. Meeropol is a senior staff attorney and associate director of legal training and education for the Center for Constitutional Rights. She has written and edited two editions of the Jailhouse Lawyers Handbooks. Among other things, the handbook explains how a prisoner can start a lawsuit in federal court to contest poor treatment and harsh conditions in prison. Taylor Milligan has contributed to projects with LSPC to restore the voting rights of men and women who are formerly incarcerated.

Lateefah Simon, president of the Akonadi Foundation, an Oakland organization working to create legislation on racial and economic issues, told the audience that funding was needed to help organizations like LSPC, and asked that people donate to the organization to help them continue their work. “Forty years ago, Ellen Barry and family started a small office to fight for women in prison who were dying. Who were dying. Who wanted to see their children. This country keeps dying people in cages,” said Simon. “This organization was started two generations ago to free women dying of AIDS and of cancer—women who were getting the most limited amount of medical care and dignity.”

“This,” she said, “is a human rights struggle.”

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