In Memory archives

by Peter Wagner, December 30, 2015

Last month, Jacqueline Berrien passed away at the age of 53. The NAACP LDF has an excellent essay about her life and work with lots of links to other remembrances of this important civil rights leader, but I wanted to add one more.

Before Jackie was Chair of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she was a litigator for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. While there, she took a 3-year break from the LDF to work as a Program Officer for the Ford Foundation where she helped launch the movement against prison gerrymandering.

In late 2002 and early 2003, when the term “prison gerrymandering” did not yet exist and most politically savvy people had not even considered the implications of how the Census Bureau counted incarcerated people, Jackie was paying very close attention.

In October 2002, Jackie was moderating a plenary session at a large conference in Washington D.C. about felony disenfranchisement. When a panelist did not know how to respond to an audience member asking a question about the political effects of the Census Bureau’s prison counts, Jackie interjected to say that she understood that there was a new report about this problem and that its author, Peter Wagner, had signed into the conference. She invited me to stand up and introduce myself to the attendees. Many of the connections made at that conference formed the core of our work for many years to come.

In April of 2003, I was presenting my research at the Critical Resistance Conference in New Orleans, and Jackie attended my session. Even though Jackie needed to miss the bulk of my presentation, she asked the first question, a question that framed the essential strategy question for our movement:

How could an urban-dominated movement have any chance of success at getting incarcerated people counted at home if the political party that is associated with rural America currently controls all three branches of government? The answer, of course, and the foundation for the important group discussion that followed was that it shouldn’t be an urban dominated movement.

In fact, as my research showed, rural people had already been hard at work for years trying to address the problem of prison gerrymandering. Telling the stories of places like Essex County New York, and Anamosa Iowa soon became the key link in our rural and urban coalition that has won so many victories.

That June, Jackie funded a Brennan Center for Justice-organized convening of criminal justice advocates, civil rights leaders, and redistricting experts to hear the preliminary research results that Eric Lotke and I were having in our respective Soros Justice Fellowships on this topic and to decide on a collective course of action. This meeting set in motion all of the work and victories that followed.

Thank you, Jackie.

by Peter Wagner, December 30, 2015

2015 saw the passing of Bertha Finn, one of the unsung heros of the movement to end prison gerrymandering. Bertha Finn, who was a retired journalist and county clerk as well as an accomplished amateur historian, was instrumental in organizing a 2007 referendum to change the form of government in Anamosa Iowa to end the practice that we later came to call “prison gerrymandering”.

Anamosa Iowa became the symbol for the national campaign to end prison gerrymandering because the impact there was so extreme. A large prison made up just about an entire city council district. One of the few actual residents of the district was shocked to come home one day and find he’d been elected to city council by two write-in votes; one cast by his wife and the other by a neighbor.

Most people reading this blog will be familiar with Anamosa, but not Bertha’s name. She’s mentioned in only one national article, and she declined to be photographed when the Public Welfare Foundation was writing an article about Anamosa and declined to be interviewed for the prison gerrymandering segment of the Gerrymandering documentary. I don’t think she liked press attention, but on both of my trips to Anamosa she generously hosted me for conversation at her home.

In particular, Bertha filled in so many of the gaps in my knowledge about how long Anamosa residents had been aware of the problem and the efforts taken to fix it. (Most communities faced with drawing a district that would have a larger incarcerated population than resident population according to Census data would do the obvious thing and adjust the data to reflect the actual resident population. But Iowa is one of about three states where state law requires municipalities to use the Census for redistricting with no adjustments.) Eventually, Anamosa found a creative solution: it could change the form of government so that each elected official would represent the entire city.

A few years later, the city of Clarinda Iowa followed Anamosa’s lead and also abolished its wards as a way to address prison gerrymandering. My conversations with Bertha inspired a lot of my thinking about whether districts always make sense in small communities. Traditionally, districts are seen as the best way to protect the interests of minority communities, but sometimes, in very small communities, districts can unnecessarily divide up political influence. For example, Bertha correctly believed that moving to an at-large system would increase the odds that women would be elected to the city council because supportive women in other districts would be able to vote for the candidate. (For more on Anamosa, Clarinda and similar cities moving to at-large systems and some ideas on other alternative voting systems that could be helpful, see Three cities say goodbye to both wards and phantom constituents. Sadly, Bertha passed before I could share that article with her.)

While I wrote about Anamosa a lot, there was much I didn’t know and Bertha was generous with her time and memories. I learned of her February passing this Spring while were we preparing to post online a collection of clippings she had sent us years earlier from the Anamosa Gazette about the history of advocacy against prison gerrymandering in the city:

Thank you Bertha, for teaching Anamosa and the country to think outside the box when fighting for equal representation.

by Peter Wagner, May 22, 2012

Portrait of Jon E. Yount from Doing Life

Photo of Jon E. Yount reprinted from Doing Life © by Good Books (www.GoodBooks.com). Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sometime in the early morning of April 26, in his cell in a remote Pennsylvania prison, a 74-year-old jailhouse lawyer serving a life sentence took his own life. He was a quiet man who avoided taking credit for his work, so many people in and outside of prison don’t know about the debt they owe to Jon E. Yount.

I knew Jon well, although not as well as I’d have liked. We corresponded a few hundred times, with him writing more than me, and I visited him four or five times. A careful reader of this blog might recognize Jon’s name from the Prison Policy Initiative advisory board, but very few people know that Jon was the first person to recognize how the Census Bureau’s prison miscount could distort state legislative redistricting.

In the late 1990s, Jon and filmmaker Tracy Huling, working independently, linked the Census Bureau’s practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of the prison location to negative political and economic effects. Tracy and Jon’s efforts started people talking about it, and it was this “rumor” that I initially set out to debunk. I was skeptical that the prison system was large enough for census counts of correctional populations to distort the federal budget or congressional districts. It turns out that the Census Bureau’s prison miscount did have only a very tiny effect on the distribution of federal funds, but it was Jon’s work that first drew my attention to the distortion on state legislative districting.

I didn’t know it until after I had completed my first report, Importing Constituents, Prisoners and Political Clout in New York, but Jon had written a thesis about felon disenfranchisement that mentioned the Census Bureau’s prison miscount, and he was also working on a lawsuit about these issues. But that’s getting ahead of the story, a story about a man who experienced the transformation of America’s criminal justice system from the inside and who relentlessly fought to remedy the injustices he found.

The offense and the trials

Jon Yount committed a horrible murder in 1966 when he was 27 years old. In a few moments, a young woman’s life ended forever; and in the eyes of the state of Pennsylvania, those moments were to define the rest of Jon’s life. He rejected the state’s view, and spent the rest of his life showing to himself and those who were watching that he was much better than his worst act.

After his death, I re-read some of the court decisions from his case. The experience was a stark reminder of how trials used to be conducted in this country. Jon’s first conviction was thrown out because the police had violated his constitutional rights. (The Supreme Court’s landmark Miranda case protecting defendants from unconstitutional interrogation techniques came down after his arrest.) At his second trial, 77% of the jury pool in the small rural community was familiar with the case and had already formed an opinion against him. Worse, 8 out of the 14 jurors stated their bias and were kept on the jury anyway. The Judge refused to move the trial.

A federal magistrate thought that this trial, too, violated the Constitution. The district court disagreed, but a three judge panel on the Third Circuit found that Jon,

… has shown that the pretrial publicity caused actual prejudice to a degree rendering a fair trial impossible in Clearfield County. After examining the totality of circumstances, we hold that petitioner’s [second trial] was not fundamentally fair.

Yount v. Patton, 710 F.2d 956, 972 (3d Cir. Pa. 1983)

Unfortunately, by a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit’s positive decision. The Supreme Court’s word was final, but Jon, ever cognizant of vote totals and trends once summarized the point in a letter that “Thus, by a narrow 7-6 margin, the federal judges who reviewed my case let the conviction stand.”

The sentence and the escape

Even though the top court in the nation had upheld his conviction, Jon still had a realistic chance of seeing freedom again. Decades ago, a life sentence didn’t necessarily mean a person would die in prison. When Jon was convicted, lifers served an average of about 12 years prior to commutation. He was a model prisoner and was recommended for a commutation after he had served 7 years. He didn’t receive that commutation, nor did he receive any of the others he was recommended for in the first 20 years of his sentence.

Frustrated, and with the number of commutations granted by the governor in free fall, Jon had enough.

Continue reading →

by Peter Wagner, March 29, 2012

Ramon Velasquez outside VOCAL's office on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, New York
Ramon Velasquez, outside of VOCAL-NY’s office in Brooklyn, NYC.
(Photo: David Y. Lee/Public Welfare Foundation)

I received some very sad news from Sean Barry at VOCAL-NY this morning about the passing of Ramon Velasquez, the face of New York’s successful campaign to end prison-based gerrymandering:

Ramon Velasquez crossed over on March 27th at a nursing home in Staten Island. He was a longterm survivor of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C and a fierce community activist. A service will be held TODAY (March 29th) from 6pm – 8pm at Brooklyn Funeral home at 2380 Pacific Street. Ramon is survived by his brother, daughter, two grandchildren and many other family members.

Ramon was a fearless warrior for social justice who inspired and connected with people wherever he went. It seemed like he was everywhere at once and he was always loud. He was usually there first too, sometimes hours early for a 6am bus departure to Albany or a membership meeting.

In and out of prison and jail since he was 14, Ramon became a leader in VOCAL-NY shortly after being released from prison for the last time in 2007. After serving a 17 year sentence, he ended up in Bellevue Men’s Shelter determined to turn his life around. Shortly afterwards, he moved into a transitional housing program for people living with HIV/AIDS run by Praxis Housing Initiatives and eventually led their resident advisory board before moving into a permanent housing program in Brooklyn.

While incarcerated, Ramon led inmate liaison committees that negotiated with prison officials and organized successful inmate-led protests to win better conditions. This shaped his beliefs about social change and the need for people who were directly affected to advocate on their own behalf. After becoming a member of VOCAL-NY, he was involved in campaigns to restore voting rights for people on parole, create affordable housing for homeless people living with HIV/AIDS and pass a “911 Good Samaritan” law to prevent overdose deaths.

After being discharged from life parole in 2010, in part due to his community activism, Ramon was able to travel more widely to Albany and Washington, DC to lobby elected officials and engage in direct action. In August 2011, Ramon was arrested for disrupting the House of Representatives during congressional debate on the debt ceiling while protesting proposed cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. The last protest he participated in was the “Occupy Our Homes” action in early December that moved a homeless family into a vacant house in East New York that had been foreclosed on by Bank of America.

Ramon was the face of the campaign to end prison-based gerrymandering in New York and was recognized for his leadership (alongside Assembly Member Hakeem Jeffries) by the Prison Policy Initiative during an October 2011 ceremony. He had been counted as as a resident of Wyoming County while incarcerated at Attica during the last round of redistricting, instead of his home community in Brooklyn, and he turned his frustration into proactive leadership to change the way inmates were counted. The Public Welfare Foundation also profiled his activism around criminal justice issues. (More of Ramon’s story and some photos in the profile are available online).

He will be deeply missed by his VOCAL-NY family.

VOCAL-NY has put together a page with photos, video and articles featuring Ramon at:
http://www.vocal-ny.org/blog/drug-policy/rip-ramon-velasquez/. I feel compelled to add some additional detail about Ramon’s work abolishing prison-based gerrymandering.

Ramon was extremely skilled at explaining why prison-based gerrymandering matters. His clarity and passion comes through clearest in this quote celebrating the passage of the law in New York that ended prison-based gerrymandering:

“When I was being counted upstate when I was in prison, the community that I came from was being punished as well by having their vote diluted. It doesn’t make political sense to be counted in a place where you can’t vote and don’t use services. This bill isn’t about money or jobs, it’s about political power.”

When the biggest beneficiaries of prison-based gerrymandering sued to overturn the civil rights law that counts incarcerated people at home for redistricting purposes, Ramon was quick to write an excellent first-person account how prison-based gerrymandering hurts his community for the Huffington Post.

And when a group of voters and organizations sought to intervene in the lawsuit to help the state defend the landmark civil rights law, Ramon expertly explained that prison-based gerrymandering hurts everyone who does not live next to the state’s largest prisons, and why VOCAL-NY was stepping up to the plate:

“Many of our members live in communities that are heavily impacted by the criminal justice system and have a disproportionate number of residents sent to state prison. Every district that has fewer prisons than Senator Little’s district loses representation from prison-based gerrymandering, but the districts that see many of their members counted in prison lose even more.”

It is deeply sad to lose a supporter, a colleague, a leader, a client or a friend. Ramon was all five, and much more. I can take some solace in the fact that Ramon was able to get some of the recognition he deserved at our October event and in the Public Welfare Foundation 2010 profile. And I’m very glad that Ramon lived to see the final validation of his work to end prison-based gerrymandering in New York when, just two weeks ago, the Senators who would have benefitted the most from bringing back prison-based gerrymandering abandoned their legal appeals.

Thank you Ramon. New York — and every state that follows its lead — owes you a huge debt for showing the way forward. You will be missed.

Pictures of Ramon Velasquez

from our October 11, 2011 event celebrating the end of prison-based gerrymandering in New York State. For larger versions, see our Facebook album.

Ramon Velasquez with Assemblymember Hakeem Jeffries Peter Wagner and Ramon Valesquez
Maggie Williams presenting the award to Ramon Velasquez Ramon Velasquez accepting an award for VOCAL-NY's work ending prison-based gerrymandering
Ramon Velasquez accepting an award for VOCAL-NY's work ending prison-based gerrymandering Ramon Velasquez accepting an award for VOCAL-NY's work ending prison-based gerrymandering

by Peter Wagner, March 23, 2012

John Payton, the President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., passed away last night. The LDF writes:

John Payton photo
John Payton, 1946-2012

John Payton, the President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and a tireless advocate for justice, equality, and opportunity, died late Thursday after a brief illness. He was 65. LDF is deeply saddened and mourns this tragic loss.

John was the 6th leader of LDF, the nation’s first and preeminent civil rights law firm.  During his tenure he guided the organization to resounding legal victories, including Lewis v. City of Chicago, which vindicated the rights of over 6,000 applicants who sought to become firefighters in the City of Chicago, and Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder, which turned back a challenge to the constitutionality of a core provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  To the LDF staff and to a great many others, John was fearless – a guiding light, a brilliant advocate, a mentor and teacher who believed that American democracy thrives when it embraces all of our voices.

John Payton was a civil rights giant. His contributions to the movement are being chronicled better by others, and I’d like to focus on his work ending prison-based gerrymandering.

Under his leadership, the LDF took up the fight against prison-based gerrymandering. They published the indispensable Captive Constituents: Prison-Based Gerrymandering and the Distortion of Our Democracy, helped pass legislation in New York that ended prison-based gerrymandering, and joined in the successful defense of New York’s and Maryland’s laws ending prison-based gerrymandering.

John took a personal interest in the problem of prison-based gerrymandering, working with other African-American leaders to raise the issue with the Commerce Department in December 2009. As John explained:

Because incarcerated persons in the United States are disproportionately African Americans and other people of color, the current counting of prisoners at their place of incarceration, rather than at their pre-arrest residence, severely weakens the voting strength of entire communities of color.

He will be missed.

by Peter Wagner, April 2, 2011

Manning Marable passed away last night.

Manning Marable, a leading scholar of black history and a leftist critic of American social institutions and race relations, whose long-awaited biography of Malcolm X, more than a decade in the writing, is scheduled to be published on Monday, died on Friday in Manhattan. He was 60.

Manning Marable, Historian and Social Critic, Dies at 60, by William Grimes, New York Times, April 1, 2011.

Manning Marable helped put what we now call prison-based gerrymandering on the map by inviting me to meetings at his Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University in 2002 and to speak at the main plenary panel at the Africana Studies Against Criminal Injustice Conference in 2003. His early endorsement made of our later successes possible.

He will be missed.

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Meet us

  • February 9, 2016:
    Executive Director Peter Wagner will be in Providence Rhode Island to testify in support of H7400 and ending prison gerrymandering at the House Judiciary Committee.
  • February 10, 2016:
    Executive Director Peter Wagner, Legal Director Aleks Kajstura, and Policy and Communications Associate Alison Walsh will be at a press conference in Room 1A at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford to call for an end to prison gerrymandering in Connecticut.

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Events

  • February 9, 2016:
    Executive Director Peter Wagner will be in Providence Rhode Island to testify in support of H7400 and ending prison gerrymandering at the House Judiciary Committee.
  • February 10, 2016:
    Executive Director Peter Wagner, Legal Director Aleks Kajstura, and Policy and Communications Associate Alison Walsh will be at a press conference in Room 1A at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford to call for an end to prison gerrymandering in Connecticut.

Not near you?
Invite us to your city, college or organization.