A Prison Journalist’s Q&A with a Justice Advocate

I am a prison journalist, and I have been incarcerated for almost sixteen years, walking down a twenty-eight-years-to-life sentence for possession of a firearm, drug distribution, and a murder I committed on a Brooklyn street in 2001. I’ve spent most of my time in Attica Correctional Facility and recently transferred to Sing Sing Correctional Facility, another maximum-security prison, but this one closer to New York City. The prison is bustling with civilians involved with several privately funded programs: music, theater, higher education. There is also a group called Voices From Within (VFW), sponsored by NBC Dateline producer Dan Slepian, that hosts events with the youth, hipping them to the warning signs of trouble and offering them better life choices.

Years ago, VFW raised $8,000 from the prison population for a gun buyback. The money was supposed to be matched by several community partners but that never happened. Enter Bianca Tylek. Formerly with the Brennan Center for Justice, she is now the director of a new initiative at the Urban Justice Center called the Corrections Accountability Project.

In December 2016, Bianca met with VFW and learned that the gun buyback money was sitting idle. She vowed to help match it and published an article about the project at Huff Post on May 21, 2017. She kept her word. In September, Bianca met with VFW and reported to them that she managed to raise $10,000. Having begun my prison journalism career with articles on gun control, I supported her efforts 100 percent. While the logistics of the project still need to be sorted out, I thought it was time to shine a light on what she was doing. An editor put me in touch with her and she was game to talk to me.

John J. Lennon: You were educated at Columbia and Harvard Law. You also spent four years working on Wall Street. You could be in corporate America making a substantial salary, but you are taking a different route. How did you get here?

Bianca Tylek: Just out of undergrad, I trained in the private sector at elite banks like Morgan Stanley and Citigroup. But I always kept one foot in the public interest world. As a financial analyst, I volunteered with and sat on the junior boards of multiple non-profit organizations, including the New York Foundling, Children of Promise NYC, and New York Youth at Risk.

I always knew that I would find my way into the public service domain professionally, specifically into criminal justice. I finally started that journey back in 2012 when I left investment banking. With the support of a fellowship geared at transitioning young professionals out of the private sector, I spent a year doing strategy work at a major nonprofit in the education space. During that year, I cofounded College Pathways at Rikers Island, an academic program for incarcerated men looking to pursue higher education.

A year later, I went to law school, where I focused all my academic energy on criminal justice. Of course, the overwhelming majority of my classmates pursued jobs at private law firms. At institutions like Harvard Law, avoiding big law can sometimes take a concerted effort. Firms recruit heavily on campus, promising excessive salaries and unmatched legal training to impressionable law students. But I was all too familiar with those private sector sales tactics and even less interested in what was behind them. I was committed to my path.

How do you see your banking experience and legal education contributing to your criminal justice advocacy?

The idea for the Corrections Accountability Project was born out of both my experience and education. In the criminal justice advocacy community, there is wide consensus about how commercial interests exploit our criminal legal system and those it touches, driving its expansion rather than its contraction. We see it in everything from bail bonds to private prisons. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, the advocacy space has not been able to identify concrete ways to address the growing influence of commercial interests, which is particularly pertinent at a time when the current administration is promoting privatization.

After a few dozen conversations, I realized why. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the public interest community lacks a certain level of financial sophistication and business acumen, which leaves its advocates unequipped to fight industry in a meaningful way. My financial training, which I frankly thought I would never use again, has allowed me to start filling this gap. I see myself and the Corrections Accountability Project lending a new language, lens, and skillset to the arena—a language, lens, and skillset rooted in the financial services and empowered by an understanding of the law.

Tell us about the Urban Justice Center and your decision to start the Corrections Accountability Project under its umbrella.

The Urban Justice Center is essentially a social justice lab for legal service organizations. Each is given full autonomy to determine how best to serve its population and achieve its mission, but is also supported by the center’s pooled overhead resources. In exchange, each group is also responsible for raising its own budget. The structure is great for new organizations because it reduces the time spent on administrative tasks and frees up capacity for program work. It also provides a supportive community and credible brand for association, which are both incredibly helpful at this stage.

The Corrections Accountability Project is the twelfth project at the Urban Justice Center and the first project in the criminal justice space. Other projects advocate for a range of marginalized groups from refugees to sex workers. I’m very excited to have joined the Urban Justice Center family.

Your materials contain some assertive language. I’m referring specifically to the sentence in your problem statement that reads: “[Commercial actors are] capitalizing on crime to create a legal form of human trafficking that targets those our social structures have failed.” Applying human trafficking standards to the incarcerated is bound to draw attention to your project and possibly some criticism. Can you explain your choice of words?

There are so many ways to answer this question. Some advocates would argue, and I’d agree, that we have to be provocative at this stage in order to garner meaningful public attention for our nation’s criminal justice crisis. We need to be bold in our language to inspire bold action.

However, I’d also argue that this language isn’t really bold. It merely relays the truth in a simple, tangible way. See, I could say, “There are people who are profiting off the incarceration of others. In other words, they profit when others lose their freedom. They then do what they can to protect and grow their profits, which requires more people to be held in captivity and for longer. So, they oppose reforms that aim to decriminalize certain behaviors or shorten criminal sentences not for the sake of public safety, but for the sake of profits.” Or I can just say, “They have used our criminal legal system to create a legal form of human trafficking,” which is defined most simply as the transferring or harboring of humans by force for the purpose of exploitation. It’s a lot fewer words, but not any less accurate.

With that, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the roots of our mass incarceration crisis in slavery, which is the most recognized form of human trafficking. In fact, the Thirteenth Amendment expressly allows for the enslavement of people convicted of crimes and, through the course of history, we have done just that—at times more explicitly than others.

Clearly, you can’t take on everything at once. What are your current substantive and geographic priorities and who are the stakeholders?

You’re absolutely right. The extent to which our criminal legal system has been commercialized is almost inconceivable and thus any effort to tackle it feels overwhelming, especially for a small start-up nonprofit. So, while it pains me to see the damage that revenue-seeking actors are doing all along the punishment paradigm, I had to pick a place to start and a player to start with.

We’ll be focusing our near-term work on the private outsourcing of ancillary prison services such as healthcare, commissary, and transportation to name a few. In total, we’ve identified about a dozen industries in this space and more than 1,300 companies and counting. And with most companies in this space operating nationally, our operations will also be national. But, we will likely employ different strategies in different state and local jurisdictions, depending on what we think will be most effective.

Obviously, the private companies in these industries are clear stakeholders, probably those least pleased with our emergence. But for me, there are two far more important stakeholders, the public and those that are being trafficked through our system.

There has been a lot of news coverage of publicly-traded companies like CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) and Geo Group which operate prisons. But as you note, there are other types of prison services provided by private companies. Can you provide an example of these companies and the issues around them?

The reality is that private prisons are just a small segment of what we’ve come to call the prison industrial complex. Private prisons hold less than 10 percent of the prison population and collect approximately 5 percent of corrections spending nationwide. Private service companies within the prison industrial complex, on the other hand, affect nearly all prisoners and eat up a larger piece of the pie. And those are just the services that states pay for. There are also private service companies that generate their revenue by charging the friends and families with loved ones inside exploitative rates for their service.

For example, take Western Union, a publicly-traded company that most people know. What most people don’t know is that Western Union also facilitates money transfers to prisoners from the outside world. Now, if I want to transfer anything between $10 and $5,000 within the domestic free world using their services, I’d pay a flat fee of $5. If I wanted to transfer anything less than $10, I’d pay a flat fee of $0.99. Conversely, if I wanted to send $100 to a loved one behind bars in Bowie County Jail in Texas, one of the many facilities the company services, I’d have to pay $12.95 based on a sliding fee scale that allows a maximum transfer of just $300. But if I was cash-strapped, as many families sending funds inside are, and only had $10, I’d still have to pay a fee of $9.95. Moreover, if I’m one of the many people without a debit or credit card who needs to use cash, I’m stuck paying $15 to send that same $10. Essentially their revenue model makes a point of exploiting the typical circumstances of the low-income communities most deeply affected by mass incarceration. And these costs are not captured in our calculation of corrections spending, so it’s easy for them to be hidden from public scrutiny.

Let’s step back. You’ve been in the trenches and worked with top corrections officers in Pennsylvania and New York. But late last year when you started with the Brennan Center for Justice, you learned that many of your colleagues had never been to a prison. So, you took them to Sing Sing. Why was this trip significant?

I think it’s critical that people doing criminal justice work, or any social justice work for that matter, involve the communities they are serving. It’s not only disingenuous to advocate for justice without engaging with the affected population, it’s also unproductive. Advocates who don’t invite stakeholders to participate in their own advocacy risk missing nuances to the problem or creative approaches to the solutions that only stakeholders can bring to light.

Disconnected advocates also risk advancing a savior complex and the NIMBY, or the “not in my backyard,” mindset—pervasive in elite liberal think tanks—by promoting their own solutions to another community’s problem. Finally, they risk losing sight of why we do this work: the individual people behind the data and research that can only relay the collective problem.

In our space, that means staying close to those who are or have been incarcerated as well as those who are supporting them. If we’re going to talk about “mass incarceration” we should see, touch, and feel the problem to the extent we can respectfully and engage with those who can communicate the aspects we can’t.

During that trip to Sing Sing, you met with several members of the prisoners’ group Voices From Within, many of whom are convicted murderers like me. You, too, have a personal experience with gun violence. Can you tell us about this experience? How are you able to work with guys like us?

When I was in high school, my boyfriend was murdered in gun violence. Obviously, I was devastated. However, I didn’t really spend much energy thinking about whoever was responsible. I know that might seem strange to some, but I always felt that there was a large ominous force at play rather than a mere individual. Without the ability to articulate it, my anger was directed at society for allowing such violence to persist through the lack of social structures for at-risk youth.

A reporter for our local newspaper was the perfect example of society’s default response to blame rather than accept blame—to judge rather than understand. Writing about the incident, he centered his article around the growing gang problem in our area, not the death of a young man. But worse, he ended his piece with, “At least [he] ended his life in a pool of his favorite color,” referring to the fact that my boyfriend was a member of the Bloods gang, which brands itself with the color red. It had been just days since he was killed—I don’t even think the funeral had passed yet—and this reporter was reducing my boyfriend’s death to a sarcastic joke.

As exemplified by his crassness, this reporter had no more compassion for my boyfriend than he did for his assailant. And I understood the consistency behind his perspective, they were one in the same: two lost boys. He might argue that they operated in what was a chosen lifestyle. I too blamed the lifestyle, but considered it imposed. And with that, I could maintain a similar level of consistency, but one that shared compassion for both boys instead. So, as odd as it might be for others, I don’t find it hard to sit with men convicted of murder at all.

On that note, let’s actually talk about the gun buyback that you’re helping Voices From Within run out of Sing Sing. It was eyebrow-raising to learn that my peers were able to raise $8,000 from the Sing Sing population. Still, they have run into roadblocks and the money has been sitting in an account for years. Tell us about your new campaign to help them. What progress have you made?

It really is an incredible story and when I heard that the match they needed to launch the gun buyback fell through, I felt compelled to help. If they could raise $8,000 from among people earning on average one dollar per day, surely, we in the free world could at least match that effort especially since we’ll be the beneficiaries of the effort. And we’ve had great success. We had one donor, Yusef Kassim, come in with a commitment to match the first $5,000 donated between him and his family and friends. And we’ve raised that $5,000, bringing us to our $10,000 goal. If people are interested in supporting the gun buyback, they can make a contribution at cap.urbanjustice.org/gunbuyback or contact us at info@correctionsaccountability.org.

 

John J. Lennon is serving a sentence of twenty-eight years to life, most recently at Attica Correctional Facility and currently at Sing Sing. He is a contributing writer for The Marshall Project, and his work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Quartz, Vice, Pacific Standard, The Hedgehog Review, Harvard Law Record, and PEN America. Email him at johnjlennonjournalist@gmail.com

John J. Lennon is serving a sentence of twenty-eight years to life, at Attica Correctional Facility. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Marshall Project, and The Chronicle for Higher Education. His website is johnjlennon.wordpress.com.

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