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Formerly Incarcerated People Fight for Their Rights By JAKOB SCHILLER

Friday August 06, 2004

Star Smith saw her life collapse a few years ago when her partner walked out on her. She was left with a small child and nowhere to go. She immediately applied for welfare and tried to get a job, but hit a brick wall because she had a drug felony conviction on her record.  

She struggled and was able to make it for a time, but her drug conviction came back to haunt her when she applied for financial aid to go to school and was shot down again. 

“What do they want from me? I served my time, I’ve been clean for years,” said Smith, exasperated and in tears. 

Listening to Smith at Oakland’s First Unitarian Church last Saturday was a group of elected officials, community leaders and several hundred community members. They sat shell shocked, fighting back their own tears, as speaker after speaker told stories about how the system has failed to re-integrate “formerly incarcerated people” in any sort of meaningful way. That’s the name event organizers, a group called All of Us or None, prefer to “ex-offenders.”  

The forum, called “The Peace and Justice Community Summit,” was co-sponsored by Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson. 

All morning and into the afternoon, the group listened attentively to the message speakers asked them to take back into the community and to the state Legislature: the effort to stop the general disenfranchisement of those formerly incarcerated when they return to their communities, which is accompanied by astonishingly high recidivism rates. 

Among those from Berkeley who attended were City Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Betty Olds, school board member Terry Doran and boona cheema, executive director of Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency (BOSS).  

According to statistics provided by All of Us or None, 70 to 90 percent of those formerly incarcerated are unemployed in California. The repeat offense rate is currently up to 64 percent. 

To reduce these numbers, All of Us or None has come up with a two tier strategy. They start in the prisons by advocating for fair treatment and training for prisoners. But the majority of the work is done outside, as they try to change policy and law that will help those formerly incarcerated transition back.  

Saturday’s event was the first step in what the groups expects to be a long road towards their eventual goal of legislative reform. By inviting community leaders and elected officials, they hoped to communicate their strategy and increase their lobby power. 

“Why do we constantly cut off our nose to spite our face? What we’ve come here today to do is to ask you when is enough, enough,” said Dorsey Nunn, the founder of All of Us or None. “When will the community forgive us and allow us back in?” 

All of Us or None identified 10 primary goals for the organization but came to Saturday’s meeting to ask for help with four in particular. Those included: an end to discrimination in public employment, benefits and housing services against people with juvenile and adult criminal records; for California to opt out of the welfare and food stamp ban for those convicted of a felony; the implementation of a Bill of Rights for children of incarcerated parents; and a ban on “the felony box” for public employee applications—the requirement that the applicant divulge whether he or she has committed a felony. 

With these targeted goals, All of Us or None hopes to provide formerly incarcerated people with real opportunities to succeed when they get out instead of the $200, bus ticket and referrals currently given to released prisoners. 

According to All of Us or None, 1,500 people are scheduled to return to Alameda County this year alone. 125,000 people return to their communities statewide each year.  

Here in Berkeley, boona cheema said her organization has seen an enormous increase in the number of formerly incarcerated people seeking services because they have no other resources. 

“I would say that 25 to 30 percent [of those served by BOSS] are ex-offenders,” she said. “We have no choice but to engage now and start building alliances with folks that are doing programs for that target [population]. That’s our next wave of homelessness, the shelters are already shifting,” 

For Supervisor Carson, who has worked with All of Us or None since its inception back in 2002, the choice was obvious when he looked at the statistics. 

The current program “is not making us any more safe,” he said. “Any reasonable person [who has seen the statistics] would say, ‘what do we need to do to get it under control?’” 

After several hours of dialogue, elected and community leaders convened in a closed session to come up with their suggestions about how to move forward. After an hour of discussion they presented the main group with a list of primary goals. 

Veronica Arabia, 20, said the event gave her hope. Arabia, who was released from a California Youth Authority (CYA) detention center just recently, is struggling to make her way after two terms behind bars.  

She’s glad All of Us or None is looking to create reform inside the prisons and CYA because she says they’re full of problems. She knows, because while she was in CYA she lost her unborn child after several months of pregnancy because of medical negligence. 

Now that she’s out, she’s been struggling with a drug problem and trying to find a job. She says the day she got out, people on her bus were talking about getting high and she had to struggle to resist. She recently secured a job and is receiving help with her drug problem, but knows that without increased support for the years to come, it will be a continual struggle. 

“I think it’s really messed up that they release us and expect us to make it,” she said, after months or years behind bars and with few or no options to return home to. But, “I don’t want to give them that control of my life ever again. I’m more determined…I don’t want my daughter’s loss to be in vain.” 

“I just want to live normal, I want to be normal.”?