Presidential candidates engage with formerly incarcerated organizers at historic forum on criminal justice issues

On Monday, Oct. 28, Democratic presidential candidates fielded questions from formerly incarcerated people for the first time during a nationally-broadcast forum.

The Justice Votes 2020 Town Hall was held at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site – a former prison that was once the most famous and expensive in the world. Developed by Voters Organized to Educate and presented by the Marshall Project, the day-long event was live-streamed by NowThis News. The program gave unprecedented voice to people whose lives have been disrupted by targeted policing, disproportionate sentencing schemes, racial profiling and other injustices.

Out of the almost 20 Democratic presidential candidates, only California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and billionaire activist Tom Steyer showed up to engage an audience of criminal justice experts in the historic Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site.

The post-forum panel featured superstars of the movement: from left, Dorsey Nunn, manuel lafontaine, asha bandele, George Galvis and Meia Walker. – Photo: George Galvis

The “Justice Votes 2020 Presidential Town Hall,” available to all with internet access on YouTube, is a four-and-a-half-hour video at https://youtu.be/2CMOy7LI5TM. Because you may not have time to watch it all in one sitting, here’s a breakdown:

2:35-6:25 – Introduction: Norris Henderson (Voters Organized to Educate)

10:05-35:30 – Panel: Bruce Reilly, Pastor Kenny Glasgow, Tina Reynolds, Andrea James, moderated by asha bandele

[Stream stuttered and was cut so Harris interview begins abruptly at]

35:30-1:04:50 – Kamala Harris, interviewed by Vivian Nixon, moderated by Ari Melber

1:04:55-1:36:00 – Video shorts / personal testimonals

1:36:08-2:08:40 – Tom Steyer, interviewed by DeAnna Hoskins, moderated by Ari Melber

2:08:40-2:23:00 – Video shorts / personal testimonials

2:23:40-2:50:05 – Cory Booker, interviewed by Daryl Atkinson, moderated by Ari Melber

2:56:03-3:23:08 – Panel: Dorsey Nunn, manuel lafontaine, George Galvis, Meia Walker, moderated by asha bandele

LSPC (Legal Services for Prisoners with Children) Administrative Director Hamdiya Cooks-Abdullah (right) and AOUON (All of Us or None) Riverside organizer Erica Smith check out the Eastern State Penitentiary Museum. – Photo: Hamdiya Cooks-Abdullah

3:23:10-3:29:20 – Epilogue: Norris Henderson

Media coverage of the event includes:

“Historic: 2020 Dems talk justice reform inside prison facility” MSNBC (video segment from co-moderator Ari Melber’s show “The Beat”)

“Democratic Candidates Face Questions Seldom Heard On Campaign Trail” The Marshall Project

“Formerly incarcerated people make history moderating presidential town hall” WPVI-TV, Philadelphia

“Cory Booker slams opponents for skipping Philly prison reform town hall: ‘Where are you? Seriously’” The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Booker, Harris, Steyer Participate in Philly Criminal Justice Reform Town Hall“ Politics PA

“Inside The Historic Presidential Town Hall Where Incarcerated People Ask The Questions“ MTV

The forum was watched at over 130 watch parties across the country. A journalist attended the one here at the Freedom & Movement Center in Oakland:

During the broadcast, MSNBC anchor Ari Melber, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Voters Organized to Educate advisory board member Rev. Vivian Nixon discuss criminal justice reform at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. – Photo: Jason E. Miczek, AP Images for Voters Organized to Educate

“Formerly Incarcerated People Hosted a Historic Town Hall. Only 3 Presidential Candidates Showed Up” Mother Jones

This event demonstrated again that formerly incarcerated and convicted people are nationally organized and more than ready to lead the campaign to transform the criminal justice system into one of restorative justice that creates healthy communities. It’s time to speak in our own voice and for the people who want to represent us in government to listen to our concerns and experience. Who better knows what works – and doesn’t! – than us?

As LSPC (Legal Services for Prisoners with Children) Executive Director Dorsey Nunn said at the conclusion of the post-town hall panel:

“They haven’t figured out what to do with us. I would tell them to come up with a narrative where we would fit that is just. They can tell you only about limited policies – and it’s like putting bandaids on bullet holes.

“We need them to look at us as if we have something to contribute to society as opposed to helping us because we’re the downtrodden. As long as you let them maintain that view, they’re not going to invest in you as if you had a return.”

Keep calling your elected legislators and communicate your support of bills and issues that directly affect our communities, from sentencing reform to Ban the Box in employment and housing to the restoration of voting rights for all citizens.

Stay tuned for the next step in the campaign to make our voices heard before the November 2020 election!

To learn more, contact Dorsey Nunn, who was himself formerly incarcerated and is executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and a founder of All of Us or None, an activist organization of formerly incarcerated people. He can be reached at dorsey@prisonerswithchildren.org or at LSPC, 1540 Market St., Suite 490, San Francisco, CA 94102, 415-255-7036.