StrongReturns.org Oral Histories

We just finished our StrongReturns.org Spring 2015 tour.  Our proudest byproduct of the tour — excepting the wonderful connections made with a variety of prison reform organizations and student leaders — were six oral histories we made of formerly incarcerated folks we met along the way.  Here’s the six:

William T. Lawson describes growing up in D.C., his time incarcerated, and his work with the National Homecomers Academy:

Bill Smith describes growing up in the drug culture of Waynesboro, VA, his recovery through a Drug Court program, and his work helping fight the meth epidemic in his community:

Carl Route describes growing up in Albany, GA after integration and the “life sentence on the outside” all felons have to face:

Pastor Kenneth Glasgow of Dothan, Alabama talks about the revolving door of prison, the importance of treatment over incarceration, and his work as the co-founder of The Ordinary People Society:

Deborah Daniels describes growing up in Birmingham, her experiences in Alabama’s Tutwiler Prison for Women, her work with Prison Fellowship Ministries, and her plans to form an Offender Alumni Association:

Patrick Young, who spent a decade in the Louisiana prison system, shares stories from growing up just outside of New Orleans, describes how Hurricane Katrina was experienced inside of prison, and explains how education is the key to rehabilitation:

RedAlert covers StrongReturns

RedAlert Politics ran a great story on StrongReturns.org, our Millennial Prison Reform organization:

The two men are behind Strong Returns, a project that aims to make prison reform “the” millennial issue in 2016. They are eager to hear about Smith’s experience with his local drug court, an alternative to incarceration. They’re both taking their “gap year” between their college graduation and law school to promote the effort.

So instead of writing white papers and lobbying Congress, they tour colleges and share stories. This time, it’s at Washington and Lee, a small, private university in west-central Virginia with under 2,000 students. As with any other campus they visit, Davis and Johnston begin recruiting student volunteers with the intent of having them help interview people like Smith, a man with first-hand experience of the broken prison system.

They spend hours interviewing these people, unpacking their pasts and picking their brains on how to improve the system. With their volunteers’ help, they later condense it all into short video presentations, which they put on for the school at-large. Storytelling, and its ability to go viral and drive politics, is a crucial aspect of the project’s vision.

“Connecting prisons and campuses. We think that’s where the magic happens,” says Davis.

Why prison reform? According to Davis, there’s both a moral and a political argument for choosing this particular battle.

“The moral side is, if you care about any of the major issues that you’re called upon in most religious and moral systems to care about—poverty, violence, families being ripped apart—you’ll find that the system that touches all of them and that has a hand in all of them…is the prison system.”

As for politics at the national level, Davis argues that the issue bridges the partisan gap. “It’s a left-right issue. Nothing else is going to pass in Washington except for this.”

The video they reference in the article — one we made with Bill Smith of Virginia — is here:

The Millennial Prison Reform Network

This week, we at StrongReturns.org launched the Millennial Prison Reform Network.

The MPRN aims to serve as a catch-all network for students, faculty, administrators, advocacy organization members, and prison system entities interested in Millennial-driven prison reform to connect and share with each other.

10462540_361903423979213_3419448200980252347_nThe Network consists of:

  1. A wiki database at StrongReturns.org/wiki which has a searchable, browsable, networked profile for every member.
  2. A series of email lists for members to connect with each other: for example, a college student-specific list, a faculty-specific list, a Texas-specific list, etc.

If you are interested in Millennial-driven prison reform, we hope you can join the network.  To officially sign up, fill out an MPRN sign up form as one of the following links:

Signing up will create a profile of you on the network’s wiki database as well as route you to the right email list. Let’s not reinvent the wheel on each campus! Instead, let’s link up, share, and support each other! For more information, visit our network page.


On a meta-note, I do think there is need to create a generic open-source technology for this type of connection: between nation-wide communities of people working on similar issues.  We are trying to piece together the need for flow (the email lists) and stock profiles (the wiki) with this here, but an integrated technology is needed.  Hopefully the Laboratory for Civic Technology will be able to build this in the coming years.

StrongReturns.org featured in The Marshall Project

StrongReturns.org, our effort to make prison reform the millennial generation’s issue in the 2016 elections, was featured in The Marshall Project, the new criminal justice journalism effort led by former New York Times editor Bill Keller:

Instead of spending their gap year zip-lining in Costa Rica or rail-passing across Europe, Scott Johnston and Pete Davis have decided to spend the year between their Harvard graduation and law school mobilizing students in support of prison reform. Using small grants from the Ford Foundation and other benefactors, the pair plans to visit ten campuses in the deep South to recruit “student ambassadors,” to stage events where former prisoners talk about the obstacles they faced returning to freedom, to create a Story-Corps-style bank of incarceration stories, and to build a “millennial prison reform agenda” for 2016. They held their first campus event last month at Georgetown University.

Here’s our StrongReturns.org strategy, as of now:

Millennials need to start sharing stories about the prison system and the prison reform movement. These stories start with authentic encounters with the prison system, are amplified through storytelling over campus networks, and can be weaved together into a Millennial Prison Reform Agenda worth pushing for in 2016. To help, we are launching a nationwide Millennial Prison Reform Network to connect young prison reform activists across the country.

Strong Returns: Millennial Prison Reform has launched

Today, we launched StrongReturns.org: Millennial Prison Reform, an initiative aiming to make prison reform the Millennial generation’s issue in the 2016 election. The rehabilitative mission of prisons — the idea that the criminal justice system is responsible for helping people have strong returns back to their community — is due in for revitalization. Our generation has the attitude, the power and the responsibility to put this cause on the map by 2016. In November, we’re kicking off with an event at Georgetown University; in January, we’re heading out across the country to spur and organize this generation-wide conversation on the American prison system; and next summer, we’re culminating this conversation in the launch of a Millennial Prison Reform Agenda worth fighting for in 2016.  Find out more at StrongReturns.org and check out our introductory video below: