The Congressional Caucus on Black Men and Boys recently held an event focused “returning citizens”: formerly incarcerated men who are working to rebuild their lives on the outside. Co-chaired by Danny Davis (D-IL) and Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D-DC), the gathering highlighted inmates who have or will be returning home from jail to become productive fathers and members of their communities.
Attendees included men from across the country, many of whom were former offenders themselves who now do important work to either keep young men out jail or help them rehabilitate their lives. Holmes-Norton told EBONY “People want to find out what they can do to help these men reconstruct their lives, they understand the impact [jail] has had on our African-American community.” As panelists told their stories, some discussed the irony of once breaking the law and now working with the law by teaching law enforcement officials how to combat street violence and gangs.
Panelists and experts alike agreed that there was no singular answer to help those men coming back into the community from prison. According to Congressman William “Lacy” Clay Jr. (D-MO), “There probably needs to be legislation that restores certain rights and privileges to returning citizens but there also needs to be a comprehensive approach starting with…employment opportunity. I do a career fair in St. Louis and we look for employers to match up with those who are re-entering society.” Many of the attendees emphasized the importance of jobs in reintegrating Black men into society. Lewis Jr. mentioned the impact on Black boys’ psychology when they grow up not seeing men coming and going to work daily. Without those positive images Lewis explained, it’s difficult for Black boys to avoid the trappings of street life that lead to prison.
Congresswoman Robin Kelly (D-IL) feels there are steps that lawmakers can take to help returning citizens. She told EBONY “You can’t make somebody hire someone, but just like ban the box they’re working on it in California and we’ve done it in Illinois so I think more things like that can help legislatively.” Kelly also discussed the need to make sure there are funds available for community groups doing the kind of work that makes the transition of returning to society easier for ex-offenders. An organization present at the hearing from Kelly’s city was Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities. Benneth Lee, who serves as their Community Liaison and Reentry Specialist, told members of Congress about his days as a notorious Chicago gang leader and recounted his countless times cycling in and out of prison. Lee’s congressional representative and caucus co-chair, Danny Davis described for EBONY how important it is for Black Americans to be aware of what’s happening to Black men in the criminal justice system: “You can’t talk about problems African-American males have without talking about judicial and criminal justice issues.”
Among the day’s speakers was Attorney General Eric Holder, who announced the United States Sentencing Commission would apply a recent change to sentencing guidelines for non-violent drug offenders retroactively to those already in federal prison. The audience in the room clapped with excitement at the announcement. One of the panelists, Tony Lewis Jr. of Washington D. C. asked patience from members of Congress before he offered his testimony because of how jubilant he was from the Attorney General’s announcement. His father, Tony Sr., is serving life without parole as a non-violent drug offender and will likely benefit from the new sentencing guidelines.
Another high profile newsmaker was in attendance but remained in the background. Vincent Fuller II, a retired NFL veteran, now serves as a Congressional Fellow in Davis’ office. Fuller spent eight years as a professional athlete, playing before thousands and although he got great joy out of entertaining fans, he says he finds this work to be more fulfilling. He told EBONY “You realize how fortunate you are to have the opportunity to further your education…in order to give back, I feel as though it’s my duty to help other men out and anytime you can get a panel of returning citizens in front of Congress members who create legislation, it always helps.” Panelists wanted to ensure that job opportunities would be available for returning citizens. In one exchange with the panel, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) said ex-offenders have paid their debt to society and opportunities and rights should be restored.