Despite Trump’s Support, This Prison Reform Bill Is a Step in the Right Direction

The President has said the First Step Act will be the best prison reform bill ever passed. It won’t be. While I have never agreed with Donald Trump, I agree with him that this bill should be passed. Sometimes we oppose an idea not because of the idea itself but because of who suggested it. I am not a fan of Donald’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner who has an important role in developing the bill. I think Donald Trump is a bigoted sexist dumpster fire of a president. Still, I don’t want the smoke from that to cloud my vision when I have an opportunity to help people inside.

The First Step Act is co-authored by Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, a black Democrat who represents Brooklyn and Queens and led a monumental effort to stop NYPD from building a database that would monitor those who had been stopped and frisked. The bill was greatly shaped by those who are most impacted by our justice system. Many of my colleagues, including Topeka Sam- a formerly incarcerated woman; Jessica Jackson Sloan- a woman whose husband went to prison; and Shop Hopwood, David Safavian, Kevin Ring, and Pat Nolan- all formerly incarcerated men, helped craft the bill into the meaningful reform that was introduced. During the drafting there were multiple roundtable discussions where men and women who had lived in prison shared powerful testimony of their experiences and trauma inside.  

Because of their direct on-the-ground knowledge of the torturous conditions of our prisons and the impact of incarceration on families, the bill includes much needed reform such as:

  • A retroactive good time credit fix that could allow thousands of people inside to come home immediately
  • Expanded programming inside and an opportunity to earn time credits that allow people to spend a portion of their sentence in halfway homes or home confinement
  • A ban on shackling pregnant and postpartum people
  • Provides monthly sanitary items for people in women’s prisons
  • Creates an identity document program for people exiting the federal prison system
  • Allows volunteers- even those who are formerly incarcerated themselves- to come into the prison to teach programming and serve as mentors to the men and women inside
  • Moves people in prisons to within 500 driving miles of their families so they can receive more visits and keep those crucial familial bonds
  • Strengthens the Prison Rape Elimination Act
  • Expands compassionate release for terminally ill and elderly people in prison

The First Step Act, co-sponsored by nine Democrats including Keith Ellison and Tulsi Gabbard, and supported by Bobby Scott, Cedric Richmond, Jim Clyburn, G.K. Butterfield as well as many others, passed through the House of Representatives with overwhelming support- 360-59. 134 Democrats, including all of the House Democratic Leadership supported taking the First Step. This result is a testament to the grassroots power of over 80 criminal justice and civil rights groups, including FAMM, Equal Justice Initiative, and the Urban League, coming together to demand relief for our brothers and sisters inside. Despite the lack of sentencing reform, which will be needed to end the mass incarceration industry, the Ella Baker Center proudly joined with these groups to call on Congress to take the First Step.

We see and support the hard work that has gone into the bill, understand the current political reality of this country, and refuse to allow the people inside to continue to suffer without any hope or relief while we wait for political circumstances to change. And despite the President’s penchant for lying and exaggeration, this bill is probably the best prison reform bill he will ever sign.

We will continue to support passage of the First Step Act and are committed to continue our fight for the radical transformative changes needed to end mass incarceration and usher in an era of mass freedom.