By Sarah Hubert
It’s easier to get involved than you think.
The most frequent questions we receive at FPEP are about how to get more involved and what you can do to help. We understand how difficult fighting for a cause can seem. There are many problems; it’s hard to know where to begin. However, every movement begins with small steps that lead to larger ones, until solutions take shape. So here are some ideas of what you can do on an individual level to combat the larger issues around prison reform.
1. Stay Educated
Are you following FPEP on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter? Are you following other prison education projects? The ACLU? Social media is one of the easiest ways to stay educated about issues impacting the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated persons in our society. We also recommend books such as The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and Baz Dreisinger’s Incarceration Nations.
Without your donations, FPEP would not be possible. Our teachers currently volunteer their time, but things like books, pencils, notebooks, and other supplies come to us by donation. As our program continues to expand, so do our costs. Any amount helps greatly.
3. Spread the Word
Have you ever had a conversation that inspired you to take action? As much as we use social media and the internet, nothing will ever beat face to face conversation. If you read an article or see a post that resonates with you, talk to a friend about it. If someone you know says something ignorant about prisons or prison reform, gently educate them. Decreasing the stigma is the first step to building pathways and futures for the incarcerated, and the best way to do that is through open communication.
Get involved with a local organization that helps with prison reform. FPEP is one of many options. If you don’t know where to start, you can contact your local prison to see if they know of any organizations. The ACLU is another place to look. You could also choose an organization that helps build community, promote education, decrease addiction, or addresses any of the other contributors to the growing prison population.
5. Be active in politics
Not everyone can run for office. But anyone can do simple things like registering to vote, staying informed about issues in their district, and calling their legislators. For example, there is an ongoing debate about letting people with felony convictions vote in the state of Florida. This was legalized through a general vote in November 2018, but restrictions have been put in place that prevent some people from voting. You can help by following groups like the ACLU in Florida, reaching out to your senators, and checking to see if people in your district will be affected.
6. Involve yourself in your community
One of the best ways to prevent incarceration is to provide other opportunities for people. Get involved with a youth program or community group. Educate yourself on what issues face the impoverished community in your area. Most people don’t commit crimes because they are bad or evil, but because they lack options and the system is stacked against them. You can be a part of that change.
7. Invest in schools
The school-to-prison pipeline is the cycle of oppressive policies that gets children out of schools and into the criminal justice system. One of the best ways to prevent this is to hire more staff and teachers in schools, and to train them in de-escalation and positive behavior modification techniques so that they can work with students instead of suspending, expelling, or arresting them. You could volunteer in a school, go to your next school board meeting, or research how your local schools combat the pipeline and how you can get involved.
Voting is one of the most important things a citizen can do. Voting determines what policies get passed on the subject of prison reform, as well as who will be making the decisions. If you are not registered to vote, you can do so here. Encourage family and friends to vote, and help educate them on the issues when it comes time.
9. Use people-first language
There is a stigma around having a criminal record, and it starts with the way people talk about it. Avoid using words like “convict”, “felon”, and “inmate”, as they have a negative connotation in our society. Instead, say things like “returning citizen”, “ex-offender”, and “incarcerated person”. Focus on the people, not on their previous offences or incarceration status.
10. Find out about your company’s hiring processes and encourage them to ban the box
It is incredibly difficult to find a job after incarceration. Even though people have done what the justice system has asked of them, having a criminal record can prevent people from getting employed. The Society for Human Resource Management, the ACLU, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and other national organizations and offices encourage employers to Ban the Box, meaning that they wait to ask about criminal history until after a job offer has been made. Additionally, employers should only consider criminal history relevant if it directly relates to the job.