DeRay, Brittany, Clint and Sam talk about using creativity to combat white supremacy, confronting housing segregation, Cyntoia Brown’s prison sentence, and the rise of dollar stores. Nicholas Turner of the Vera Institute of Justice joins DeRay to discuss prison systems globally.
DeRay: Hey. This is DeRay, and welcome to Pod Save the People. On this episode, we’re joined by Nick Turner who leads the Vera Institute of Justice.
Nick Turner: So if we’re talking about ending mass incarceration, we have to be talking not only about a massive reduction of the system, but also a transformation of the conditions under which people are being incarcerated.
DeRay: We have the news with the crew you know, me, Brittany, Clint, and Sam. Before we jump in, I was watching a movie and one of the lines from the movie was, “The end is a part of the journey.” I think that people forget that it’s a real skill to be able to know when to let go, when to end, when to pass the torch, when to realize that you’ve taken something as far as it can go, and part of the journey is to say, “That’s okay.” We have to set ourselves up for the next thing.
DeRay: I think about that a lot in the work. There’s so many things that I’ve been a part of and proud to be a part of. I did my work. I did my part and the next part of the journey was to say, “Let’s do something else.” That’s on my heart this week. Let’s go.
Brittany: Hey y’all, it’s the news. This is Brittany Packnett, @MsPackyetti on all social media.
Sam: And this is Sam Sinyangwe, @samswey on Twitter.
Clint: This is Clint Smith, @ClintSmithIII.
DeRay: Ay, ay, ay. This is DeRay, @DeRay, D-E-R-A-Y on Twitter.
Brittany: Boom. It’s award season. We’ve seen some cool nominations come out. Some people have gotten hosting gigs and then lost hosting gigs all in a week’s time. Whoops.
Clint: Some people.
DeRay: A week? It was like 20 hours. You were like watching it live. You’re like, ah, this is the host. Won’t apologize. Didn’t apologize. You’re like, here we go.
Clint: Kevin Hart was given the position hosting the Academy Awards, hosting the Oscars. Everybody was like, oh man, this is going to be so great. Kevin Hart, he’s funny. Well, some people think Kevin Hart’s funny, some people don’t. But it is what it is.
Brittany: That’s a different debate for a different time.
Clint: That’s a different podcast. He was given the hosting responsibilities, and then
old tweets resurfaced that were homophobic and pretty vile and terrible things. They re-arose and the Academy said, “You have to apologize or else we’re going to have to find something else.” And he kept saying, “I’ve addressed this before. I’ve said what I had to say.” I even looked to see if he’s apologized before or what that looked like, but I’m like even if you have apologized before, just say it again. Just apologize again. Especially because of the nature of what you were-
Brittany: If you meant it the first time, it shouldn’t be hard to mean it again.
Clint: Right. Exactly.
Brittany: If you meant it the first time, which people understandably have questions about.
DeRay: Yeah. Now it’s like we don’t even know.
Clint: But all he had to do is say, “I’m sorry,” and he refused on multiple occasions to say it. And then said, “I’m sorry,” after he stepped down. I was like, but if you had said this before … It was very strange. I didn’t understand.
DeRay: There is this question though, that you see a lot of people grappling with is shouldn’t comedy be exempt? I’ve seen a lot of people do the, “But it’s comedy and comedy’s different. Comedy’s supposed to be satire.” What do y’all think about that? I saw a lot of that.
Brittany: There were two specific things that people were calling him out on. One were old tweets where he was repeatedly using a slur that I will not repeat, that is indeed very homophobic. He didn’t use it once. He used it over and over and over again. There was screenshots of just back to back to back messages of him calling people this slur. The other is that he had made a joke, I think, early in his standup career that he would never want his son to be gay. I think both of them are deeply problematic, but especially as we just look at the amount of hate crimes that folks in the LGBTQ community suffer from, we have to recognize that things that people just dismiss as comedy help build a culture.
Brittany: If that culture is homophobic, it can absolutely be violent for folks. It can be deadly for folks. It can be fatal for folks. I don’t think that we get to just separate the two because somebody got a laugh off at what he said if that same joke helped contribute to a culture that is not safe for LGBTQ people. This argument that it’s just comedy never really works for me.
Clint: Obviously a lot of people are having conversations right now about who should host the Oscars and who … Somebody tweeted that they would love to have Kenan Thompson host the Oscars and I was like, that’s a fantastic idea.
Clint: I would actually love Kenan. Kenan and Kel.
Sam: I was waiting for Kel, like Kel better be a part of this.
Brittany: They could resurrect-
Clint: I would love Kenan and Kel to host the Oscars.
Brittany: … The Good Burger sketch and Good Burger was one of the best films ever made.
Sam: It was at the time. It was at the time. When you’re not 12 watching Good
Burger, it is a different experience.
Brittany: But I actually genuinely think Kenan Thompson would be really good.
DeRay: People have said Tiffany Haddish.
Brittany: I love the idea of it being a woman. I will tell you and this is going to sound like a very unconventional choice, but hear me out. I think Jenifer Lewis would be great. Now if you don’t know Jenifer Lewis. She plays the grandmother on Black- ish. But she’s been in a bunch of films. I mean she was in The Temptations movie. She played Whitney Houston’s mother in The Preacher’s Wife. She’s been in lots of stage plays, television movies, she’s one of the most accomplished Black actresses ever. But she is also really freaking hilarious.
DeRay: Tracee Ellis Ross, I think would be hilarious and amazing.
Sam: What about Taraji?
Brittany: Oh, Taraji would be great.
DeRay: Taraji. I hadn’t even thought about Taraji.
Brittany: I’m loving all these sister suggestions you all are making. I’m really proud right now.
DeRay: The men have not demonstrated-
Sam: Yeah, I mean at this rate I mean who knows. I mean the next man that’s picked is probably going to … It’s not going to go well for him, so we’re just going to end with the men for now.
DeRay: We’re struggling with the men.
Brittany: I’m fine with it. Okay … okay.
DeRay: Hey. You’re listening to Pod Save the People. Don’t go anywhere. There’s more to come.
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Brittany: It sure does.
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Brittany: You know I’ve got a wedding coming up.
DeRay: You do.
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Brittany: Recently, some of you may have heard the name Cyntoia Brown come back up in social media conversations. Her case has come back into the forefront as we see the criminal justice system continuously not work for Black people and Black women in particular. If you don’t know her story, Cyntoia Brown was 16 years old in 2004. She was a victim of sex trafficking, had been purchased by a 43- year-old man. He took her into his home, and she was afraid for her life. In that space, she found a handgun on his shelf and she killed him.
Brittany: She was sentenced to life without parole at 16 years old for killing this man even though she was in fear for her life. She has been in jail ever since in the state of Tennessee. In Tennessee, a mandatory life sentence is 60 years. She has appealed for clemency. That appeal was rejected with opposing counsel saying that Cyntoia was not, in fact, in fear for her life but was planning on robbing the man. Recently, she has appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court essentially saying that juvenile life without parole is unconstitutional. In 2012, SCOTUS made a ruling of that sort.
Brittany: Most recently, Cyntoia has made an appeal to the Tennessee State Supreme Court, appealing on the fact that in 2012 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that mandatory juvenile life without parole is, in fact, unconstitutional. On the basis of that ruling, she made an appeal to the Tennessee State Supreme Court and five justices unanimously ruled against her. Essentially what that means is that she’s going to have to serve at least 50 years before she is eligible for parole. So it is one thing after the other in this case.
Brittany: Over and over again, we see that when Black women try to defend themselves, that the law is actually not on their side. We look at the case of Jacqueline Dixon who was being abused by her husband and killed him because she was in fear for her life in Selma, Alabama. She is currently in jail. We look at the case of Marissa Alexander who spent six years either incarcerated or under house arrest before her case was overturned as she continued to try to appeal on the stand your ground law.
Brittany: Over and over again, we see that the criminal justice system obviously is not working well for people of color. But I’m particularly worried for Black women who keep trying to defend themselves and can find no defense or support in this system.
Sam: Yeah, Brittany, like you said, we see the courts and the criminal justice system cite their need to defend themselves from some sort of a threat in order to exonerate them in these cases. But when it was a Black person, a Black woman in particular, that right doesn’t seem to apply. The data supports this too. When you look at, for example, stand your ground states and compare that to non stand your ground states, while there are more justified homicides overall in stand your ground states, meaning that the stand your ground law protects a larger number of people who claim self defense when they commit a homicide, those effects are not shared evenly across groups.
Sam: In fact, the type of homicide that is the most likely to be protected or most likely for the person who commits the homicide to be found to have acted in a justified way in self defense by the courts are when white people kill Black people. It increases from a 250% higher likelihood of a white person being found justified when killing a Black person compared to a white person killing another white person. Almost a two times increase in the likelihood that they’ll be found justified in that situation. But when those are flipped, and it’s a Black person killing a white person, the likelihood is virtually the same in a stand your ground state or non stand your ground state, of them being found justified by the criminal justice system.
Sam: It’s pretty clear who stand your ground laws protect and who they apply to and who is not protected by those laws. They definitely don’t protect us.
Clint: I just wanted to bring up a study by Stanford Law School that tracked recidivism rates for more than 800 paroled people serving life sentences over a 15-year period of time, and a US Bureau of Statistics report that examined 272,000 people serving life sentences who were paroled from 15 states. It found recidivism rates of less than one and 1.2% respectively, and none for repeat violent offenses. This is far below the national average of recidivism which approaches around 60%.
Clint: I say that to say because so often the narrative around people who have committed “violent” crimes or have committed harm against people who have even taken someone’s life is that they are irredeemable, is that there should be no opportunity for them to come back out into the world in part because of public safety, even though all of the social science, as this Stanford Law study shows, reflects the fact that there’s hardly any threat to public safety at all. Because what we know is that people often take other people’s lives or commit violent crimes when they’re really young and that’s for a range of reasons.
Clint: But I just bring that up because I want us to remember that this is a situation that warrants being lifted up, but also not at the expense necessarily of so many other people who deserve to have a second chance at life.
Sam: Clint, did you just say the study had 270,000 people serving life sentences in it?
Clint: The US Bureau of Statistics report examined 272,000 people serving life sentences who were paroled from 15 states.
Sam: That is wild that it’s that many people, that there are even that many people serving life sentences and eligible for parole, let alone serving sentences in general in the United States. That is a wild way to think about how many people are just being condemned by the state for eternity essentially.
DeRay: We often talk about federal legislation. We often talk about things at scale at the national level. This is an important reminder of how state laws can impact people’s lives and the importance that states have for the reform and the transformation that we want in the system. Tennessee is a state that has what we call truth in sentencing laws. In Tennessee, people who are convicted of crimes must serve at least 85% of their sentences before being eligible for early release. And Tennessee law requires that certain offenders serve 100% of their sentences.
DeRay: There have been some attempts to change. It’s not because people had any sense of that the criminal justice system was wrong, but the legislators in Tennessee were mindful that this just costs so much money to house people for so long. These are things that can actually happen at the local level, that you can get rid of truth in sentencing laws in your state in a way that will allow people who are convicted like this to go before parole boards and potentially get off early. The Tennessee parole board actually does have some non-correction … It’s a lot of people who used to be police on the Tennessee parole board, but there are some … There’s a teacher and some other people who weren’t just former correction officers, which is promising.
DeRay: But when I thought about this, I’m always mindful of the way the system creates these conditions that almost bind even the best actors from being able to do what they know is right.
Clint: For my news, I’m talking about how the city of Minneapolis is going to become the first major city in the US to end single-family home zoning, which is a policy that has done a huge amount to entrench segregation and hyper-segregation in cities across the country for decades. Last Friday, the city council passed Minneapolis 2040 which is a comprehensive plan to permit three-family homes in the city’s residential neighborhoods, to abolish parking minimums for all new construction, and allow high-density buildings along traffic corridors.
Clint: Some might say, “Well, why is single-family zoning racist? That doesn’t make any sense. It sounds like a very non-racist thing.” But if you create a system in which single-family homes, the traditional notion of what someone’s home is, it’s a single family typically lives there. It’s not connected to any other housing. This is typically more expensive, and it is not something that allows for rented- out buildings and units in the same way. When the majority of a city is arbitrarily restricted to only the richest, wealthiest people who can afford single-family homes, it then becomes a proxy for race. And you then, in that way, without naming race created a sort of racist system.
Clint: Single-family zoning laws might not make any mention of race because they don’t have to, but they continue because of the nature of the circumstances again of who can afford them, are the thing that creates and reifies modern-day segregation. Minneapolis is working very purposely and thoughtfully to eradicate this in a way that no other city, to my knowledge, has before. There are a couple things that made this possible according to Paula Pentel, who’s the coordinator of the University of Minnesota’s Urban Studies program. She says, “First was the election of a very progressive city counsel dedicated to making room for more housing in the city. Second, was the emergence of various activist groups who came out to community meetings. They put up lawn signs. They voiced their support for reforming the system holistically in a way that hadn’t happened before.”
Clint: I bring up those two things because it’s really important to remember how such substantive change can happen on the most local of levels. This is activists who became politically educated about this issue, who started showing up to community meetings and city council meetings and demanding that Minneapolis change a system that had created profound segregation in their city. Now we are at a point where that is beginning to happen.
Sam: Clint, this was a fascinating read, in particular thinking about the parallels between what this article describes happened historically in the context of housing, and then also what is happening in other domains like voting rights and incarceration that were happening around the same time. In the article it says that the US Supreme Court struck down race-based zoning in 1917, and then nine years later found it constitutional for a Cleveland suburb to ban apartment buildings. And then pretty much once that precedent was set, that you could find these facially non-racial reasons that would have a disproportionate racial impact in creating a segregated neighborhood. That then became the practice that was adopted all across the country to segregate neighborhoods, particularly in the North as they were being segregated in the South through Jim Crow.
Sam: This just reminds me of oftentimes when we talk about, for example, the issue of voting rights and how after the Civil War and after Emancipation you saw felony disenfranchisement and poll taxes and all of these other measures being adopted in order to prevent Black people from being able to vote even though after Emancipation technically after the passage of a number of amendments, in particular the 13th Amendment, you had the ability of folks to start voting. I think this is an example of how that played out in the housing domain. We saw how this also plays out in the area of incarceration where, after the abolition of slavery or at least the partial abolition, you had folks being arrested and forced to work in the context of prison labor.
Sam: Again, I think, thinking about these issues we have to look at them from the 50,000 foot level at well and see that this was happening in all of these different domains that affected life, so many different aspects of life at the same time, and that many of these rules and systems and structures are still in place. They haven’t been completely dismantled. It’s important to see a major city begin to take the first steps to not only acknowledge that, but to begin dismantling the legacy of all that.
Brittany: When I was reading this, Clint, the first thing that came to mind was that old saying that, “The greatest trick the Devil ever played was convincing the world that he didn’t exist.” We talk so often on the pod about all of the things that seem on their face to not be racist, to have no racial overtones, undertones, or anything of the like. Of course, looking at this, you’re thinking, single-family homes as you said, that has nothing to do with race. But we should never underestimate just how clever and creative racists are, especially the ones throughout history.
Brittany: We often talk about racist people as kind of bumbling idiots who can’t correctly spell the n-word. I’ve made those jokes too. But often it means that we think so much in that way that we don’t realize just how clever and creative people have been in order to maintain the kind of culture, society, space, and life that they believe is best for them. That is so often one without the presence of people of color. It’s also just got me thinking about the ways in which all of these things work together. We’ve talked so much about how there were employment and educational and financial benefits that were available to white people that simply were not available to Black people, and not only were they not available, we were restricted from them intentionally.
Brittany: Because we didn’t have access to those things, we didn’t have the kind of employment to be able to purchase a home. If we wanted to go get a loan, those kinds of loans were denied to us. If we somehow managed to get the right kind of job and somehow managed to get the loan, we couldn’t then go live in the right neighborhoods because there were restrictive covenants and those were sundown towns, such that if any Black person were in those places after sundown, they probably were going to die. But let’s say they got into the right neighborhood, and they actually were able to get the loan, and they actually had the kind of employment to be able to buy the single-family home, well then we experienced white flight because as soon as Black families started to move into the neighborhood, white families started to leave those neighborhoods and go and incorporate other places.
Brittany: And then, as we were talking about on the pod last week, those communities that were majority white once upon a time go to be majority Black, and those homes are undervalued compared to the single-family homes in white communities. And then it’s difficult for those same families to build wealth. The cyclical nature of this is something that we talk about all the time, but this is just another one of those insidious ways that it has popped up. I am very interested to see 10, 20 years down the road if the same kind of patterns of white flight are experienced in Minneapolis or if people actually commit and say, “No, I want to live and raise my children in an integrated neighborhood. As a white family, we are going to commit to making that so.”
Brittany: It’s going to be up to white neighbors and white families and white parents saying, “We’re going to go for something different.”
DeRay: The key thing that the law actually does now is that law provides for multi-family residences in places where there could only be single-family. What that means in practice is that you can turn a big house into an apartment complex. You can now split a house into two and have two people live in the house, things that in a lot of big cities, the zoning is just a little bit more expansive. In Minneapolis, it was very restrictive so there were parts of the city where you could have multi-family homes, but the majority of the city you just couldn’t. What it turned into, like we’ve all said, is that it turned into people with money who would buy four homes. They lived in one part of the city, and then everybody else who was essentially renting, lived in other parts of the city.
DeRay: We always talk about all the things that you don’t even know that create the conditions for the choices that you make. When we think about what it means to be in a space of transformation, we’re trying to uncover all the things that you don’t see that create the conditions for the choices that you make every day, that we make every day. That has to be the side of change.
Sam: My news is about an activist organization in Germany that came up with a brilliant strategy to expose neo-Nazis. In Germany, like the United States and many other countries now, they’ve been experiencing a resurgence of neo- Nazis, white supremacist terrorism, and had a massive riot similar to what happened in Charlottesville in the United States. But this one happened in Kemnitz, Germany, where you had thousands and thousands of neo-Nazis coming in to protest a range of things, brown people, Black people, immigrants, et cetera.
Sam: What’s fascinating about this is you have an organization called the Center for Political Beauty, which ZPS is the abbreviation that they go by. Not only were they able to take the pictures of this massive neo-Nazi march and use those pictures to expose many of the people who were there, but they also designed this brilliant tactic where they created a website that basically the website said that it had the pictures of every single neo-Nazi that was at that rally. Yet it only had 1500 of about 7000 neo-Nazis that were there. So you had neo-Nazis go to the site to look themselves up in a search function because they … to essentially find out if their picture was one of those who had been exposed on the site.
Sam: So what was brilliant about what this organization did is they actually saved the searches that were done so that the Nazis that went in to look up their names, those search results were saved and then they published the search results to expose additional Nazis beyond those that they actually had identified at the time. I wanted to talk about this because I think we have seen again and again and again the threat of white supremacist terrorism, the rising boldness of neo- Nazis and the alt-right. This just struck me as a really brilliant tactic to help not only identify and expose them, but also to bring a lot of attention to what was happening, and then to create an environment where they actually were able to create a solution that went beyond what they were individually able to do in gathering the identities of these folks and build something that actually could be a model for what we could do in the United States.
Brittany: I’m just here to say, booby traps for all the Nazis. I think it’s a brilliant idea and truthfully, these are the stories that I think we forget to tell when it comes to organizing and activism. All of the incredibly creative ways in which people subvert systems, in which people actually don’t have to do a lot of shouting or yelling or pointing of fingers, they simply set it up so that people can show themselves for who they are. I think that that kind of activism is brilliant and creative, and I hope that we all learn from it.
Clint: What I learned from the article is that Nazi era salutes are illegal in Germany, not just frowned-upon, not just socially taboo, but are illegal. It’s another reminder of clearly the Holocaust doesn’t even need to be said, it was a devastating, horrific genocide of millions and millions and millions of people. But I’m continuously struck about how Germany, specifically Germany, with its history does such a proactive job of reckoning with and making explicitly illegal or making very clear what they do or don’t …
Clint: So for example, Germany doesn’t have the death penalty because as Brian Stevenson so eloquently said in his TED Talk, “There’s so way Germany could have the state kill people by law with its history.” The Nazi era salute is something that had led to so much of the state-sanctioned killing that happened. But I say all that to say we don’t do any of that in the US. We’re so committed to the mythology of free speech, and I wonder what it would look like for us to be as proactive and forthright and clearcut on rendering illegal and rooting out policies as Germany has done that have explicitly racist, genocidal, anti-Black in our context in the US, connotations and symbols and histories.
DeRay: I was in Germany not too long ago doing a tour of prisons and jails and like i had never thought about how all of Europe participated in it. I’d always been told a story of like bad Hitler, Germany did this evil thing to Jews. Our tour guide was like ‘how many Jews were in Germany in like 1938?’ I think that’s what he said. And he was like ‘80,000.’ He was like ‘well, millions of people died in the Holocaust like where did they come from cause they all weren’t German?’ And it was this moment where he was like ‘remember that like all of Europe participated in this. That like ya Hitler was like the ring leader who proposed the final solution of killing everybody, all the jews, but it was all, it was Poland, it was all the other countries that like willingly allowed their Jewish citizens to be given to Hitler for the concentration camps.’ And like I’m mindful of that. There are a couple memorials in Berlin, one to the disabled who were the first killed, one to the gay community. There’s the big one. I was standing next to the memorial to the disabled community and having this conversation about the kids of those guards. Those are people’s grandparents and great-grandparents, you know what I mean? You have to imagine that those uniforms and insignia, that stuff is hiding somewhere in people’s basements and in closets. Because they can’t do the Nazi salute and they can’t use the symbols, they actually rally around the Confederate symbol, like the Confederate flag, our Confederate flag which is interesting.
DeRay: The enduring nature of the symbolism of hate is really fascinating to me to have seen or to have been in a place where it led to such dramatic consequences. The memorial in Berlin is actually in the … It’s right across from where the bunker was where Hitler killed himself, and they’ve reclaimed that entire space to remember what happened.
DeRay: My news, there’s a new study that came out and the article is called, Dollar Stores are Targeting Struggling Urban Neighborhoods. It specifically focuses on Tulsa. One of the key takeaways is that there are more dollar stores than Walmarts and McDonald’s. I thought that was fascinating. Another thing that they highlight is that the biggest competition to local grocery stores right now is actually dollar stores. It’s not the big Walmart coming into town. It’s dollar stores that are the biggest competition. The dollar stores are actually replicating themselves in low-income neighborhoods. It’s definitely tracked by race where they set up shop, and that they are actually steadily chipping away at local grocers, people that survived the Walmarts.
DeRay: Dollar stores are becoming like the linchpin in those communities. I just hadn’t thought about dollar stores being either that prevalent, being competition to local grocers. I don’t know a dollar store in Baltimore that I have gone to that sells groceries. I don’t know.
Brittany: I think I may have talked about it before, but when I was teaching in DC and clearly not making a lot of money because teachers don’t, there was a Dollar Tree. I would go and buy juices from there, snacks, cereal, that kind of stuff so that I could make that paycheck stretch. For folks who are unfamiliar, there are places like Dollar Tree where literally everything is a dollar. And then there are places like Family Dollar or Dollar General that have either off-brand items or brand-name items that are of lower quality that cost less than if you went to Walmart or Target or some place like that.
Brittany: It’s been interesting reading about this as it’s been circulating social media in the article that you shared, DeRay, because as residents in Tulsa have been fighting this back, they wanted to make sure that the city ordinance that was passed didn’t just limit the number of dollar stores that could proliferate in their neighborhood, but that the city ordinance also encouraged the development and opening of traditional grocery stores that would have fresh produce, fresh meats, et cetera.
Brittany: The fact of the matter is, if you just limit the Dollar Tree, then something else is going to pop up in its place. If you just limit Dollar General, then something else is going to pop up in its place. If you get rid of all of the dollar stores in a particular neighborhood, then folks are going to be driven to fast food if they still live in a food desert. This is just another example of how it is important to know the things that we need to say no to, but it’s also critical to be clear on what we have to say yes to, that activism and justice is not just the work of saying no. It is also the work of saying yes to the things that create healthy communities and empower real people.
Sam: Yeah, Brittany, like you said, I think this is something where it’s intuitive why people are shopping at dollar stores in low-income areas, but how do we make sure that we’re subsidizing and making affordable fresh produce for folks? How are we not canceling programs like the Trump Administration proposed to cancel which would create, double-up or even triple benefits if you buy, for example, fresh produce at a farmer’s market using food stamps you get twice as much for every dollar that you spend or three times as much under the federal program. Well, they’re proposing to cut those programs now.
Sam: They’re also subsidizing a lot of the unhealthy foods that end up then being more affordable and being offered in convenience stores, in corner stores, in dollar stores. The economics of what folks can access in terms of healthy foods, that is the broader question. So we have to think more expansively about how do we subsidize and incentivize healthy foods? How do we make sure that those are available, they’re accessible, they’re nearby? If they’re at a grocery store, that they’re still at a price point that people can actually afford them who would otherwise shop at a dollar store. And then how do we build on those models and continue to fund them and scale them up as they’re working?
DeRay: I will say, Sam and Brittany, one of the things that the study shows is that there’s growing evidence that dollar chains are not just the byproduct of economic distress, but they’re actually causing it. This study is trying to flip on the head this notion that of course poor people are shopping at dollar stores isn’t the only thing, but dollar stores actually coming in and pushing out local grocers and local retailers which is actually causing a completely different kind of distress in communities.
Clint: To that point, I think something that was also interesting in this research is that as Dollar General and Dollar Tree stores root out grocery stores, part of what happens is that these dollar chains rely on a leaner labor model. So a Dollar Tree will staff eight to nine people on average whereas a grocery store will employ around 14 or 15 people on average. So if all of the grocery stores are continuously being replaced and pushed out by Dollar Trees, you’re not only getting rid of the physical infrastructure of that store, but you’re also bringing in stores that employ fewer people, which to your point, DeRay, would have an economic ripple effect in reducing opportunities for jobs and less upward mobility and thus, this sort of larger socioeconomic conditions of that community.
Clint: This generally is really fascinating and distressing research that I had no idea about. And I’m really grateful to the folks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance for putting this out, particularly the authors, Marie Donahue and Stacy Mitchell.
DeRay: That’s the news. Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
DeRay: We’re in the middle of the holiday season, which means that there’s good food everywhere. This year I’ve been trying to enjoy all the amazing holiday food and balance it with healthy options, and the healthy part with flavor because sometimes healthy means tasteless. But that’s why you have Sun Basket, because Sun Basket’s been rated the number one meal kit by leading publications. They offer 18 weekly recipes with options for paleo, gluten-free, Mediterranean, lean and clean, and vegan, just to name a few. But for me, what matters is that Sun Basket helps me eat healthier and it helps me actually prepare my own meals, which I don’t know how to do without it.
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DeRay: And now my conversation with Nick Turner, who leads the Vera Institute of Justice. We were all together in Germany doing a tour of prisons, and this is our conversation reflecting on that.
DeRay: Nick, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.
Nick Turner: DeRay, it’s great to be here in Berlin with you.
DeRay: In Berlin. We’re in Berlin. Everybody listening, I’m here with the Vera Institute to look at prisons in Germany. But let’s start with why Germany?
Nick Turner: Why Germany? The whole idea is we’ve all been in bad relationships, right? America has a bad relationship with its justice system. It’s like going from a bad relationship and then you get into a good relationship. The idea of taking all of these folks, these criminal justice practitioners, who have been working in the States for years and years and years and then they come and they get into a new relationship and they see this place that does things entirely differently than what we do at home. Incarcerates at a 10th the rate that we do in the US, where life sentences are no longer than 15 years, where people’s privacy in prison is respected, where they’ve got rights, where when we tell them what we do in the States, that we take away people’s vote, they look at us like we’re crazy.
Nick Turner: The idea of taking this crew of Americans to see something very different and to be in this new relationship with justice and fairness, the whole idea is to try to get them to take inspiration from this and bring it back home.
DeRay: You lead Vera, which is one of the many organizations that does criminal justice work in the United States. How would you describe how Vera fits into the larger landscape?
Nick Turner: Vera’s been around for a long time. I think in the larger landscape of the criminal justice ecosystem, which has gotten a lot bigger and a lot stronger in the last few years, I would say that Vera’s contributions are really two. The first is to try to produce what I would describe as big ideas that are really breakthrough ideas to try to get people to think differently about how to dramatically remake our justice system. This whole idea of coming to Germany with a bunch of leaders and getting them to try to think in a revolutionary, not incremental way, is a big part of Vera’s contribution.
Nick Turner: I would say that the second thing is is that we’re about solutions. Whether it’s the movement for Black lives or the ACLU or NAA Legal Defense Fund, the role that we play is that we produce the solutions that people are arguing for. So we work with leaders who are the heads of the government systems that people are saying need to change, and we help them to make them change.
DeRay: The Germany trip seems to be a part of a larger campaign about reimagining prisons. The question becomes why are we reimagining prisons instead of ending prisons? How do you respond to that push?
Nick Turner: I think right now, I mean we have 2.2 million people in prison. What I would say straight off is that it would be amazing if America could get back to a place where we were incarcerating at the rate that we were in the early ’70s, which would be to shrink the population down to around 300,000. Or to even push for a goal like abolition. But one of the things that we know is that that’s going to take a ton of time, that mass incarceration is not only about the numbers of people who are locked up, but the conditions, their life conditions, and what they experience and the degradation and the stripping of humanity.
Nick Turner: If we’re talking about ending mass incarceration, we have to be talking not only about a massive reduction of the system, but also a transformation of the conditions under which people are being incarcerated. I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive. I don’t think that you can just pursue one. It’ll take years. I mean we got a lot of work to do to shrink the system. So I think about the brothers and the cousins and the mothers and the sisters and the fathers who are incarcerated right now, and I can’t imagine saying to them, “We’re not going to worry about your lives. We’re not going to worry about the harm that you’re experiencing because we’re too busy focusing on shrinking the system.”
Nick Turner: What we have to say is we gotta do both. They’re not mutually exclusive.
DeRay: Yeah. That makes sense, like both/and, not an either/or.
Nick Turner: Exactly.
DeRay: Okay, so let’s talk about Germany. I’ve been to two youth prisons, a women’s prison, a men’s prison here. I’ve seen some things that have been innovative. And then I’ve seen some things that a prison’s a prison’s a prison, sort of looks like home. What’s been surprising to you so far? Is there anything that you’ve seen that you’re like, wow, I just hadn’t … seeing it is so different than reading about it?
Nick Turner: Let me say this, I think you’re right. A prison is a prison is a prison. I mean there’s no doubt that when someone is locked away and that they’re deprived of their liberty, that is a fundamental truth of their existence. In that respect, what you see in Germany isn’t different than what you see in the US. The different thing that exists in Germany is that the Germans say, “Look, that’s the extent of the punishment that you’re going to experience. We’re depriving you of your liberty, but we’re not going to deprive you of anything else, and you’ve got rights as a citizen. You have rights as an individual and those things. Our jobs are to maintain those.”
Nick Turner: You see it in the spaces. You see it in the cells that people live in, which my experience they look like my college dorm room. People can decorate them the way they want to decorate them. They’ve got privacy. They can lock them from the inside. They have computers and telephones. There are big windows, so it’s bright. Some of the places we’ve seen have been really airy. Then you see it in just these amazing snippets of human interaction. We were touring a women’s prison yesterday and we were all gathered in the hall, and then all of a sudden the door opens and this woman steps out. She has in her hand a baking pan. On that baking pan she’s got flour and she has butter. She’s got chocolate chips.
Nick Turner: She holds it with one hand and squeezes out of her door, and then pulls her keys out of her other pocket and locks her door, says, “Excuse me,” walks past us, and then walks into the kitchen two doors down to bake cookies. You don’t see any of that in American facilities. What that tells me is that she’s being prepared to be able to go back out into the world and do the things that she would ordinarily do in the world, that there’s no interest in stripping the joys of everyday life away from her, and that the autonomy of even being able to have your own key for your own room, the respect that’s given to you for your privacy, that she gets to lock her door, to say, “No, no one can come in. This is my private space.”
Nick Turner: That door doesn’t have a peephole. The Germans when you ask them about that, they say, “Well, of course everyone has a zone of privacy, and we wouldn’t deprive them of that.” I mean that blew my mind.
DeRay: It is very different. What is it that you’ve seen in your experience that is holding us at home back from doing the things that we know are possible in other places?
Nick Turner: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean there are a lot of things. I mean clearly there’s politics. There’s budgets. So if you think about these correctional leaders who have operated for decades in an environment where they’ve never been asked to do anything innovative, where in fact, doing things that would benefit people who are locked up, that would treat them as human, who would give them the services that they need to succeed, they haven’t been asked for it. In fact, they’ve been asked for something very different. I think there’s also a conditioning factor that’s going on here, which is apart from the political and budgetary constraints which I think are really real, there’s a constraint of imagination.
Nick Turner: I mean it’s like coming out of a bad relationship. You’re in a bad relationship and you’ve set up this set of expectations about what you can do and who you can be. And then you come here and you’re in a new relationship. You see something dramatically different. You never imagined that that could have been a reality. I do think that there’s some deficit of imagination and fear of taking risks or not even knowing that that is a possibility for you. That has a lot to do with conditioning. I do think that there’s a generational thing going on. I mean I’ve been working in this space for 25 years. I think that the younger generation of leaders, the younger generation of reformers have bolder imaginations about what is in fact possible.
Nick Turner: They’re not burdened by decades of being told, “Don’t do that,” or, “This isn’t possible.” That’s one of the things that makes me incredibly gratified about the moment of time that we’re in right now.
DeRay: Now, organizing trips like this is a very small fraction of what you do at Vera. Can you talk about some of the other work around prisons that Vera’s engaged in?
Nick Turner: Sure. This gets back to this idea of it’s a both/and. We want to end mass incarceration in terms of the numbers of people that come in and we want to transform conditions of confinement. We want to reimagine what that environment can look like for people. In that context, in the prison context, we’re doing three things that we’re really proud of. One is we’re trying to end solitary confinement. We’re working with 10 states that have actually competed to work with us to figure out how to dramatically reduce their overuse of solitary. We are trying to bring back college education into prison at scale.
Nick Turner: That ultimately means repealing the ban on Pell grants that operates at the federal level that was part of the 1994 crime bill. And then the thing that relates most to Germany is that we have an initiative called Restoring Promise where we have tried to take some of the very best lessons from Germany and the notion that if people are treated as human, if you have a system that is committed to human dignity and you start from that very basic point and you listen to the voices of people who are incarcerated and of people who work in the system and help them to reimagine what that environment can look like, you’re going to create a fundamentally different culture and a different kind of unit.
Nick Turner: In Connecticut, we have established with that state’s leadership, a unit called True for young adults, 90% Black and brown that have mentors who are lifers, who live with them. Everything is organized around restorative justice and healing and accountability. Those who are in that unit are getting out earlier than they otherwise would. Over 18 months, there hasn’t been one violent incident in that unit. The use of solitary has dropped to zero. That is totally dramatically different than what you see in other prisons around the country or even in that state. We’re going to figure out how to take that to 10 states in the next three years.
DeRay: When you say you’re working with states to end solitary confinement, what I think that means is that you are helping them logistically figure out how to actually do it in practice. For most people, they would say, I believe, that they can just end it. Why do you need some partner to come in and help strategize around the end of solitary confinement? So what does that mean?
Nick Turner: I mean so you have to think about it this way is that for decades prison administrators have used solitary as sort of the only means of discipline or punishment. Imagine yourself as a parent when your kid does something wrong, usually the response is proportionate. You might put them in timeout or you might take away, “You don’t get to have dessert today.” The American correctional system has not operated on a basis of proportionality in terms of discipline that occurs in prison. It’s basically been one size fits all.
Nick Turner: For decades, we’ve built up this population of around 100,000 people in solitary, and it’s been automatic. So you have to help them build this ladder of discipline that’s proportionate, that reflects whatever the thing that might have gone wrong rather than throwing everyone in a box for 23 hours a day, seven days a week. Part of it is rewriting their policies, creating new options for them, retraining their staff who believe that solitary protects them, but it doesn’t. The work of changing the culture of institutions is hugely complicated and important.
DeRay: One of the things that I was surprised by here in Germany is that the people who run the prisons are people who went to law school or social workers, which is very different than at home. Most of the people who run corrections facilities are certainly people who grew up in corrections. Do you think that we can build a system in the United States where the people who oversee whatever we call confinement are people who are practitioners in justice and not solely people who are experts in corrections?
Nick Turner: Yeah. That blew me away. There are a few things that blew me away. One was that I see a lot of women running systems here in Germany. When I hear them talk, they talk about the job of being a correctional officer as being a good communicator, a problem-solver, someone who deescalates, that their goal is to help people acclimate to the new space that they’re in, but get ready to succeed outside. A lot of that comes from training. I mean you, I think, heard this in one of the prisons we were in where when people are trained, they go through a two-year training course. And then they’ve got three years of probation and they have to apply for these jobs. They’re decent living wage jobs.
Nick Turner: I mean that’s something that we don’t have in the United States. We also have to figure out how to have facilities for people that are about healing and accountability that are closer to where they live and where there are labor markets where people can be trained to be more therapeutic, where it’s not a code of just your job is to provide security, but no your job is actually to do something very, very different. I think the economics of it has to change.
DeRay: Where are the bright spots at home?
Nick Turner: 10 years ago, there weren’t a lot of institutions other than ours, doing this work. That’s a huge … I feel like the whole environment is a huge bright spot. We’re now building the power to make change. I’m seeing glimpses everywhere. I’m seeing it around reform prosecutors who are being held accountable to do something different. I’m seeing it around corrections administrators who are getting the push to and having the guts to try to do something new. I’m seeing public officials who are battling one another to be more reform-minded. It’s a totally different day. I could go on and on. But I’m seeing a lot more hope than the headlines suggest.
DeRay: One of the things that’s interesting at Germany as you talked about is the 15- year life sentence. Some of the prisons we went to have two-year, two and a half years everybody there was the maximum you can be there for two and a half years. Are there any bright spots in the States that you think are doing the structural, just like sentencing, that work is happening? Is there a place that we should be paying attention to?
Nick Turner: There are places. The gap between us and Germany is just massive. But there are places. I see it in California or I see it in Michigan or I’ve seen it in New York where we’ve gotten rid of mandatory minimums and we’ve shortened sentences, where we have taken something that was a felony that would have landed someone in prison time for sure and recoded it as a misdemeanor, where we’ve decriminalized things. You see little bits and pieces all over. You see it in Oklahoma. You saw it in Louisiana last year. We’re making incremental, still I think, marginal changes in what I would say is sort of the big super- structure of mass incarceration.
Nick Turner: We haven’t got to the point where life sentences equal 15 years or where entire prisons are made open. Here in Germany, there’s this amazing oxymoronic notion of open prisons where when someone gets a sentence for two years, they go there to report. They may serve their time there, and while they have to sleep there, they go to their job. They spend their weekends with their families. This element of liberty is totally preserved. I don’t see anything like that in the United States. The closest thing we have is what we call halfway houses, but they’re nowhere close.
Nick Turner: We have a long distance to go on the big structural changes, but I do see progress in lots of places on both coasts, red and blue.
DeRay: Same thing about conditions, you talked about the programs that you guys are working on. Are there other places where the condition work is happening that is promising?
Nick Turner: Yeah. I mean when we started doing this work going to Germany, one of the things that are like throwing a pebble into a pond seeing the concentric ripples, others starting taking these trips as well. We have seen in places like, surprisingly, Idaho, North Dakota. Leann Bertsch, who is the corrections commissioner of North Dakota, went on one of these trips, not with us. This might seem small, but she came back to her little system in North Dakota and she said, “Look, I’m going to let … People should be able to wear their street clothes. We strip away their dignity and their individuality by putting them in uniforms. We’re not going to do it any more. People can wear their street clothes. It’s a form of expression. It’s a recognition that we’re not trying to take away your personhood.”
Nick Turner: We see things like that. In Pennsylvania, a corrections commissioner went on one of these trips. It made him rethink the way he trains staff, so that training them with more therapeutic practices, and made him decide to take a look at solitary. I remember the story about him. He had gone to a German prison and desperate to see the solitary wing. They’re like, “Well, why do you want to see that?” He said, “Well, I just want to get a sense of the feel of it.” They’re like, “Well, no one’s there.” “Well, what do you mean no one’s in solitary?” They said, “We don’t use it very much.” He said, “Well, how often do you use it?” It was about halfway through the year and they said, “We’ve used it I think two or three times this year just maybe for a few hours or a few days at a time.”
Nick Turner: He went back home to try to think about how to do that differently. I think you see things like that happening all around the country.
DeRay: Have you in a room full of young activists or new activists to prison abolition or prison reform, what would be your piece of advice to them given the sheer scope of your experiences so far?
Nick Turner: Try to not be so black and white and to not perceive people who may appear conceptually to be your enemy, someone who runs a corrections system may very well actually want to engage in the kind of reform. Be grateful that the advocates and that the activists are pushing and creating political space for her to do that. Sometimes what we tend to do is we oversimplify. We think if you’re part of the system, then you’re just a bad person. There are some folks who are like that, but there are also a lot of folks who really do want to make a difference, and they’ve never had a public that’s demanded it ever. All of a sudden, the public is demanding it and their political bosses are feeling pressure. That creates space for them to do something dramatic.
Nick Turner: Understanding that the folks who are running the system or the folks that are pushing those who run the system aren’t necessarily adverse to your goals, I think, is an important thing and an opportunity for hope and working together.
DeRay: Now one of the things that I’ve a little bit surprised by in the past four years, a little bit, I don’t know, frustrated by in the last four years is that sometimes what becomes a public conversation about this work is so far from what the actual work is. On this trip, people have asked a lot about private prisons. The German conception that literally every single person in America is in a private prison, you and I both know is not true. But we see these big energy shifts happen that might not be actually putting people to think about the biggest levers. From your knowledge, both about our country and other countries, what would you say the biggest levers are?
Nick Turner: In the prison space, I think that the biggest levers but one of the hardest levers is changing culture. It’s hard because culture is owned by everyone in a facility. It’s owned by the warden. It’s owned by the corrections commissioner. It’s owned by every person on line staff. It’s owned by residents. If a culture is us versus them, then that permeates everything in that prison. One of the things that the lessons that we learn from our work in Connecticut and our Restoring Promise work is that if you start from the bottom to create a different culture and you acknowledge that one of punitiveness and retribution and enmity is wrong and is the source of all the problems, and then you say, look we want to get residents and people who work in prisons together to redefine what that environment ought to look like, then that permeates.
Nick Turner: You have to be participatory. You have to recognize that all voices matter. You can’t come in with a blueprint and say, so here’s the program we’re going to impose on you. We have to say, you have to really reimagine what this environment is going to be like, it’s a process. That has proven to be incredibly powerful. We had no idea when we did that work in Connecticut that what it was going to do is that 20 months into it, that there would not have a single fight among 70 18 to 24 year olds, that the corrections officers could sit and play checkers and give advice to the young people who they were responsible for, that one of the corrections officers who happened to know a basketball recruiter could help one of the residents who had skills figure out how to get a scholarship and help him get out earlier so that he could go play ball.
Nick Turner: I mean that stuff never would have happened. It was completely a product of culture.
DeRay: What do you say to people who agree about locking people in cages is generally not a solution, but there are these heinous crimes that people should be in jail for or prison for? How have you responded to those people in the past?
Nick Turner: Well, I mean I’ll be honest. I’m not an abolitionist. I mean I am someone who believes there are certain people who need to be incapacitated. I don’t think that they need to be incapacitated for life. I don’t think that people’s lives need to be taken away from them. I don’t think that they need to be put in a prison where they’re stripped of every form of dignity and individuality, and there’s zero attention to them succeeding in the world. I’ll start there and just say that the most important thing really is is that we have to fundamentally …
Nick Turner: If you could imagine, and it’s hard for people, but imagine a prison that is not like any prisons that we’re familiar with in the States but in fact is entirely organized around healing and accountability. Maybe you’re locked up for a few years, but that’s the extent of your punishment. Then everything else, all of your interactions, all of the services you get, the encouragement that you get is intended to help you heal, help you get ready to go back out into the community, help you acknowledge your accountability. That sounds revolutionary and maybe beyond the imagination for people, but I’m comfortable with that.
DeRay: Is there anything that people can do with Vera? What can people listening, if they want to get involved, what can they do?
Nick Turner: People can get involved at Vera by following us, by retweeting, by using us as a place to learn, and engaging in us as a source of knowledge.
DeRay: Where can people go to learn more?
Nick Turner: They can go to www.vera.org, and they can go to @verainstitute on Twitter and Instagram.
DeRay: Well, thank you so much for joining us on Pod Save the People.
Nick Turner: DeRay, thanks so much for coming to Berlin with us.
DeRay: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in to Pod Save the People this week.
Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure that you rate it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple Podcast or somewhere else. And we’ll see you next week.
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