Prisoner advocates and formerly incarcerated people came together virtually on Monday — on the first day of the Democratic National Convention — to urge presidential candidate Joe Biden and his vice presidential pick, Kamala Harris, to prioritize criminal justice reform if they get to the White House.
Harris, a California senator, is “really familiar with the landscape of incarceration,” said Susan Burton, who was formerly incarcerated and founded A New Way of Life, an advocacy group to help women in Ohio with reentry into life outside of prison. Her hope is that, if Harris becomes vice president, she “looks at the lack of resources in our communities to create successful reentry.”
“We’re rooting for her to come in high and hard and swinging like we know she can,” Burton said. “Come in hard, Kamala, swinging hard!”
Burton and other formerly incarcerated people participated in Rebuilding the Table, a two-day virtual event discussing the criminal justice system, timed to coincide with the Democratic National Convention. The unofficial DNC event, hosted by JustLeadershipUSA, was meant to “encourage Democratic officials and the general public to ensure that the next administration” makes sure that people “with lived experience have a seat and voice at the table” on criminal justice reform, said JustLeadershipUSA President DeAnna Hoskins.
With convention delegates prepared to officially nominate former Vice President Biden and Harris as the presidential ticket this week — and amid months-long protests against police brutality and racism — some progressives and criminal justice advocates have expressed the complicated apprehensions of voting for Biden and Harris despite criticism for their roles in perpetuating certain inequities in the criminal justice system.
“I know both of their history, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden. And their history definitely is something that wasn’t in my benefit and individuals like me that are incarcerated,” Jimmie Gardner, a man who was wrongfully imprisoned for over 25 years, told HuffPost before Monday’s event, at which he also spoke. “But we have to be capable of moving forward and be in a position to try to say, ‘This is where I’m at now.’ I always tell people, ‘It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish.’”
Hoskins, meanwhile, celebrated that Harris made history when she was selected as the vice presidential candidate last week: “What gives me hope in this moment is the fact that the first Black woman actually is on a major ticket for the second-highest office in this country.”
Part of the “joy and the hope” Hoskins has is that when her organization held the first Democratic presidential forum hosted by formerly incarcerated people in October 2019, “Harris was the first confirmed primary candidate to walk into that room.”
“Not only did she come, she heard our voices and she engaged,” Hoskins added. “It’s a moment we need — directly impacted communities, African American communities — to have a society that doesn’t judge us on our past. In this moment, I think we have individuals in position who are willing to hear our voices, willing to sit down with us and actually acknowledge the past and say, ‘How do we move to a future?’”
As a senator, Biden supported legislation that would increase mandatory minimum sentences for drug arrests. He also helped author the infamous 1994 crime bill that led to skyrocketing rates of incarceration of Black and brown people.
Harris’s record as San Francisco’s district attorney and California’s attorney general came under scrutiny during her primary run, specifically for opposing proposals that would have furthered criminal justice reform and pursuing some policies that disproportionately harmed Black and brown families. Harris said during her presidential campaign last year that there was more she could have done as a top prosecutor but pointed to her criminal justice plans, which included ending mass incarceration and shutting down for-profit prisons.
Biden’s 2020 platform around criminal justice reform calls for reducing prison populations and addressing racist disparities in the criminal justice system, including by incentivizing states to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes and pushing to end cash bail nationwide.
Ahead of Monday’s event, HuffPost spoke to Gardner about his experience with the criminal justice system.
When Gardner was 23 and playing for the Chicago Cubs’ then-farm team in Charleston, West Virginia, he was arrested and charged in the robbery and sexual assault of two women. Despite both women saying that Gardner was not the perpetrator ― his blood, DNA and physical appearance did not match ― Gardner was convicted of the charges related to one of the women after state police serologist Fred Zain provided forensic evidence that was later found to be falsified.
The judge sentenced Gardner, an innocent man, to 110 years in prison in 1990.
Three years later, the West Virginia Supreme Court found that Zain had a history of falsifying evidence in criminal prosecutions and said that all evidence offered up by him in any criminal case should be deemed invalid. But Gardner spent 23 more years in prison before finally getting released in 2016, with all charges dropped and his sentence vacated. He’s currently engaged in litigation to receive compensation for his wrongful imprisonment.
“The trauma is real. I mean, I don’t want to have my back to anything. I smile and I’m happy and I’m moving forward, but there are certain things ― I still hear [flashbacks] from my … experience in lockup,” Gardner told HuffPost. “It was a lot of different violence happening, so I was in a mode of survival.”
Since his release, Gardner has been fighting for prison reform and advocating for others whose lives have been uprooted and traumatized due to the dehumanization and racism embedded in mass incarceration.