During the 19th-century emancipation movement, some of the most important voices were those of Black abolitionists. “This was especially true of those who had experienced slavery,” Roy E. Finkenbine told NPR.
When they told their stories it “disabused listeners and readers of the notion that slaves were contented or well-treated,” Finkenbine said, and even “unlettered fugitive slaves … who were pressed into getting up in front of an audience and telling their halting and unvarnished tales could be equally effective in mobilizing audiences against slavery.”
Those who have directly experienced the prison system are likewise championing the prison abolition movement. I have been one of these directly impacted former prisoners who have been centered at such events. I don’t attend such forums to receive financial compensation, but rather to do what I can to help end mass incarceration.
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That said, former prisoners often leave these events without receiving any remuneration — not even for transportation — and they return to their marginalized, economically insecure lives until called forth again by their liberal allies — just like many formerly enslaved people.
Some formerly enslaved people found ways to avoid this kind of exploitation, becoming paid lecturing agents for state anti-slavery societies between the late 1830s and the Civil War, Finkenbine told me. These lecturers would be paid a salary, plus costs to sustain themselves on the road. Others gave unsponsored lectures, instead passing collection plates around during their speeches to raise funds to buy other family members out of slavery. Some wrote autobiographies of their life in slavery and spoke to promote the sales of their books.
I have only met a few former prisoners who have been substantially compensated for telling their stories. If money is the measure of success, I have yet to demonstrate that I am one of the “successful” ones, given my activities.
Shortly after being freed, I began speaking publicly and engaging in advocacy, including lecturing to law students at the University of Washington.
I struggled to balance innumerable obligations and responsibilities while also presenting to corporate law offices to enlist them to work with nonprofits, meeting with lawmakers to garner their support on criminal legal reform legislation, discussing rehabilitation with the very prosecutor whose office had sentenced me, and presenting cases to secure pro bono representation for those I left behind in prison.
As for the speaking events, on the occasions when I did receive some sort of remuneration, it was a modest travel stipend, a per diem or a small honorarium.
I soon felt that I did not have the luxury to be speaking at far-flung events, being a panel participant or lecturing at universities without adequate compensation — especially at the behest of organizers who are paid to attend those events and institutions claiming to approach their work through an equity lens.
Was I being taken advantage of? I was unsure. But on its face, the situation seemed economically inequitable, given that I was (and am still) undergoing reentry after spending 27 years in prison for crimes I committed at the age of 14, and have been telling my story and giving my time without compensation to further the mission of institutions that were seemingly willing to pay everyone other than people like me.
Gerald Hankerson, president of the NAACP Alaska-Oregon-Washington State Area Conference, did not mince words when he discussed the matter with me. Hankerson spent more than 20 years imprisoned before receiving a sentence commutation.
“I call it robbing you of your wisdom…. A brotha’ can do 30 years in prison, and these people will bring him in to talk about his experiences confined because white folks love a good story. Then they’ll get a professor who’s been studying prisons for 30 years and they’ll pay him $15,000 a speech,” Hankerson told me. “These brothers need to understand that their experience is just as valuable as a professor’s education. By not compensating you the same way they do these people with a degree, they devalue you. We have just as much value as these so-called experts.”
This message resonates among many prisoners who overcame their circumstances and became extraordinary writers and activists — exemplars such as confined activist Mumia Abu-Jamal and journalist Wilbert Rideau, who spent 44 years in Angola Prison. Having accomplished so much while confined, some might believe their stories and insight into the criminal legal system will be recognized as worthy of financial compensation.
However, Eric Christopher Webb, a best-selling author and empowerment strategist, says that compensation often comes down to one’s personal brand, something that most people do not develop while incarcerated.
“Equitable and lucrative compensation has more to do with one’s brand and marketing than one’s personal history,” Webb told me. “The idea of this might be difficult for those formerly incarcerated since while they are no longer in physical bondage, they have yet to fully relinquish those mental shackles that bind their self-esteem, which deems themselves and their experiences worthy and valuable.”
Louis L. Reed has marketed himself in this fashion since his release from prison. His personal brand was showcased when I googled his name and saw his related images, articles, videos and other content.
As the national organizer for #cut50, a bipartisan effort co-founded by liberal political pundit Van Jones that seeks to reduce crime and incarceration, Reed highlighted what life is like when former prisoners build their credibility and capacity. He told me that when he was first released after nearly 14 years in federal prison, he was initially full of passion and commitment to speak uncompensated.
“I just wanted to tell my story and help others. Ultimately, I realized that I was retraumatizing myself every time I recited stories about my incarceration, etc., all without compensation,” Reed told me. “There were events that I would be invited to keynote, and have to travel extensively to get to, and the coordinator would charge a cover at the door (in the spirit of a “fundraiser”) and not offer me an honorarium. Presently, I am being managed by [PR firms], so that my time and knowledge are compensated.”
Likewise, Christopher Poulos, who earned his law degree after serving a federal prison sentence, has also been able to market himself effectively after spending a long period receiving little more than appreciation. “I continued to build that resume, build my reputation — actually get a couple degrees, stuff like that, and then it started to shift; although still most of the panels and stuff are generally unpaid,” Poulos told me.
But like the NAACP’s Hankerson, Poulos still believes there are inequities, albeit more subtle and routine. “There’s a lot of panels where it doesn’t matter if you’re ‘Dr. so and so,’ or if you’re a dude who just got out six weeks ago and wants to share his personal story. I would have the major issue if the doctor is getting paid and the other person isn’t — to me that would be an absolute slap in the face,” he told me.
Still, Poulos says, if no one is getting paid there’s still an equity issue because “‘Dr. so and so’ works full time in this space, this is part of his employment; and the person who just got out is trying to reunite with his family, get a driver’s license, get to work, and is actually taking a hit probably financially and maybe with relationships to be able to go and do these types of things.”
Those words resonated with me. Even if one disagrees with the notion that not remunerating a formerly incarcerated person for their public speaking efforts amounts to robbing them of their wisdom, as Hankerson describes, I have taken a hit financially and in my personal relationships by doing these types of things. That is simply the reality.
As Alan Jenkins, professor of practice at Harvard Law School, told me, “We all have a responsibility to understand and accommodate the circumstances of formerly incarcerated leaders.” Since I cannot wait for others to realize they must offer understanding and accommodation, I’ve got my business license for consulting and website up and running as Webb recommended.
I hope former prisoners continue to use their voices to mobilize audiences against mass incarceration—and I hope the institutions and organizations that offer them a platform will begin offering them equitable remuneration, too.