FREEDOM OF SPEECH: EX-OFFENDERS
LAUNCH THINK TANK OF THEIR OWN

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Amid all the policy talk about “prisoner reentry” and “black male unemployment,” one voice is often still missing: that of ex-offenders themselves. Now a new group has set out to change that: NuLeadership, a think tank whose entire 30-member staff once served time behind bars.

Based at Medgar Evers College’s School of Business in Brooklyn since January, the NuLeadership Policy Group and its academic arm, the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, seeks to give formerly incarcerated adults more input into the debates that shape their lives. “Traditionally, we were used by other organizations in a dog-and-pony show,” said Eddie Ellis, co-founder and chairman of NuLeadership. “Usually, one or two former prisoners were brought out at a conference to tell their individual stories. And while that’s important, they were rarely included in the broader discussion.”

Central to NuLeadership’s agenda is a concerted effort to restructure or overturn state laws it sees as undermining the reentry process and threatening public safety. People with criminal convictions, for example, are often barred from residing in public housing and from obtaining a number of state-issued employment licenses. “We’re not talking about placing sex offenders into the school system, we’re talking about a system of perpetual punishment that prevents people from working as barbers or beauticians long after they’ve paid their debt to society,” said Ellis, who also hosts “On The Count!” a weekly broadcast on WBAI that tackles prison issues. “Denying them the opportunity to be law-abiding makes it more likely that they’ll return to the same behavior that got them behind bars in the first place.”

Ellis knows this first hand. The former Black Panther served 25 years for murder on a charge he still disputes, and was released from Harlem’s Lincoln Correctional Facility in 1992. “It was tough because I faced the very same barriers, but my transition was also smoother because of the enormous support network I relied on,” recalled Ellis. “But most people coming out of prison don’t have the type of resources I had, which is what we’re trying to provide through our organization.”

NuLeadership first took shape about three years ago when a grant from the Soros Foundation enabled Ellis to conduct a series of forums across the country to identify professional men and women with criminal records who have since demonstrated leadership. The concept caught the attention of Dr. Edison O. Jackson, president of Medgar Evers, who personally helped the organization develop into a campus-based institution.

At the New York State Assembly’s Black, Puerto Rican and Hispanic Legislative Caucus Conference held in Albany last weekend, NuLeadership co-sponsored a panel entitled “Race and Ethnicity in the Criminal Justice System.” It is also planning a series of forums with the Kings County Judicial Conference for black judges, attorneys and legal advocates. “One of the problems with most think tanks has been their race-neutral approach,” said Dr. Divine Pryor, who served a ten-year sentence for robbery and is a co-founder and executive director of NuLeadership. “People are uncomfortable discussing race, but there’s clearly a problem.”

Roughly 60 percent of all prisoners serving sentences beyond a year in 2004 are black and Hispanic, according to Department of Justice statistics, although these groups make up only 26 percent of the nation’s population overall.

NuLeadership is also planning a massive recruitment drive among New York’s formerly incarcerated, a comprehensive curriculum at Medgar Evers for undergrads interested in criminal justice careers, new affiliate chapters in other cities, and a campaign to engage private enterprise in creating new manufacturing jobs in neighborhoods with high rates of incarceration.

“NuLeadership is challenging us to think about using innovative concepts,” said Kirsten Levingston, director of the Criminal Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU. “By virtue of their experience, they’re also bringing passion and a legitimacy to the process that has been largely missing from the public policy arena for much too long.”

–Curtis Stephen