Participatory Defense Launches in Durham, NC!

For De-Bug, visiting Spirit House in Durham, NC is like going to a family reunion and meeting cousins you heard of through stories — family who moved, believed, and breathed like you, just in a different part of the country.  Last week, De-Bug organizers Gail Noble, Cecilia Chavez, and Charisse Domingo shared space with amazing organizers from Durham, NC who are holding it down in the community: Spirit House, a cultural-arts and community organizing group fighting mass criminalization; All of Us Or None, a membership-based organization made of formerly incarcerated individuals organizing to transform the system; Southern Coalition for Social Justice, an organization made of lawyers, researchers, and organizers supporting communities of color addressing racial inequities; and Inside Outside, an organization made of families addressing disparate jail conditions in Durham County.  We were brought together by the Hayward Burns Institute’s Community Justice Network for Youth, who promoted the peer exchange among our organizations. We spent two days sharing Participatory Defense strategies and collectively brainstorming how to support each other in our larger movement to end mass incarceration.  We can’t wait to keep building with these dedicated community warriors!  Check out our photos below!


ACJP organizers Cecilia and Gail sharing points of intervention in the criminal justice system that families can use to impact their loved ones’ cases.


De-Bug, All of Us or None, CJNY, and Spirit House organizers head to the Durham County Court to observe first appearance hearings


Etched into the pew in one of the courtrooms. In just the hour we visited and sat in court, there were around 60 people, and 90% were African American.


At the first appearance in Jail Court, familiy members sit behind a glass as they await their loved ones who are brought in from the side. If they want to plead for their family member’s release, they have to speak through a button on the side to the Judge, who then determines bond or other conditions of release. During the time we went, it was all Black women being held, and their family members awaited their fate.


De-Bug ACJP organizer Gail outside the Durham County Detention Facility where we just finished sitting through Jail Court. She is there to work with Durham organizers to transform the experiences of families whose loved ones are facing charges in the system. For Gail, this visit is especially heartfelt, because her father and mother were both born in North Carolina, and this is her first trip back to her roots.

We were so excited to meet Poet, a proud member of All of Us or None who has had negative experiences with the criminal justice system. He will be one of the organizers leading participatory defense meetings in Durham, NC!

We were so excited to meet Poet, a proud member of All of Us or None who had negative experiences with the criminal justice system. He will be one of the organizers leading participatory defense meetings in Durham!


Mama Nia Wilson, Executive Director at Spirit House, leads a deep, honest conversation on generational trauma with participants of their Harm Free Zone. She is a longtime OG at Durham who’s been holding it down for years, and we’re so blessed to build with her.

Taye, an artist and organizer with Spirit House, photographs the first participatory defense meeting in Durham!

Taye, an artist and organizer with Spirit House, photographs the first participatory defense meeting in Durham!


Andrea with All of Us Or None leads our second participatory defense meeting as we strategize on how to get a loved one released after he was just arrested that morning.

Video of the Moment Arthur Erased His Name

This is Arthur erasing his name from our weekly ACJP meeting. His dad Kenny would add his name up on that whiteboard for years. Last Sunday, Arthur came home from prison after eight years, having beaten a life sentence due to Prop.36, and erased his name. It is the one ceremony we have at our meetings — erasing the name means a family has won the freedom of their loved one.

We had only known Arthur through his letters from prison, and his stories from his father Kenny —  that he was a great son and looked out for his brothers.  Every Sunday Kenny would come to De-Bug to help think through Arthur’s case.  In 2006, Arthur agreed to a deal after he was told that if he pled guilty, his brother — one of the codefendants in the case — would be released.  He thought he would be serving somewhere around 8 years.  When the Judge handed down a life sentence during his court hearing, everyone in the courtroom was stunned.  That was the first time Arthur or his family had even heard of ‘life’ being on the table.  So when Kenny first came to De-Bug in 2008, they were still reeling from the pain of losing their son to prison, even though it had already been 2 years. But with the support of his community, Kenny — on the outside — and Arthur on the inside — worked to undo his case.  On Sundays, Kenny and the De-Bug team would lay out 4- inch binders of paperwork to help construct possible ways of appeal.  We met with his appellate attorneys, wrote back and forth to Arthur, even met with decision-makers to find openings.  Meanwhile, Kenny and Arthur held strong — working through depression and a host of health issues that Arthur faced inside the prison.  Then when Prop 36 passed in November 2012, a glimmer of hope came.  Arthur was contacted by the Santa Clara County Public Defender’s office who represented him at his resentencing.  Kenny collected letters of support that demonstrated Arthur’s network that would give him a solid reentry plan, and last year, a judge agreed to release Arthur back to his community.  Check out this Time Saved Party video, where Kenny talks about the day he found out his son had an “out date.” On May 5th, he came home.  On May 31, 2015 — 7 years after Kenny first walked into the doors of De-Bug — Arthur walked in with him.  Submission Post by Charisse Domingo


VIDEO: When Robert Erased His Name (The Ceremony in Participatory Defense Victories)

We decided to start sharing the one ceremony we have at ACJP — when a loved one comes home from prison or jail due to the advocacy of their family, and they erase their name from our weekly meeting board. To the outside viewer passing by our building and looking through our window, it may not look like much. Just some person erasing their name while others watch, clap, and cry. But for the families in the meeting, the ceremony is profoundly meaningful. It symbolizes the power of how family and community can challenge and beat the institutions of mass incarceration. Every weekly meeting, when families come to advocate for their loved ones, we write their loved one’s name on the white board, and then the groups shares updates and strategies as we go through the list of names.  A number of people listed on the board had never set foot in a meeting until the day they come home. They have been detained while their family has come to these meetings every week. Robert was one of those community members — a name on the board that the rest of the group only knew through his mother’s stories, but they prayed for his release nonetheless. This short video is of the day he erased his name, at the first meeting of 2015. [youtube]

“Prison Was Your Nightmare, This Home is Your Reality” — Photos of the First Day of Freedom from Prison

The young man spent 3 1/2 years in a California State prison. His mother Veronica started coming to De-Bug’s ACJP about 4 years ago and our community supported her advocacy for her son. Together we attended court, met with the attorney, and created a social biography video that allowed her to show the judge why she was fighting so hard for her son. He was facing much more time.  She has been waiting for his moment coming home since then. She picked him up from prison in the morning, and held a family welcome home party that very night. He told her,  “Mom, I can’t believe I’m home. This is like a dream,” he said as their car pulled up to his aunt’s house where about 30 of his family members waited. She responded, “No, son. Prison, that was your nightmare, and this…” she points to his family and friends, “this is your reality.” (Photos by Charisse Domingo)



Veronica’s son bows his head in prayer as his cousin, a pastor at a local church, leads the family in a special blessing. This is his first day home after 3 1/2 years in prison.


Veronica gathers the entire family at her sister’s home to welcome her son on his first day back. After this, they watch the social biography video that De-Bug created to ask the judge for leniency in sentencing.


Veronica’s son and his grandmother.


He did 3 1/2 years in prison.  This celebration combines all the missed birthdays and Christmases into a moving homecoming.


Veronica and her son share a moment. He couldn’t believe that 3 1/2 years had passed.  As they pulled up to the house, he said, ‘This is like a dream.’ His mom said, ‘No, son. Prison was your nightmare.  You’re home now, and this is your reality.’

Getting Ready to Bring Her Brother Home After 18 Years

Armed with letters from the community, Mary heads out to Modesto for a final meeting with the attorney of her brother. He is serving a life sentence, and has been inside for 18 years already. With the passage of Proposition 36, he now has the possibility of being re-sentenced, which would lead to his release. Mary started coming to De-Bug and advocating for her brother well before the 3 Strikes Reform. Some attorneys told her his release was unlikely. But then again, most did not expect her to get this far. Next week, Mary, her family, and De-Bug will be caravaning to the his court date, to hopefully witness the start of a re-unification of this family. (See the photo of Mary from the beginning of the year, when her and her mother first learned that her brother may be on the list of potential re-sentences.)


Returning To Life From Life: A Daughter’s Journey To Freeing Her Mother From Prison

Check out this moving video made by De-Bug’s Jean Melesaine on Lisa Carter, the first woman in Santa Clara County who won her release from a life sentence due to Proposition 36.  Judge Deborah Ryan granted Lisa release after serving 18 years in prison for a $150 shoplifting charge (her 3rd strike), with the tremendous support from her family, friends, community, and public defender. This video will be part of the Time Saved series, chronicling stories of families bringing loved ones home from incarceration.

Grandmother Freed from Life Sentence

The first woman up for a potential re-sentencing in Santa Clara County due to Proposition 36 won her release this week. A 55-year-old grandmother, Lisa Carter had done 18 years of a life sentence due to the recently reformed 3 Strikes Law. Lisa’ third offense was $150 shoplifting charge. When moved up from prison to the county jail in anticipation of court, Sister’s That Been There founder Steeda McGruder was asked by Lisa’s attorney to give counsel on the possible re-entry process. Lisa, her daughter, and her 12-year-old granddaughter offered testimony at the hearing — all calling for her release. At one point the prosecutor noted that Lisa was “on her own personal journey” but thought that journey should continue in prison. That will not be the case, as Judge Deborah Ryan issued the release. Here is an image of family, friends, even former bunkies of hers who knew Lisa years ago — at the steps of the court right before the hearing. They lit candles and prayed before court. Read the Mercury News article here.



Gideon’s Army Deserves Back Up

By Raj Jayadev

gideonWhen I watched Dawn Porter’s Gideon’s Army, the HBO-aired documentary on public defenders in the South, it made me think of the irrationality of our court system, mass incarceration, and broken families. But it also made me think of the X-Men.

In the X-Men movie series, the superheroes are misunderstood, even vilified at times by the public, but nonetheless are charged with saving humanity. The budding heroes, who already have the innate abilities within them, develop their skills at a special school to be prepared for the high stakes battles they are charged to engage in.

Gideon’s Army has a similar story line, minus the mind-melds and mutant genetics. Continue reading

Echoes of ‘60s March: Sixties-Style Civil Disobedience Drives New Era of Activism


Graphic design by Adrian Avila

By Raj Jayadev

This August marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington — that watershed moment of the civil rights era that showed how mass movement could force the nation to address issues of inequality, and change the political direction of the country. Had America not recently experienced some of the most poignant, traumatic, and racially-charged episodes in years, this march anniversary may have only been a nostalgic, obligatory, nod to the past. But a young Trayvon Martin was killed, a steady rise in deportations are breaking apart families, and prisons have become so savagely inhumane, inmates are starving themselves to death. As a result, the most captivating activists of today are not looking at the ‘60s as a history book, they are looking at it as a playbook. Continue reading

We Stopped the Ban of Letters to Inmates!

Steeda of Sisters That Been There Showing the Letter Exchanges from inmates.

Steeda of Sisters That Been There Showing the letter exchanges from inmates.

Congratulations to the families and organizations of Santa Clara County! We successfully made our voices heard, and stopped the implementation of a jail policy which would have greatly restricted inmates from receiving letters, photos, and all of the other “lifelines” that connect those on the inside to their loved ones on the outside. The policy — called the Postcard Only Policy — was created originally by Sheriff Arpaio in Arizona, and has been spreading quickly to counties across the nation. We first heard the alarms of the policy being planned here in Santa Clara County after receiving calls from families, and receiving letters of concern from inmates. Our community of civil rights groups, families of the incarcerated, re-entry experts, faith-based communities all came together to express a collective repudiation of the policy (watch the powerful video). Jail administrators were open to meet with us, and we held an powerful gathering where families shared heart-felt testimonies of why letters are so vital for those on both sides of the jail walls. After a Summer of growing concern of the proposed policy, administrators announced at the August Public Safety meeting that they are dropping the policy! For more check out the San Jose Mercury News coverage, and the blog of the victory form our friends at the Prison Policy Institute who are fighting this ban nationally. Our hope is other counties may be inspired by the families of Santa Clara County and will fight back to beat the ban in their counties! (Special thanks to Sisters That Been There, San Jose NAACP, Coalition for Justice and Accountability, De-Bug families, ACJP, and everyone else who helped!)