Elugardo: Criminal Justice Reform Includes Learning From ‘Inside the Walls’

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In our district, many agree that structural inequities abound in our public institutions. One stark example: the criminal justice system.

Courtesy Nika Elugardo

Nike Elugardo, D-15th Suffolk/Norfolk District.

The belief that we must not only expose, but also eradicate the injustice embedded in Massachusetts “Correctional” Institutions (MCIs), and in the systems that send people there, is a big part of what inspired my run as state representative.

Since assuming office I’ve regularly visited four of our MCIs to participate in restorative justice events, to take a tour of education and jobs training facilities, and, most importantly, to learn from and support political organizing “inside the walls,” as those living there often refer to themselves.

The African American Coalition Committee (AACC) is one of a number of inspiring leadership organizations comprised of incarcerated persons. Led by men of color, their mission is to organize, uplift and train men of color to engage communities and improve lives both inside and outside the walls.

In my previous career I worked locally and abroad in organizational and board development for over 20 years. I’ve rarely encountered a board so organized, disciplined and productive as the AACC Board. Under circumstances of unimaginably stressful, oppressive, and unjust, they have toiled for decades to produce programming, training, and even legislation to advance their mission. They drafted the original text of some of the legislation I cosponsored, including a bill to end life without parole and another establishing a commission to examine and make recommendations regarding structural racism in the criminal justice system.

State Rep. Russell Holmes and the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus introduced me to AACC. We’re exploring ways to engage other legislators, and the response has been good. I’d like to connect our community with the work behind the walls -- their advocacy and leadership, as well as their reflections and writing.

Corey "Al-Ameen" Patterson, an AACC leader, recently gave a speech at a forum they sponsored in collaboration with the Restorative Justice Group. He heard that our district communities are passionate about ending mass incarceration and I wanted to share some of his speech with you.

"How much have we overcome the legacy of slavery? We’ve made significant progress. Still, who can deny that every black boy born in America in 2019 will inherit a society that incarcerates one out of every three of us. Can I truly claim freedom if this skin that's between the world and me somehow makes me less valued by America? Free for black America has never equaled what it means to be free for white America. Free will be free when institutional racism is no more. Free will be free when the legacy of slavery found in the 13th Amendment is no more. Free will be free when black mothers entering their child's name in a lottery to get into a 'good school' in an all white neighborhood is no more."

“When we sell drugs in our communities, or when we call our sisters b**s and mistreat them, or call our brothers n***s and kill them, this is a form of self hate; the legacy of slavery playing out right before our very eyes as even black communities do nothing! Our ancestors died to keep alive and pass on to us a culture and behavior that helps us get along and enables us to survive and prosper. We must reclaim that self-empowerment."

Like Al-Ameen, our district communities understand the need both to identify our historic role and to activate our present responsibility. I attend AACC meetings monthly. If you’d like to join me, please email Isabel Torres at isabel.torres@mahouse.gov.

Nika Elugardo, D-15th Suffolk, was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 2018.

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