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An interview with Michael Blain: Soros Justice Fellow at the Justice Policy Institute.

Editor's Note: Michael Blain is a Soros Justice Fellow at the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., where he is building a national movement to give voice to the rights of exinmates and their communities. Prior to being awarded this fellowship, Blain served seven years in prison after being convicted of robbery. At the time, Blain, a University of Maryland graduate, was at the height of his sales career. After his release in August 2001, he decided to devote his life to reforming the nation's criminal justice system.


What is your background and how did you first become committed to prison reform?

I am a former broadcast journalist, stockbroker and business owner. I was given seven years for a crime I didn't commit. While incarcerated, I came to understand that we all have a responsibility to reform these penal institutions that we have created that don't reform or rehabilitate. There are no good people or bad people and as long as we discount human beings with this kind of outlook, we will continue the great divide that now exists.

How did your seven years in prison affect the way you view prisoner reform?

I did most of my time in major institutions in Virginia with guys who are there from "now on." I learned from these men and from the dehumanization that I experienced that I could no longer comfortably live in the world as if everything was OK. I learned on the inside that "stone walls do not make a prison" and that I had been locked away long before I went to prison. The only way to regain my humanity was to make meaningful contact with others less fortunate than I. I lost seven years of my life, seven years of relationship with my parents and loved ones, seven years of my son's childhood because our system of justice failed. Unfortunately, my story is not unique. While I was away, I met many men for whom the system had similarly failed, often with tragic results. Too many are still locked away, languishing in prison cells with the expense of their incarceration increasingly borne by their families, communities and state taxpayers. There were nights in prison when I wept over the injustices, in large part because I felt the hopelessness of those around me. We didn't know that there were people out here fighting for change, and I felt very alone in my struggle. I made a decision while away to never waste another moment of my life lost in the American illusion. I am determined that no one on the inside who has had an awakening will ever have to feel alone in the struggle again.

What kind of work were you involved in with other inmates while you were incarcerated?

I spent my seven years as a tutor, trainer and activist. I was an inmate legal adviser and represented inmates facing institutional charges, quite often keeping them from serving isolation time for frivolous charges. I organized and taught career development and financial recovery (how to pay taxes, how to save, etc.) classes in the evenings, preparing nonlifers for life on the outside.

While within the system, what kinds of policies were you fighting for that you felt were unjust/unfair?

I fought for more education, more treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, fairer conditions and less violence. As the chairman of the Inmate Council at three different prisons, I challenged institutional policies that the inmates found unjust or punitive. This caused me to be transferred to five different penitentiaries in six and a half years and put me at risk with the correctional officers and authorities, whose remedy was to place me in isolation several times for "inciting unrest."

How did you come up with the idea of the Prisoner's Justice Network (PJN)?

When I got out, I attended a symposium given by the Sentencing Project on felony disenfranchisement and there met other activists. What I saw lacking was the presence of former prisoners doing the reform work on the issues that most directly impact them. It was that day that I decided to make it my mission to involve former prisoners in this work in a meaningful way. The real issue for me is that we, nonfelons and felons alike, have become accepting of a system that is fundamentally unjust. I believe that these injustices are largely perpetuated by a lack of awareness of the real costs of incarceration and of the fact that there are more effective solutions. During these unstable economic and political times, we can ill afford to be wasting people or money. The disproportionate number of people of color being incarcerated is a fact better addressed than ignored. These are the real injuries to which we can no longer continue to just adhere Band-Aids. We must find meaningful alternatives to incarceration instead of continuing to pour enormous amounts of tax dollars into something that does not work. This is the real fight, and it is my undertaking to continue this battle that began for me on the inside, this time by helping inmates find their voices so that they can speak out on their own behalf and participate in the battles going on outside to change policies so there will be fewer people in prison.

How did you first learn about the Justice Policy Institute and in what ways did you feel it would help you in your mission?

I met Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Justice Policy Institute, at a symposium given by the Sentencing Project on felony disenfranchisement and was inspired by his honesty and directness. When I prayed for guidance, for some way to use my gifts of persuasion and my experience for good, I met him. His commitment to reducing society's reliance on incarceration was akin to my own obsession. I did not want to compromise my integrity for the work ahead by getting involved with anyone who did not share my anger and passion. I was grateful to see that many of the things I had considered to be the real struggle while I was incarcerated were being addressed by the Justice Policy Institute. I could see that they could help me, and I, in turn, could help them.

What exactly is PJN and how is it different from other inmate advocacy groups?

PJN will coalesce and organize a network of formerly incarcerated people, their families and communities that can be mobilized to actively participate in criminal justice policy reform efforts that are ultimately designed to reduce the prison population and create realistic alternatives to incarceration. I believe that what a lot of today's prison reform efforts are lacking is the unified voice of those most directly affected by society's excessive and unjust reliance on incarceration. Through PJN, we will create working relationships that do not currently exist to influence policy reform in the "criminal injustice" system between the prisoners and three essential groups: policy-makers, policy enforcers and policy reform activists. More importantly, PJN will enhance the direct participation of inmates and former inmates to change incarceration policies, and PJN will directly contribute to a new popular consensus that will demand fewer prisons and more alternatives to incarceration. This is former prisoner led; it is made up of all former prisoners. The thing that makes PJN unique is that it brings in the voice of former prisoners at the beginning of the stage of sentencing reform, not as an afterthought. That way, when you sit down and you try to formulate your strategy on how to make the system better, you have the voice of former prisoners. People do studies all the time on former prisoners--the numbers, how to make the system better--but they don't talk to former prisoners until near the end, if they talk to them at all. They're always an after-thought, but these are issues that directly impact them. They don't necessarily directly impact the people who are doing the research or professing to be advocates. What better person to advocate reform than the people who the reform is about? And that's what PJN is truly all about.

What are PJN's goals and how do you intend to achieve them?

The short-term goal of PJN is to develop and implement organizing and communications strategies to engage key individuals and organizations reaching inmates, policy-makers, policy enforcers and policy reform advocates. The long-term goal is to create a replicable and self-sustaining network that supports policy reform work through its ability to correspond, dialogue, mobilize and influence those who have the most to gain from criminal justice reforms.

What kind of progress have you made with PJN so far, and at what stage are you currently?

I have created two state chapters of PJN, in Texas and Maryland, and I am working on a third in Alabama. What I've done is connected them to the sentencing reform coalition that the Justice Policy Institute has established in the different states to reform the criminal justice system in the states where the draconian laws directly impact them. I've taken the voices of the ex-offenders and their families and I've connected them to the sentencing reform coalition in each state so that the issues have more passion and more strategic resolutions.

Would you say you have made successful progress thus far?

I've had enormous success. The JEHT Foundation and the Open Society Institute have already funded the work that I'm doing in Alabama and Texas for PJN, and I've organized a lot of former prisoners. They have their own planning committee that is already established in the state of Texas. In Maryland, we have had one successful campaign last session, including former prisoners and their families.

When you speak to inmates throughout the country, what is your message to them?

I talk to prisoners about their responsibility to themselves and to this society. I talk to them about making a right turn and going straight, and not waiting to be rescued. I talk and I show them that what has worked for countless others will also work for them.

You say that alternatives to incarceration are necessary--what do you propose as these alternatives?

We have so many people locked up for nonviolent offenses that it's killing the different budgets in the states. These institutions that we have built aren't working, and we have to set up a system where we can divert some of the nonviolent offenders and put them in treatment programs, transition homes, that sort of thing. The cost savings that we see from reducing the nonviolent prison population we should put back into the community, thereby, bolstering the community and strengthening them in a way that they have the capacity to support the people that are coming out of prison for the nonviolent offenses. Since my release from prison two years ago, I have given up a career in business to devote my life to the cause of reforming our criminal justice system. Despite the fact that the system failed me and so many other men and women of color from my community, I continue to believe that it can be reformed or replaced and that if enough of us have the will and commitment, we can create a justice system that is reflective of the higher values of our society--justice, equality, humanity and tolerance.

For more information about the Prisoner's Justice Network, contact Michael Blain at (202) 363-7847, ext. 313;

Vanessa St. Gerard is assistant editor of Corrections Today.
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Author:St. Gerard, Vanessa
Publication:Corrections Today
Article Type:Interview
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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