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Training Formerly Incarcerated Leaders To Fight Mass Incarceration

Above Photo: Volunteer inmates from area correctional facilities build a flood barrier with sandbags along the back of buildings in the business district on April 21, 2023 in Savanna, Illinois. Scott Olson/Getty Images.

JustLeadershipUSA sees the answer to mass incarceration among the 5.5 million people affected by the system of mass punishment today.

Editor’s note: At 00:56, host Mansa Musa misspeaks when quoting a report and says that 55 million people are in the system of mass incarceration; the correct number is 5.5 million.

Over 1.9 million people are incarcerated in the US today, and even greater 5.5 million people are subjected to the wide-ranging system of mass punishment from parole, probation, and beyond. One organization, JustLeadershipUSA, seeks to tackle the prison system by building leaders among formerly incarcerated people, and fighting for change from the local level up. JustLeadershipUSA President and CEO DeAnna Hoskins joins Rattling the Bars to explain the work of her organization and how it seeks to bring about to change.

DeAnna Hoskins has been at the helm of JLUSA as the President and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA) since 2018. A nationally recognized leader and dynamic public speaker, Ms. Hoskins has been committed to the movement for racial and social justice, working alongside those most impacted by marginalization for over two decades.


Mansa Musa:  Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m your host, Mansa Musa. In an essay called Toward the United Front, George Jackson saw that the sheer size of the prison population made it ripe for mobilizing prisons into a non-sectarian united front, with the goal of abolishing the prison-industrial complex, among other things. Since that essay, the prison-industrial complex has grown. Today, over 1.9 million people are behind bars in the US. In a recent report by the Prison Policy Initiative entitled Punishment Beyond Prisons 2023: Incarceration and Supervision by State, [because of] the overuse of probation and parole, along with mass incarceration, over 5.5 million people are in the system of mass punishment and under their control in some shape, form, or fashion. Joining me today to talk about how JustLeadershipUSA sees these numbers – And what they are doing with them – Is DeAnna Hoskins, president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA. Welcome, DeAnna.

DeAnna Hoskins:  Thank you. Thank you.

Mansa Musa:  Tell our Rattling the Bars [viewers] a little bit about yourself please.

DeAnna Hoskins:  I’m DeAnna Hoskins, president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA. I’ve been at the helm of the organization since 2018. I actually was a leader who went through the training program in 2016. I’m an individual who’s been impacted by the criminal justice system – Formerly incarcerated – That has been able to break through some of those glass ceilings or places they told us we couldn’t go. Places and spaces. Prior to coming to JustLeadershipUSA, I served under the Obama administration as a senior policy advisor, and I managed all of the federal government’s investment in corrections and reentry, which included the Second Chance Portfolio, the National Reentry Resource Center, Collateral Consequences of Criminal Convictions, and Children of Incarcerated Parents.

I’ve been in this field for about 25 years. I worked in my hometown county government as director of re-entry, establishing re-entry perspectives around that area and also within the state of Indiana. As most people will say, who goes back? Who’s incarcerated and goes back and works in the correctional system? I actually worked as a unit manager at the state of Indiana’s Pendleton Correctional Facility. So I’ve not only been on the inside, I’ve actually come out and worked in the administrative and service side of this as well.

Mansa Musa:  Very well-put. And you heard me set this up, George Jackson made this observation. And when he made this observation, he made the observation about the need to build, to utilize the prison population to create a non-sectarian organization for the purpose of abolishing prison and organizing around social change. Now, JustLeadershipUSA has a four-year plan for building local power and dismantling oppressive systems. Tell our viewers and listeners how this came about. How did this four-year plan come about?

DeAnna Hoskins:  So one of the things, – Again, having worked in all levels of government, the inside of government from the state, local, and federal government – one of the biggest things that I realized was, anything that is moved from local up to federal almost forces the federal hand to change. Anything that comes from the federal government and rolls down always gets attacked and addressed by the new administration.

And I’ll give you some examples: Same-sex marriage came from the states up to the federal government. Forced their hands. We’re looking at the same with legalized marijuana. It’s rolling from the states, forcing the government’s hand. But things that come out of the government, such as what they titled Obamacare, every time a new administration comes in, they attack anything that comes out that benefits oppressed and marginalized communities. So one of the things we realized was that the oppressive policies that are hindering us are hindering us at the ground level. We don’t need the federal government to try to fix things for us around policies, because – I’m going to be honest with you and one of the things about me, I’m very authentic – Policy and legislation will never free Black people.

Mansa Musa:  Come on.

DeAnna Hoskins:  A lot of times we’ve got to talk about how we even got here to incarceration and mass incarceration. It’s the legacy of slavery. At the abolishment of slavery, it still was the way to utilize free labor with debtor’s prison and different things of that nature. So when you look at the misdemeanor system, it was created as a way to still incarcerate the bodies to provide free labor. So for me, it’s about understanding my history of how we got here, if I’m going to try to dismantle it. And the only way you can dismantle anything, nothing changes until those most oppressed rise up into power to change it. Every discipline in this country – Whether it’s mental health, substance abuse, veterans, women’s services – Uses people who are directly impacted by the issue they’re addressing.

Mansa Musa:  That’s right.

DeAnna Hoskins:  The criminal justice system has been the only system that is reluctant to utilize the voices and power of the people that have been incarcerated to help change and address the system. And we’re basically here saying, we ain’t asking for permission anymore, we’ll apologize later.

Mansa Musa:  Right there, let’s unpack that. Because I did 48 years in prison, and the entire time I was in prison – Both of us can agree to this – It stands to reason that those on the other side would be more than eager to rattle the bars, more than eager to raise their voices. And in this regard, JustLeadershipUSA is saying that y’all are hanging y’all hats on those that are impacted: those that are locked up, those that are locked out, those that are on parole and probation. That y’all are hanging y’all hats on them and this class of underserved people to be the voice and the face of JustLeadershipUSA.

DeAnna Hoskins:  Yes.

Mansa Musa:  How do you get them to respond? Because, you’ve got a myriad of things that are going on with people coming out: I ain’t got no place to stay, I ain’t got no job. Baby mama drama. Trying to get back with my kids, trying to link back up with my family. So it’s a myriad of problems going on. What makes you feel so emboldened by this approach?

DeAnna Hoskins:  One of the things is, we work with organizations typically led by individuals who’ve been directly impacted across the country to help with those immediate needs. What we don’t do is actually exploit people and say, we’re going to put you on the frontline. We want you to use your voice. No, we’re not going to do that. If you interact with us when you first come home, how do we connect you locally so you can be together? Because you have to be together if you’re going to stand for the people you left behind.

So we don’t even accept a person into our leadership training unless they’ve had three years post-incarceration. But that doesn’t mean we don’t interact and engage with you and try to connect you to what you need with the people and the leaders we have. So one of the things that I want to talk about – Something you said about the myriad of things going on – That’s one of the reasons we’re empowering them, is because the system is focusing on, they say, recidivism reduction. We want to make sure you get out and stay out, but you won’t be focusing on it from the system being successful, not the individual.

Mansa Musa:  That’s right.

DeAnna Hoskins:  I can be homeless and not go back to prison. I can use drugs and not go back to prison. Does that mean the person is successful, or is the system successful because I didn’t go back to prison? So how do we even hold the system accountable with discriminatory practices that they have? Which is why this JustUS Coordinating Council is important: because it doesn’t take legislation. It actually takes rulemaking to take the word “discretion” out of the housing: a definition of who’s homeless and who has access to housing.

How can you deny us a basic human need that every human on this earth needs? Whether you have a criminal background or not. You have stated that housing is a basic human need. That we got 600,000 people coming out every year that can be blocked from a basic human need and you say, go be successful? Hell, you ain’t even supplied me with the foundation. But any individual needs to be successful, and you allow the discrimination in your policies around giving discretion to local housing authorities to say who can come in and who can’t.

Mansa Musa:  I noticed that one of the things I found enlightening in regard to this organization is the policy impact. I work for a group called Voice for a Second Chance, and the supervisor always says, if you’re sitting around the table and it’s not impacting policy, like Malcolm said, don’t call me a diner because I’m sitting there with a plate. I’m sitting around a table.

But let’s talk about policy. Going back to your point, we can be in this space, and you can have me sitting at the table with an empty plate, and I really think I’m a diner. Not so much because I have an empty plate, but because you told me I’m getting ready to eat and I ain’t got nothing on my plate yet. Because you gave me this false narrative. So we know we are confronted with that. How do y’all educate people to understand policy impact and policy versus getting a feel-good response?

DeAnna Hoskins:  Right there. I am so happy you asked, because that was one of the biggest challenges when we said we were going to do this. We walked in knowing not only do we have to impact and empower people to build this table, we have to educate them. What I found out, a lot of people, when you say “advocate” or “advocacy,” they think of a t-shirt and a bullhorn. And I’m like, no, this is an inside-out game. One of the things I like to tell people, if you serve time, that means you committed a crime. What I need you to know is, all your skills that were in that lifestyle were not liabilities. I need you to understand some of them are transferable skills out on the road, and you have to utilize that. Part of that is – I use drugs and I tell people all the time that I didn’t wake up one day and know how to use drugs or how to cook up the product that I was using – Somebody taught me.

Mansa Musa:  That’s right.

DeAnna Hoskins:  If you’re going to work in this lane, you have to be willing to be taught the same way you were willing to be taught in the streets: find somebody. You have to have a mentor, you have to be educated. Because the big thing is, people power equals change, and the best thing that they do to break us apart is if you’re not knowledgeable of what you’re sitting at the table for. The respect comes when you sit at the table with the elected officials, or other people who are making a policy, and you shut them down better on their policies than they can.

Mansa Musa:  Let me ask you this. How do you get around the poverty pimps? The poverty pimps are the ones that are in the space we’re dealing with that are grant-chasing. You’re educating me and I acquired these leadership skills and I’m going over here and I’m in an environment where they don’t have A, B, C, D, E, F, G. JustLeadershipUSA, help me get A, B, C, D, E, F, G so I can keep the mission going. Then when I get the return, I keep the money, and the people that’s supposed to get what they are supposed to get don’t get what they get. Get what they always got: nothing.

DeAnna Hoskins:  Oh my god. That has always been the thirst of it. JustLeadershipUSA is the training part. We do our training, we raise our funds. We train you to be able to communicate, to go after your own funding for your own organization. Our coordinating council is open to the 70 million of us who have been impacted, to be educated on how – Even from federal money that rose to your state – To go push at your state where that money is and how it ain’t coming to our communities when it’s supposed to be designed.

Mansa Musa:  Yeah, that’s right.

DeAnna Hoskins:  But, you’re right. How do we stop people from having their own agenda? People are always going to have their own agenda. Our hope is that the JCC stands within itself, because if you start talking about policy, I’m not chasing the grants. So here’s how I break this down, having worked in government. I break it down into games: chess is legislation, that’s the long game; checkers are grassroots that should grab and get funding and all that.

And what I share with them, one of the things I’m going to share with you all, you all are doing criminal justice reform work. Poverty pimping on that level, you’re only in the department of justice and DOL’s pocket. That’s like going to an amusement park and only enjoying a water slide. You ain’t even figured out all of the money in the federal that you can get. So you don’t even know how to play this game for real. That’s why it is so scarce, because they’ve pigeonholed us to one department around funding.

Do you know how much money the Department of Transportation puts out across this country every year to fix roadways and bridges? If they simply adopted a Section 3 process like HUD that says, any federal dollars that roll into your state or your city, 35% of the workforce has to come from the most impoverished zip codes in your area. Do you know the game changer that would be in certain cities? My city is getting ready to overhaul a bridge that is going to cost $20 million.

Mansa Musa:  Everywhere you see it’s a brick. One of the presidents used the term “mortar and shovel” as an indication of how the money is going to flow. But let’s talk about that, because that’s a good observation. And I know from experience, all of us had life sentences, so all of us that got out with the exception of maybe two or three out of hundreds were recidivated. Everybody else, they hit the ground running and they have been doing remarkable work in their regard. So how do we coalesce with all of these elements throughout the country that’s like that? In Kansas, in California, in the South, in Virginia, in Maryland. How do y’all go about coalescing with them?

DeAnna Hoskins:  So that’s our goal to start building, taking our leaders we have now and saying, oh you’re in Maryland, you’re in Michigan, you’re in Chicago, you’re in Illinois. Now we want to come in and help you build a coalition in your state. Then all of us come together twice a year in DC and show up, because people power equals people. But if you’re working on something in DC and you say, DeAnna, I’m working on this, this needs to be changed in DC. If there’s 70 million of us with a record and we got 10% of that to participate with us – And we all support your issue by sending in letters, signing onto your legislation, whatever you’re doing – That shows you’ve got power behind you, and no matter what state you’re in, that this is an issue. And that’s what we’ve never shown: formerly incarcerated people have been exploited for everybody else’s –

Mansa Musa:  That’s right.

DeAnna Hoskins:  …People write a bill. Oh, we need the formerly incarcerated to be deleted. They give them a $10,000 check, and they show up. And who am I to tell you not to keep –

Mansa Musa:  That’s right. Come on money, come on, come on.

DeAnna Hoskins:  …You can make some good money. Therefore you’re still being exploited, but when they get to Congress and they start redlining it, we don’t have a say to say, we got carved out of there. I’ll give you an example. The First Step Act was great for whoever didn’t understand legislation. It was retroactive in the crack cocaine disparity, it was saying you couldn’t over-incarcerate certain people. But here’s what y’all didn’t catch that we came out and said: it legislated a risk assessment tool that had already been racially determined, racially biased.

Mansa Musa:  I know that, I know that. Come on.

DeAnna Hoskins:  Black people will never score low on a risk assessment, because our communities are over-policed and our schools have more police than counselors.Then y’all didn’t even pay attention when I said, how are you going to say the only people eligible for the crack cocaine retroactive have to be the people who did not have a weapon involved? Well in the hood, drugs and guns started going together like peanut butter and jelly.

Mansa Musa:  Yeah, come on.

DeAnna Hoskins:  You’re not a drug dealer without a weapon. Whether you used it or not. Whether you brandished it, whether the clip was in it. Y’all allowed them to exclude us because why? Because y’all didn’t have no power. And then y’all didn’t understand how this plays out in our communities. Let’s be honest, the ‘94 Crime Bill was a good policy on paper. Nobody knew how it was going to play out in communities.

Mansa Musa:  That’s right.

DeAnna Hoskins:  What we’re saying is, you don’t get to push legislation without our voices. As a matter of fact, I don’t want to ask for permission to join your bill. We’re going to build our own table to have enough power that when they push your bill back they say, formerly incarcerated can’t participate in the legalization of marijuana because they’ve got a felony. How are you going to create a policy that white men are gonna get rich off for what we’ve been going to jail for for years, and we can’t even partake in it? We’ll shut this bill down, and if not, we’ve got enough people power to vote you out of office.

Mansa Musa:  All right, so as we wrap up, talk about where you are at right now in terms of – Because I know we all just came out of Washington – What’s the next step for JustLeadershipUSA?

DeAnna Hoskins:  We just launched in DC to make sure people knew who we were. We were able to empower, directly impact the people. We’re going to hold general call-ins for people to keep joining, we’re going to give them updates. But right now I’m headed to DC to do a sit-down with DOJ leadership around some of our issues that are in our demands. I’m meeting with the department of labor to say this funding that we’re asking for to help us –This is when I talked about the game, chess and checkers.

There’s a middle game called Backgammon. That’s the strategy. We’re Backgammon, strategizing. Nobody flies at that. And that’s the administrative level. That’s the senior leadership who is going to be there no matter who’s in the White House. The NAACP keeps showing up no matter who’s in the White House. because Black people’s issues have not gone away.

Mansa Musa:  That’s right.

DeAnna Hoskins:  From the incarcerated need, we’re going to keep showing up, because our issues haven’t gone away. So we’ve got to learn to fly at the backgammon level, in the gray zone. It doesn’t matter who’s in the White House, our issues are important. We’re not going to wait for other agencies to say, this is legislation we need to push. This is a policy we need to change. We’re going to understand ourselves and show up and speak for ourselves because typically, the policy and the legislation others push for us continue to entrench harm in our communities. And we always say, if you don’t have a seat at the table, you are on the menu.

Mansa Musa:  There you have it. The Real News. Rallying the boss. We’re not playing chess anymore.

DeAnna Hoskins:  We ain’t playing.

Mansa Musa:  We’re not playing checkers, we’re at backgammon. We’re at the strategy level. And being at the strategy level, we ask that you evaluate this information as it came out today. If you are formerly incarcerated, if you’ve got a number behind your name, if they put handcuffs on you, if they gave you a record, then you are a valuable asset in this coalition called JustLeadershipUSA. Now, you have the last word. What do you want to tell our audience?

DeAnna Hoskins:  I want to tell everyone that we have been oppressed and marginalized for too long. If everyone believes in a system of rehabilitation and corrections, they will not have the continued barriers and policies in place that allows us, once we re-enter, to still be blocked out of being productive members of society. One of the things you have to know is that you are valuable, you are a leader, and you have the right to have your voice heard. And that is what JustLeadershipUSA is about: giving you a platform, providing you with the education, and empowering you to elevate your voice so that we can disrupt and change the system that has been oppressing us for too long.

Mansa Musa:  There you have it. And speaking of our platform, we ask that you continue to support this platform known as Rattling the Bars and The Real News. It’s only on Rattling the Bars and The Real News that you’re gonna get someone like DeAnna Hoskins to come and educate you on the strategy of getting self-determination. The strategy of being empowered and not sitting at the table with an empty plate and somebody coming and telling you, wait a minute; you’ll be served in one minute. And what’s been like 20 years later, you’re still waiting for something to eat. We ask that you continue to support this organization, this network, and we ask that you continue to rattle the bars. Thank you, DeAnna.

DeAnna Hoskins:  Thank you. Thank you for having me.

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