New Orleanian Norris Henderson strode into the U.S. Department of Justice building in Washington, D.C., last fall with a group one of his colleagues described as “the Super Eight.” These eight longtime justice activists from across the nation had been invited to speak to Justice Department officials about policy changes that could help people like them — people who have spent time in prison.
Even the walk into the Justice Department felt epochal, said fellow group member Kenneth Glasgow. “All we could do is look at each other and realize that this was a serendipitous moment from God. We knew that we were on the brink of change,” he said.
That day, the group met with the people who head each division of the Justice Department and outlined four demands. The federal government, they said, should allow prisoners to receive Pell Grants, money the government gives to college students; should eliminate questions about criminal history from federal job applications; should change the criminal record guidelines for public housing residents and Section 8 voucher holders; and should protect voting rights for those with felony records.
After the meeting, the group stayed in touch with department officials through monthly conference calls and quarterly meetings.
Then two weeks ago, they traveled to the White House with an invitation to meet with high-level presidential staffers. During that visit, the staffers mentioned that the Fair Chance Act legislation proposed by a bipartisan group of legislators, including U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, would prohibit federal agencies and federal contractors from asking about criminal history on job applications.
The group of eight pushed for presidential action to do the same thing because the activists knew the bill could go nowhere in a gridlocked Congress.
“I remember (senior presidential adviser) Valerie Jarrett saying, ‘It’s going to be all right. Y’all close,’ ” Henderson recalled. “But we didn’t know how close we were.”
On the following Monday, Nov. 2, President Barack Obama issued an executive order “banning the box” — forbidding questions about criminal history on most federal job applications.
“We can’t dismiss people out of hand simply because of a mistake that they made in the past,” the president said, noting that 19 states and several prominent companies — including Wal-Mart, Target, Koch Industries and Home Depot — had banned the box on their own.
Although the question is banned on initial applications, it can be asked at a later stage, when a provisional job offer is made. The idea is that an employer, impressed by the applicant’s skills, would be more likely to put a criminal record into context at that point.
Although the presidential order did not include federal contractors, it was a big step forward for the Super Eight.
Gains on other fronts
On the same day, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a notice to public housing authorities reversing the so-called “one-strike” policy that had been in place since 1996. The new policy bars housing authorities from evicting tenants or rejecting housing applicants simply because of an arrest.
“In many cases, arrests do not result in criminal charges,” read the notice, which emphasized that tenants still can be evicted or barred for criminal behavior, but that such actions must be based on a “preponderance of the evidence” instead of unfounded suspicion.
The Housing Authority of New Orleans drafted a policy with similar language in 2013, but it has yet to be implemented.
A few months before Monday’s announcements, the group of activists had marked their first triumph. In July, the U.S. Department of Education unveiled its Second Chance pilot program, which will again provide Pell Grants to prisoners. That’s not been possible since 1994, when Congress barred anyone who was incarcerated from receiving Pell money.
As he launched the pilot program, Education Secretary Arne Duncan cited research by the Rand Corp., which found that prisoners provided with education had 43 percent lower recidivism rates upon release and concluded that every dollar spent on correctional-educational programs would save $4 to $5 on reincarceration costs.
To date, there’s been no decisive victory with the group’s last issue, voting rights. But U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, like her predecessor Eric Holder, supports the restoration of voting rights to felons once they leave prison, a view that Obama also has expressed.
“If folks have served their time and they’ve re-entered society, they should be able to vote,” he said in a July speech at the NAACP convention in Philadelphia.
“We’re still not going to check voting off of our list,” Glasgow said. “But they have addressed it.”
Beyond the group’s original four demands, the Justice Department has conceded to its preference for how it wants people who have spent time in prison to be described. They are no longer referred to as “ex-felons” or “ex-offenders,” Glasgow said. Instead, throughout the Justice Department’s website and materials, they are described as convicted people who have been incarcerated.
‘Trying to take it in’
A few years ago, Glasgow, who runs a group called the Ordinary People Society in Dothan, Alabama, coined the term “Super Eight” in homage to the so-called Big Six leaders of the civil rights movement, who worked together to create change in the 1960s.
“We’re the Super Eight of the human rights movement,” Glasgow said, echoing a common sentiment: that advocates who fight mass incarceration and its undisputed racial disparities are at the front lines of today’s foremost civil rights struggle. Those connections are also reflected in the slogan of Glasgow’s group: “From the back of the bus to the front of the prison, the struggle continues.”
Henderson is grateful to finally see the struggle gaining ground, he said. On Monday, he heard about the president’s action after spending a long day at a parole board hearing in Baton Rouge, where cellphones aren’t allowed. When he left the meeting and read his text messages, he was stunned. He confirmed what had happened with a call to Glasgow, who was on the air, talking about the developments on his daily radio show.
After that, Henderson turned off the radio and got lost in his thoughts. “I spent the rest of my drive home just trying to take it in,” said Henderson, 62, who formed the group VOTE — for Voice Of The Ex-Offender — in 2004, not long after he’d been released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where he’d served nearly 30 years for a murder conviction.
A native of Central City, Henderson was always a remarkable student — “I cried to go to school,” he said — and he continued that academic focus even after being sent, at age 21, to Angola. There, he worked as an inmate counsel, assisting fellow prisoners with their legal claims, and helped to found the Angola Special Civics Project, which examined public policy and voting participation.
Not long after he was released, he launched VOTE to make sure anyone with a criminal record in New Orleans knew that state law permitted them to vote as soon as they were “off paper” — finished with probation or parole.
“I don’t think Norris missed a beat between the organizing he was doing within the prison and the work he began on the outside. He got released and showed up in full political dress,” said Dorsey Nunn, of the Bay Area group All of Us or None, who helped to coin the term “ban the box” more than a decade ago and has been working to help people released from prison since his own release in 1981.
A level-headed strategist
As justice reform has become a higher-profile issue, pushed both by Obama and by conservatives such as the Koch brothers, Nunn’s work has been increasingly noticed outside his community, he said. He was accompanied to the Justice Department meeting by a Los Angeles Times reporter and has since been fielding an increasing number of phone calls from groups that want to give him awards or other accolades.
On Monday, after he heard the president’s announcement, Nunn wondered whether he should schedule a checkup with his doctor. “I thought, ‘People are almost patting me on the back too much. I must be dying,’ ” he quipped.
The Super Eight represent an umbrella group called the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People & Families Movement, whose members come from all areas of the country.
In addition to Glasgow and Henderson, the leadership group includes Nunn and his co-worker Manuel Lafontaine; Daryl Atkinson, of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice; Susan Burton, of a New Way of Life in Los Angeles; and two activists from New York City: Glenn Martin, of JustLeadershipUSA, and Vivian Nixon, of College & Community Fellowship.
Within the group, Henderson is known for both keen analysis and an unceasing calm. “Norris sits back, keeps a level head and looks at everything strategically. He is always analyzing and figuring things out,” Glasgow said.
Nunn described him as “a veteran organizer and an old spirit, who is wiser than almost anybody I meet.”
While the Super Eight work in close partnership with many groups that fight for justice, better wages and prison reform, they preferred to meet with the federal policymakers themselves, instead of having others interpret their views.
“Folks that are close to the problem are that much closer to the solution,” Henderson said.