Blog Article 

 Frederick Douglass 

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Michael Santos

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To learn how to become an effective advocate for prison reform, we can turn to lessons from Frederick Douglass. Instead of complaining, he worked tirelessly for change. And even after liberty, he persisted. He inspired me to work harder through prison, and also upon my release.

Frederick Douglass and Prison Advocacy

While going through 26 years in prison, I learned much about advocacy from Frederick Douglass.

I write today’s message with a reminder that, as Frederick Douglass taught, advocacy sometimes requires a lifetime of dedication and work. Sometimes we don’t get a personal benefit.

As I move through my tenth year of liberty, I continue to advocate in the spirit I learned from leaders like Mr. Douglass.

Who was Frederick Douglass?

Born into a time of great social injustice, Frederick Douglas began his life as an enslaved person. Eventually, he escaped slavery, and he became a force for the abolition of slavery. He published three autobiographies: 

  1. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,”
  2. My Bondage and My Freedom,” and 
  3. Life and times of Frederick Douglass.”

Douglass believed in the power of communication and making alliances with anyone who would help to advance his cause. Despite his personal history as an enslaved person, he interacted with slave owners and with leaders who wanted to keep slavery in place.

Why would he engage in such conversations?

From my perspective, Frederick Douglas understood that he did not have to convert people who believed in liberty as he believed. 

  • He needed to convert people who had opposing views. 

Frederick Douglass lived by a motto: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”

The most radical people who fought to abolish slavery criticized Frederick Douglas. They said he should not converse with slaveholders.

The criticism never deterred Frederick Douglas. He continued to advocate for freedom, always using the power of words and activism. When others criticized his speech and his writing style, he graciously apologized. He won people over with humility, saying slavery was not a great school for eloquence.

Despite growing up an enslaved person without a formal education, Frederick Douglass became one of the most effective orators and voices for change, influencing the end of slavery. 

That change didn’t happen overnight.

Learning from Frederick Douglass:

Frederick Douglass inspired me. He helped me believe that if I could learn how to communicate better, I could become more influential in advocating for the changes I wanted to see. Further, by reading about how he interacted with adversaries, even the people who enslaved him, I saw how he could convert more people to see a better way.

He did not hold degrees from prestigious universities or even formal education. But there was power in his personal story. For that reason, he wrote in the first person, with biographies and a perspective that only a person who had gone through slavery could bring. 

His self-directed learning made him even more potent as an advocate for change. By learning to read, write, communicate, and persuade, he worked to change the course of history.

Did he end slavery himself? No. By advocating, he contributed to the cause.

Frederick Douglass used his personal story of what he learned in slavery and all he accomplished since his escape from slavery to advocate for justice.

While going through decades in prison, leaders like Frederick Douglass inspired me. They helped me believe that although I didn’t step foot on a university campus before my imprisonment, I could learn to put words into sentences and paragraphs. By developing writing skills, I could also develop skills in persuasion. In time, I anticipated that by publishing, I could interact with stakeholders and work to change the system that confined millions of people.

I could use a personal story of going through 26 years in prison, and building a successful life after release, to advocate for change.

Had it not been for leaders like Frederick Douglass, I may not have learned how to launch a career in advocacy. I certainly would not have developed a voice that could lead to the changes we now see with the First Step Act.

Mr. Douglass also helped me understand that regardless of how hard a person works for change, people will always criticize the effort—because change didn’t come quickly enough. Or because of alliances, coalitions, and conversations necessary to bring about that change.

Advocacy and the First Step Act:

This past week, I released an article on Earned Time Credits and the First Step Act. Our team invested several thousand dollars in hiring subject-matter experts to help us present accurate information that people in our community could use for self-advocacy.

I asked those subject-matter experts, former BOP execs, to help me understand how they would have interpreted the law if they still led the Bureau of Prisons. I wanted people in our community to know steps to take if they needed to advocate for themselves.

Some people complained that I should not hire former BOP execs because those people devoted decades to keeping the system growing.

I disagreed.

Over the years, I learned of the power that comes from turning our adversaries into our advocates.

By hiring experts, I could get a better understanding of how leaders will interpret the law.

The article I wrote provides the citations that came directly from either The First Step Act, the Federal Register, the Code of Federal Regulations, and the applicable BOP Program Statements. I provided those citations to help people in prison. They may need that information to advocate for themselves.

Why would they have to advocate for themselves?

Unfortunately, just because Congress passes a law or the BOP publishes a Program Statement doesn’t mean a person will get the outcome he wants. The citations will help a person advance his interests. Advocacy frequently moves slowly. Despite thousands of hours of work, years can pass before we get the outcomes we want.

The article I wrote provides the following information, which is crystal clear:

  1. “A prisoner shall earn 10 days of time credit for every 30 days of successful participation in [approved] programing….”
  2. “A prisoner determined by the Bureau of Prisons to be at a minimum or low risk for recidivating, who over two consecutive assessments, has not increased their risk of recidivism, shall earn an additional five days of time credits for every 30 days of successful participation in…programming….”

That language comes directly from the First Step Act law.

As a follow-up, the Bureau of Prisons published Program Statement 5410.01. It requires the Unit Team to assess the person’s risk using PATTERN at the initial classification, commonly known as the first team meeting. That meeting takes place within 30 days of the person arriving at a designated institution.

The same Program Statement says, “An inmate will be reassessed for both risk level and needs at each regularly scheduled Program Review.”

Program Statement 5410.08, chapter six, page 1, tells us, “An inmate’s first custody classification will be scored at the first program review (approximately 7 months after arrival at an institution.).”

In other words, the BOP will have “two consecutive assessments” after approximately seven months in an institution.

Despite going through the work and the expense of hiring experts to confirm the article’s validity, some people complained and criticized it. They argued that the BOP interprets the two-assessment rule differently. They write that the BOP doesn’t count the initial assessment and that it takes 13 months before the agency will accept that case managers have conducted two risk assessments.

Some people in the BOP may make such an argument. It doesn’t make it right.

When a person feels the BOP isn’t interpreting the law or policy correctly, Program Statement 5410.01, Paragraph 12, states the following:

Inmates who wish to seek review of any issue relating to this Program Statement may use the procedures outlined in the Program Statement Administrative Remedy Program.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act requires a person to exhaust administrative remedies before filing a motion in federal court. To advocate effectively, a person must understand the levers and when to pull them. For that reason, we’re publishing a new book that will help people understand administrative remedies, along with examples of people who successfully used the process in their self-advocacy. We’ll publish this book before the end of March 2023.

I understand that it’s difficult to accept the slow process of advocacy. And I know it’s easy to grow angry or frustrated when people serve sentences despite laws that indicate they should be home.

Why do I understand?

Because I went through the Long Walk to Freedom, like other advocates who inspired me, I didn’t get out one day early. But even after getting out, I’ve devoted my life to advocacy. I hope to see changes that will help all justice-impacted people.

As I learned from Frederick Douglass, we need a multi-pronged approach and a sustained commitment over time to bring significant change.

I wish we could find a magic pill to bring peace on earth and justice for all. But I can’t. I must continue the work. And I hope that people in our community will find me worthy of their trust.

My work now includes striving to expand incentives, as the First Step Act recommended. Those incentives can consist of more use of furloughs, the introduction of work release programs, and the expanded use of compassionate release.

Will those changes happen overnight?

Probably not.

In 2012, I began writing about the importance of incentivizing excellence with Earning Freedom. I continued those efforts after my release, with publications in the UC Hastings Law Review and advocacy in many other areas, at great expense for travel and work without compensation.

The result?

More conversations about prison reform led to the First Step Act and the same policies I began writing about in 2012. Of course, to write about those policies in 2012, I had to spend 20 years learning about those concepts. I had to build credibility over time. I had to advocate in an era when few people believed that the BOP would ever change and work even though I would not receive a personal benefit.

Some people still say that the BOP will never change, but their frustration comes from the perspective of being inside a single institution for a limited time. Some people get sentenced, report to prison, believing everything will get better within a month. They become angry or frustrated when they do not see an overnight change.

Such a perception is the equivalent of saying: “I planted a seed this morning. Why can’t I eat an apple this evening.” 

From my perspective, with continued advocacy, we will see changes. And I devote my life to helping leaders understand why such changes make sense.

Release Plans:

Separately, our team will send every member of our premium community a new book we published on Release Plans. Members of our premium community should expect to receive the book from Amazon within the next three weeks. People who are not part of our premium community may download the PDF from our website or order a softcover workbook from our Amazon store. 

The Release Plan book will become a part of our two-part series, with the second book on Self-Advocacy coming out in March. 

I hope members of our community see the good faith effort we make to improve the system and bend the arc to justice.

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