Free Transcript: Can Ex-Felons Be Community Leaders? (Episode #6)

Can Ex-Felons Be Community Leaders? (Episode #6)

Host, Matt Duhamel speaks with Khalil A. Cumberbatch from JLUSA about how ex-offenders can be leaders in the community while working for criminal justice reform.



00:05 Matt Duhamel: Well this is Matt Duhamel, thanks for joining me on another important episode of Solitary Nation. My guest today is Khalil Cumberbatch, he is the Manager of Trainings at JustLeadershipUSA. Khalil, thanks for your time and allowing us to… For me to interview today.

00:24 Khalil A. Cumberbatch: Yeah, thank you for having me. We’re excited.

00:26 Matt Duhamel: You’re welcome. First of all, tell me a little bit about JustLeadershipUSA, what it does, what’s the mission there?

00:34 Khalil A. Cumberbatch: Sure. Yeah, so JustLeadershipUSA is a national non-for profit, whose goal is to cut the US correctional population in half by the year of 2030. It’s our way to push the field of criminal justice reform away from incrementalism. It’s our way for waving the flag of being bold and audacious because we believe that mass incarceration is our most current and pressing criminal justice issue that we will be judged upon in 15 or 20 years on how we reacted. And getting there with incremental law changes, not the route that we believe is what’s gonna actually bring us to systemic change. We also are a advocacy organization, we advocate for law and policy change, specifically related to the criminal and juvenile justice systems.

01:26 Matt Duhamel: Okay, so the people that are leaders in your organization, like yourself, most of them or all of them have been formerly incarcerated?

01:33 Khalil A. Cumberbatch: Yeah, so our staff are comprised of both folks who have been and who have not been incarcerated. So our Founder is Glenn Martin who is a National Criminal Justice advocate, who’s been doing this work for well over 15 years. He spent six years in prison in the New York State’s jail system. I myself spent six-and-a-half years in the New York State jail system as well.

01:56 Khalil A. Cumberbatch: South Jamaica Queens, which is where I grew up at and I was exposed to a culture that is dominated by masculinity and the need for young men of color to prove their masculinity, and that ultimately led us to commit a robbery. I was incarcerated in New York State prison system from 2004 to 2010.

02:21 Matt Duhamel: And like myself, I’ve been incarcerated for four years. So it seems like you bring people on that have been in that situation, so they know how they’re more understanding of incarceration, mass incarceration and the problems that we’re facing. Would that be true?

02:39 Khalil A. Cumberbatch: Yeah, so yeah. So that’s one context, and then also, too, when the leadership training program acts, it acts people to, in many levels, peel back the layers of themselves. And sometimes, it leads them to places where they’ve faced some type of trauma and other feelings that are not necessarily unhealthy to address. But when it’s done in a room of people who have a shared experience, it brings a level of comradery and comfortability that actually makes it easy for people to go that deep. And then also, too, we’re unapologetic about having a leadership training program that is specifically designed for folks who have had direct experience with the criminal justice system. There are many of the leadership training programs across the country, across the world, that will actually discriminate against the person because of the criminal justice involvement. So this is a program that we’ve design specifically for that population.

03:41 Matt Duhamel: I checked your LinkedIn page, and it says there on the top “Mass incarceration is the most significant domestic threat to our fabric of our democracy. The reason for such high incarceration rate is not serious crimes but rather misguided policies”. Maybe we can go over a few of those, of these misguided policies that America is facing right now, or is putting into practice I should say.

04:06 Khalil A. Cumberbatch: Yeah, sure. So, stop question and frisk could be one of those policies. Here we have a policy that is implemented largely in communities of color. Those are the same communities that have been historically and in many ways, continue to be under-funded, under-resourced, criminalized, marginalized and so on, and so forth. And then you implement a policy that only further de-humanizes folks by unconstitutionally stopping them, questioning them, and frisking them, when these are folks who 96% of them, here in New York City for example, 96% of those stops resulted in no action at all. On a federal level, I would say policies like mandatory minimums, the idea of taking discretion away from a judge who, by the court’s design is the one who’s supposed to have the most discretion. From taking discretion completely away from that person, and then giving it almost exclusively to a district attorney whose sole purpose is to actually solidify convictions.

05:21 Khalil A. Cumberbatch: That’s the one person involved in that whole process that actually has the most interest in getting a conviction and you put the ball in their court, essentially making them jury and judge. A third one would be the idea of jailing 16 and 17 year-olds, folks who has… The human chemistry has shown that the younger a person is, the more pension for risk that they have. And treating a 16 and 17-year-old as an adult because of a decision that they’ve made because their physical make up is not fully developed and they are unable to identify what is a healthy decision, what is not a healthy decision, it’s something that has led to the unjustly jailing and imprisonment of essentially, children.

06:15 Matt Duhamel: So, your hopes for a criminal justice system in 2030, if we could just snap our fingers, what would it look like to you?

06:25 Khalil A. Cumberbatch: Our goal for a criminal justice system, if we had it our way, would be one that was more humane, would be one that would address social economic issues that in many cases cause people to cause crime in the first place. We would have a system that treats people fairly in terms of the sentencing that they get for a crime that they may have committed. We also are looking at a system that gives someone all the resources that they need, not only before incarceration, but also during incarceration, and then after they leave. We’ve seen far too many times a person having to recidivate because they don’t have the proper resources that they need when leaving jail or prison.

07:11 Matt Duhamel: Are we transitioning to now more ‘Smart on Crime’, is that maybe why we’re seeing that decline?

07:18 Khalil A. Cumberbatch: Yeah, so I think that… So definitely ‘Tough on Crime’ rhetoric and mentality in creating legislation actually got us to this point, undoubtedly. What we’re seeing now is more of a ‘Smart on Dollars’ approach. The main point on addressing the 2.2 million people we have incarcerated has largely been the economic factor of how much money local jurisdiction, state, and federal are actually investing into what we now call mass incarceration, and then more importantly, the results that we’re seeing and if we use recidivism rates as a judge of that, are basically abysmal. There’s no other industry that would survive on a 67% failure rate. If that happened in the airline industry, everyone would stop flying tomorrow. If that happened in the medical industry, everyone would stop going to see a doctor tomorrow. But yet and still, we have the same recidivism rates for almost 30 years and we still… The answer has traditionally been to just invest more money.

08:20 Khalil A. Cumberbatch: So, the ‘Smart on Dollars’ approach is definitely not what’s gonna get us out, because even if we find a way to cut the cost of supervising people, of arresting people, of unduly punishing people, we’re still gonna, at some point, not only have… So we’re not gonna have 2.2 million people in prisons or jails, we’re gonna have 5.5 or whatever the number is, people in the community on what is called ‘Community Supervision’.

08:46 Matt Duhamel: The one area that JustLeadershipUSA is working on is the Rikers Island Jail situation problem. In fact, in the New York Post, they wrote an article on Rikers Island Jail and a new study has been released. It’s full of problems dealing with sexual abuse, including emergency hot lines not working within the jail, confidential complaints read by fellow inmates, and then investigations that don’t actually interview alleged attackers. So the problems go on and on, and that it was obtained by the Associated Press. In fact, the Daily Beast, I don’t know if you saw this, called Rikers Island Jail the new Hell. What’s the deal with Rikers Island? I know this is a big situation that JustLeadershipUSA is working on, maybe you can give our viewers and listeners an idea.

09:38 Khalil A. Cumberbatch: Sure. Yeah, so just to give some more context. Rikers Island is essentially that, is an island that is housed in New York City. It is 200 yards off of the runway at LaGuardia. It is 400 acres. There are 10 jail complexes on that island, so it’s not just one massive complex. Whenever we talk about Rikers Island, whenever we travel the country and we say that we’re launching a massive campaign at the forefront of it, in efforts with over 100 organizations to close Rikers Island, there has never been one time where someone has heard about Rikers, heard about our work, and questioned why we feel that we should close Rikers Island. So, the sentiment is that Rikers Island is abysmal, is something that is not reflective of our values as a society, as a country, but also more importantly, our values as a very progressive city. New York City touts itself as one of the most progressive cities in the country and maybe even the world, but yet and still, we have something that is abysmal and that is a big failure, is Rikers Island.

10:47 Khalil A. Cumberbatch: We have leaders in our leadership training program from over 24 different states, as far as Alaska, pushing criminal justice reform, and we could not be blind to the fact that we have our very own torture island 200 yards off of LaGuardia’s runway right in our own backyard.

11:22 Khalil A. Cumberbatch: So we focused our efforts on closing Rikers. The conditions that came out of all of those reports including the US Attorney General, Preet Bharara’s in-depth investigation where he actually came out and said that Rikers has a culture of violence that is very similar to The Lord of Flies, which essentially means that there’s no organized structure, meaning that violence is the language that is used to keep people in line at Rikers. Our mayor has actually said that he doesn’t believe that Rikers Island should be closed. He actually believes that there is a way to reform Rikers, has invested more money to the tune of millions of dollars into addressing reforms. And the reality is that Rikers has a deep, deep rooted systemic history of violence. So if you’ve heard the case of Kalief Browder, who was a 16- year-old young black male who was falsely accused of stealing a backpack, was arrested at 16, was sent to Rikers because of a very low bail that he could not afford, and was languished. And languished on Rikers Island for three years.

12:32 Khalil A. Cumberbatch: Never been charged, he was not convicted, he was not someone we would call a convict, he’s not someone we would call an inmate. He was a detainee, someone who is a pre-trial detainee. And ultimately after three years, after being abused, and tortured, and assaulted by correctional staff and also detainees and having a combination of over two years of solitary confinement time. When he left at 19, his case was dropped, meaning that all the charges were dismissed. And when he went home, he was so traumatized by his experience at Rikers, he attempted to take his life multiple times and ultimately succeeded at the very young age of 19. Now, there are many other Kalief Browders. The reality is that that trauma exists in our communities. So our Mayor, using the story of Kalief Browder decided that 16 and 17-year-olds should not be housed on Rikers Island.

13:30 Matt Duhamel: Wow. I wanna get into… We’re getting close to wrapping this up, so I wanna talk to you about how does JustLeadershipUSA train and support formerly incarcerated people to become more effective leaders in the community like yourself and Glenn, the Founder?

13:50 Khalil A. Cumberbatch: Yeah, so we have a leadership training program called “Leading with Conviction”. It’s a year-long cohort based model. We take applicants from all over the country. To date, we’ve trained over a 120 leaders in their own respect from 24 different states. Particularly around how to increase their leadership capacity. And we focus on three principles in our leadership training program. The first one is as a leader, you always have to be responsible for your outcomes. The second point is to be self-reflective, to constantly ask themselves “What role did I play in that outcome?” Or whether that was a good role or a bad role. And then the third one, which is actually at the crux of how JustLeadershipUSA views leadership internally, but also externally, and how we force the field to actually view leadership, which is this idea of creating collective leadership around you.

14:45 Khalil A. Cumberbatch: So whether you have the title, an official title so to speak, of Leader, that the reality is that there are leadership opportunities everyday. You have opportunities to lead people across, so peers. But also, you have the opportunity to lead people who report to you, so what we call “managing down”. And then you also have the opportunity to lead people who you report to, what we call “managing up”. So we use Glenn as an example of how us within the organization, all staff, we are constantly implementing these three points. We’re constantly thinking of ways to empower each other.

15:22 Matt Duhamel: Yeah, I love this idea. I just found out about your organization not too long ago, and that’s why I contacted you. Sounds like an awesome program. Do your leaders face any type of discrimination because you have a felony background? That might be a stupid question. I see that everyday. Is it an issue that…

15:45 Khalil A. Cumberbatch: Yeah, for sure. Here, we have leaders that are awesome. These are people that are invited by foreign governments to consult with, these are people who work in the tech industry, these are people who are invited to the White House regularly. But yet and still, these are people, if applying for a job, have to actually disclose that they’ve been convicted of a felony. Although they may be super overqualified for that job.

16:19 Matt Duhamel: So if someone out there listening, viewing this Solitary Nation Podcast is interested in becoming part of JustLeadershipUSA, becoming a leader, how do they do it?

16:30 Khalil A. Cumberbatch: So, couple different ways you can engage with JustLeadershipUSA. One is you can go to our website, You can learn more about us. You can also become a member. Our membership level is $12 a year. We also have sponsorships, so a person can buy 10 memberships and we then give those memberships to people who are incarcerated. If you are directly impacted, you can apply for our Leading With Conviction training program.

17:00 Matt Duhamel: Again, that’s JustLeadershipUSA. Khalil, thank you so much for your time. Again, I appreciate it, all the work you’re doing and it is making a difference. I know it is. It may take some time, but it will help in the long run. So thank you very much for joining us today.

17:17 Khalil A. Cumberbatch: Thank you for having me.

17:19 Matt Duhamel: Join me next time on Solitary Nation. Don’t forget to share the program as well. Just like Khalil said, we are on social media. Join me next Tuesday for another episode of Solitary Nation. My name is Matt Duhamel.

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