Here’s the thing, I may be an ex-felon, but I still want to smash the fucking patriarchy like all the other feminists. Still, if I get arrested again, I go back to jail. It’s unlikely I’d get a wrist-slap fine after a night in a cell, or time served. With a record like mine, I’d be lucky to get less than maximum sentencing. I don’t want to diminish those within the prison system doing good work, fighting from inside for justice, or for the causes for which they were incarcerated, but I won’t willingly join them back inside.
It was hard for me figure out to how to resist, how to be resolute and involved. Every protest I’ve attended brings acute anxiety. At every march or planning meeting, I feel the same way. What if I get arrested? What if things go pear-shaped and I unintentionally hurt someone? What if I do everything right and these things still happen? If instead of helping to make a difference, I go back to jail and leave my family in the lurch?
My first instinct was to put my body out there. To be first in the thick of things, with my fellows, no matter the risk. Then, when I had children, I didn’t do much of anything because there were new risks and needs to weigh against each other and it felt overwhelming. But even if I am not on the frontlines, I can still help, I can still support other resistors in meaningful ways.
These are some helpful guidelines I think can facilitate activism after incarceration:
First, know your personal boundaries. Are you on probation or parole? If so, do you have special conditions restricting where you can be and with whom you are allowed to associate? If you get arrested while protesting, you may be jailed without bail even being an option.
Even if you are not on probation or parole, can you afford legal representation or bail? Is it likely your employment will be terminated if you get arrested? You need to be able to answer these questions, with honest assessment of the risk, to make informed decisions about how to proceed.
Next, you need to know your rights, federally and in the state in which you reside. If you’ve been incarcerated, especially for a felony, then many states will strip your rights, either for the course of your parole or probation, or for life. The most common prohibitions for felons are against gun ownership, and most disturbingly, disenfranchisement. Even after completion of their sentences, felons in 12 states are not ever allowed to participate in the electoral process.
In addition to knowing any conviction-related affect on your rights, you need to know your everyday rights and what to do if they are violated. Learn them, memorize them. And be aware that in times like these, knowing them may not protect you from illegal arrest or violence.
I highly recommend getting involved with SURJ or Black Lives Matter, or another group in your area that offers discussion and training. As uncomfortable as it may be, I also encourage being open about your past in as much as you are willing. Fellow activists can not only you help you find ways to get involved, but also will benefit from the awareness that you may be a liability in certain circumstances.
If you have a rap sheet with a history of violence, other activists may not want you out in the thick of things. If you’ve had issues with financial crimes, they probably won’t ask you to be involved with efforts that involve handling money. This is as much for their protection as yours. You’re going to have to do the hard work of being trustworthy and consistent over time, knowing that not everyone is going to embrace your efforts. Stick with it, stay honest, because the world is bigger than your past, and everyone is crucial to this fight.
Finally, work is work, even if it’s not exciting all the time. If you can’t be out raising your voice or putting your body on the front line, you can still help. Make phone calls, whether they be to your legislators, community members, businesses, or other organizations. Depending on your restrictions, canvassing with information or petitions may be a good way to contribute. Again, know your boundaries.
Volunteer your time in your community through local service groups, churches, or community associations. There’s always a need you can fill, if you’re willing to reach out and offer.
If you’re able, volunteer to be a protest safety point. If you can accommodate people in your home, offer it to serve as a meeting space before and after others head out to protest or march. This might involve letting people park and leave their keys, providing food and hydration, or serving as an emergency contact in case of arrest. This is a huge responsibility, but can make sorting through chaos a lot easier for your fellows.
As you’re getting involved, be open to helping with even the least attractive tasks, whether that’s making sure a meeting venue is cleaned up, or helping with trash removal after a march. These things do matter. Meet activists coming in from out of town at the bus station and help them navigate the city. Deliver food and water to people while they sit in or engage in other direct actions..
Most important is that you just be involved. Talk to others, find out how they help, ask what you can do. The world needs all of us to try.
“Agnes,” Rabble’s Felony Record Editor, is a formerly incarcerated queer feminist who believes that justice reform is crucial.
Header Image: Creative Commons, photo by Montecruz Foto, modified.