Eddie Ellis, 1941-2014

by Peter Wagner, July 25, 2014

Eddie Ellis

Photo of Edwin “Eddie” Ellis speaking at Citizens Against Recidivism, Inc. (Photo: Citizens Against Recidivism, Inc.)

I was saddened to read this morning of the passing of Eddie Ellis, one of the first people to encourage my work to end prison gerrymandering, frequently inviting me to his On the Count radio program on WBAI.

Being on his program, and having Eddie introduce me to other important activists in New York City was a great honor for a young law student and then young lawyer, but I don’t think I ever told him that I was a fan of his long before he starting telling people to read my Importing Constituents report.

I first learned of Eddie Ellis from footage when he was still incarcerated in the excellent film The Last Graduation about the value of higher education in prisons and the horrible decision by the Clinton administration and Congress to end Pell Grants for incarcerated people, thereby shutting down very cost-effective college programs nationwide.

Eddie, a former Black Panther, served 23 years for a murder he didn’t commit. After his release, Eddie hit the ground running, continuing the work he started when he was on the inside. As the New York Times summarized a decade ago:

Rather than talk in broad sociological terms of crime and punishment, Mr. Ellis and his prison colleagues prefer to sketch out a sociological whirlwind: 47 percent prisoner recidivism rooted in an annual traffic of 26,000 prisoners going in and 23,000 coming out…

Out-of-Date Strategies

“The fact that must be faced, then, is that at least 11,000 new crimes are going to be committed by these guys coming out, most of them in their home neighborhoods,” Mr. Ellis stressed. “So what we do in the prisons can’t be done in the abstract, removed from these neighborhoods and their Afrocentric and Latino cultures.” Traditional prison strategies, he argued, are 50 years out of date and geared for the “Jimmy Cagney” days when Italian and Irish prisoners were the white majority in a much smaller, pre-drug-culture prison population.

The study groups within the prisons have crafted room for their activities from the tolerance for reform that followed the Attica prison riot of 1971. The chief groups, sometimes operating with church or civil rights sponsors, meet regularly in Green Haven, Eastern, Sing Sing, Woodbourne, Walkill and Auburn prisons. Each year they sponsor a seminar rooted in their nontraditional approach and attended by outside specialists.

[Ellis is interested] in shaping fresh changes in prison and tapping what he and some prison administrators see as a thoughtful talent pool of first-hand experience residing behind bars. Even more, as he exults in being back on the streets of Harlem, his beloved birthplace, Mr. Ellis keeps his departing galley-ship image of the prison system in mind.

“We’ve had enough textbook penology,” he said, trying to urge an outside world sick of the deepening rut of crime and punishment to consider alternative perspectives from some of the system’s resident experts.

The organization that Eddie founded, the Center for Nu Leadership, has a longer obituary.

4 Responses

  1. Róisín says, 2 weeks, 4 days after publication:

    Thank you sharing this sad news. Eddie Ellis was a good man. If people really wanted to make prisons institutions of change for the better, they would have listened to what Eddie Ellis had to say.

    I was sorry to hear he was one of the innocent in prison. I did not know that. Clearly he wasted no energy on anger, he came out of prison and got to work on fixing the system.

    Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam – may he rest in peace.

    Róisin and Herbert

  2. Kay Nodu says, 1 month, 2 weeks after publication:

    A brave soldier has fallen!! Professor Eddie Ellis, you have fought a great fight. May your accolades carry you through God’s light into the bosom of Father Abraham. May your warrior soul rest in perfect peace. Farewell soldier and sleep well.

  3. Samuel Smith says, 3 months after publication:

    Though late in my comment, it is with no less empathy. As a direct beneficiary of the work of Eddie Ellis and others like him, I am doubly affected by his passing on. I am saddened because the WORLD has lost a humanitarian, leader, and voice for JUSTICE; that still resonates in and outside of the prison industrial complex. I am also affected because I know that Mr. Ellis’ passing means that there is a void that must be filled as far as taking the reigns of speaking out and making the public aware of the exponential injustices that are occurring in the name of justice. Brother Eddie Ellis you are missed, and I thank you for your efforts, sacrifice, and zealousness; which have helped me be able to be more than just my DIN Number. Sleep In Peace.

  4. eddie ellis says, 4 months, 1 week after publication:

    Eddie and I met some years back and before we came together some people used to get out work mixed up because of our name and when we finally met it was an honor to have my work mixed up with his work because he was doing so good and he was such a good man.

    Eddie was my friend and mentor and I wish miss him, but I will continue to fight this fight.
    rest in peace my Brother

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