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—Peter Wagner, Executive DirectorDonate

In Memory archives

by Peter Wagner, April 6, 2016

Country Music star Merle Haggard died today on his 79th birthday. Unlike Johnny Cash who also made the pain of incarceration a central theme in his work, Haggard actually did serve time. And, ironically or perhaps luckily, Haggard was in the audience at Cash’s very first concert at a prison, and that experience led him him to take up a career in music.

But Haggard didn’t leave his roots behind. Of his many songs about incarceration, my favorite is “Branded Man” about the discrimination faced by formerly incarcerated people: “No matter where I’m living, the black mark follows me,” he sings. “I’m branded with a number on my name.”

Here is a live performance from 1968:

The song, which peaked at #1 in 1967, is still in frequent rotation on country music stations. Merle Haggard deserves credit for 49 years of trying to teach this country just how short-sighted it is to hold past mistakes against people. As he sings in the chorus:

I’d like to hold my head up and be proud of who I am
But they won’t let my secret go untold
I paid the debt I owed them, but they’re still not satisfied
Now I’m a branded man out in the cold

Now Merle Haggard went on to become famous, in no doubt because, as Rolling Stone put it last year: “Luckily for Haggard, his music career never again required him to answer the ‘have you ever been convicted of a crime?’ question on a job application.” It’s well past time to extend that right to more people.


by Peter Wagner, August 17, 2015

On August 7, Dr. Jerome G. Miller, a visionary in juvenile justice reform, passed away at the age of 83. Jerry Miller is most famous for having closed Massachusetts’ prisons for children in 1972. Hired by Republican Governor Sargent to reform the brutal, inhumane and ineffective “reform schools”, Miller soon discovered that the only option was to close the facilities and to transfer the children to far less restrictive custody, including sending them home. The “Massachusetts Experiment”, as it came to be known, later became a model for reform in other states and is documented in his memoir Last One Over the Wall: The Massachusetts Experiment in Closing Reform Schools.

Jerry Miller’s work first came to my attention when I discovered his second book, Search and Destroy: African-American Males in the Criminal Justice System. The book directly confronted the critical question: Does the evidence prove that the criminal justice system is deliberately racist? Published in 1996, the book is quite dated now, but Search and Destroy played a key role in arguing that the criminal justice system needed to be viewed with a racial justice lens, back when racial disparities were not widely accepted as a defining characteristic of our justice system.

Read other obituaries of Jerome G. Miller:


by Peter Wagner, June 9, 2015

I’m saddened to report that Nils Christie, the world-renowned criminologist, a member of the Prison Policy Initiative advisory board, and one of my personal inspirations, passed away on May 27 at the age of 87.

Christie came to my attention in 2001 when I tripped over a reference to his provocatively titled Crime Control as Industry: Towards Gulags, Western Style. The book reframed how I thought about both prisons and the movement to end them.

Even the title provided a completely new way to look at the problem. Rather than a “prison industrial complex”, which evokes an Eisenhower-era critique but little in the way of an organizing strategy, the framework of an industry seemed spot on:

Only rarely will those working in or for any industry say that now, just now, the size is about right. Now we are big enough, we are well established, we do not want any further growth. An urge for expansion is built into industrial thinking, if for no other reason than to forestall being swallowed up by competitors. The crime control industry is no exception. But this is an industry with particular advantages, providing weapons for what is often seen as a permanent war against crime. The crime control industry is like rabbits in Australia or wild mink in Norway–there are so few natural enemies around.

Christie later told me that he considered the book “sad”, and I tried to explain why, as someone living in the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world, the book was liberating: You simply can’t change what you don’t understand; and like the light at the end of the tunnel, Crime Control as Industry provided both hope and a path.

Continue reading →


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.


by Peter Wagner, December 5, 2013

Nelson Mandela visits Robben Island

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) was a South African freedom fighter and one of the longest held political prisoners in the world. He led the fight to abolish Apartheid and was elected President in the first multi-racial election in 1994. This photo was taken that same year when he revisited his prison cell at the infamous Robben Island (Photo: Getty Images).

Nelson Mandela has died at the age of 95. He was recently hospitalized battling a recurring lung infection no doubt related to the tuberculosis he contracted in a dank prison cell decades before. He was an anti-Apartheid freedom fighter, one of the longest-held political prisoners in the world, and the first Black South African to be elected President of that country. Mandela was an inspiration to people fighting for freedom around the world, and one of the main inspirations for my own prison activism.

In high school in the late 1980s, I was a peace and anti-apartheid activist. Although South Africa’s history is largely forgotten here in the U.S., in the late 1940s the white minority government of South Africa put in place a political system of strict racial segregation and oppression called Apartheid. Opposition parties and dissent were banned. The majority-Black population of South African resisted through the African National Congress and other organizations. In August of 1962, a tip from the CIA led to Nelson Mandela’s arrest. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison for his activities as a leader of the African National Congress.

The international community responded to the totalitarian racism of Apartheid by nearly unanimously shunning South Africa for decades. I came of political age in the mid 1980s, when the divestment movement was continuing to pick up steam despite the strong opposition of President Ronald Reagan, and an international campaign demanding the release of Nelson Mandela was underway. At that time, South African teams that did not allow Blacks to participate where excluded from most international competitions, including the Olympics. Celebrities responded to pressure from fans to boycott South Africa. Governments and shareholders urged companies to refuse to do business with the South African regime.

To jump forward in the story, by the late 1980s the internal resistance and international pressure finally forced the white-minority South African government to negotiate. On February 2, 1990, after 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela was freed unconditionally, and the banned political parties were legalized. After further negotiations to reestablish a democratic government, Nelson Mandela was elected president in the first multi-racial election in South Africa’s history.

Apartheid was ending as I was preparing to graduate from high school. Nelson Mandela went on a brief global tour to organize support for continuing the international pressure on South Africa to continue reforms. I saw Mandela speak in Boston at the Hatchshell about the need to retain “sanctions until democracy”.

Nelson Mandela in Boston, 1990

Nelson Mandela addresses the crowd at the Boston Hatch Shell, June 23, 1990 (Photo: Paul W. Locke).

A few months later, when I was in college, I came to the frightening realization that there was something quite like Apartheid in this country: the prison system.

I was shocked to learn that the U.S. locks up African-Americans at a rate 6 times higher than Whites, and in fact locks up a higher portion of its Black population than South Africa ever did. I came to see that criminal justice reform is integral to the struggle for racial justice here in the United States.

Nelson Mandela was a leader of his people before prison, for 27 years within prison, and then as president of his country. And in his autobiography he set forth a challenge to other world leaders to consider their own prison practices:

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

It is time for the United States to take up Mandela’s challenge.


by Peter Wagner, September 12, 2013

Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison 1968

Johnny Cash shaking hands with Glen Sherley during Cash’s performance at Folsom Prison, 1968 (photo by Jim Marshall).

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Johnny Cash at the age of 71. The country music star was famous for his At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin live albums, and his hit Folsom Prison Blues

What is less known is how deep Johnny Cash’s activism went. Earlier this year, the BBC Magazine wrote a great article to accompany a two part radio documentary about Cash’s work and effectiveness:

Cash’s classic albums recorded at Folsom Prison and San Quentin are well known, but few are aware that these were just two of many prison concerts he played over three decades.

Cash’s experiences in these jails turned him into a passionate prison reformer who donated his own money to the cause, took a released prisoner into his own home and even met President Richard Nixon to force the issue.

Johnny Cash never served time in prison himself, but he struggled with his own demons, and the Man in Black identified with:

…the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
…the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

Johnny Cash deserves a lot of credit for putting the issue of prison reform on the minds and radio waves of a generation, and for setting out a shining example of how our cultural leaders can help make social change.

Since Cash’s death, I discovered an even rarer and more important song that I think illustrates the depth of Cash’s passion and vision for prison reform: Jacob Green. The song was first performed at a Swedish prison and released on the 1974 LP “Pa Osteraker” (Inside a Swedish Prison), and then on the recording of a 1976 concert at the Tennessee State Prison, A Concert Behind Prison Walls visible on YouTube:

As I wrote 10 years ago in a short homage to both Johnny Cash and his song San Quentin: “We’ll miss you Johnny. May all the world never forget you sang. All the world will rejoice you did so much good.”


by Peter Wagner, June 5, 2005

Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of Robert Elliot Burns, known as “The Man Who Broke a Thousand Chains”, for his role in ending the brutal chain gang system in the South. A World War I veteran, Burns twice escaped from a Georgia chain gang in the 1920s and brought national and international attention to the brutality of the chain gang system. His life, his book and a 1932 Paul Muni I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang film on his life were the inspiration for the initial abolition of the chain gang system.

After the film’s release, he was arrested again after speaking out a a screening, but three successive New Jersey Governors refused to extradite him back to Georgia. He died of cancer on June 5, 2005 and is buried in a veteran’s cemetery in New Jersey.

The film, re-released on DVD on May 12, has renewed interest in his case, and, one would hope, the stupidity of bringing back chain gangs in symbolic form.

burns gravesite
Robert E. Burn’s gravesite (with red flower, in center) at the Beverly National Cemetery. See larger version


by Peter Wagner, September 12, 2003

San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell.
May your walls fall and may I live to tell.
May all the world forget you ever stood.
And the whole world will regret you did no good.
–Johnny Cash, “San Quentin” 1969

In Memory of Johnny Cash
February 26, 1932 – September 12, 2003

September 12, 2003 — The Man in Black, country music star Johnny Cash, died today at age 71. Although Johnny only spent one day in jail himself, he consistently identified with the downtrodden, eagerly performing a number of free concerts for prisoners. Two of these concerts became popular albums Live at San Quentin and Live at Folsom Prison. He was best known for Folsom Prison Blues, about the endless loneliness faced by a reformed man in prison:

I hear the train a-comin’
It’s rollin’ round the bend.

And I ain’t seen the sunshine
Since I don’t know when.
I’m stuck in Folsom Prison
And time keeps draggin’ on.

Johnny wrote or recorded a number of songs about the hopeless misery of imprisonment including Send a picture of Mother, The Wall, The walls of a prison, There ain’t no good chain gang, I got stripes, (I heard that) lonesome whistle, Green, Green Grass of Home, Give my love to Rose, Jacob Green, Austin Prison, Orleans Parish Prison, and a number of songs authored by prisoners present at his performances, including I don’t know where I’m bound.

In memory of the Man in Black, his work, and his music, it seemed appropriate to highlight two of his lesser known songs: “Man in Black” and “San Quentin”.

We’ll miss you Johnny. May all the world never forget you sang. All the world will rejoice you did so much good.

Man In Black

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.

Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen’ that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen’ that we all were on their side.

Well, there’s things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin’ everywhere you go,
But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.

Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything’s OK,

But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,

‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black

San Quentin

An’ I was thinkin’ about you guys yesterday. Now, I been here three times before, an’ I think I understand a little bit about how you think about some things, it’s none of my business how you feel about some other things and I don’t give a damn how you feel about some other things! But anyway, I tried to put myself in your place, and I believe this is the way that I would feel about San Quentin.

San Quentin, you’ve been livin’ hell to me.
You’ve galled at me since nineteen sixty three.
I’ve seen ’em come and go and I’ve seen them die,
And long ago I stopped askin’ why.

San Quentin, I hate ev’ry inch of you.
You’ve cut me and you’ve scarred me through an’ through.
And I’ll walk out a wiser, weaker man;
Mr Congressman, why can’t you understand?

San Quentin, what good do you think you do?
Do you think that I’ll be different when you’re through?

You bend my heart and mind and you warp my soul,
Your stone walls turn my blood a little cold.

San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell.
May your walls fall and may I live to tell.
May all the world forget you ever stood.
And the whole world will regret you did no good.

San Quentin, you’ve been livin’ hell to me.


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