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HEALTH MATTERS: The human justice revolution — healing after incarceration

It was Tyreik Sosa’s second visit to Los Angeles. The 22-year-old young man was determined to get back to Southern California and participate in the Brooklyn-based Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions’ launch of its Human Justice Revolution.

It would be the first time he spoke in front of a crowd. There were more than 200 of L.A.’s “who’s who” in the audience.

“I have been in and out of Rikers Island for more times than I can count on both hands,” said Sosa who has been out of the prison system for the last three years.

The fact that there are 2.3 million men and women incarcerated in federal and state prisons in the U.S and that people of color are the vast majority should not surprise anyone.

“Faulty logic that asserts that the system is broken is just that, faulty,” said Divine Pryor, PhD. “The system is not broken, but is operating exactly the way it was designed and more so, producing the desired results.”

Rikers Island, operated by the New York City Department of Correction, is one of the world’s largest correctional institutions and mental institutions and is New York’s most famous jail. The jail complex has a staff of 9,000 officers and 1,500 civilians managing 100,000 admissions per year and an average daily population of 10,000 inmates.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately 720,000 men and women released from federal and state prisons annually and 2.3 million currently incarcerated in the U.S. The recidivism rate has hovered between 60 percent and 70 percent nationally for the past three or more decades.

Since Sosa’s release, the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions serves as a safe haven and a place for peace of mind for him and hundreds of others from various communities in the New York area.

“It is a neutral zone, it is a no-violence facility,” said Pryor, the executive director of the center, an independent research, training and advocacy think tank that applies human justice to achieve public safety, racial equity, community investment, human development and well-being in society. “The police cannot arrest anyone at the center nor can any gang-related activity occur.”

The center is the first of its kind in the country.

As a formerly incarcerated person, Pryor knows the importance of having a safe environment to thrive and learn about other things outside of a typical 10-block radius of most youth in urban settings. Pryor served 10 years in prison, received a formal higher education and, among his many accolades, developed training and workshops for professionals that address issues such as anti-gang initiatives, poverty, literacy, unemployment, housing and health care.

“We take the youth, like Sosa, from the streets who never left their block until they have been arrested and housed at one of the numerous detention facilities, and expose them to extraordinary opportunities and places like state museums, a camp ground, Yale and elite gatherings such as the Human Justice Revolution event hosted by the Quarles family in Los Angeles,” said Pryor, who deals with the ills of vulnerable lives from shots fired to police brutality on a daily basis.

“Healing and therapy are essential to the center,” Pryor said. “It gives those that seek solace and restoration of their spirit at the center an escape from stress, dangers, anxiety and the tensions from the street life.”

Pryor was led to the vision of what eventually became the center when he served on a panel at Columbia University with Eddie Ellis. “Eddie Ellis was a powerful force and he was a legend and a mythological figure,” Pryor said. “I never thought I would have met the man who was the founder and president of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions.”

Ellis, a former Black Panther Party leader, served 25 years in prison based on COINTELPRO targeting for a crime he did not commit. In prison, however, he acquired a master’s degree, summa cum laude, from New York Theological Seminary; a bachelor of science degree in business administration, magna cum laude, from Marist College; an associate’s degree in para legal studies from Sullivan County Community College; and an associate’s degree in liberal arts from the State University of New York. Ellis lectured extensively and visited prisons in the United States, England, Scotland, Belgium, the Caribbean and South Africa.

“Our meeting at Columbia led to a 26-year friendship and business partnership,” Pryor said.

Ellis passed the torch to Pryor to lead CNUS a few years before he died in 2015. Pryor has served as the CNUS executive director since 2012.

How did this East Coast organization end up on the West Coast?

Award-winning actor Malik Yoba, who served as the master of ceremonies for the launch of the Human Justice Revolution, congratulates social justice activist Starlett Quarles, who hosted the event along with her siblings, Dr. Brickell Quarles and Quenton Quarles. (Courtesy photo)

According to Starlett Quarles, “The impetus for “Danny Glover’s Human Justice Revolution Launch Event” in Los Angeles came about due to my sister, Dr. Brickell Quarles, who is a board member for CNUS.”

“I wanted my family’s help to bring awareness in Los Angeles about the historical work CNUS was doing with the NYPD, and their partnership with Mayor Bill de Blasio,” said Dr. Quarles, a clinical supervisor at Rikers Island Correctional Facility for the adolescent mental health clinic, where she has worked for more than 13 years.

“I connected CNUS’ Executive Director Dr. Divine Pryor, with Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Office, and decided to host an event at our parent’s home to help launch the Human Justice Revolution Campaign in Los Angeles,” said Quarles, a community advocate and talk show host of “The Dialogue with Starlett Quarles.”

Quarles continued to reach out to others who would be instrumental with her sister’s mission to wake up other major cities about the shift that needed to happen to address the growing incarcerated and formerly incarcerated population and their frame of mind.

“I connected Dr. Pryor to Kimberley Baker Guillemet, manager of the Office of Reentry for Mayor Garcetti’s Office of Economic Opportunity, and since our friend Danny Glover is CNUS’ celebrity human justice ambassador, we thought we’d host the L.A. launch on his actual birthday, July 22,” Quarles said.

“Human justice is defined as the merging of human rights and human development,” Pryor said. “I plan to bring CNUS to Los Angeles and collaborate with organizations such as A New Way of Life Re-entry Project.”

“Being in jail as an inmate is a very dehumanizing experience. So much so that too often I find myself having to remind individuals of their own humanity once I see them begin to succumb to the oppressive nature of the jail environment,” she said. “Being able to defend yourself against the elements within jail or prison is crucial. Without this strength, the very core of who you know yourself to be can be altered.”

Dr. Quarles says that major research within social psychology reveals that a person’s bad actions are tremendously influenced by bad environments, the bad situations they are placed in and the bad systems that maintain such situations.

“We can’t separate humanity from justice,” Dr. Quarles said. “There is a need to change the paradigm of our justice system from criminal justice to human justice. The focus of the justice system needs to involve true empowerment and healing. How else are we to expect hurt people to stop hurting other people?”

The Language Letter Campaign, one of CNUS’ programs speaks to how language matters when you address people who are currently or have previously experienced prison life.

“The purpose of changing the narrative of how we talk to each other helps recognize a person’s humanity,” Pryor said.

“We no longer want be referred to by all the negative terminology including ex-convicts, ex-prisoner, ex-offender and any other de-humanizing names,” Pryor said. “The preference is to be referred to as incarcerated people, formerly incarcerated, people who have been convicted, people on parole or probation. The key emphasis is using the word people or person.”

The narrative continues to change as organizations like CNUS, UrbanLeap and Susan Burton, the founder of A New Way of Life Re-entry Project speak to people in crisis and before they get in a situation across the country and screen films like Ava DuVernay’s full-length documentary “13th,” which tackles the exploitation of imprisoned African-Americans. CNUS’ Cory Greene and KJ were featured in the documentary.

National civil rights attorney Benjamin L. Crump will be in Los Angeles to discuss the social injustices at the fifth annual Justice on Trial Film Festival the weekend of Sept. 15. Crump is known for his representation of the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and others whose sons were killed by cops.

“Part of the healing process has to do with the narratives that shape our identity and guide our approach to life,” Dr. Quarles said.

Resources:

A New Way of Life Re-entry Project – www.anewwayoflife.org

Justice on Trial Film Festival – www.justiceontrialfilmfestival.net

Center for Nuleadership on Urban Solutions – www.nuleadership.org

Urban Leadership & Entrepreneur Apprentice Program – www.urbanleap.wix.com/temp

Marie Y. Lemelle, MBA, a public relations consultant, is the owner of Platinum Star PR and can be reached on Twitter @PlatinumStar or Instagram @PlatinumStarPR. Send “Health Matters” related questions to healthmatters@wavepublication.com and look for her column in The Wave.