In Conversation with Joe Paul Jr. Part One
by Joe Paul Jr.
June 6, 2018
This interview with Joe Paul Jr., the Vocational Services Administrator at SHIELDS for Families, was conducted and condensed by frank news. It took place May 23, 2018. This is part one of an ongoing conversation between frank and Joe Paul Jr.
How did you find yourself here, working at SHIELDS for Families?
Alright. I’m a formerly incarcerated person, E-22-8-4-2. I went to California State Prison. Sentenced June 22, 1989 for voluntary manslaughter; it was a drug related murder. I came home December 2, 1992 and that whole experience was the transforming moment of my life. Prison literally saved my life with no cliché. I found myself, I found the initial portion of my identity in that place. I recognized how disenfranchised my people, black men, were at that moment in time, and Latino men too. How blind we were to this deterioration we were in the middle of. I had the moral guilt that somebody died as a result of actions I was involved with. The converging of all these circumstances put me in this place where I said, "every day in my life moving forward I will do something to make a difference in improving the quality of life not only for myself and my family, but for the people around me –my community" – I was 24 years old when I came home. I'm 49 years old now and I've lived up to every single promise in terms of making sure that every day I'm doing something to improve the state and quality of our community.
I've always been involved from the time I came home with some sort of volunteerism. Typically this has been around church, supporting ministries in the African-American communities in South LA; I still do that to this very day. Not only do I work here at SHIELDS For Families as the Vocational Service Administrator for all of our adult programs, in the sidebar we have about 38 programs; we're a 25-million-dollar non-profit operation.
County Board of Supervisors said that SHILEDS For Families is a safety net in South Los Angeles. We serve a very important function with mental health, substance abuse, child welfare, re-entry, family preservation, prenatal, neonatal, children's health, just all of the safeguards our community needs to at least have stability. I wouldn't even say progress. I would say stability.
I've been here for the last six years. This is a twenty-seven-year-old organization that evolved out of the crack epidemic and everything subsequent to that.
In that last 10 years, I've been challenged in the field of nonprofit work to take on this issue of mass incarceration. When I first got into this field from a workforce development professionals point of view, I came into it at the precipice of the mortgage meltdown and then the Great Recession. At the same exact time California was in the throes of this three judge panel that told Schwarzenegger, and ultimately Jerry Brown, that you got too many people in prison. This is a constitutional violation, it’s cruel and unusual punishment: You're not providing adequate healthcare, you're not providing adequate mental health, you're not providing adequate housing. You've got to drop the population in prison. The advent of Assembly Bill 109, a reform bill around changing the status of felons from the traditional prison felony to now this county jail felony thing. We went through all of this transition and watched the subsequent reform bills along with it.
We were working in that climate, and now I feel like a veteran because we're in one of the most robust economies we've been in in a long time. There's construction across the whole state. There’s opportunities for people to relatively make living wage jobs with very little skills or education, and we still are at a crisis level when it comes to social dynamic. That's what keeps me moving and thinking about policy and legislation, and really closing the gaps where they've been created. Even with the best intentions we couldn't foresee the collateral consequences as a result of the effort that we saw the need for at that time. That's the front we're working on now.
What were the collateral consequences of that work?
I'll give you an example around a very salient point, and that's "Ban the Box". Ban the Box is the policy and intention to remove the question of: "Have you been convicted of a felony?", from employment applications. It was a foreign notion in L.A. and in California ten years ago; we were fighting for it. Now, we have statewide laws, we have one of the most robust Ban the Box laws in the whole country right here in L.A.
A collateral consequence of that is now you're on an equal playing field. Now the felony is not the issue, now it's your skill set. How do you compete with somebody who's had all of this history and work experience? You're being judged on the merit of your qualification for the job and you can't even utilize your experience from prison where you just spent the last 20 years to compete for this opportunity that we created by removing the box.
We didn't close the gap on how do you sell yourself and verify your work experience the way everyone else is going to? A very well intended, hard fought victory, to get the boxes removed, but now that the box is removed, these other complications are exposing themselves that we don't have a remedy for. On the CDCR, the Department of Corrections and Parole side, unless you have a very motivated parole agent, they're not going to focus on the employment verification for this dude who just spent 20 years in prison. All of his work experience, although credible, although valuable, although more qualified than someone else, won’t be provable. We’re working on that now.
What about extended and collateral consequences in the community?
2018 is midterms for the feds, it's statewide election, we're electing a governor in California, in L.A. we're electing the sheriff. You have 30 percent of the incarcerated population returning to L.A. County, and a huge percentage of that group coming to the city of L.A. Those who've been formerly incarcerated, and are felons and think that they're disenfranchised still, think they can't go to the polls and vote. If you're already a minority group, where it takes everybody's voice to stand up and say we agree with this piece of legislation, or we want this elected candidate in office, and everybody showed up without any restrictions, we still would have a challenge electing somebody.
Cut off 30 percent of that group because either they're apathetic about believing in the policies or the people, or they think they can't vote because they were formerly incarcerated, and now what kind of voice does the community have?
You don't even scratch the surface of what change looks like. Those are blind consequences to the effect of mass incarceration on communities of color, and these disenfranchised communities like South Los Angeles.
For the last 20 years let's say, the police department, the DA, all of these different government bureaucratic systems, are more willing to work with you as the voice of the community, but the communities themselves are not so open to them.
What does that relationship look like right now?
It's almost like the community is saying, ‘too little too late’. It's like, ‘we were ready to work with you after the riots. We were ready to engage healthy dialogue after Rodney King’. We go through all of that, and not only do we have to suffer through the consequences of that experience, but then you put gang injunctions on our communities and the police come in and terrorize community members and criminalize innocent people inadvertently, and call them gang members. And then the criminal system puts enhancements on charges because now we label innocent people who weren't gang members as gang members and, yeah they sold drugs, or maybe they got caught with a gun, whatever the case may have been, but now I'm labeled a gang member because I grew up in this community and I get an extra five or six years on top of a sentence? These mothers are saying he's not a gang member, and he’s saying I'm not in it — you create this distrust. To the point where we don't want to deal with you.
Now it almost seems like we're being placated by the system because the system comes and says we want to play fair now, we want to cooperate now, and we want you to excuse all of the urban terrorism that we blighted you with for the last 30 years under the disguise of tough on crime and the war on drugs. "Forgive us, we just want to play fair now".
The community is not in a place where they have been as forgiving as others. My position is, I wish that we – I hear Rodney King in the back of my head: "Can we all just get along?"
Right now the community is playing the biggest part of the problem in my opinion. A murder may happen in the community and the community itself knows exactly who did it, the detectives are doing this full blown investigation with no leads and nobody is saying anything. If you have individuals who consistently find themselves in a place where there's no consequence to their behavior because of the street code, or the community is intimidated by the perpetrator, whatever the case may be, we only end up hurting ourselves. We have to find a balance between those two extremes right now.
What allows you to trust government institutions after your own experience in the system?
Understanding the power of democracy, understanding that yeah, there's a lot of politics in politics. But still majority rules. I found that to be true.
And it doesn't take a whole lot. A few years ago, 2012, we worked closely with the sheriff's department and the county Registrar's office with our inmate voter registration. There were approximately 20,000 folks incarcerated in the county jail system at that time. We registered approximately 1,200, 1,250 folks. We didn't hit 10 percent of the total population for a lot of reasons. I felt we didn't do the best job we could. County Board of Supervisors, City Council people elected from the state touted the effort. "Oh my God, look what you guys did!" About 900 of those folks cast their ballot in custody. I've come to realize 900 additional votes could swing an election. I didn’t know it at the time. What I've learned is that we can mobilize and demonstrate that we can do this with intention, and purpose, and have a lot of weight in the power we bring to the table.
That's the issue I'm trying to convey to gang members in any community. You may not believe in the power of our democracy, you may not believe in the police chief, you may not believe in the sheriff, you may not believe judges and courts, but all those folks –minus the police chief– are elected to office.
You got the power to say “nah not to you, you, but not you". If we all come together, they have to come to us to have a conversation, to get our opinion on what best practice looks like if they're elected. It's been like herding cats to get people into a place to see this potential power. It's apathy. It's almost too little too late. If you had asked it of us ten years ago, maybe, but we don't hear it now. You hear I don't care. Even if it hurts me to avoid this opportunity
Are you optimistic?
I am. You've got to be! I mean there's a verse of Bible that says a living dog is better than a dead lion. As long as we're alive there's hope.
I'm tired of going to funerals; I'm tired of burying kids. I'm tired of visiting domestic violence programs where women are abused simply because of the residual trauma and anger that community members have that are displaced.
We're hurting each other because we're being hurt.
I made a commitment as I said in the beginning, that I'm going to do my best to serve my community as long as I'm alive. I see no victory to believe. I'm a firm believer in the word of God that says a little leaven leavens the whole lump. So we can have a little bit, and sustain that little bit, it has the potential to grow into something bigger. I feel I've got other partners across the state who have a similar idea that we're not done yet. I do have optimism towards it.