When it comes to ending mass incarceration, the people closest to the solution – people who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system – are often furthest from the power. ACLU Smart Justice Connecticut is grounded in the knowledge that if Connecticut is going to create a smarter justice system that prioritizes strong communities and fairness, the state must rely on the expertise of formerly incarcerated people.
Anderson Curtis and Tiheba Williams-Bain recently joined the ACLU of Connecticut as Smart Justice field organizers. From August through November, they’ll be working throughout the state to educate and mobilize Connecticut residents to take action to end mass incarceration and eliminate racial disparities in Connecticut’s justice system.
In part one of a two-part series of interviews, Anderson and Tiheba speak with ACLU of Connecticut communications director Meghan Holden and criminal justice organizer Sandy Lomonico about their journeys to Smart Justice.
Could you both tell me a little about who you are?
Anderson Curtis: I am a man of faith. I’m a passionate lifelong learner, and I will go to any length to help others. August 17, I'll be celebrating 11 years of being out of prison. Two weeks after I got out, I got right into Gateway, which is a drug and alcohol program. That was the beginning of the path. Putting all my energy into that, paying my way through school is something I'm very proud of.
2015, I got a job as a recovery support specialist. That really opened me up to what help was all about. I knew some of it through my own personal recovery and working in the recovery community with other people, but I learned to really listen.
My family's very important to me. I have four grandchildren, and they're my second chance. They're my redemption. My relationship with them is very important as well as my relationship with my parents.
I’m really grateful that being aware of my own personal struggles has empowered me to be able to help other people. That's where I'm at. That's who I am.
Tiheba Williams-Bain: I am a woman of God, a mother, a daughter, a friend, and an entrepreneur. I'm an advocate and organizer. I'm a student who may be going back to school in the spring in 2019. That's who I am.
How did you become advocates for justice?
Anderson: Part of my healing is to be that voice for the unheard and uninvited. My path to advocacy started when I was in prison. I wrote a request to the counselor to look at my file. When I got there, she said, "Why are you doing this?" I said, "I don't wanna come back here. In order for me not to come back here, I gotta know why and when I came in here. What was going on in my life?"
So my path has been learning how to advocate for myself, and then gaining all those other tools, and then helping people to see where they're at and helping them find their voice. Because you can give a guy a fish, but to teach them how to fish for themselves is where it's really at.
Tiheba: My experience as an advocate started with Vivian Nixon in New York with Education from Inside Out and College and Community Fellowship. We rallied for anti-shackling, raise the age and ban the box, and laws to be amended. It was very therapeutic. I am now able to recognize and understand how policy creates the law and the law governs society.
"We have to be strategic about dismantling mass incarceration."
Becoming an advocate gave me greater knowledge, ability, and skill to understand “I can make a change." When I got bit by the advocacy bug, I wasn't able to move forward at full capacity, because I was in school. After school I started focusing my energies here in Connecticut, I re-connected with Sandy Lomonico, [ACLU-CT criminal justice organizer] and I was like, "Sandy I'm here. We're gonna do this." Soon after I was asked to organize an Empathy Day Rally on March 6, 2018. This rally allotted me the ability to have the press conference for S.B. 13 with Governor Malloy, state Representative Robyn Porter, the ACLU, and then give public testimony. That was my first time giving public testimony in that realm. It was a little intimidating, but I got through it, which afforded me another healing moment.
We have to be strategic about dismantling mass incarceration.
How does the work you’re doing with Smart Justice fit into your personal journeys?
Anderson: Direct impact. It's an opportunity to engage public officials in a public arena that is going to have some direct impact. Because like my friend here said, it goes from a policy, to a law, to people’s lives. Now, when we can see that continuum, we can step in to change it before it impacts other people. I'm not just doing this for Anderson. I'm not just doing this for Smart Justice. There's a lot of people that I know and don't know that I'm doing it for.
"We're messengers of hope. Not only with the way we live our lives, but the things we put our name on. It matters. I'm not LeBron James endorsing Nike or anything, but this is what I'm endorsing. This is what I believe in. This is what's important to me."
We're messengers of hope. Not only with the way we live our lives, but the things we put our name on. It matters. I'm not LeBron James endorsing Nike or anything, but this is what I'm endorsing.
This is what I believe in. This is what's important to me. I'm willing to sacrifice for this. I think that's the whole restorative part. I sacrificed for bullshit for so long, my freedom, my dignity, my self-respect, all that.
That comradery that Smart Justice cohort members share, it's real. That's because we've been through the ringer. We've been through hell and back. We might not look like it, sound like it, but we have.
Tiheba: I'm going to go back to when Sandy called me and said she needed me to join Smart Justice, and I was like, "If Sandy's involved, I know it's something to be involved in." It wasn't a question because my friend needed me. Coming here, I realized it's in the same path of what I've been doing since I was incarcerated. While I was incarcerated, I was advocating and fighting for people inside on a very small scale, and I got sent to the captain's office because of it.
Something happened in the men's prison that affected the women's prison, which is what put me in the advocacy platform. I was like, "No. Just because something happened there, it should not reflect on us.” In that process, I realized, “Women have no voice in the matter. Where's our voice?"
If I didn't believe in Smart Justice, I wouldn't be sitting here today. I believe in what we do. Women are the largest [growing] population going into prisons so when I realized Smart Justice’s goal is to cut the prison population in half and dismantle racial discrepancies, I was like, “Oh definitely.”
As a Black woman in America, I witnessed and was subjected to racial disparity, both inside and out. As a field organizer, I’m in the position to get people who are going to be in charge of the state’s direction to take a stand. You can't get it better than that, right?
It's not just me as Tiheba of Women against Mass Incarceration. I will have the ACLU’s backing. When it's all said and done, ACLU Smart Justice will have put me in a space to have a platform in areas which may not be easily accessible.
Anderson: I like that too because you know the ACLU, I do see them giving me access to space that I normally wouldn't be in, also the confidence to be in that space with the support.
Sometimes, when we as formerly incarcerated people go in and speak, we give the next people permission to speak in those spaces. I see that is what this field organizing for Smart Justice could be. Not only getting access for ourselves to speak about issues that are going wrong, but also giving permission and a voice to others.