At Philly forum, 3 Democratic candidates take questions from formerly incarcerated people

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — At a first-of-its-kind forum, three of the Democrats running for president took questions from formerly incarcerated people at Eastern State Penitentiary Monday.

About 100 formerly incarcerated men and women attended the Justice Votes 2020 forum, which was put together by Voters Organized to Educate.

The group brought activists and formerly incarcerated leaders from organizations across the country to conduct 30-minute one-on-one interviews with Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, and billionaire Tom Steyer, where they posed pre-screen questions from audience members.

"This is my life's work," Harris told the crowd as she took questions about how to keep parents together in spite of incarceration, how activists should fight inhumane conditions, and what she would do to prevent discrimination against the formerly incarcerated.  

Harris proposed doing an audit of the criminal justice system, where she would trace the money made, where it's going and then make reforms.

"People are profiting off of the desire of a human being to stay in touch with their family," she said. "People are supposed to be allowed at least one bar of soap a month — some people are paying $22 for a bar of soap."

Harris touted her record as a prosecutor, where she implemented recidivism programs in San Francisco before going statewide as attorney general of California. 

At @easternstate for #JusticeVotes2020 forum where 100 formerly incarcerated people will hear from some of the democratic presidential candidates. Questions come from people impacted by #massincarceration. Organizers say there are 130 watch parties in 30 states. @KYWNewsradio.

— Cherri Gregg (@cherrigregg) October 28, 2019

"The first thing we need to do is end the discrimination," said Steyer as he took questions on the many barriers formerly incarcerated people face once they pay their debt to society. 

He told the crowd his mother was a reading teacher inside of a juvenile prison and he believed that people should have all civil rights restored after serving their time, including access to housing, student loans and more.

"When you come back, you are a full member of society," he said, "that means no one can discriminate against you. The federal government has to ensure the rights of all American citizens."

Finally, Booker took questions about the injustice in the justice system. 

He told the crowd that if he were elected Commander-In-Chief, he would push policies that ensure that the system stops targeting black, brown and poor people. 

"I would work to restore people's faith that doesn't just work for the wealthy, but for all America," he said.

Booker also discussed legalization of recreational marijuana with a criminal justice component that would expunge records and give those impacted by mass incarceration the opportunity to benefit from the new market.

"The revenues that we make as a government, the billions of dollars coming from the tax revenue, must be going to those communities that have been disproportionately harmed by marijuana enforcement," he said. 

Voters Organized to Educate says the forum is the first ever that gives the formerly incarcerated singular access to presidential candidates.

"The candidates that are not here to answer these questions are the ones we need to be looking at," said Tracey Syphax of New Jersey, who got a pardon for his prior drug crimes by former Gov. Chris Christie. 

He is now a successful businessman and in the running for a marijuana dispensary license in the Garden State.

"They showed that they did not prioritize our needs and our concerns and that certainly didn't sit well with me in terms of my vote," said Reuben Jones of Just Leadership, an organization that represents formerly incarcerated individuals. 

"I think it's incredible that these candidates that gave us the time to listen to us and talk about the criminal justice system from our perspective," said J. Jondhi Harel, founder of The Center for Returning Citizens. "I wish more candidates had come, but this shows who really value those who are formerly incarcerated."

The event was sponsored by the Marshall Project and was livestreamed via NowThis. Organizers says 130 watch parties were held in 30 states across the country.