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He Spent 14 Years in Prison. Here’s Why He’s Fighting for Criminal Justice Reform

Louis Reed spent 14 years in prison. Now, he’s working for criminal justice reform. Pictured: The punishment-cell wing at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. (Photo: Giles Clarke/Getty Images)

Louis Reed spent nearly 14 years in prison on bank fraud and other charges.

Since then, he has become an advocate for criminal justice reform and supported the First Step Act, a bipartisan measure to improve criminal justice outcomes, which was signed into law by then-President Donald Trump in December 2018.

Reed joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to share his story and his vision for how Democrats and Republicans can work together on criminal justice reform, despite the toxic political climate.

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Rachel del Guidice: I’m joined today on “The Daily Signal Podcast” by Louis Reed, he’s the director of organizing and partnerships at Dream Corps JUSTICE. Louis, it’s great to have you with us on “The Daily Signal Podcast.”

Louis Reed: Oh, it’s great to be here.

Del Guidice: Well, thanks for being with us. So, first off, I just want to talk a little bit about your own personal story. You spent 14 years in the system. Can you tell us … just a little bit about your story and what all happened?

Reed: Sure. So you would presume that my story began in 2000 when I was indicted by the United States federal government and sentenced to nearly 16 years in federal prison, nearly 14 years of which I served. However, my story begins when I was approximately 5 years old, when both of my parents were indicted by the United States federal government.

My father was serving nearly seven years in federal prison and my mother served nearly five years in federal prison, and I was raised by my maternal grandmother. So, my introduction into the criminal legal system, I should say my exposure began when I was in my formative years.

And so, [I was] serving nearly 14 years in federal prison for bank fraud and felony possession with ammunition. But, while I was incarcerated, I realized one of three things: First and foremost, I had an unapologetic transformation of my mind, having adopted the Christian principles and philosophies of Jesus.

The second thing that I realized is that those closest to the problem are also closest to the solution, but furthest from resources and power. And so, that lit a righteous indignation in me.

I knew that I had been a part of something that bankrupted communities and that bankrupted other people, and I wanted to change that. I wanted to change that through advocacy, I wanted to change that through organizing, and, ultimately, I wanted to change that by being an example.

But the third thing that happened with me was that an education passport opened up in my mind, where I had the benefit of matriculating through university, earning two bachelor’s degrees, and having gone on to earn my master’s degree in clinical counseling.

So I understand not just the benefits of education, but I also understand the benefits of rehabilitation as well.

Del Guidice: That’s awesome. Going back to your time in prison, are there any specific things that you remember or experiences that you’ve kind of taken with you that, obviously, take you back to your time there, but you remember today and that fuels why you do what you do?

Reed: Without question, the entire time that I was in prison, I never met an inmate.

Our listening audience may say, “How is that possible? You’re around so-called inmates.” But I never met an inmate, I never met a convict, I never met [an] ex-offender. I met brothers, I met fathers, I met human beings who had made just some poor decisions, but none of us should ever be reduced down to the poorest decision that we’ve ever made.

One of the things I always say is that my history should not preclude my destiny, my history is not greater than my destiny.

I remembered there was one defining moment in particular, where I had a conversation with a correctional officer who essentially told me that he had put his son through college and his son was going to go into the Bureau of Prisons, and prospectively his grandson will going through the Bureau of Prisons as a result of people such as me. And I wanted to break that pathology.

I never wanted someone to be employed because of me making intentional and deliberate decisions to be incarcerated. So that’s one of the things that fuels me, and that’s one of the things that I keep with me.

I also say this as well, I have had the benefit of being mentored by correctional officers as well.

One, a very good friend of mine who I still stay in contact with was a former warden who told me, “Look, Louis Reed, I see your potential and I never want to see you back on a 4 o’clock count ever again. And so, I’m going to invest in your leadership, I’m going to invest in the potential that I see in you so that you can ultimately be doing what it is that you’re doing now.”

Del Guidice: That’s incredible. Can you tell us about your organization, Dream Corps JUSTICE?

Reed: Yeah. Dream Corps JUSTICE, formerly known as #cut50, [was] co-founded by CNN political commentator Van Jones and also Jessica Jackson, who happens to be the legal mentor to Kim Kardashian.

We are the winningest criminal justice organization in recent history, having passed more than 30 bills in less than four years, including the federal First Step Act, which to date has freed more than 16,000 people from federal custody.

Ninety-one percent of the people who got released under the federal First Step Act crack cocaine provision happened to be African American, something that really resonates with me as a black man in the United States of America.

But look, I gave you that 16,000 number, but what I didn’t tell you is this, that means that there’s more than 500,000 years of human freedom restored back into our community. And that is something that we’re exceptionally proud of.

Del Guidice: Actually, my next question was about the Criminal Justice Act, the First Step Act. Can you tell us a little bit about how it was a bipartisan effort and what your perspective of it was? … You put a lot of work into it, so just a little bit about that history and work you put into this legislation becoming law.

Reed: Look, I say that the First Step Act was the equivalent of the little engine that could. It was an impossible bill that we got done during an impossible time, but we had people who were extremely extraordinary and we would just not give up on it.

It was a bill that was bipartisan, introduced by [Rep.] Hakeem Jeffries and former Congressman Doug Collins, who was a Republican. And they came together at the prodding of Jared Kushner to introduce bipartisan legislation, to get something done.

You have to consider this, we got something done when everyone said that nothing could get done in Washington. We got, according to The New York Times, the most significant criminal justice reform legislation passed in a generation. That means a generation going back to the 1994 crime bill. And we were exceptionally proud of that.

Look, we didn’t have a big pack to fund us, we didn’t have money hand over fist. The only thing that we had was the grit, the determination, and the heart and soul of grassroots organizers—people such as Ruby Welch, people such as Karen Morrison, people such as Topeka K. Sam, people such as David Safavian, who’s at the [American Conservative Union].

I mean, look, we had a bipartisan coalition of unlikely allies come together for a common purpose, united around common pain, and, ultimately, the end result was the passage of the First Step Act in December of 2018—which, by the way, happened, … literally, a few hours before the largest government shutdown in the history of the United States of America.

Del Guidice: Speaking of the First Step Act being bipartisan, how were Democrats and Republicans able to work on this together? You talked about this a little bit, but I want to talk a little bit more.

How are they able to do this together given the toxic political climate that has been happening in recent years? Can you talk a little bit more about the victory there, despite the differences of party?

Reed: Very simply, and I don’t have to articulate, this was grammatical profundity. Here’s the thing, Republicans at their best believe in liberty, Democrats at their best believe in justice, and all of us as Americans at our best should be believing in liberty and justice for all, period.

Del Guidice: Well, one of the programs your organization is working on is called Dignity for Incarcerated Women. Can you tell us about this program?

Reed: Yeah. We have been able to pass more than … 10 bills, I should say 10 legislative bills, within that four-year period that has impacted dignity for women who are incarcerated.

What that means is that … in the states where we’ve passed those bills, women will no longer be shackled while they are giving birth. They will no longer be strip-searched by the opposite sex, and they will have access to free feminine hygiene products.

Look, you would think that this should not take an act of a state legislature in order to do so, but, unfortunately, that is what we had to do.

So our Dignity for Incarcerated Women campaign sounds exactly like that. We want to ensure that women, if they are incarcerated, that they are not going to be diminished and that the very sensitive needs of a woman [are] going to be top of mind for correctional officials.

Del Guidice: Something that we try to do a lot at The Daily Signal is put personal stories behind these policy issues to really show people what the issue is and how it impacts people.

So, I’m just curious, are there any personal stories you can share about the impact of Dignity for Incarcerated Women from women you’ve worked with or stories you’ve heard? …

Reed: Without question. I remember one story distinctly as we were advocating for the First Step Act, and there is a component of Dignity for Incarcerated Women within that bill.

As we were advocating for the First Step Act, I was with my colleague Topeka K. Sam, who was our dignity director, and we were in a congressional meeting with an unnamed senator, and she began to talk about how she had to quantify her cycle.

And me and my male ignorance, in all of my male ignorance, I asked her, “What do you mean by quantifying your cycle?”

And, Rachel, she began to tell a very graphic story about how, when she was incarcerated—because they only gave the women a limited amount of feminine sanitary napkins—she had an excessive flow, and because she had an excessive flow, she would literally have to take her spent sanitary napkins, put them in a bag, bring them to an officer. He or she would count one, two, three, four, five, and then issue her more sanitary napkins.

… I’m a guy, and I just find that absolutely appalling. So we want to fight against things like that. … Something that is as human and as biological as a flow for a woman, a woman should never have to suffer that indignity, and that’s what we’re fighting for.

Del Guidice: You mentioned this a little bit, but your program also works a lot with pregnant moms who are incarcerated. Can you tell us more about that program, how it works, what it does?

Reed: Yeah. … One of the things that we want to do is we are fighting to ensure that women stay connected with their children, right?

Mothers are [the] bedrock of society, and so we want to make sure that No. 1, that they stay connected with their children. No. 2, that if they are incarcerated, that they are going to be incarcerated within a certain proximity of their last known address so that they can … have that social interaction with their children.

We want to make sure that they have video visits, … especially considering we’re in a coronavirus pandemic, and prisons and jails across the country are shut down from social visits. We want to ensure that they have access, their children have access to them, and a whole bunch more.

So we are working with us Congresswoman Karen Bass’ office, we’re working with grassroots organizers, literally across the country, to ensure that mothers stay connected with their children.

Del Guidice: Some Americans talk about how they’re concerned about criminal justice reform, saying that they think it could lead to more crime. What’s your response to those concerns when people talk about them?

Reed: I don’t have any concerns about that. I mean, look, quite frankly, what we have seen is this, there is nothing factual, there’s nothing statistical that is indicating that just because we’re in a pandemic and people have been released from prison, that crime is going to spike.

I believe it was a very good friend of mine who told me that, “If you ever want to see an indicator of crime, all you have to look at his car thefts.”

The moment that you don’t have car thefts going up—because it doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum in society, whether you are participating in continual criminal enterprising or you are a John and Jane Q citizen, if your car is stolen, you are going to report that to police.

This came from a former police officer who is now one of the foremost thought leaders. …

Essentially, if you look at car thefts, if car thefts are not going up, then there is no statistical or factual information, or nothing to, I should say, to bolster that argument that crime is actually going to go up.

So look, not concerned about that, we’re concerned about the more than 2.2 million people currently incarcerated, the more than 70 million people who currently have felony convictions within our communities, and we want to make sure those individuals are re-enfranchised.

Del Guidice: We talked about the First Step Act and the success that that was despite different perspectives, and Democrats and Republicans actually working together. Where do you see room for more to be done when it comes to legislation, when it comes to lobbying? What else needs to happen to continue to work on reforming the criminal justice system?

Reed: That was literally the first step, a first step to a long road of recovery. You have to consider that we have been on this downward trend in the United States of America since the ’60s or ’70s, as it relates to mass incarceration. That’s approximately 40 years of where we are now.

So look, we need to focus on sentencing reform, we need to focus on conspiracy laws. We need to focus on, again, Dignity for Incarcerated Women, we need to focus on juvenile justice, we need to focus on the death penalty there.

The criminal legal system is like a 5-year-old trying to wrap her arms around an elephant. It is just too big, it’s too massive. But if one person put a hand on the trunk, if another person put a hand on the foot, if another person put a hand on the ear, ultimately, we’re going to be able to cover this entire system, and that’s what it is that we have to do.

Del Guidice: Well, then, just big picture, Louis, where do you see the biggest challenges but as well opportunities for criminal justice reform?

Reed: Look, the challenges are always in bureaucracy, right? Congressional bureaucracy on the state level, [on the] federal level as well, a legislative bureaucracy.

But I am of the notion that so long as you have the people—people like Khalil Cumberbatch, who was at the Council on Criminal Justice; so long as you have people like Tony Lewis Jr., who is in the District of Columbia continuing to fight for the release of his father.

So as long as you have people who are of goodwill and people who just refuse to give up, no matter what obstacle that we’re faced with, no matter what bureaucracy that we’re confronted with, we are going to rise to the occasion.

Look, people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system, we have the resiliency of a spring in a ballpoint pen. We’re like the ’80s Timex commercial, “We take a licking and keep on ticking.” We’ve already been to the bottom, and for us, we have nowhere else to go except up.

So we are not going to allow any legislative staleness get in our way. We’re not going to allow any congressional bureaucracy to get in our way. We are going to continue to fight, and we’re going to continue to speak truth to power.

Del Guidice: Well, Louis, thank you so much for joining us on “The Daily Signal Podcast.” It’s been great having you with us.

Reed: It’s been my pleasure even being on. Thanks.

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