Mahira Siddiqui

Now & Then: What It Means To Be A Feminist featuring Cynthia Chandler

Cynthia Chandler is the Co-Founder and recent-former Executive Director of Justice Now, a human rights organization working with women in prison and local communities to build a safe, compassionate world without prisons. She received her MPhil in Criminology from the University of Cambridge and JD from Harvard Law School.

Cynthia has worked on issues of women’s health, racial justice, and prison industrial complex abolition for over 20 years. Before co-founding Justice Now, Cynthia founded and directed Women’s Positive Legal Action Network—the first organization in the US advocating on behalf of HIV+ people in women’s prisons.

Cynthia has helped launch numerous social justice organizations, including Critical Resistance; TGI Justice Project; and the Eviction Defense Center. In recognition of her leadership support towards people in prison and social change, Cynthia was selected as an original recipient of the Ford Foundation Leadership for a Changing World Award and in 2005, and she was selected by the Women's Health Activist Network as a Top 30 Activist for Women’s Health.

One of Justice Now’s mission statements is to work towards a society that no longer relies on prisons but instead invests resources in making communities stronger. Could you elaborate on such resources?

We feel that if people’s needs are not met—basic human needs like food, shelter, and the ability to live healthily or have a purpose and feel productive—this systemically creates a culture of violence that influences individuals’ behavior and how people treat each other. It also creates a culture of scarcity where some people’s lives are considered more valuable and that makes these people readily victimizable and are often rendered protection-less.

Our current legal system focuses most of its attention on exacting some sort of retribution on someone whose done harm, whereas we at Justice Now think if we want to address violence, we need to set up systems that create safety and reparation for such people while creating opportunities for growth, transformation and change of behavior for those who have done harm and that includes the opportunity to realize that potential. Finally, we have to look and evaluate what systems and institutions might have helped promote the harm that happened and rectify that in order to proactively solve violence.

What advice can you give to rising feminists “now” who are interested in institutional, social change?

Thinking about how I’ve sustained myself in doing this kind of work over the years, I would tell these women that you can do progressive, social change work in lots of different ways and arenas—but it takes lots of people to do different kinds of things all at once to make a change happen.

I would say be kind to one self and have a level of amnesty for oneself in terms of how you pick and choose to do this work. That might sound small but we are such a result-oriented society that people often psyche themselves out of trying to do social change work because they think they can’t accomplish big things at once.

The other thing I tell folks is to be willing, no matter how painful it is or how much pressure they get, to take time to reflect on whether or not what they are doing is really making a change or not. Within our capitalist world, there is never really an incentive to admit that we did something that failed. And yet, if we don’t admit this, then we can’t assess if we are making a change. There have been very few people in generations preceding me that have been willing to talk about what things went wrong if they didn’t achieve their desired results. I think that systems move in a way where they maintain themselves and if you are not constantly diligent in asking yourself whether you’re making a change, you will probably become cog in a wheel.

We talk about and celebrate movements when they have a big splashy victory but we don’t talk about the hard nitty-gritty work that it takes to get there or about what things didn’t work. In doing so, we then lose the lessons we could have learned to improve our tactics. Maybe what has to be done is we have to see this as part of the work. If you see this honest evaluation and reflection as part of the work then doing it is in fact a success and you don’t have to personalize it as a failure in the event something doesn’t work out.  

One of your specialties includes compassionate release for people dying in prison, for which you were awarded the 1997 Attorney to Whom California Can Be Most Grateful. Unfortunately, you remain one of the only lawyers practicing in the ‘lonely’ compassionate release area. How did you fall into this line of work?

If I believed that the practice of law could affect change in and of itself by way of some dramatic impact lawsuit, I probably wouldn’t spend my time doing compassionate release work and would do impact litigation as prior generations did. I think that real change is not going to come until people who are truly oppressed are given a level of leadership that offers ownership of solutions and strategies. But I don’t think that the law, which is constructed by the elite, is going to create the kinds of solutions and outcomes that truly affect systemic change.

I devoted my career to finding ways to use the law as an ally for people who are in prison and to use legal tools to bolster their capacity to be part of bigger conversations of justice and accountability. People can’t have those conversations if their most basic needs are not met. In prison, particularly for people serving long sentences, but frankly anyone in prison, there is a common fear that people are going to die alone: without anyone knowing they are sick, that their families won’t know when they died or that their bodies would somehow disappear and be buried in some unmarked grave. This level of invisibility that people experience through imprisonment is magnified in their death and this fear can be really paralyzing.

So, it struck me that compassionate release work, if nothing else, was a way for me to show these people that I have their back in that kind of situation and to provide a certain level of stress reduction. Best case scenario: I would get them home to be with their family; worst case scenario: I would track what was going on and make sure their body got to where it needed to be. Relieving this sort of stress allows me to do art, activism and policy projects by doing this service.

Having recently transitioned from executive director, what is the most valuable experience, lesson, etc. you realized while reflecting the role/limits of the law in effectuating social and institutional change as seen through the critical examination of prison reform and abolition movements.

I think the biggest lesson to me is that the role of a lawyer, in my mind, in this arena, is to be an ally who can help people access people in prison. The single reason I’m appreciative of being a lawyer is that I can access people in prison without state censorship—that is huge. Lawyers have access to people in prison in a way that family and media do not. It’s a special social responsibility for lawyers to fight that level of invisibility and to help people in prison have a civic voice. And lawyers can only be allies for these people, if they are also willing to see the goal of their work—not as some sort of charity, but by representing someone with a level of gratitude. It’s important for lawyers to see themselves as a conduit that helps relieve suffering for people here and now.

In an era of increasing reliance on imprisonment as a perceived solution to a range of social problems, what are some challenges you foresee to persist in this area of prison reform?

I think one of the biggest pressing problems right now is policies that use language of change or language of reform that are really just the same ole. The appropriation of language is pretty significant within the prison contact specifically. You have polices that are being labeled ‘reentry programs’ and people are sent home to different transition programs, but in reality, they are being sent to locked gated prisons that are called ‘homes’. There is a radical expansion of electronic monitoring into communities that include GPS-tracking but also voice recognition that monitors entire households. And this is being called an alternative to imprisonment or non-correctional sanctions but really it is about turning people’s homes into jail cells where everyone is being monitored. So I think there are a lot of ways the prison system is replicating and expanding itself and it is being hidden with language of progress or change.

This also brings me to my point of reflection and evaluation whether we are getting closer to shrinking the system. There is also a lot of attention to do something to reduce the prison population nationally and in California because the economic viability to maintain such a large prison system and focus reform efforts to center around the economy is somewhat dangerous for two reasons. First, if the economy turns around and there is more money, that means we are justified in locking up more people. It doesn’t offer any sort of permanency or reversal trends. Second, there are two ways of trying to address the problems of scarcity of economic resources: reduce the number of people in prison and to figure out ways that prisons can make money and become more profitable. There is also a trend for charging rent for people in prison. San Diego County, for example, charges a person up to $100 per day for time in jail, it really is the ultimate poverty tax. Then you have to wonder how would anyone get out of that perpetual underclass if they leave jail with that level of extreme debt hanging over their head? How are they ever going to be able to achieve economic stability to meet their basic needs? So, it’s dangerous to focus on these arguments because you could end up with an economic solution to maintain imprisonment. 

Did you experience a lack of mentorship when starting Justice Now from the “then” generation of women? How does Justice Now provide a place to be mentors to women “now”?

Justice Now was founded with a clinical training organizational structure. My experience coming out of law school and having to create a legal practice and identity as an activist was really much on the fly. That’s not to say I didn’t have mentors, I certainly did, but there was an overall (and this is broad sweeping with exceptions) lack of people who were able to teach. For example, I followed Judy Greenspan around because she wasn’t able to teach me so I was left to figure things out on my own. I felt there was a lack of knowledge among the previous generations as to teaching and supporting people and some of that comes from a culture that had a certain level of disdain for practice and only wanted to do ‘action’.

So, I felt like I didn’t have many role models who were doing intersecting types of work. When founding Justice Now, I had a Masters and a background in grassroots activism and soon realized there was no real place for people to do all that kind of work together. This struck me as ideal if I could find a place to do interlinked strategies, and yet, there was an absence of mentors to teach us how to do it that way. So, it seems kind of crazy, but at Justice Now I wanted to learn as I was teaching. I didn’t view this approach as a total hierarchical enterprise and imagined that the staff would be learning as much as they would be teaching and supporting. Frankly, I think this was a departure from generations’ prior. At Justice Now we have worked really hard to create a legacy and organization to be a training place for when we leave these roles; and if we did our job right, then this transition will work. So, not only are we hoping that people will be able to take this work to other levels but keep the work of Justice Now as fresh and evolving.

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