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LPPI Student Fellow Gains Insight at Latinx Criminal Justice Convening Second-year MPP student María Morales represents UCLA Luskin at a Texas gathering to discuss how criminal justice and immigration systems impact U.S. Latinos

Leadership development is a key component of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative (LPPI) at UCLA Luskin, allowing student fellows to gain hands-on policy experience and realize opportunities to develop management skills, as well as champion equity and innovation.

María Morales, a second-year Master of Public Policy student and a 2019-20 LPPI student fellow, became the latest example of this idea in action when she was selected to attend the 5th annual Latinx Criminal Justice Convening in Brownsville, Texas, in June.

Morales is serving as a project manager for an LPPI criminal justice system project that is currently underway, and she saw the conference as a professional development opportunity that allowed her to familiarize herself even further with research and efforts in the field. She also welcomed the opportunity to talk about issues of importance to Latinos in her home state of Texas.

One benefit of the trip for Morales was getting to see how a multilingual approach was incorporated.

“I was impressed by the way that interpreters established a multilingual culture during the gathering, ensuring Spanish and English-only speakers communicated smoothly with each other,” she said.

It was clear to Morales that organizers understood that language barriers often hinder efforts within the justice system to combat injustices. Community-centered, multigenerational sensitivity to interpretation is also beneficial, Morales explained, when formerly incarcerated individuals are welcomed home for the first time.

“It promotes a healing component for all participants,” she said.

The convening was organized by LatinoJustice PRLDEF in partnership with Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network. A variety of local and national organizations came to the U.S.-Mexico border town of Brownsville to engage in conversations about Latinos in the criminal justice and immigration systems.

Organizers said the two-day encuentro was intended to create a space for Latino leaders, activists, academics and impacted community members to explore connections within the criminal justice and immigration systems across the United States. They also discussed strategies to promote an inclusive movement that does not leave anyone behind.

Morales said she found the intersection between immigration, incarceration, criminality and the war on drugs very interesting. The degree of overlap of those issues was new to her.

“I had not realized how all these were intertwined and played a role in the relationship between the Latinx community and the criminal justice system,” she said.

Another impactful experience for Morales related to the general lack of data about the Latinx community in the United States. Based on her research for LPPI, she was able to engage in a “fishbowl conversation” on the topic, bringing a student’s perspective to the discussion.

Morales said she was inspired and motivated by the opportunity to be part of these types of conversations for the first time in such a setting.

“Speaking on the lack of Latinx data in the criminal justice and juvenile justice systems underscored the importance of research and the need to identify these disparities in order to enact meaningful policies based on accurate evidence,” she said.

During the gathering in Brownsville, community members highlighted their work on the ground to end collaboration between state and local police departments with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement efforts in the states of Texas and Georgia.

Another topic of discussion related to a jail closure in Los Angeles and efforts to prevent construction of a replacement. The intersection of criminal law and immigration law — often referred to as “crimmigration” — was the focal point of these conversations, with attorneys explaining the importance of litigation and the need for advocates to be patient during a legal process that often becomes lengthy. A lack of lawyers with expertise in social justice was also mentioned, Morales said.

This topic was of special importance to Morales because she will soon begin working with a group of other MPP candidates on their Applied Policy Project, and “crimmigration is a topic we are interested in exploring for our capstone project,” she said. “Learning more about its impact on the community at this convening has further piqued my interest.”

Morales found the convening enjoyable and insightful. “It was an honor being able to attend this convening and feel such passion and dedication in the room,” she said.

Just One Visit: Volunteers Make a Difference for Prisoners UCLA Luskin professor’s book launch highlights little-known but vital role that volunteers play in the juvenile and adult prison system

By Stan Paul

Just one visit. For those whose lives are entangled in the pipeline of the juvenile and adult justice systems, the life-changing meeting might come from a family member. It could be a psychologist. Or a chaplain. Or it could never come at all.

For many, though, the visitor is a volunteer — someone who can make the difference between continuing a downward spiral through the criminal justice system and turning a life around.

“The cycle continues until someone breaks it,” said Ernst Fenelon Jr., who was part of a Nov. 3 panel speaking about volunteers who help those incarcerated in America’s juvenile detention centers and adult prisons. The event also launched a new book co-edited by UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Social Welfare professor Laura Abrams. It was sponsored by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Department of Social Welfare, the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin, and the UCLA Justice Work Group.

New book co-edited by UCLA's Laura Abrams.

New book co-edited by UCLA’s Laura Abrams.

The book, “The Voluntary Sector in Prisons: Encouraging Personal and Institutional Change,” was published “to highlight many examples of great practice, of volunteer programs that make a real difference behind bars … and impacting not only those who take part in the programs, but the volunteers,” Abrams said. She was accompanied by one of her three co-editors, Emma Hughes, an associate professor and chair in the Department of Criminology at California State University, Fresno.

“This event, and the book itself, is intended to honor volunteers in jails and prisons, juvenile and adult institutions, who devote their personal and professional time, travel long distances and overcome numerous bureaucratic hurdles to reach out to those locked on the inside, whose humanity and dignity is often limited by the very condition of incarceration itself,” Abrams said in her introductory remarks.

Abrams said that the work of her colleagues and co-editors highlights many examples of great practice, impacting not only those who take part in the programs, but the volunteers as well. “Unfortunately, this evidence of good practice is not well-known, so other volunteers have to keep reinventing the wheel, rather than benefitting from the experiences of others,” she said.

The co-editors pointed out that volunteers themselves are very diverse. They may be formerly incarcerated, currently incarcerated, teachers, musicians, artists, students or people of faith. A unique feature of the book is that it includes the voices of a number of people currently serving time, in addition to the 19 contributing authors from the United States, Canada and Britain.

“You may be that one person,” said Fenelon, whose 25 years of experience with the California prison system includes more than 14 as an inmate. He is now the program coordinator for the Prison Education Project (PEP), a “prison-to-college” program that seeks to enhance the educational experience of inmates and parolees while providing practical tools for reintegration.

“You’re here because it is a calling,” Fenelon told the audience of academics, social welfare students and volunteers, some of whom also had been wards of the foster care, juvenile justice and adult prison systems in California. “The best people to speak are the volunteers,” continued Fenelon said. Like himself, they “speak from a voice of unique experience,” and “sat where they sat” and they strive to “reconnect [those incarcerated] to their humanity.”

He was joined by Rosalinda Vint, president of Women of Substance and Men of Honor Inc. Vint, who grew up in the foster care system, has been “that one person,” Hughes said in introducing her.

“All of us have a friend or relative touched by the system,” said Vint, whose nonprofit organization provides mentoring, leadership training and other services for the Department of Juvenile Justice Ventura Youth facility. The former corporate executive, who left a successful 25-year career to reach out to foster youth, said it is a privilege to serve those who, like her, have suffered abandonment and loss. Recounting her own and her siblings’ experiences within the foster care and criminal justice systems, Vint paused, as her voice cracked with emotion. She continued, “This has changed my life, what I do. I wish someone would have come for me, looked me in the eye and said it is going to be OK.”

The relationship between two of the event’s speakers, Felix Miranda and Matthew Mizel, is an example of the significant difference that volunteering can make in the lives of both volunteers and those they help.

Miranda was raised in Nicaragua and he “saw things that no kid should see.” He was angry when he came to the United States, eventually ended up in trouble and lost 13 years of his life to the prison system in California. Mizel, a native of New Jersey, had a successful career in the entertainment industry before becoming a volunteer with Inside Out Writers in 2003, teaching creative writing in juvenile and adult facilities.

They met while Miranda was imprisoned, and the experience was transformative for Mizel, who was volunteering with the nonprofit organization founded in 1996. Mizel is now a doctoral student in the Luskin School’s Department of Social Welfare, where his research focuses on ways to reduce racial inequality in the justice system.

“I had to grow out of that phase,” said Miranda, who was recently released from prison and is now a member of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC). “You can make a change.”

Miranda said that at first he couldn’t understand why Mizel kept showing up to his prison visits, and more than once asked him why he would do this.

“He came every week — that’s what impacted my life,” said Miranda, who also is now a member of the Inside Out Writers alumni project. He credits Mizel “for the love and friendship he showed me,” and the writing program for the positive changes he experienced.

“Don’t just show up,” Miranda said about volunteers’ need for perseverance and engagement. “It’s the follow-up that matters.”

According to Hughes, the book is also intended to show correctional officials and policymakers how valuable this work is. “All too often volunteers are confronted with insurmountable hurdles in terms of red tape and bureaucracy when trying to access facilities.”

Hughes added, however, that she is encouraged by recent changes.

“I am heartened that this year, CDRC (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) has a mandate to establish a volunteer advisory committee at every adult prison, with the intention of better supporting volunteer-led programs,” Hughes said.

The evening’s presentations also included a moving spoken word performance by Harry Grammar, who brought students from his New Earth Arts and Leadership Center, a comprehensive re-entry center serving 2,500 young people each year who are incarcerated in Los Angeles County detention centers and placement homes.