Six of Our Board Members are in Prison

Do you have a hard time getting board members to meetings? Justice Now, a California organization working in women's prison issues, has ten board members, of whom six are imprisoned. There is much to learn from them about involving board members in strategic decision-making, about board member mentoring of staff, and about how board members can raise money from their peers in unexpected circumstances. In this issue Board Treasurer Misty Rojo and Co-Founder/Executive Director Cynthia Chandler talk with Blue Avocado.

Blue Avocado: Misty, I understand that you were released three months ago after nearly ten years in prison, and you've been on the board for six years. How did you get involved with Justice Now?

Misty: When I was just starting my time in prison, I had some health problems. I met two women who were fellow inmates who were founding members [of Justice Now]. They started helping me as a direct service client. I was having side effects from medications, and the prison kept switching my meds. I didn't realize what the problem was.

So these peer counselors pulled me along, helped me educate myself. I grew up . . . I woke up! Then I wanted to get more involved in helping other people and making bigger changes.

What did you think when they asked you to be on the board?

Misty: I said, I don't know what a board means, but . . . sure! Then later they asked me to be treasurer. I had run a business before, monitored all the financial side of things, so I could do it. It didn't turn out to be as much work as I thought.

So how do you hold board meetings when some of your board members are in prison?

Cynthia: One of the few privacy rights that people in prison have is to receive legal mail and to have legal visits. Board materials can be sent through legal mail because they include legal materials. Every letter, every phone call, every visit, has a legitimate legal purpose; we make sure we can always document that fact and that all such efforts would pass the test for involving a legitimate legal purpose. It takes a lot of time but we do it to protect the organization and to protect the members of the board.

Misty: If it isn't legal mail they can open it and read it. But if it's legal mail from an attorney they call you and you go to the office, open it in front of them, shake out the contents so they can see there aren't drugs in the envelope, and then you can read it.

When I was in, there were three of us on the board in the same housing yard and we communicated pretty well with each other and found ways to communicate to the board members on other yard. Because you don't always get the mail on time. Sometimes you just don't get your mail.

But even if you have the agenda, how do you have a discussion?

Cynthia: We do round robins in the visiting room. We have two free and one imprisoned board member at a table. We go over each item in the agenda. Then the two free board members talk with another imprisoned board member. Before the visiting period, the imprisoned board members have talked over the agenda to each other. [Editor's note: the largest women's prison in California is in Chowchilla, where some board members are, is a 2.5 hour drive from Justice Now's office.]

We have one board member in a prison in southern California. The president of the board lives in southern California, too. Now she's off parole, but when she was still on parole she couldn't visit a prison without special permission from the warden; she finally got that. Since then, she goes a week before the board meeting and they go over everything.

Misty: For voting we have voting sheets. And people can't just write their vote; they have to write a statement on why they're voting that way. And those sheets are given to everybody on the board to read.

Why did the organization decide to have board members who are in prison? It obviously takes a great deal of staff and volunteer time to make it work.

Cynthia: When we started the organization [nine years ago] we were operating under a fiscal agent, so we had an advisory board. One of the reasons we incorporated was to have the people in prison be on the governing board. We wanted free board members and board members in prison both to be involved in everything: accountability, leadership, developing the organization, all aspects.

There's such a contrast for a person in prison, who has so little control over anything, to be on the governing board of a nonprofit. It's important to our model of social change. We believe that if we are really to be impactful, we can't replicate the divisions we're fighting in how we make that change -- it won't work.

Our bylaws say that a minimum of 1/3 of our board members need to be currently or formerly in prison. We added the "formerly" because we realized we could be in trouble if all the board members in prison got paroled at the same time! This last year has been very hard, with some conflicts and financial problems. I don't know if a board would do the hard work that this board has done without personal stake in the organization.

Can you describe a recent decision that the board discussed and made?

Cynthia: We had some difficult staff decisions to make. We had weekly discussions about downsizing. We had to lay off some staff, reduce hours for others. Some of our staff were formerly imprisoned and worked with the organization from inside before getting out. Our other staff started as interns, and as interns you learn under the mentorship of board members, inside and out. So we've all grown up together here. And it's an emotional job. It was painfully hard to decide whether and how to make the cuts.

Misty, you were on the board for several years before being paroled. Now that you're out of prison, has anything you've learned about Justice Now on the outside been a surprise?

Misty: No, I really knew everything that was going on. If you're a board member on the inside you talk to someone on the staff at least once a week. [Smiling] But . . . I had never seen the office before.

How do you keep the non-imprisoned board members informed and involved?

Cynthia: It's a problem sometimes because we tend to take free folks for granted. They have email, they can receive phone calls, they have cell phones, they have Internet . . . all things people in prison don't have. It's easier to communicate with them so we've had times when we've been less deliberate in how we do it. In the end we communicate a lot more with folks inside!

Other than the difficulty of communicating, have you run into any other obstacles as a result of having board members who are in prison?

Cynthia: some funders view it strangely. When they ask for a list of board members and affiliation, we put things like, "Historian, imprisoned in _______." [Wryly] It always creates a conversation. They think, "People in prison don't have the skills to be on a board!" But there are people in prison who are educated in one way or another -- some have professional backgrounds and all have a world of experience. Our board president was in HR of a large corporation; that helped a lot around the downsizing issue. And you learn skills through work that's criminalized, too . . . people who sell drugs know finances, retail, marketing, inventory.

Early on, there was a strategic planning grant we applied for and didn't get. We were told that the [foundation] board questioned whether it was a good idea for people in prison to have authority over a nonprofit organization.

Misty: You can't guarantee timeliness. You'd set up a call at a certain time, and then some guard loses her radio and there's a lockdown. Or you're expecting a visit to discuss something and there's a lockdown.

Thank you, Cynthia and Misty.

Blue Avocado's concluding note: What's clear from talking with Cynthia and Misty is that the board of Justice Now is perhaps more engaged, more participative, and less staff-led than many nonprofit boards. Some of their practices -- such as writing out individual reasons for votes -- would be good for many boards to consider. And the value and strategic importance of having constituent members on the board could not be demonstrated more dramatically or more strongly. Thank you, Justice Now.

Justice Now (www.justicenow.org) is a teaching law clinic focused on supporting and advocating for people in California's women's prisons, and for prison abolition. They provide legal support for healthcare access, compassionate release, parental rights, placement in community-based programs, and in other areas, and see their work as building a movement that bridges the gap between service provision and political organizing. "Our goal is to build a safe, compassionate world without prisons." In a future issue of Blue Avocado we'll learn about how Justice Now raises funds from and with people in prison.

Comments (5)

  • thank you and your interviewees for bringing this perspective - helpful to think how Advisory Boards with less obstacles can utilize these insights and comments to be more thoughtful about communication with one another.

    Jul 01, 2009
  • Great interview. I appreciate the prespective, creativitity and dedicated work of Justice Now. Just reading this motivated me to donate to the Blue Avocado for bringing this story forward.
    Thank you to both organizations and all those who make the work happen!
    Nancy Barros

    Jul 01, 2009
  • Nancy, you have made our day, our year, here at Blue Avocado. We too thought this was an important and moving story, and we're so glad you thought so, too! Jan

    Jul 05, 2009
  • What an inspiring and practical article.
    Thank you, Blue Avocado. Thank you, Justice Now.
    A true example of "become the change you want to see"
    adrienne

    Jul 01, 2009
  • I'll admit that I thought the headline "board members in prison" would be just a tease--"prison" being a metaphor or "in prison" meaning visiting prison for a meeting. Instead, what you gave us is a great article! Very inspiring. If Justice Now can involve participants on the board, what is the excuse for the rest of us?

    Oct 01, 2009

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