Smart Justice: An Interview with Lewis Conway, Jr. of the ACLU

May 12, 2020

Photo of Lewis Conway, Jr. of the ACLU.

The ACLU is celebrating a huge anniversary this year. How huge? Their hundredth. That’s a century of fighting in the courts, statehouses, and Congress to defend the rights that the Constitution guarantees all of us. Which is good news, because we need them now more than ever. (Ready to join them in creating positive change? Take action now.)

We’ve already highlighted some of the ACLU’s most notable accomplishments, but we’re not anywhere close to ending our celebration of this great organization. To learn more about what they’re doing, we recently spoke with Lewis Conway, Jr., an ACLU national campaign strategist, about his life, his work, and the organization’s guiding principles.

Tell us about the ACLU. What does it do?

The ACLU is an organization that is fighting for your civil liberties. We’ve done it for 100 years. In the last 20 years, we’ve shifted from working mostly in the legal community to working in everyday communities in every state. The ACLU is responsible for making sure that people, regardless of their creed, color, religion, or background, have equal access to the Bill of Rights.

Can you tell us your story? How did you wind up at the ACLU?

It’s been a long road. When I was 21, I was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. I went to prison at the age of 22. I did eight years in prison, and I did 12 years on parole. While I was on parole, I had a very difficult time finding housing, finding employment, just re-acclimating myself to society, and also carrying the stigma of a felony conviction.

I wound up in the music business—it didn't do background checks. But from 2000 to 2015, I was using cocaine and ecstasy, just self-medicating because of some of the issues that I hadn't dealt with while I was incarcerated, the trauma, just dealing with having harmed someone as well. Because of all that, in 2015, I wound up in the hospital and almost lost my life.

I realized that things had to change, that I had to tell my story. It led me to write a book about my experiences. Around that time, I also joined a collective that was working to pass a fair-chance hiring ordinance in Austin, Texas. Fair-chance hiring means that we take the box off the application that asks about your background, including convictions. For someone who had suffered from unemployment for 15 years, that felt like a fight that I should be involved in.

Ultimately, the group, Second Chance Democrats, voted me in as the political director. We were able to pass that ordinance. Soon people were asking me to run for city council in Austin. When I decided to run, I didn’t know that I was challenging a law that precluded people with a felony conviction from running. That race, my challenging that law, became a media frenzy. I lost, but it put me on the ACLU’s radar. And here I am.

What do you do at the ACLU?

My work with the ACLU currently focuses on parole and probation. As a national campaign strategist, my background is particularly useful because we're talking to politicians who may not have an understanding of how incarceration and going to prison can impact a person's life. The ACLU believes that the people who are closest to the problems are closest to the solutions — but also furthest from opportunity and resources. So, the Smart Justice campaign was specifically designed with the core value of centering the voices of those impacted people. If we're going to explore criminal justice reform, we have to hear from people who have been through the system, people who are collateral consequences of that system. So, I’m working in the states to make sure that we pass bills, that we persuade governors and parole boards and department of corrections chairs to stop punishing folks with incarceration, that we look for other alternatives.

In that vein, can you talk about the ACLU’s focus on prosecutorial reform and why that matters so much?

We believe that prosecutors have the most power to determine whether a person enters the criminal justice system. Prosecutors have the power to divert people before they even get into the system, like by sending people with substance use problems to treatment instead of jail. So, we have an ambitious plan, an audacious plan, to make sure that prosecutors are no longer looking at incarceration as a solution, but as a last resort.

Our goal is to cut the incarcerated population in half, and the first way to do that is to stop people from going in. Prosecutors who agree not to prosecute for marijuana and to expunge marijuana convictions, who agree not to prosecute for low-level offenses, who agree not to prosecute sex workers, who agree that folks who are undocumented shouldn't be penalized for coming to America for a better life, who believe that people shouldn’t be kept in pretrial detention just because they can’t afford bail, those prosecutors should be rewarded and uplifted.

Can you describe the impact of mass incarceration on communities?

It rips families apart. It rips communities apart. Mass incarceration means that someone is going without a father, someone is going without a mother, a community is going without a leader, a family is going without a patriarch or a matriarch. The consequences of mass incarceration play out in so many ways that we really don't appreciate. It plays out in our public education system, in our healthcare system. Think of the rural economies that depend on jails and prisons for employment. Prisons separate families, they divide communities, they upend municipal economies, state economies, and it forces us to rely on law enforcement as a source of income or as a business model.

You talked earlier about reaching people who know the most about a problem in order to find answers, to find solutions. What happens when people are approached to finally tell their story?

There's two things that happen. The first is that there is a sense of owning your story. There's a sense of being considered an expert on an experience instead of being judged for that experience. For me, doors didn't start opening until I spoke publicly about going to prison. It empowers you in a way that nothing else can.

The second thing that happens, though, is that people are retraumatized. Honestly. In this new phase of criminal justice, where we realize that directly impacted people are valuable in changing the minds of elected officials, we have created on-ramps for people to share their stories, but we haven't created effective, therapeutic, healing off-ramps from that experience.

What can be done to make sure that directly impacted people and their communities have the help and resources that they need?

I think the onus of that lies on us as organizers, it lies on us as activists and as advocates. Whenever we are going in to close something like Rikers Island, for example, we have to include in that conversation what are we going to do with that place. If we're going to close it as a jail, what are we going to repurpose it as? What are we going to rehire those staff folks as? What kind of jobs are we going to create for them?

So, I think we've been using people who are directly impacted to tell their stories, but we haven't been thinking about the impact that has on them. We're thinking about how directly impacted people should be involved in the policy conversation, but we're not thinking about what it looks like to have directly impacted people craft policy.

That was one of the reasons I ran for office, the truth that the people the policies land on are rarely the ones crafting those policies. And if we can craft policies for the least of us, then we're crafting policies for the rest of us. If we're saying no to something, we must be saying yes to something. If we're saying no to prisons, then we have to be saying yes to humanity, we have to be saying yes to compassion, we have to be saying yes to mercy.

Can you talk about what it means to you to be able to do this work?

There's 100 years of incarceration and death by gun violence that runs in my DNA. My grandfather went to prison and did 52 years for murder, and all of my uncles, every male in my family with the last name Conway has either died by gun violence or been in prison, except for my father and my sons. So, for me, it's about creating a legacy that is devoid of all the things that have haunted my DNA: drug addiction, violence, incarceration. For me, it's about creating pathways of healing for a community that I harmed. It's about folks that look like me and come from a place that I come from being able to see an example of what it means not to be defined by the worst day of your life for the rest of your life.

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