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Criminal Justice Reform Activists: If Blago Wants To Help Prisoners, He Needs To Listen To Them — And Get Over Himself

Local activists and advocates offer advice to the self-proclaimed "political prisoner"-turned-prison reformer.

Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration
Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration
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HYDE PARK — Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich told reporters during Wednesday’s press conference he will dedicate his life to reforming the country’s “broken, corrupt system.”

It’s a definite about-face for a politician who only pardoned 6 percent of the 1,200 petitions he processed during his time in the statehouse. He ignored the rest, leaving a backlog that took 13 years to clear.

With prison reform now a cause célèbre taken up by reality TV stars, some people are unsure if Blagojevich — a reality TV star himself — is up to the task.

RELATED: Blagojevich Ignored Prisoners Who Sought The Mercy He Was Given — And They Actually Apologized, Ex-Gov. Pat Quinn Says

But he has to start somewhere, and to help him (and others interested in doing their part) Block Club asked local activists and experts for advice.

‘Push For Stronger Services’

“Prison fundamentally changes how you see and relate to everything,” said criminal justice reform activist Monica Cosby. “I’m sure it changed him. He could genuinely care now, but he has to prove himself like any other former prisoner returning home.”

Cosby, who works at the Westside Justice Center, a nonprofit that connects West Side residents to legal services, has advocated for prison reform since her release from prison in 2015. If Blagojevich really wants to help, she said, he can start with debunking the myths regarding violent and non-violent offenders.

“It’s BS,” Cosby said. “We have to stop framing the conversation around guilt or innocence and look at the reasons why non-violent offenders are more likely to be reincarcerated. Non-violent offenders risk returning to prison due to technicalities. He can push for stronger services, like substance abuse programs.”

Cosby said Blagojevich can also push for affordable housing for people with convictions or on parole, as housing is one of the main obstacles facing those returning home.

“I hope he’s sincere, but it matters how he works and who he works with,” she said. “How he does this will be totally dependent on him. But I would hope that his words wouldn’t carry more weight than the people who have been out here.”

‘Listen To People Who Are Incarcerated’

Prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba is skeptical of Blagojevich’s newfound calling, but she isn’t surprised by his change of heart. She agrees with Cosby it is common to have a transformative experience behind bars.

“Remember the very short news cycle of Felicity Huffman? When she got out of prison saying she really wanted to focus on the plight of incarcerated women as a result of having been incarcerated?” she said. “There’s a long line, particularly on the right, of folks who end up incarcerated and then decide to ‘devote their lives’ to adjusting criminal justice issues.”

Like Chuck Colson, the former aide of President Richard Nixon, who founded Prison Fellowship Ministries after serving time for his role in the Watergate scandal.

“We talk about Blagojevich as a joke, but when you’re locked up in prison, you meet people, you become friends, you hear their stories in a different way. If we were to set the joking aside and take him seriously, it’s not shocking that he would want to focus on that,” Kaba said.

But Kaba doesn’t really believe Blagojevich will do anything.

“He’s been a con man all along. I don’t take him seriously. I don’t think he’s the kind of person who’s dedicated to much except his own self-aggrandizement and ambition. I don’t think he’s going to take any shine away from people who have been doing the work because I don’t think he’s going to do anything,” she said.

Just in case Blagojevich’s passion for prison reform is true, he can start with something as simple as talking to people who are incarcerated, Kaba said.

“I’m a big fan of people getting to know incarcerated people in whatever ways they can, like through the Books to Prisoners project,” Kaba said. “There are three in Illinois, and people can find out when their next packing days are. They can go over there and pass books and write letters to send with the books to really get to know folks.

“Listen to people who are incarcerated and have them be your guide as to what their needs are what they think is most important to focus on.”

Use Your Celebrity To Keep Speaking Out

There are those who think people should hear the former governor out.

“Incidentally, I was in Englewood with about 50 people just returned from incarceration the morning of his presser,” said Eliza Solowiej, executive director of First Defense Legal Aid.

“I generally feel there’s room for everyone on the right side of the issue of our racist mass incarceration mess,” she said. “Another lawyer facing the realities of the system for the most targeted and vulnerable and being moved to speak and act out can be positive.”

Some worry Blagojevich’s alliance with President Donald Trump will not only negatively impact his fledgling credibility, but the cause itself. Blagojevich praising Trump for passing the First Step Act without reading the fine print is a problem, Kaba said.

“There’s so much smoke and mirrors that it’s impossible to tell what’s really happening. While they’re saying that the First Step is helping, the other part of the law makes it harder for others to actually get out,” said Kaba, who added the Movement for Black Lives laid out its issues with the bill in a statement released shortly after it passed the House.

“Like I said, it’s about what he does and who he works with. And if he aligns with people who harm our community, we will fight him like we’ll fight anybody. We’ll organize against them,” Cosby said. “We’re still going to be us and do what we do.”

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