A Q&A about passion and prison reform with Jessica Jackson Sloan J.D. ’11, founder of #cut50 and Mill Valley City Council member
Jessica Jackson Sloan is a human rights attorney who began her career representing California death row inmates in their appeals. She now oversees DreamCorps #cut50 initiative to end mass incarceration. She sits on the Committee for a Fair Judiciary, serves as an advisory board member of the American Constitution Society Bay Area Chapter, and represents Congressman Jared Huffman on the Democratic Central Committee of Marin.
In November 2013, she became the youngest ever elected official in Marin County when she joined the Mill Valley City Council, becoming the mayor of Mill Valley in November 2016.
Jackson earned her B.A. in political science from the University of South Florida Honors College and her J.D. from Santa Clara University School of Law, where she received the Dean’s Outstanding Student Leadership Award.
This past January, Jackson sat down for a talk with Ellen Kreitzberg, Santa Clara Law professor, former director of the Center for Social Justice and Public Service, and the creator and director of the Death Penalty College, a residential training program held each summer at Santa Clara Law to train lawyers assigned to the defense of a capital case.
ELLEN KREITZBERG: Your life has been described as a journey of both passion and necessity. Do you think that is accurate?
JESSICA JACKSON: I would say that is accurate. A lot of what has driven me to get involved in all the projects I am involved in right now, whether it is criminal justice reform or affordable housing, has been personal experience. I set out on a very different path. I did not like school coming out of high school. I thought I would be a writer, have children, and be a housewife in Georgia. It wasn’t until my husband was incarcerated that I decided to go back to school and become a public defender. It wasn’t until I moved back to Mill Valley and was unable to find a home that I got involved in politics because of the lack of affordable housing there. So both passion and necessity—and learning to turn my anger into action.
EK: When we hear where your journey has taken you, it certainly hasn’t been a linear journey. What happened to bring you out to California? Can you describe how that led you ultimately to law school?
JJS: I was a strong-willed kid. Somewhere in my sophomore year of high school, I decided I didn’t want to go the traditional route, and I dropped out. Even though I had grown up in Mill Valley, I had strong Georgia ties. I moved down there, I met my first husband, and fell in love. When our daughter was on her way, unfortunately he ended up being arrested as a result of a drug addiction he developed. In court, he accepted a plea deal for three and a half years. He handed me his keys, wallet, and wedding ring. I suddenly felt this overwhelming sense of responsibility. It was devastating for our family. We were unable to stay in contact—it was $21 for a 15-minute phone call! The system literally ripped our family apart.
EK: And that’s still a problem for families making phone calls to have any kind of contact while someone is incarcerated.
JJS: There had been some progress on that under the last administration. I came back out to California and my mom asked, “What’s next?” I said, “I am going to be a public defender.” But I hadn’t even been to college yet, so my mom explained that I would need to get my degree, take the LSAT, then go to law school and become a public defender.
EK: After taking many of those preliminary steps to get into law school, what made you pick Santa Clara Law?
JJS: I was so ashamed and so isolated, I felt I needed to be back near my family. I did my honors thesis on death penalty. I knew I wanted to be a public defender. To me, the death sentence is the ultimate injustice in our justice system. I wanted to work on those cases. I only applied to law schools with death penalty clinics. Santa Clara Law has a death penalty clinic, which you run. After learning more about this clinic, I was really interested in coming to Santa Clara.
EK: You moved from Florida to California with your daughter. Did Santa Clara give you the kind of support that you thought you would need to bring you to where you are now?
JJS: Absolutely. Beyond an exceptional education, it also gave me a real community. The faculty was very supportive and some of them are still very involved in my life. Before I started law school, I attended a panel about the Supreme Court through an organization called the American Constitution Society (ACS). I really enjoyed it, and I really enjoyed the mission of the ACS, although at the time there wasn’t a chapter at Santa Clara Law. I think it is probably unusual for first-years to start organizations at the school, but when I came there my first year, I reached out and got to know some of the faculty, and they were also supportive of having a chapter there, so we started a chapter. We had a ton of faculty support, and we were able to host 35 events, which is crazy for a group of 1Ls to do.
EK: By the end of the year, didn’t your new chapter receive national recognition?
JJS: Yes, we won national chapter of the year from ACS that year. It was incredible and invigorating, and I don’t think that would have been possible at a lot of law schools.
EK: After law school, you were doing some death penalty work for the Habeas Corpus Resource Center (HCRC), representing people on death row, and then you moved into this new project, #cut50.
JJS: Even during law school, I didn’t talk about my ex-husband’s incarceration. In a lot of ways, I felt like it would discredit me. Being a young woman who was there because I was driven with a passion for my own husband being incarcerated, I thought people wouldn’t take me seriously.
I started my job at HCRC my third year. I loved doing the state and federal habeas cases. It is a lot of research and writing, and then you don’t get answers for decades. I went to an event and I met Van Jones and I was talking to him about his choice to leave the criminal justice field and get into the environmental movement and I asked him: “How could you stop working in criminal justice? There are still people in cages!” And he said, “Why are you so passionate? What is driving this passion?” I told him that my ex-husband was incarcerated and it ripped my family apart. And that was one of the first times I said that out loud and acknowledged it to someone.
After talking with him, I realized I was feeling pretty unfulfilled, because to me, it was still hard to talk about. Even though there are 60 to 70 million people out there with criminal records, there are still so many stigmas around having a criminal record or even having a loved one with a criminal record. There are 2.2 million people behind bars. I wanted to have a broader impact. I felt that the way to do that would be to both change the narrative around criminal justice and the system and let people know that this isn’t just a bunch of bad people who are being locked up—these are moms and dads and brothers and sisters and sons. They are good people who made a bad decision. We have got to look at them as worth more than the way we are treating them right now. And secondly, I wanted to pass laws and bring people home—and really focus on bringing them home in a safe and supportive way, in a way that would make our community safer.
EK: And you founded, with Van Jones, #cut50. It is a very interesting time for criminal justice reform because, even in today’s contentious political arena, you and your organization have been able to find common ground with conservative politicians. How have you been able to do that—and how has that allowed your program and your initiatives to move forward?
JJS: We kicked off in 2014, and in 2015, we hosted the first bipartisan summit on criminal justice reform. I think people felt we were a little crazy when we said we were going to host an event that was co-sponsored by Van Jones, Donna Brazile, Pat Nolan from the American Conservative Union, and Newt Gingrich. They didn’t know quite what to expect. But when the day came, we ended up having more than 800 attendees. We had more than 80 speakers, with everybody from Cory Booker to then-Governor Rick Perry, as well as Governor Kasich and Rand Paul. Georgia’s Governor Nathan Deal talked about how he had cut the prison population of African-American men by 20 percent and how proud he was of that. And he talked about the ways he was trying to change laws to support people coming home from prison, which obviously resonated deeply with me having been through my own experiences in Georgia.
EK: To clarify for people: The name of your program, #cut50, represents your goal of trying to cut the prison population by 50 percent, is that right?
JJS: And you know, if we cut the population by 99 percent, I would be happy with that, too. When I moved into this space, a lot of people were having to celebrate very incremental wins, like a 2 percent slowdown in the growth of the prison population. Not a reduction in the prison population, but a slowdown in the growth of the population. We wanted to come out of the gate saying, “We are a bipartisan initiative—and people on both sides agree that we need transformative change to this system that is broken.”
EK: In addition to cutting the prison population, you have a lot of initiatives regarding how the people who are in prison could be treated. One of them is called Dignity for Incarcerated Women. Can you describe that initiative?
JJS: Our organization, #cut50, has continued with the original approach of humanization and legislation. We are really a place where people like myself, who have been directly impacted, can come and lead campaigns. Currently we have got a campaign called Still Not Free, which is being led by Shaka Senghor and Michael Mendoza, both on our staff, who were incarcerated for 15 to 18 years as youth; one is dealing with collateral consequences of conviction. We just introduced AB 1940, which was written by Michael Mendoza, and is a bill here in California that helps people earn their way off parole a little more quickly. I am proud to also have conservative support on that one.
The Dignity for Incarcerated Women campaign, being run by Topeka K. Sam—a woman who knows what it is like to live in a prison—is probably one of the most heart-wrenching campaigns that we have done. First of all, the women’s prison population has ballooned by 700 percent in the past two decades. Prisons really weren’t meant for women, and they weren’t built for women. Many prisons are converted men’s prisons that are now holding women, and the policies weren’t built for women. So you have things going on like the shackling of women while they are in childbirth. You have babies being ripped away from their moms. You have women who are being denied tampons and pads when it is their monthly time. In a population that is 86 percent sexually traumatized, you have male guards standing there watching women undress. We have testimony of a woman in Sacramento who was in the middle of a pap smear and a male guard walked in and was staring at her. She didn’t want to go to medical again. She actually avoided medical help for many years. Even now, when she’s outside, she’s traumatized by that experience. So the Dignity for Incarcerated Women’s Act is focused on women’s prison conditions and also on making sure women have access to their children and aren’t moved all around the state or all around the country in the federal system away from their children.
EK: This initiative has actually brought you back to Santa Clara. What is your partnership with Santa Clara Law in connection to the campaign?
JJS: I realized this was a huge undertaking. This was a billthat was written by formerly incarcerated women and currently incarcerated women. I helped introduce the Dignity for Incarcerated Women’s Act last July with Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. We started getting calls from all across the country, people saying, “I saw this bill. I am a state legislator and I would be interested in doing something similar in my state.” We quickly realized that there were so many calls pouring in that we needed to build this into a larger campaign that was about more than just the federal prisons. We needed to look at how women are treated in prison all across the country, in county jails, in state facilities, and in federal prisons. We ended up setting a very difficult goal of 20 bills by 2020, so being in 20 states by 2020. We have made an unlikely partner in the American Conservative Union, which also agrees that these abuses of women are just inhumane and need to come to an end. So realizing we are a small team at #cut50 and there was a whole lot of work to do, I called you, Ellen, and asked, “How might I get some support?” I remember being a young, hungry law student, eager to work on these issues and fight for justice, and it seemed like a really good match, so I am excited to have three Santa Clara Law students starting this semester to work on the Dignity for Incarcerated Women campaign, help us do some research, and change some state laws.
EK: You are also working on a project that took you into San Quentin. Can you describe the impact of actually hearing some of these men’s stories on a much more personal level?
JJS: There is nothing like being in the prison and having these conversations. It’s amazing, because I have been in this work as a family member, intern, attorney, and now through #cut50 for 13 years, and I still am surprised every time I go in there by the stuff that I hear—and amazed by the work that is happening inside the prisons. We undertook the First Watch program in 2017 and put out the first two chapters, and it turned out to be such a successful program that it has actually spun out on its own now, and the men inside whom we partnered with have founded their own organization. There is a group that we worked with initially who are filming lots of videos inside, not just videos about upcoming parole dates or their particular cases but videos that really show what’s going on inside the prison. While I was in there I met a man named David Jassy, and I got to know him and found out about an interesting rap music composition and recording program he is running for youth in prison. I am lucky to be able to go in and help support that project and am hoping to see it spread to other prisons as well.
EK: Your work related to the death penalty, incarcerated women, the prison system, it is all very emotionally draining. How do you balance that with your political life and your need to not have that paralyze you but instead empower you to be able to go forward?
JJS: I find the most reenergizing experience is to be in the prison with the folks who are living the impact of mass incarceration
every single day. Their positivity and outlook despite the conditions they are in gives me the strength I need to continue. They inspire me, they motivate me, they are able to do so much with so little; that drives me when I get out here and have access to so many resources to keep on going and keep on doing the work.