Featuring Marlon Chamberlain, Fully Free Campaign manager with Heartland Alliance
Q: What is the Fully Free Campaign?
MC: The Fully Free Campaign is a first of its kind, a bold statewide campaign led by the expertise of directly impacted people, to dismantle the prison after the prison through legislative and narrative change. This is a strengths-based, people-first initiative. Changing the laws that limit opportunities for people with criminal records is just half the battle. Fully Free is about centering people with lived experience at the heart of our work in order to drive change.
Q: Can you share a bit about your personal story and what spurred you to create Fully Free?
MC: In September of 2002 I was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. My sentence was reduced to 14 years as a result of The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA), which reduced the statutory penalties for crack cocaine offenses to produce an 18-to-1 crack-to-powder drug quantity ratio.
I was released from federal prison on November 23, 2012, after serving ten years in prison. I can still remember being in the halfway house and watching individuals experience the joy of being home from prison alongside the harsh realities, the nightmare of rejection after rejection.
One day while in the halfway house, I signed up to attend a screening of the documentary The Interrupters and met Eddie Bocanegra. After the documentary was over, Eddie walked on stage and started talking about how he had served 14 years in prison but was now a community organizer working to change policy that would impact individuals after incarceration. Eddie and I exchanged information and he invited me to attend my first legislative meeting a couple weeks later. It was in this legislative meeting that I discovered the power of using my voice to influence change.
After that meeting I started volunteering with an organization as a leader, and a couple months later I was hired as the organizer of an initiative called F.O.R.C.E (Fighting to Overcome Records & Create Equality), which was an initiative led by directly impacted individuals. I was also one of the founding members of the RROCI coalition (Restoring Rights & Opportunities Coalition of Illinois), which passed several bills to reduce barriers and create opportunities for people with arrest and conviction records.
The Fully Free Campaign was formed as a response to Heartland Alliance’s Social IMPACT Research Center’s study, which revealed that permanent punishments impact more than 3.3 million people in Illinois due to former criminal legal system involvement. Each year after the RROCI coalition passed a bill, we would celebrate but wouldn’t see the impact in the community. This is when we realized that ending permanent punishments requires dramatic legislative action. We cannot roll back each policy one at a time: this is an emergency. We need comprehensive policy change. We need Illinois to act to make sure that people with records can fully participate in society and be free.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges someone formerly incarcerated faces when returning home?
MC: People with records, like me, are told to rebuild their lives after incarceration, without help, and in most cases return to communities with limited resources, while navigating a complicated web of state laws that restrict our rights. These laws intentionally deny us opportunities for employment, housing, and educational opportunities. They create a “prison after the prison,” and they follow us for the rest of our lives. That’s why we call them permanent punishments. I have been home now for almost ten years and was recently denied an opportunity to chaperone my seven-year-old son Lil Marlon on a class field trip to a bowling alley because of a 20-year-old drug conviction. Although I have been employed since my release from prison, I’m currently a college student, I’m married, and I’m a homeowner, I still find myself being subjected to continued punishment.
Q: How can people directly support the Fully Free Campaign, or support its goals in other ways?
MC: Support those rebuilding their lives, and help them find stability by helping to set them up for success. People are not their mistakes. Look at them as a person, the person they are now. I had a drug conviction; I am not a drug dealer. I am a husband, a father, a college student, a community leader. If you are hiring people, consider hiring someone with a record or someone with a gap in their employment history that may have been from when they were incarcerated. If you’re in a position to rent to someone that has a criminal record, give them a chance. Everyone needs a roof over their head. Offering employment and housing opportunities to someone rebuilding their life helps them in their efforts. Discounting someone for a prior offense is a permanent punishment. Choose to be a part of the solution.
Visit our website fullyfree.org to receive campaign updates and action alerts. Host a Lunch and Learn, join the coalition, follow us on social media (on Facebook as Fully Free Campaign, on Twitter @FullyFreeIL), and make a donation to support our statewide work.
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