"Rights Restoration with LaShanna Tyson" Transcript

Hi, everyone, welcome to The FloridaProgressives.Com Podcast, Episode Seven, for June 3rd, 2014. I'm Mike Eidson.


This show delivers news and updates via interviews with activists around the state on the issues that you, the people of Florida, care about. This time, it’s Rights Restoration.


As usual, stick around for the end of the podcast to hear a list of the actions, groups, and resources discussed on the show that can help you effect positive change.


LaShanna Tyson is a first-year Paralegal Studies major at Seminole College. She recently served 15 years in prison where she made the decision to turn her sentence into something positive. Hitting the ground running, she quickly earned her real estate license and is now a licensed Florida real estate agent.


LaShanna realizes the difficulties faced by women returning to their communities from incarceration. She saw obstacles such as housing, employment, and education that were barriers to successful reintegration, and has dedicated her life to advocating on behalf of returning citizens, especially women.


Ms. Tyson tirelessly continues to educate academia, clergy, and the general public about felon disenfranchisement. She is also playing an active role in the growing movement to amend Florida’s Constitution to allow for automatic civil rights/voting restoration for over 1.54 million Floridians who are disenfranchised.


The main two groups she is working with are PICO, in Florida, and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.


LaShanna, thanks so much for being on the program today.

LT:
Thank you for having me.
ME:
All right, so, let’s go ahead and start with what it’s like… and I know, you’re getting all these questions about how it is to come back, and to see that your rights are not nearly what it is in other states. Let me quote from the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition here:


Florida is one of only three states that permanently strip all individuals with past felony convictions of their civil rights, including their fundamental right to vote, even after completion of their sentences.


Floridians with past felony convictions lose not only the right to vote, but also the right to serve on a jury and to hold public office. Restoration of civil rights is also necessary to obtain certain occupational licenses.”


So, given those things that you’re not allowed to do, even though you served your debt to society, LaShanna, what are you thinking? When did you become an activist about this? Tell me about your story, from, like, the first week you came out of prison.


LT:
Absolutely. Well, when I first came home, I wanted to go back to college, and pick up where I left off at. However, when my godmom took me to Seminole State College, where I’m currently enrolled at now, they told me, in order for me to go back to college, I needed to pay out-of-state fees, even though I’ve lived in Florida all my life and was incarcerated here, because I didn’t have a driver’s license dated for a year.


After serving the time in prison that I did, I no longer existed in DMV’s computer system, so I explained to them that I just came home from prison and I just wanted to go back to school, because I understand that I have to have education, in order to get a little something out here.


They didn’t budge; I couldn’t go back to college. From there, I was frustrated, and I almost gave up, but then, I said, “Well, I worked in prison, for free, for all those years. So I’ll just go and get two jobs.” It was nothing.


So when I went to go get a job, I didn’t aim too high. McDonald’s, Burger King, Walmart, things like that. However, I found that I was disregarded, as a hard-working employee, for them, because of my past conviction.


ME:
Right. They have that checkbox that’s on the application.


LT:
Absolutely, so I couldn’t even get in the door for an interview, to let them know me.


ME:
Right. The doors are being shut for employment. The door is being shut for higher education. What did you do next?


LT:
So, when I couldn’t get a job, I was really upset, and I ended up going back home, and screaming out to God, “Why did you just… Why didn’t you just let them keep me forever? Or, just kill me.”


ME:
Uh-huh.


LT:
“Because, I can’t make it out here.” But then, after I calmed down, I remembered, I didn’t go through that sentence by myself. God carried me through it, and he did not stay when I came home.


So I started thinking outside of the box. And I applied for a real-estate license. I got a letter for a hearing with the Florida Real Estate Commission. I went to it, I shared my story, and they gave me my real estate license. And I thought then that my shackles were broken…


ME:
Mm-hmm.


LT:
...Only to find out that when I sold my first house, [chuckles] three months later, when I got my commission check, all I wanted was my own place. That’s it. And the same boxes that apply to employment applications are right there for housing as well. So even though I was in the same field as the people in these apartment communities -- real estate -- I was a felon, not a realtor, so I was not allowed to rent an apartment, even though I had enough money to pay for the year. They didn’t care.


ME:
So where did you live next, if you don’t mind me asking?


LT:
I was living with my godmom, and after doing all that time, living with 86 women, I really just wanted my own place. I just wanted my own space. That’s it. I wasn’t asking for too much.


ME:
Right.


LT:
That’s when I got angry, Mike. That’s when I started to just look back through the journey that I went through in prison, and I saw it happening then, I just didn’t realize what I was seeing, because I was on the inside, but since I was on the outside, I was able to remember those women who were counting down their days to go home. 30 days. 15 days. 10 days. 5 days. 1 day. And all they wanted to do was go home, be a better mom, get a job, take care of their kids, and be a better person.


However, I saw the majority of these women coming right back, six months later. I couldn’t understand then why it was going on. I used to question them, “Why can’t you stay out of prison?”


And they told me, repeatedly, “It’s easier for us, in prison, then it is out there.” I couldn’t understand, until I was placed in their shoes.


When you can’t get a job, you can’t get housing, you can’t get education, you’re limited. You’re limited. And I believe that the system was set up this way to force us into a life of crime, because if my children were still babies, when I came home, I would have done anything to take care of them.


ME:
Mm-hmm. Well, yes. I mean, this is just my personal opinion, but when I hear about the way the system is rigged, basically, against people that… I mean, there are different contributing factors. And you gotta think, “What is the motive?” And there’s a profit motive. I mean, there’s profit in prisons now…


LT:
Absolutely.


ME:
...there’s profit in the war on drugs, there’s profit in many things that are basically meant to keep regular folks down. And it’s a horrible thing. I do wonder, though, since you were feeling this hopelessness about all the things that you just described, how did you go from that position to activism?


LT:
I got angry, that’s what happened. I got angry when I realized what type of system that we were in, it wasn’t to -- it wasn’t for rehabilitation. That’s what they tell society. That’s what I thought the prison system was about before I got into trouble because that’s what they teach us. However, the system is really set up for recidivism.


ME:
Right.


LT:
And when I realized that -- you know, I had done all those years in prison so I was not computer-savvy -- but I had seen some things on Facebook about change.org and how they had petitions, and that’s where I started at.


I created a petition on change.org; I asked to make convicted felons a protected class so that they are not discriminated against for jobs, housing, and education, things that were vital to their successful reintegration into society.


From there, a couple of pastors here in Orlando got wind of it, and they invited me onto their radio show. It was a hit the first time, so they invited me back again…


ME:
[laughs]


LT:
Yeah! From there, it was so much positive feedback, we had a community forum. And when we had that community forum, I met Desmond Meade and Dornita Rogers. I thought I was alone, out here fighting against the state of Florida. But they are activists as well. And they pulled me under their wing and I’ve been going ever since then.


ME:
Okay, and speaking of Desmond Meade, I’m going to quote him, from the PICO United Florida website:


Of the approximately 6 million disenfranchised citizens in the United States, one-quarter of them are Floridians. Florida’s disenfranchisement rate is the highest in the country – more than 10 percent of the state’s voting-age population is disenfranchised, and a shocking 23 percent of Florida’s African-American population is disenfranchised. The meetings are one more step forward in our work to restore rights to all returning citizens in Florida.”


The meetings that he spoke of there is from a certain event that he went to and you went to. It was a meeting with the cabinet of Governor Rick Scott, and specifically, you have said, it was a one-on-one meeting with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.


Can you tell me about how that meeting was formed through PICO and also what happened when you got to the meeting itself?


Back in February, we had gotten permission to come and speak with her about the rights restoration issue, at her office in Tampa.


Once we got there, she wasn’t there. So we didn’t get to speak with her, and we felt like we were really ignored. So when March came, they have a clemency board hearing, made up of the four cabinet board members. That’s Governor Rick Scott, Pam Bondi, Jeff Atwater, and Adam Putnam.


So when a person tries to get their rights restored, the process is: if you’ve been convicted of a nonviolent offense, you have to wait five years to get an application to send in to them. Then, you can wait up to an additional six years before the actual hearing. And then, in the case of a violent situation, you have to wait seven years, plus the six.


This is where those people who ask for their rights to be restored go to, after they’ve served their sentences.


ME:
So that they don’t have to do an additional, between 5 and 13 years, if you do the math… right? Is that correct?


LT:
It’s 11 and 13.


ME:
11 and 13. I’m sorry, okay.


LT:
So what we did is we got around a hundred people, we loaded up buses, we went to Tallahassee for that clemency board hearing. We marched through the Capitol, and when we went inside, we went to that clemency board hearing. And we had on “Let My People Vote” t-shirts. We had on flag bandannas around our mouths, signifying the removal of our rights to vote. And we filled up every seat at that clemency-board hearing.


ME:
How many people do you think it was?


LT:
At least a hundred.


ME:
Okay.


LT:
Well, I can say, I’ve never seen Rick Scott flushed, but he really turned red when we walked in there.


ME:
[laughs]


LT:
He was shocked, to say the least.


So, the norm for the clemency board hearing is to deny our people their civil rights. That day, we witnessed something that was unheard of. They were restoring rights, back-to-back-to-back-to-back. They did deny some people, but the majority got their rights restored, and we feel like it was because of our presence there.


So, from there, we got the appointment with Pam Bondi. And we went to her office, it was a delegation of about seven individuals, clergy, returning citizens…


ME:
So, the clemency hearing was in March. When was the meeting with Pam Bondi?


LT:
The meeting with Pam Bondi was last month.


ME:
Okay.


LT:
It was last month. We just went to that. So, when we got into the room with her, she was really nice, which was surprising, because we had heard, y’know, that she didn’t have a very good demeanor about herself.


So, I shared my story to her. And when I told her that I had served those 13 years in prison, she started to ask me, “What did you go to prison for?” Things like that. And when I told her, I also told her about everything that I’ve accomplished since I’ve been home, when I couldn’t get a job at McDonald’s or Burger King, I got a real estate license. When I couldn’t get into college -- I’m in there now, I started last summer, I graduate next year, because I’ve been taken four classes every semester, so I can finish, I felt like I was behind, and I’m graduating from the Legal Studies program at Seminole State College -- she was very impressed. She said, “You are the epitome of what we want.”


So, with that being said, one of the clergy members in our delegation asked her to restore my rights. If I was the perfect person that they were talking about, that they wanted, would she restore my rights?


And she said, “No.” However, she did offer me an internship working at her office.


ME:
So that sounded like it was rubbing the wound a bit, right?


LT:
Absolutely. She did that. She also offered Mr. Meade, since he just graduated from FIU in Miami, this Friday [note: May 30] -- he cannot sit for the Florida Bar to become an attorney because he has no civil rights, even though he went through all of the education -- she offered him a position on her staff, as an attorney, knowing that he can’t take the Florida Bar.


ME:
Mmm.


LT:
So with that being said, my personal feeling is, I cannot work for someone who does not trust me to vote for or against her. If I’m not good enough to do that, I’m not good enough to work in your office.


ME:
Absolutely.


LT:
And I personally felt like it was an olive branch with thorns on it to keep me from doing what I’m doing. I’m out here, every day. Educating the public. Recruiting people for this fight for rights restoration.  


ME:
That’s a good point. Because, if they can get the people busy with other things, then they can get the movement apart, so to speak.


LT:
Absolutely.


ME:
And you said this was, literally, four individuals that have the decision for clemency, for rights restoration. Correct? Can you go over the four people, one more time?


LT:
That’s Governor Rick Scott, Pam Bondi, Adam Putnam, and Jeff Atwater.


ME:
So, how many individuals do you think they actually did restore the clemency to [note: meant to say “restore the rights for”], on that day in March?


LT:
It was -- I believe it was 23.


ME:
I saw a video of it. People were celebrating inside the room.


LT:
That was us, celebrating.


ME:
Ah, that was great. So there are some small victories, even though, overall, the situation in Florida is very dire, especially when you compare to the other states.


LT:
Yes.


ME:
Okay, well, is there anything else you want to say to anybody listening, about the issue of rights restoration in the state of Florida?


LT:
Absolutely, Mike. So, the reason why they take away our civil rights is because, along with those civil rights being removed, we have something called collateral consequences. Those collateral consequences keep us from obtaining jobs, housing, education. Our governor has contracted with CCA and The GEO Group -- Corrections Corporation of America and GEO. Those are the two largest private prison firms in the country. They made billions of dollars last year.


Under that contract, CCA comes in and they tell our government, let us take care of your prisons and your prisoners. The state doesn’t have to pay anything. And the only thing they ask the governor is to keep those prisons 90% occupied for the duration of the contract, which could be from 10 years to 20 years. The state of Florida has to keep up that contract, or they forfeit and they have to pay the company. So when they’re saying, “Oh, it’s not going to cost you anything,” it could cost a lot of money to the taxpayers.


They do so because they’re making money through the front door and the back door. For each inmate that they have incarcerated, they’re making $30,000 per year, per inmate. The back door is CCA and GEO, the private corporations. They’re on the stock market. There is a demand for prisoners.


ME:
Yeah.


LT:
This is the reason why they make it so difficult for us to successfully make it out here. They want us to give up; they want us to commit more crimes and go back to prison. However, they’re telling society that the reason why they disenfranchise us is to protect society; you’re not protecting society when a person who has done -- like I did, I did all that time and you call me a violent offender, even though I am not a violent offender. I was with the wrong people at the wrong time and got caught up in the situation, so it’s nothing that I did, however, they have me categorized as a violent offender.


So you release these people back into society with no means to take care of themselves, successfully, you leave them no other option. So you’re not protecting society when you have these people who can’t get food, because they don’t have any money, or get somewhere to live, because they don’t have any money. They’re going to see somebody with a purse, somebody dressed nice, and think that they have money, and they’re going to take what they think they have.


ME:
Yes.


LT:
They’re not protecting society; it’s all about the dollar. Not the people: not the people who have been in trouble, not the people who have never been in trouble. They don’t care anything about the people; all they care about is the dollar.


ME:
I agree. While they claim that they are protecting society, like you said, they are creating more, so that they can profit off of it.


LT:
And there’s one last thing I need to let people know with what’s going on. In prison, like I said, we work for free. There are some positions in prison -- I know the women were paid 25 cents an hour. And they work for private corporations, PRIDE being one of many in Florida. That’s another incentive to keep us incarcerated. They’re getting low-wage workers, instead of giving these jobs to the people in society who can’t find jobs, and pay them at least a minimum wage, they would rather keep those jobs inside of the prisons. So there is another demand for prisoners: cheap labor.


ME:
Now, you said “PRIDE”? What is that?


LT:
PRIDE is a corporation: I know the girls were making brooms, they were making officers’ uniforms -- police officers’ uniforms and correctional officers’ uniforms. They make many, many different things.


ME:
Okay.


LT:
It changes throughout the year, but they are making products which people in society who are hurting for jobs could easily make. They could easily get a living wage from the labor that the girls do for 25 cents an hour.


ME:
Yeah.


LaShanna, on a personal level, I hope so much that these laws change quickly, so that you and the many, many other Floridians can live a better life.


LT:
Thank you so much. Thank you so much.

---


And now for resources and calls to action:  


You can learn more about PICO United Florida at http://www.picoflorida.org/ and https://www.facebook.com/PICOUnitedFlorida


You can learn more about the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition at http://www.restorerights.org/  They also have an open group on Facebook.   https://www.facebook.com/groups/28197946372/


LaShanna Tyson is on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/lashannat .


Last October the Huffington Post released a giant report on private prisons in Florida. They aren’t a website I normally associate with investigative journalism, but it is just that and it is well worth reading. http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/prisoners-of-profit


It’s linked to on FloridaProgressives.Com at the end of the transcript, as are some articles on three of the corporations LaShanna mentioned: the CCA, the GEO Group, and PRIDE.










This music is by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com . It is licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/   


FloridaProgressives.Com is the home to this podcast. If you know of an activist working on a progressive issue that hasn’t been featured on the show yet, or doing good work in a part of Florida not yet featured, or if you just want to give general feedback, send me an email at michael.c.eidson@gmail.com , find me on Twitter at mikeeidson, or on Facebook by searching for The FloridaProgressives.Com Podcast. Thanks for listening.



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