Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC) was founded in 1978 by prisoner-rights activist Ellen Barry, who served as the organization’s executive director until 2001. Barry was also a founding member of Critical Resistance in 1997.
Proceeding from the premise that “structural racism” is woven deeply into the fabric of an American criminal-justice system that uses “mass incarceration” to deny the “human and civil rights” of nonwhite minorities nationwide, LSPC aims to “figh[t] racism and economic injustice,” “advance racial and gender justice,” and defend the right of prisoners and ex-convicts “to speak and be heard in [their] own voices, transform [their] lives and communities, and fully participate in all aspects of society.” Moreover, the organization seeks to “release incarcerated people” and “reunify” them with their “families and communities.”
Passionately “committed to social change” that would transfigure a purportedly racist United States, LSPC is active in four major arenas:
(a) Public Policy: In an effort to reduce the number of people locked behind bars, LSPC partners with likeminded organizations and grassroots activists to support policies designed to: prevent the construction of new prisons and jails; promote “community-based solutions” to crime, rather than reliance on punitive measures like incarceration; “improve conditions of confinement” in jails and prisons; and “end discrimination” against formerly incarcerated people and those with conviction histories. Indeed, a major objective of LSPC is to win the restoration of voting rights for convicted felons who are on parole. The denial of such rights, says the organization, violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and results in the disproportionate disenfranchisement of nonwhites.
In addition to engaging in legislative advocacy in Sacramento, California, LSPC participates in policy task forces and roundtables at the municipal, county, and state levels. It also provides testimony at policy briefings and hearings. In 2012, for instance, the organization submitted comments to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights regarding the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s new restrictions on the right of employers to use arrest and conviction records in their hiring decisions.
(b) Legal Advocacy: LSPC engages in impact litigation involving matters of prisoners’ rights and prison conditions. As a general rule, however, the organization does not represent individuals in court.
(c) Grassroots Organizing: LSPC has collaborated in numerous prisoner-rights campaigns with fellow members of the so-called CURB Coalition (Californians United For a Responsible Budget), an alliance of community groups that favor the redirection of public funds away from the prison system and toward an ever-growing social-services apparatus. Among these CURB organizations are All of Us or None (which began as a project of LSPC), the California Prison Moratorium Project, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and the Justice Policy Institute. Other CURB members include local and state/regional branches of the ACLU, the American Friends Service Committee, Critical Resistance, the National Lawyers Guild, the National Organization for Women, and the Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom.
In addion to All Of Us or None, LSPC administers two other major projects:
* The California Habeas Project (CHP) is founded on the premise that criminal behavior often stems not from malicious or evil intentions, but instead represents an unconscious reaction to extreme abuse that offenders have previously suffered in their own homes and families. Thus, CHP aims to win freedom for “survivors of domestic violence” who are “incarcerated for crimes related to their experience of abuse.” Toward this end, the Project connects such inmates with pro bono attorneys and provides the latter with training, resource materials, and technical assistance designed to help them better serve their clients.
* The Family Unity Project (FUP) asserts that the best way to “keep families together” and “maintain family bonds” is to reduce incarceration as much as possible, in favor of non-punitive responses to crime. This LSPC initiative has developed a Bill of Rights for Incarcerated Parents, which vehemently opposes policies and practices that put “punishment over rehabilitation” and “family separation [i.e., incarceration] over reunification.” The document states, among other things, that: (a) defendants must be helped to fully understand the impact that their sentencing will have on their families before they may accept the terms of a plea bargain; (b) prisoners must be allowed, “whenever possible,” an opportunity “to develop a parenting relationship” with their children—meaning expanded visitation privileges as well as input into important decisions that are made about the children; (c) prisoners must receive “education and support about how to parent from behind bars”; and (d) caregivers of prisoners’ children must likewise be trained in the skills required for “parenting a child with an incarcerated parent.”
FUP further assists current and former prisoners—as well as individuals and organizations that provide legal services to them—by offering legal support and education, information and training manuals, advocacy services, and assistance with grassroots mobilization and community-partnership development.
The current executive director of LSPC is Dorsey Nunn, who in 1969 (at age 19) was convicted of homicide and sentenced to life in prison, but was paroled in 1981 and discharged from parole three years later. Nunn is also a co-founder of All of Us or None and has been a key figure with Critical Resistance and the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.