Prisoner advocate finds love behind bars

theGRIO REPORT - 'Some of the most progressive, forward thinking liberal people I know' have questioned her decision to marry Joseph Robinson...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

New York – Sheila Rule was walking through the imposing Riverside Church in Manhattan after Sunday service nearly a decade ago when she stumbled upon the Prison Ministry’s information table.

After collecting pamphlets and speaking with a woman at the table who was adamant that Rule volunteer, she decided to get involved. The ministry asked Rule, a veteran New York Times journalist at the time, to devote her time and writing skills to responding to letters prisoners wrote to the church.

“It changed my life,” Rule said recently as she sat inside Riverside, the neo-gothic cathedral built by John D. Rockefeller Jr.

In the letters, Rule found “beauty, talent, and skill.” She also found love and inspiration: In 2002 she began corresponding with a man incarcerated in a New York prison. In 2003 she began visiting him. They married in 2005.

But the life changes didn’t end there. Rule said she was so inspired by the many men and women she corresponded with that she founded the Think Outside the Cell Foundation. Through literacy, education, and personal development programs, the foundation’s overall goal is to remove the stigma surrounding incarceration, which can haunt people with prison records for a lifetime.

On Sept. 24 at Riverside, the foundation will hold “Think Outside the Cell: A New Day, A New Way,” a national symposium on prison and post-prison issues. Confirmed participants include Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker; CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien; the Rev. Al Sharpton; Food Network star, entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker “Chef Jeff” Henderson; Khalil Gibran Muhammad, an historian and incoming director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem; and Michelle Alexander, author of the much-discussed book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

“This is a group that is so stigmatized,” Rule said, adding that the stigma prevents people from having compassion and seeing the potential of people with prison records. “People either don’t think about them or think about them negatively.”

There are more than 2.3 million U.S men and women in state and federal prisons and local jails, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. That’s a 500 percent increase over the past 30 years, according to the Sentencing Project, a national research organization that advocates for sentencing reforms such as alternatives to imprisonment.

The United States leads the world in incarceration with much more populous China and Russia ranking second and third, respectively, according to a study by the Pew Center on the States.

The study also found that more than one in 100 U.S. adults is behind bars. For all U.S. men 18 or older the rate is 1 in 54. For Latino men in the United States: 1 in 36. For U.S. black men: 1 in 15. And for U.S. black men between 20 and 34: 1 in 9, according to the study, “One in 100: Behind Bars in America in 2008.”

When they’re released, as most prisoners eventually are, getting their lives in order can be “quite a mountain to climb,” Rule said.

The expansion of the U.S. prison industrial complex can be traced back to at least 1971 when President Nixon declared “war on drugs.” Federal and state governments began passing draconian laws requiring lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug-related convictions. (In New York they’re referred to as the “Rockefeller Drug Laws,” named for Nelson Rockefeller, the governor who signed them in 1973, and son of John D. Rockefeller Jr., the builder of Riverside.)

During the crack cocaine epidemic, new federal sentencing guidelines required longer prison sentences for people convicted of crack-related charges compared to much shorter sentences for the more expensive powder cocaine although there’s no significant pharmacological difference between the drugs.

Despite some studies showing higher drug use among whites, the laws left an inordinate number of black and Latino men behind bars: three out of four people in prison today for drug-related offenses are people of color, the Sentencing Project said. Overall, African-Americans comprise about 40 percent of people behind bars compared to being 13 percent of the country’s population.

Many states, including New York, have moved toward dismantling the laws. And in 2010, Congress enacted the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) to rectify the crack-powder sentencing disparity. In June, the U.S. Sentencing Commission made the sentencing changes retroactive to some cases. The retroactivity will reduce the sentences of about 12,000 federal prisoners by an average of three years, the commission said. But some say the changes don’t go far enough to undo decades of damage to prisoners, their families and communities, and the criminal justice system itself.

“The present prison population embodies the problems Congress sought to fix by enacting the FSA: high incarceration rates, long sentences for low-level offenders, and rampant racial disparities,” Marc Mauer, the Sentencing Project’s executive director, testified in June before the commission.

“For many African-Americans, this fundamental unfairness of the crack-powder disparity has undermined the legitimacy of the criminal justice system,” Mauer testified.

At a recent public forum in Harlem organized by Sheila Rule’s Think Outside the Cell Foundation and the Hue-Man Bookstore, historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad said the response by the criminal justice system and elected officials to illegal drugs in recent decades is in stark contrast to how they dealt with crime among immigrant and U.S.-born whites during prohibition in the early 20th century.

Prisons during this “first wave of mass incarceration” implemented baseball teams, theater groups, the trustee system, among other rehabilitation programs, said Muhammad, who is the incoming director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Also, elected officials advocated for clemency on behalf of convicted white men to prevent “what they considered vindictive justice.”“The big houses really became a place to re-create white men as useful citizens in society, to offer them trades and vocational training that even in the 1920s and ‘30s were withheld from black people,” he said, later noting current double-digit unemployment rates among black men, particularly those with prison records.

After prohibition, which was repealed in 1933, New Deal policies expanded the welfare state, giving working-class white men collective bargaining rights, unemployment benefits and other socio-economic programs, Muhammad said.

“What is the connection between this earlier moment when the clients of the system were overwhelmingly of European ancestry compared to today when the clients are of African or Latino ancestry? We get a complete reversal in the response,” he said.

“We choose differently. We increase penalties and punishment. We increase the violence that is acceptable on the streets in terms of policing these (black) men,” he said referring to police shootings and other misconduct and heavily criticized policies such as the so-called “stop and frisk” practice in New York.

Muhammad offered an explanation for the contrast: blacks often are viewed as an “inherent threat” while crime among whites is rarely, if ever, racialized, Muhammad said.

“The notion of white pathology gets lost,” he said. “We don’t talk about white criminality. We talk about sexual predators, we talk about drug addiction. No one talks about white criminals. They identify individuals, they identify categories.”

Removing the stigma of a prison record to open doors of opportunity for people who have been to prison is the primary focus of Sheila Rule’s Think Outside the Cell Foundation. She’s witnessed the stigma first-hand.

“Some of the most progressive, forward thinking liberal people I know” have questioned her decision to marry Joseph Robinson, who was sentenced to 25 years to life for a second-degree murder conviction.

But, as she writes on the foundation’s website, she found they shared an “abiding faith,” a “commitment to self-improvement,” a “determination to be supportive parents,” a love of books, and a sense of duty to give back to community.

“I married him because I had come to love and respect the man he had created to honor his best self,” writes Rule, who retired from journalism in 2008 after a distinguished career that included assignments in Africa and Europe.

One way the foundation tries to eradicate the stigma is through its publishing arm, Resilience Multimedia. In 2007, it published a book by Robinson, Think Outside the Cell: An Entrepreneur’s Guide for the Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated.

Since then, Resilience, with Ford Foundation funding, has published three anthologies featuring contributions from people with prison records and their families from across the country. Topics cover returning to the community after incarceration, marriages and relationships in which a spouse is incarcerated, and the stories of relatives waiting for loved ones to return from prison.

There’s also a volunteer program, co-founded by Robinson, for inmates and former inmates, as well as the foundation’s Prison to Prosperity Fair, a daylong event held for the first time last year in New York and attended by about 400 people, Rule said. The fair offered a holistic approach, providing guidance on renewing family ties and spiritual development in addition to information on employment and health care, among other topics, she said.

“A lot of the things that we do, Joe and I, begin with an idea as we’re talking in the visiting room,” Rule said.

“Clearly I didn’t have a bias against anybody,” Rule said earlier, recalling when she decided to respond to prisoners’ letters. “It’s like, we’re all people here. But that just awakened my heart to all of the potential that was behind prison walls and that I had to do something to honor that.”

For more information on the Sept. 24 symposium, which is funded by a Ford Foundation grant and being held in partnership with the ”>Fortune Society’s David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy, the ”>College and Community Fellowship, and ”>Riverside’s Prison Ministry, visit: