Few places in America illustrate the inequalities of the US prison-industrial complex better than California’s San Quentin State Prison.
The fortress-like facility sits by the water, surrounded by the million-dollar homes of tech executives, across the bay from the glittering wealth of San Francisco. Inside, San Quentin houses some of the state’s highest-security prisoners, and, until recently, California’s death row. It was in this prison where the fight for ending mass incarceration got an unlikely ally from the other side of the bay: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
In 2015, he and Priscilla Chan, his wife, visited San Quentin to see a coding class for incarcerated people and learn more about the sprawling US prison system and its disproportionate impact on people of colour.
“Making our criminal justice system fairer and more effective is a huge challenge for our country,” Mr Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook at the time. “I’m going to keep learning about this topic, but some things are already clear. We can’t jail our way to a just society, and our current system isn’t working.”
A few months later, the couple’s baby daughter Max was born, and the pair announced the $45bn Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), a philanthropic vessel through which the billionaires would donate 99 per cent of their Facebook shares. Over the years, the CZI has poured more than $160m into tackling criminal justice work. The billionaires are making it one of their signature issues, in the same way their contemporaries have in other areas, such as Marc Benioff and ending homelessness, or Bill Gates and public health.
In 2021, the initiative announced its biggest investment in justice work yet, a $450m commitment over the next five years split between FWD.us, an existing immigration and criminal justice reform group under the CZI, and a new outfit called The Just Trust.
Facebook’s corporate profile may be growing more complicated in the wider culture—is it a site that brought people together worldwide, or accelerated the increasing polarization, radicalization, and misinformation of American life? But Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg are betting, and betting big, that criminal justice is the rare area where a variety of people can come together for something unequivocally good: keeping more Americans out of the prison system and giving them a chance for something better.
The thesis of this investment, and in particular The Just Trust, is that Americans of all political stripes are unhappy with the present system of mass incarceration and open to changing things. The group, now one of the largest funders of criminal justice reform in the country, says it aims to support efforts that “work across the country and across political divides.”
“That’s why criminal justice reform is so unique. We can really bring a broad coalition of folks that might disagree on literally everything else,” Ana Zamora, CEO of the Just Trust, told The Independent. “It is a huge system that takes a lot of taxpayer money and is not delivering on its promise of safety.”
A test case of this approach can be found in Kentucky. The state, with Republican control of both houses of the legislature, is more conservative than most.
But it has also been ravaged by the opioid crisis, having the second-highest drug overdose mortality rate in the country, according to the CDC. This makes many leaders in Kentucky more amenable to a criminal justice approach focused on treatment and rehabilitation than punishment.
Beth Davisson, a senior vice president at the Just Trust-supported Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Foundation, said that the state’s extremely low workforce participation rate, combined with the opioid crisis and the pandemic, have made the normally more-conservative business community eager to get involved in criminal justice.
“In Kentucky we have an exorbitant amount of individuals that are going into the system because of substance use disorders and nonviolent crimes,” she said. “In our state, we have a lot of compassionate legislators that really understand the disease of addiction, and the role that incarceration and recidivism plays in the disease of addiction. That comes from both sides.”
The chamber has helped lobby for automatic “clean slate” record clearance after prison sentences, opening professional licensing requirements for people with past felony convictions, and raising the felony theft threshold to avoid over-incarcerating the poor.
It supported 2020’s Kentucky Comeback programme, which has trained over 2,000 employers on fair-chance hiring, and opened up nearly 30,000 jobs to formerly incarcerated people.
Of course, framing mass incarceration as a business issue isn’t the only way to approach the problem.
The Just Trust has also supported the Kentucky branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which runs a programme called Smart Justice Advocates that trains formerly incarcerated people to become criminal justice reform advocates.
“Most legislators don’t really get it until they have a loved one that’s impacted by these issues, and the large part of the public as well,” Marcus Jackson, the initiative’s organising coordinator and a participant in the programme himself, told The Independent. “It’s like that light has to go off. They have to see that loved one, that person that they know, they see it’s a good person to end up in some of these situations, before they really understand this is not a bad person. These are just mistakes.”
He’s seen how effective this approach can be first hand.
He remembers one state legislator who once claimed that incarcerated people should have their limbs cut off so they couldn’t be used to commit crimes. The Smart Justice Advocates programme met with him, and he eventually became a sponsor on a bill that opened up the opportunity for people with past felony convictions to access the state’s KEES education funding programme.
The group has also thrown its narrative muscle behind a 2021 bill that stopped the automatic transfer of juveniles to adult court, and another about bettering conditions for pregnant people inside prison.
Their next priority is SB 379, a bill that would narrow the ability of courts to label people as “persistent” felony offenders, a practice that often ends up doubling prison sentences for those convicted of as few as one previous felony.
It’s a law that would’ve drastically impacted Mr Jackson’s own life.
He was sent to prison in 1992 for a shooting he didn’t commit, setting off years of recidivism and pain for his family before someone else signed an affidavit in 2014 saying they’d committed the assault.
“My daughter was five when I left and she was 15 when I came home,” he said.
A beloved grandmother, an “old Tennessee woman” as he put it, who had always supported him and reminded him of the dignity in all people, passed away while he was still inside.
“Her words just stuck with me,” he said. “They just lived inside of me. To never allow anyone to make me feel a certain way about myself.”
This emphasis on the dignity and perspective of those in the justice system is behind another Just Trust-supported project, the Prison Journalism Project, which publishes professional-quality reporting from currently incarcerated journalists.
Those in the justice system may feel the full weight of the state, but most people rarely hear from them directly, according to founder and editor-in-chief Yukari Kane, a former Wall Street Journal reporter.
“There’s always a filter there. People outside can never get into those communities unless they’ve been there themselves. First of all, prisons and jails have actually physical walls around them meant to keep people out,” she said. “Most access, when you try and write a story about criminal justice, has to have the approval of the administration, which means that you’re seeing a very filtered view of what ‘s going on inside.”
The project is in 37 states and Washington DC, and has published almost 500 writers. It’s also training many more individuals, who have circulated the project’s training materials among incarcerated people. Their reporters have written on everything on from Covid outbreaks behind bars to personal essays on running.
“How much is missed when people inside communities aren’t able to tell their own stories?” Ms Kane added.
This type of coalition, bringing together business leaders, directly impacted people, storytellers, and more, could be threatened by a cultural return to Tough on Crime-style ideas as places experience pandemic-era increases in crime.
“As a result of that uptick in crime, we are seeing a media explosion of really scary high profile violence, and that is being pulled into the political space,” Ms Zamora said. “That is inevitable, these kinds of shifts are going to happen. What we’re trying to do is invest and build a movement of advocates, despite inevitable shifts. That’s how you make durable long-term change.”
Ana Zamora of the Just Trust was a featured speaker at the American Workforce and Justice Summit 2022 , a two-day gathering of more than 150 business leaders, policy experts and campaign organizations focused on how corporations can meaningfully engage in justice issues and create change in the workplace and beyond. The Independent reported from AWJ 2022 as media partner.