Legend’s #FreeAmerica innovates toward reform

Modern philanthropy is a lot like the innovation economy: It’s hands-on, driven for impact and ambitious. Modern donors want to be involved. They want to pour their money and influence into seemingly intractable social problems and move them forcibly toward change. The new #FreeAmerica platform fits this perfectly.

By that and any other definition, John Legend is a modern philanthropist. He announced his #FreeAmerica campaign shortly after his Oscar victory with Hip Hop’s Common for their song, “Glory.”

#FREEAMERICA is a multi-year culture campaign initiated by John Legend to change the national conversation about our country’s misguided policies and transform America’s criminal justice system,” the website states.

Today #FreeAmerica is taking the message of prison reform to a global platform. Legend announced he’d tour and learn and better understand the plague of mass incarceration. He’s followed through. Soon, he is likely to take innovative steps toward reform. He will likely be hands-on, innovative and focused on meaningful impact.

That is exactly what is needed, and what someone with his platform can do better than most. #FreeAmerica could likely end up doing just that.

To date, talk about prison reform is rampant. Yet so much of it is talk. Sentencing reform is a hot-button political issue. It’s critically important from a moral standpoint. But it won’t reform a broken system that will send people back into society ill-prepared to make their way. The revolving door of incarceration will continue.

New York Times Columnist David Brooks made this point painfully clear in a recent column when he wrote, “The popular explanation for how we got here, however, seems largely to be wrong, and most of the policy responses flowing from it may therefore be inappropriate.”

Brooks points out that reform can’t happen without the participation of district attorneys and prosecutors who have nearly unfettered power to overcharge with felonies. Data backs him up. Far more arrests result in felony charges that lead to plea deals with prison time attached. Felonies stick for life. This process has little oversight.

This is just one area of badly needed reform. As the corruption in Brooklyn has shown with dozens of bad arrests, prosecution of police and prosecutors who knowingly charge the wrong people is also badly needed. A deeper understanding of supervision after prison and better oversight of this is badly needed. A whole gang of issues are badly needed.

The system needs an overhaul. None of the political leaders talking about prison reform to date starting with every presidential candidate in 2016 has come close to articulating a true vision of reform, one that gets the job done right.

In short, the issue of prison reform is one of those seemingly “unsolvable” problems that won’t be solved without the power of philanthropic innovation.  Legend could well be the person to best champion a real platform of reform, not one driven by political will or gain, but one steeped in the possibility of what can be done in a thoroughly modern way.

Never forget the tragedy without a name

I’m told often by people older than me that 9/11 is my generation’s Kennedy Assassination. It’s the day you never forget.

Fourteen years later, it remains so.

I worked in a newsroom in a state that had been attacked by an exploding plane. This was the news story of my career, which forced me and my colleagues to stop feeling, stop thinking about people jumping from buildings and fleeing a roar of buildings collapsing and do our job. We put out our newspaper’s first special edition since Pearl Harbor by 3 p.m. EST. Cars lined the street by the newsroom as our front office workers sold papers in car windows. While folks fixated on incomprehensible news, we went back to work telling the news. We put the paper out again by Midnight. My column helped anchor the front page.

Of course, I’ll never forget. I knew it then even when I struggled to describe what occurred:

Title: Tragedy Without A Name
Date: September 12, 2001
By: Andrew Scot Bolsinger

Soon, a name will be given to a single day so shocking, that for now at least, it defies naming.

World Trade Center Attack? No, that was just the opening chapter. Airline Terrorism? Does nothing to describe the heart-wrenching deaths of New York firefighters coming to the rescue of others.

Throughout the day, news anchors compared Tuesday’s horror — played out live before a nation’s astonished eyes — to Pearl Harbor as perhaps the greatest attack on American soil.

The very scope of it all — four hijacked commercial airplanes crashing throughout the East Coast, dive-bombing the Pentagon, destroying both towers of the World Trade Center, crashing in the country’s heartland — defies a name.

Evil does that. It transcends our capacity to imagine, much less name.

Fifty years from now we will remember where we were and what we saw when this disaster took place. By then, whatever name sticks to label this American nightmare will be remote history to the next generation.

It will be in history books. Other generations won’t grasp the terror, because by then, evil will probably find even more horrible ways to display itself.

But I doubt we will forget…

We worked from dawn to Midnight again the next two days, with more special editions and more grim news of a nation forever changed.  I had been filling in for the departed city editor and though I had applied for it, before 9/11 I wasn’t going to get it.

Just before lunch on Friday, my boss asked me to go outside with him and have a cigarette, one of the eight he carefully counted out each day that he allowed himself to enjoy. We tiredly sat at the picnic table. He flicked his lighter, holding it out to me in an awkward replication of 1950s cool. I leaned over and puffed. We both sat back and inhaled. We puffed again, smoke drifting up into the fall air.

My boss had always been a cut-to-the-chase kind of guy. This was no exception.

“Well I doubt we’ll ever have a tougher news cycle than this,” he said. “You proved you can handle this. The job is yours.”

I’ll never get over the bittersweet taste of that moment, of the success that came from tragedy, of the way my life went in a different path and the way a country also changed in ways we will never fully appreciate.

No, we will never forget.

San Francisco Writers for Change puts mission first

“It’s the only conference like it,” San Francisco Writers For Change Conference organizer Michael Larsen said recently.

This was his response to whether the conference should be held every year or every other year. Larsen is relentless in his conviction. Every year. It’s too important not to do every year.

“This is a huge public service,” he continued. “Nobody else in the world is doing this. Nobody.”

The nonprofit organization that puts on the four-day San Francisco Writers Conference, which includes more than 100 presenters and is known as one of the top writing conferences in the country, started this one-day event for no other reason than a sense of mission.

The critical details:

  • Saturday, September 12th, 2015
  • 8:30 am – 5:30 pm
  • First Unitarian Universalist Center of San Francisco

Writers for change. It’s a unique concept and a focus that is different from other conferences because the mission comes first. The book deals, the profits, the egos of the publishing business come second.

Here is information about the conference:

The Writing for Change Conference is devoted to bringing together agents, editors, authors, and publishing professionals in order to enable writers to learn about writing, publishing, marketing, and technology. You’ll come away knowing how to get your work published successfully, online and off.

You will have the chance to learn from and pitch your book to the presenters, and to get feedback on your work from freelance editors.

Last year I was honored to be given a scholarship to attend this conference. It became my introduction to the deep literary community of San Francisco, and the most important day I spent on my career in the entire year. This conference with its affordable price (just $79 if you register before the end of the month) and packed one-day schedule is a bridge into publishing for emerging writers who are concerned about change issues.

The conference has agents, editors, self-publishing experts along with a host of information for writers wanting to turn their passions and causes into books. Journalists, activists, academics and budding writers should come to this conference.

How many times have you been told, “you should write a book?”

This conference puts that dream into action in a way nobody else will. Nobody.

‘Quite a few of you dudes have the blues already’

Since B.B. King passed away, worthy tributes have abounded. The great artist’s unique talent lives on. The blues are B.B. King and B.B. King is the blues.

But so do his contributions, especially one he called one of the greatest performances he ever gave, a visit to the notorious maximum security Sing Sing prison on Thanksgiving Day, 1972.

He chose to spend Thanksgiving inside to enrich those who so rarely are:

“Such a work of grace and connection,” a pastor friend of mine said when he sent me the link.

King did connect. He treated the men like men, joking with them just as he might have done in a barber shop or at a bar after a concert.

“Quite a few of you dudes have the blues already,” he said to roars of approval.

King was joined by Joan Baez and was introduced by sit-com star Jimmie Walker.

I’ve spent some bleak Thanksgiving Days in prison. This was one every inmate and all those who attended would surely remember as something to be very thankful for.

“There was a riot at Sing Sing prison, but it was a riot of music, emotion, enthusiasm and good feelings. What a day. What a concert!” wrote Jerry Oster of the New York Daily News.

King lived a long, talented artistic life. This is one gift he gave that will long live on.

Filmmaker takes hard look at life after prison

Filmmaker Levon Hinton latest documentary focuses on the long-standing truth about America’s failed War on Drugs and the ensuing epidemic of mass incarceration called Victims of Misfortune: Changing the Pecking OrderThe unique focus of this film centers on the obstacles to re-entry inmates face in life after prison.

He’s written, produced, directed and contributed content to several dozen short films, original web series, television shows, music videos and documentaries. This may be his most courageous project yet, and its one you can get involved in right now through his crowdsource fundraising campaign.

All crowdsource campaigns need that initial burst of support to rise and thrive. A number of small donations from Criminal U readers would help ensure this important project gets made.

We had the privilege of asking Hinton more about his project.

CriminalU: How did you come to focus on this story at this time? What’s your interest in criminal justice reform?

Levon Hinton: I’ve always studied America’s public policies. I started listening to the dialogue being projected in regards to the prison system and I noticed that there was a lot of misinformation being regurgitated. Nobody was talking solutions for the people who are victims of America’s public policies. I’ve read a lot of books by scholars and seen plenty of documentaries by various filmmakers but what I didn’t see/read was any solutions for those people affected by America’s failed policies. My interest is in helping people who were systematically lowered to a second class citizenship by providing solutions.

CU: Your campaign photo shows you in full dress marine uniform. Tell us about your military career?

LH: After I graduated high school I went to college for a semester and I realized that I needed money to go to college. Since my oldest sister was already in school, money was tight, So I dropped out of college and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps to help pay my tuition. I graduated as a Squad Leader from boot-camp in Parris Island SC. I was one of the top soldiers in my platoon.

CU: Your documentary talks about the war on American citizens through incarceration and drugs. Did this similarity from your own experience shape your interest and approach to this documentary? If so, explain a bit.

We discuss racism, incarceration and drugs. So my experiences growing up in the South dealing with some of these current issues shaped my interest. We took a very bold approach when working on the concept of this documentary. We wanted to provide an educational documentary without favoritism to any political party and show this system in its proper historical context.

CU: Spike Lee recently used a crowdsource campaign to fund his film, so maybe you can meet your goals the same way. Despite the recent attention to reform after decades of mass incarceration and public indifference, it is still a very tough sale to get people interested. What do you say to people when they ask why should they give?

LH: Crowdsourcing is a good avenue for filmmakers like myself if we’re able to reach our goal. When people ask me why should they give there are many reasons that come to mind but I’ll keep it short. This issue is affecting all of America, with at least 60+ million people with a felony record unable to gain employment, denied housing and education. Yet we want these people to pay for their crimes. Then post conviction make it so that they’re unable provide for or defend their families. It is inhumane and makes absolutely no sense. Every year billions of tax dollars go to the prison industrial complex and corporations are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars off of cheap labor. Law abiding Americans are losing their jobs and the same corporations that’s using prison labor led the nation in lay offs. So your money is being spent to create these problems why not have your money go to creating solutions.

CU: Anything else critically important that I didn’t ask you about?

I want people to keep in mind this is not a documentary about people not paying if they commit crimes but rather how we treat them once they’ve paid for their crimes. I would like everyone to contribute to this documentary and help us make this film. We’re invested a lot of money, time and resources and now we need the public’s help if America is to ever move forward.

Make a difference today by clicking here and making a donation in support of this film. Still not convinced?

Watch this powerful trailer:

Convinced now? Click here! Thanks.

Estella’s Brilliant Bus #empowering kids

With so many powerful and funny and kitschy commercials during the Super Bowl one stood out because the subject of the commercial, Estella Pyfrom stands out.

Microsoft’s #empowering advertisement push that launched during the Super Bowl featured Estella’s Brilliant Bus. The computer giant couldn’t pick a better subject. The retired teacher who used her pension to launch a bus that travels around and teaches tech to kids from disaffected communities is a gem. The idea is unique, its impact measurable and its mobility a way to reach far more than most classroom models.

Estella has been recognized as a CNN Top Ten Hero in 2013 and in 2014, largely at her own expense, “Estella’s Brilliant Bus Tech Innovation Tour went to the 2014 #YesWeCode Hackathon and Technology Village at the Essence Festival in New Orleans.”

Her kids won the Hackathon!

Now she wants to repeat with a whole new six-city tour ending at the 2015 #yeswecode Hackathon. But after paying out so much of her own retirement to give kids an #empowering dream, we need to pitch in. We need to give $5 to her indiegogo campaign right now, today. We need hundreds and hundreds of small donors to show the depth of interest in this remarkable women. Rarely do we cast meaningful votes these days, but today you can cast a vote with a small donation that will give this campaign the lift it needs to attract other larger donors that will put Estella and her brilliant bus in motion across this country with a 21st-century American dream.

Estella’s work is a powerful shoulder inadvertanly shoving back against the industrialized prison complex in this country. By catching kids early and showing them the power and opportunity of technology, she’s giving a game plan other than a future of crime, drugs and incarceration. In a country where more than 40 percent of young men under the age of 23 will enter the criminal justice system in some manner, and where a whopping 84 percent of those sent to prison before the age of 23 will return, this effort to open the pipeline of productivity to kids slows the flow of the school-to-prison pipeline that has crippled our country.

Someday soon we’d love to fill a brilliant bus tour with Children of Incarcerated Adultsm the single highest at-risk category in the U.S. We can launch that partnership today by flooding Estella’s campaign with Criminal U donors. Donate and leave a message saying “next stop: Criminal U kids!” We’ll take it from there!

Please help, right now, today, by clicking here.


Spreads 101 about more than just food

You aren’t supposed to leave with stuff in prison. An item inside the barbed wire and bars is worth so much more than what its worth on the outside where its simply run of the mill.

But I confess, I snuck out a box of food when I left. I wanted to make my family and actual prison spread with the real bottom-of-the-line, cheap, processed foods that we are forced to use and pay top price for inside.

I was like so many others that have convinced themselves that prison spreads are great. And they are… inside. Once outside, well, that gourmet cheesecake I made that guys would offer to buy for a steep price just wasn’t that special after-all.

Try it for yourself and see by picking up a copy of our spreads recipe book, which by the way, is about far more than just food.

For an introductory lesson to Criminal U, check out our ebook, Spreads 101: Prison food, culture and recipes available at Amazon.com for your electronic reader. Just $1.99.


For those willing to help spread the word, go to our website home page and click on the free copy link, for a free pdf of the book. It’s free to you and we hope you’ll tell your friends about it to build our network for meaningful prison reform. Thanks!


The joy of crossing Vin Scully off my bucket list

Shortly after I went to prison I started a list on the back of a letter I received because it was the only paper I had at that time. I’m a notorious list maker — in my head, on scratch paper, on my hand, if necessary — about virtually any topic that comes to mind. I have to-do lists everywhere.

I’m not sure what compelled this list, but I recall what was first on it: “Listen to a Dodgers- Giants game called by Vin Scully on a sunny afternoon.”

It started a type of bucket list, things I wanted to do once I regained my freedom. On the list are some items I can’t do like have a Sam Adams with my son in those new glasses they made specifically for their beer. I wasn’t too interested in sobriety back then as I am now. Some will take years to cross off. Some have already been removed. But the list grew. About a year later I shared the idea with my brother who came to visit in me in prison. I told him about Vin Scully. He winced.

“He’s retiring this year,” my brother said.

My heart dropped. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea of not being able to recapture my youth and listen to the magical verbal stylings of Vin Scully call a baseball game.

As it turned out, he decided to delay his retirement, much to the delight of all Los Angeles and baseball fans everywhere, but none, I suspect were more thrilled than me.

When the baseball season started this year, my first since freedom returned to my life, it was a sunny day and my Giants were visiting Chavez Ravine. I tuned into Vin Scully and delightedly crossed the first thing off my bucket list.

Freedom has rarely felt so fine. Knowing more moments like this lay ahead, I wake up each day with a profound sense of gratitude, determined to do just a little bit better each day, be a little bit better person each day, make a little bit more of a positive contribution in a small attempt to atone for past mistakes each day.

Today, I tip my cap to Vin Scully, the greatest baseball announcer the game has ever known.

“There’s 29,000 people in the ballpark and a million butterflies,” Vin Scully said way back when during Sandy Koufax’s perfect game.

Many call this the greatest baseball call of  the greatest pitched game ever. A maestro on the mound, described by perhaps the greatest artist of play-by-pay to ever paint a verbal canvas. (I used to have this whole transcript up on my office wall… enjoy).

It’s amazing the baseball Scully has seen. I think if I had one of those wishes to meet anyone in history, it would be to watch a Dodger-Giants game in the sunny outfield with Vin Scully to hear incredible stories like these:

Vin was the theme music to some of sport’s greatest moments, from the Gibson home run to the “The Catch” at Candlestick (with a football, not a baseball). Scully is a poet who has painted American sports, like these:

Vin, I’m glad you came back to make this one item on my bucket list come true.

Pope Francis uses inmate-crafted cross for Palm Sunday

Pope Francis has joined a shoulder to press against the global industrialized prison complex.  So much of the world is on the margins and Francis continues to shine a light of grace into the urban blind spots, impoverished communities and even into dank prison cells.

Pope Francis used a pastoral staff made of wood carved by Italian prison inmates, who donated it to him. The pope is determined to put people on the margins of life at the center of the Roman Catholic church’s attention.

Read on this Palm Sunday:

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis, marking Palm Sunday in a packed St. Peter’s Square, ignored his prepared homily and spoke entirely off-the-cuff in a remarkable departure from practice. Later, he hopped off his popemobile to pose for “selfies” with young people in the crowd.

In his homily, Francis called on people, himself included, to look into their own hearts to see how they are living their lives.

“Has my life fallen asleep?” Francis asked after listening to a Gospel account of how Jesus’ disciples fell asleep shortly before he was betrayed by Judas before his crucifixion.

“Am I like Pontius Pilate, who, when he sees the situation is difficult, washes my hands?”

He sounded tired, frequently pausing to catch his breath, as he spoke for about 15 minutes in his homily during Palm Sunday Mass, which solemnly opens Holy Week for the Roman Catholic Church.

“Where is my heart?” the pope asked, pinpointing that as the “question which accompanies us” throughout Holy Week.

Francis seemed to regain his wind after the 2 ½ hour ceremony. He shed his red vestments atop his plain white cassock, chatted amiably with cardinals dressed more formally than he at that point. Then he posed for “selfies” with young people from Rio de Janeiro who had carried a large cross in the square.

He had barely climbed aboard his open-topped popemobile when he spotted Polish youths, they, too, clamoring for a “selfie” with a pope, and he hopped off, to oblige them.

via Pope Francis Ignores Prepared Homily In Palm Sunday Speech.