The fight to reform the criminal justice system is ongoing and needs people from various backgrounds to help in the fight. One of the hardest things facing individuals who’ve been formerly incarcerated is the stigma that follows them, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Although jail is supposed to be rehabilitative this often blemishes their reputation and prevents them from things such as voting, accessing educational resources, and securing employment. Being treated like a criminal post-incarceration and not having the ability to provide for themselves or their family’s leaves many at risk of reoffending.
Absent the opportunity to successfully reintegrate into society, many find themselves in a cycle of recidivism. There are hundreds of programs and organizations created by trailblazing entrepreneurs who have dedicated their lives to reducing the stigma of incarceration and helped them get back on their feet and access other resources. We recently had the opportunity to sit-down with one of these trailblazers, Melanie Bates, who is leading the charge in advocating for resources and opportunities for returning citizens, those who are still incarcerated and developing strategies to overhaul the criminal justice system.
Who is Melanie Bates?
Melanie Bates is an attorney, strategist, and communications consultant who currently runs a District of Columbia based strategic policy and communications firm, Melanie Bates Consulting, LLC, focused on criminal justice reform. With an extensive legal background, she was able to leverage her knowledge and skills to become a subject-matter expert in government relations. As a native of DC she has taken a strong stance on social issues such as poverty and lack of education that feed the school to prison pipeline.
The topic of criminal justice reform is near and dear to my heart, specifically police misconduct and mass incarceration. It is the reason I became a lawyer. The criminal justice system impacts the black community more than any other demographic. I always refer to the quote by Thurgood Marshall, “Mere access to the courthouse doors does not by itself assure a proper functioning of the adversary process.” I strongly believe that poverty, lack of education, and other social issues should not feed the pipeline to prison. Through consistent advocacy, I desire to alleviate the factors that force many people to become a part of the system.
Having been in business for three and a half years, Bates's road to entrepreneurship was fueled by a personal encounter with the criminal justice system. She was motivated to help others who like her, have had their rights threatened by a system that has a problematic history of wrongful arrest
I think it is impossible to fully comprehend what it is like to be imprisoned if you have never set foot behind those walls. It is difficult to convey the trauma of having handcuffs slapped on your wrists, being shackled, thrown in a cage, and essentially treated like an animal. At the blink of an eye, you are stripped of your liberty. You are told when to eat, sleep, and use the restroom. You are referred to as a number. Incarceration is dehumanizing.
Entrepreneurship is an already challenging path. Coupled With fighting for social justice, the road can seem daunting, but Bates is more than ready for whatever obstacles she may encounter along the way. Bates offers the following advice to those who may be thinking of starting a business and may be a bit apprehensive.
I say, like Nike, just do it! Be patient, keep pushing, and take advantage of the free resources out there. If you keep at it, you will see success. Do not worry if you have a fulltime job, not enough money in the bank, or do not know other business owners – you can do it. Always remember why you are doing what you are doing. That will get you through the lulls and energize you to keep going. There is an amazing sense of fulfillment when you work for yourself. You feel centered and mission driven. You are motivated to give it all that you have because you are doing it for yourself, your family, and your community.
What is Melanie Bates Consulting, LLC’s mission?
With multiple systems in place that render bias and disproportionately impact certain individuals, it can be difficult to maintain hope when it seems like all of the odds are stacked against you. Bates remains focused on the task ahead.
The United States has just 4.4 percent of the world’s population but is home to approximately 22 percent of the world’s prison population. Today, close to 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated. Melanie Bates Consulting, LLC believes the client is the most important factor in the problem- solving process, tailoring its approach to accommodate each individual’s unique needs. The firm includes the client in every step, working collaboratively through strategic planning, information gathering, and decision-making framework.
The push to reform the criminal justice system doesn’t just fall at the feet of individuals like Melanie, the responsibility to reform the system lies with everyone. This is especially important for those who were formerly imprisoned and their loved ones.
In some places, once you are labeled a “felon” you cannot vote. You are denied access to employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service. You have been released from prison, but you are not free. I would encourage persons to really sit and think about what this would feel like. Envisioning this pain should propel each and every one of us to take action to end this senseless cycle of undue suffering. It is imperative that the directly impacted population is a part of each and every conversation regarding reform. That is from idea formulation, to strategy development, to implementation, to post-assessment. It should go without saying that directly impacted persons are on the front lines and can provide the most effective solutions to these complex issues. Their stories are powerful and should be at the core of any reform efforts. We collectively have a duty to ensure that a directly impacted person is included on any panel discussion, roundtable, or meeting related to this topic.
The Importance of Staying Connected
Melanie recognizes the importance of organizations like Flikshop and maintaining communication and staying connected with incarcerated individuals until their return home and re-entry into the community.
Unlike the rest of the 50 states, the District of Columbia is subject to control and oversight by the United States Congress. This means that persons receiving felony sentences in the District are required to be transferred to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Our incarcerated residents are sent across the country to serve their sentences. Serving time so far away has many detrimental effects on our residents’ rehabilitation process. This includes losing connections with family members and loved ones, difficulty receiving adequate education and programming, and severely limited reentry efforts prior to release. We have an obligation to stay connected with our incarcerated brothers and sisters so they know that we care. That they are not alone. That there are support systems available. If you are able, keep money on their books. Ensure they have all that they need, quality toiletries and other essentials that we may not think twice about but are incredibly hard to come by on the inside.Reentry planning should begin the day the sentence starts. Find out your loved one’s goals and dreams. Help make it a reality by conducting research or mailing resources. Create something to look forward to.
How have Organizations like Flikshop Played an Integral Role?
Flikshop is an essential lifeline. This mobile app enables you to mail photos to your loved ones on the inside for less than one dollar. You simply upload a photo, type a message, and then click send. The postcard mails the next business day. Melanie Bates Consulting, LLC is honored to be a Flikshop Angel helping connect families to their incarcerated loved ones.