Eddie Ellis: Legacy of a Prison Reformer


The first thing you noticed about Edwin (“Eddie”) Benjamin Ellis Jr. was his husky, low-pitched voice. But for more than two decades, it was his very presence inside the public policy arena that marked the sonic equivalent of an ear-splitting roar.

As a New York-based activist, Ellis—who died of cancer last month at the age of 72—was the host and executive producer of “On The Count!,” the groundbreaking weekly series that airs on WBAI-FM in New York, and covers a broad range of criminal justice issues.

Ellis was also the co-founder of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, a think tank that advocates for the formerly incarcerated and helped to spearhead a grassroots campaign that culminated in the landmark 2009 measure on sentencing reform for first-time, low-level drug offenders in New York.

Most notably, the radio program and the policy group are wholly staffed by people who—like Ellis himself—had once served significant time behind bars.

In his advocacy work, Ellis toured prisons across the country to mentor and facilitate anti-violence workshops. Yet an enduring part of his legacy can also be found well beyond prison walls.

Ellis was skilled at identifying formerly incarcerated men and women who could educate the public on subjects ranging from anti-gang initiatives to re-entry. Those individuals have since become noted experts on mental health, public safety, finance and the law; and their policy recommendations have been solicited by legislators, non-profit groups, and government agencies nationwide, while garnering support from celebrities like the legendary singer-activist Harry Belafonte and rapper Yasiin Bey (Mos Def).

In 1969, Ellis was a street-savvy writer at the forefront of the Black Panther Party’s New York chapter. That year, he was arrested for the fatal shooting of a 34-year-old Harlem man.

At one point, the trial’s melodramatic atmosphere was underscored by a bomb scare that shook up the courtroom. Friends and supporters, including the black militant H. Rap Brown, countered that Ellis— who maintained his innocence—was being framed through the FBI’s wide-ranging counterintelligence program.

Ellis spent 25 years in New York maximum-security prisons, including a stint in Attica. He witnessed the notorious 1971 riot that claimed 43 lives.

When he was released in the early 1990s, significant portions of the city’s black and Latino neighborhoods were struggling with the cumulative impact of a troubled economy, crack and gun violence.

In the year when Ellis began serving his sentence, the U.S. prison population totaled some 200,000 people, according to figures compiled by the Sentencing Project. By the time of his release, the nation’s incarceration rate had quintupled.

For his part, Ellis had always credited the role that family and friends played in cushioning his transition from prison. In fact, it was Ellis’ support network that helped him land a full-time job at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, a community-based legal group.

But it wasn’t a case of charitable outreach. While incarcerated, Ellis earned two separate associate’s degrees along with a bachelor’s degree from Marist College and a master’s degree from New York Theological Seminary.

In retrospect, it only seems natural that WBAI would turn to Ellis to help launch “On The Count!”

As he liked to note about each show, listeners were just as likely to be casually listening on a Saturday morning while t fixing a second cup of coffee as they were to be tuning in from a correctional facility. (Full disclosure: It’s a unique dynamic that I witnessed for nearly decade as a panelist on the show’s annual reporters' roundtable.)

But despite his platform on the airwaves, Ellis was pushing for an even greater say in the public sphere—particularly for those whom he represented. As a keen observer on subjects ranging from bail and sentencing guidelines to prison conditions and parole, Ellis grew tired of attending conferences in which he was merely expected to share brief vignettes of his prison experiences.

Later, he would derisively call those appearances “a dog and pony show” when I interviewed him in 2006.

Too often, Ellis argued, the bipartisan push for criminal justice reform has failed to integrate the perspective of those who are intimately familiar with the system itself—namely, people of color who had been incarcerated.

In launching his group, Ellis sought to engage the public with the faces behind the statistics. In that sense, Ellis argued that he wasn’t seeking soft-on-crime handouts (he consistently called for personal responsibility and for the formerly incarcerated to publicly own up to their crimes) but to stem the tide of recidivism—which, as a recent federal study shows, remains alarmingly high in many jurisdictions.

But doing so, he pointed out, requires policymakers to face perennial problems like race and class along with a slew of other dilemmas including the general decline of prison-based educational programs and longstanding employment barriers.

In life, Ellis often shunned the spotlight. He was quick to redirect it elsewhere.

But in his effort to change how the public thinks and talks about criminal justice reform, there’s no doubt that his voice will resonate loudly in the many debates to come.

Curtis Stephen is a Brooklyn-based journalist whose work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, City Limits and AM New York. He welcomes comments from readers. His website is: http://curtisstephen.com

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