Formerly incarcerated men and women will moderate a presidential town hall for the first time next week, questioning candidates about their positions on the U.S. justice system before an audience made up exclusively of people with firsthand experience of prisons and jails. The event, scheduled for October 28 at the Eastern State Penitentiary, a historic former prison in Philadelphia, aims to put questions of mass incarceration, broken courts, and racist policing at the forefront of the debate in an election season that has largely seen them eclipsed by other issues. So far, only Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) have committed to be there, The Intercept reports.
“Most (candidates) have not been heavily involved in the movement to end mass incarceration,” the four town hall moderators wrote in an op-ed, referring to the Democratic field. “We want to let these candidates know that formerly incarcerated people, people who are convicted, represent a real tangible voting bloc that they need to be responsive to.” At the state and local levels, where most criminal justice decisions are made, advocates for a more fair and humane system have helped push some progressive prosecutors into office and are aiming to raise voters’ awareness around sheriffs and judges elections. As the presidential primary heats up, top Democratic candidates have promised to tackle some of the system’s most egregious flaws. Nearly all support eliminating cash bail and legalizing marijuana, and several favor reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and curtailing private prisons. “They are not talking to us,” said Vivian Nixon, a town hall moderator and director of College & Community Fellowship, a group that helps formerly incarcerated women earn college degrees.