I Spent More Than 6 Years in Prison. Now I’m Deputy Director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice.

In January 2000, I was released from a Pennsylvania state prison after serving six-and-a-half years. In 1994, I had pled guilty to criminal charges of robbery, kidnapping, criminal conspiracy, and violation of the Uniformed Firearms Act. In January 2017, I accepted an offer to serve as the ACLU’s deputy director for the Smart Justice Campaign.

Did you just do a double take? I know. It’s pretty unbelievable. My story, like so many others in this nation, is proof that not only can people change, but that they deserve the chance to change.

Since my release from prison in 2000, I have worked tirelessly to restore the lives of people who have served time in America’s prisons. But my initial advocacy efforts were more modest. They were about me. I wanted the life I was working towards prior to participating in the crime that led me to prison.

My efforts to restore my life began while serving time in prison. It was while walking and talking in a prison yard with a man recently released who returned just a few months later. That day, I made the conscious decision never to return to prison. I am still in possession of the piece of paper I wrote (the first of many notes to myself): “I will not engage in behavior that is detrimental to myself, or anyone else, no matter what the circumstances.”

At the time, I had no clue that a declaration made in a prison cell would serve as a compass for the balance of my life. The decision to become a professional advocate came later, in contrast with many of my colleagues, who decided to become full time criminal justice reform advocates while serving time in our nation’s jails and prisons.

My journey to a leadership position at the ACLU came out of having to develop skills and abilities needed to survive in a nation where a perpetual culture of discrimination exists to permanently punish Americans who have paid their debts to society. My desire to stay free and live the American dream propelled me into the ring as a fighter for my personal civil liberties, and eventually for others, as I discovered that I had the capacity to take a licking and keep on ticking.

For over 17 years, I have sought out ways to use my time and skills to improve the quality of life for people living in communities adversely impacted by issues related to mass incarceration. I have served in a broad and diverse range of positions, from a volunteer at a nonviolence organization to the founder and executive director of a nonprofit organization that aimed to eliminate systemic discrimination practices targeted at people living with arrest and convictions.

Upon learning of the opportunity to join the Smart Justice team at the ACLU’s national office, I was unsure whether the organization would be interested in hiring a person living with a criminal history. Much to my surprise, under the experience and qualifications section of the job posting included the following: Personal experience being incarcerated or in other ways entangled with the criminal justice system, preferred. Preferred? At that moment, my desire to join the ACLU in my current capacity increased exponentially, and I hastily set out in pursuit of an interview.

Today, as one of two deputy directors of the Smart Justice Campaign, I am working among our nation’s most brilliant and passionate defenders of human rights and civil liberties. Our campaign’s goal is to reduce the number of Americans serving time in our nation by a minimum of 50 percent. Our team — along with ACLU affiliates, criminal justice reform advocates, impacted communities, philanthropic partners, and ACLU volunteers — is collaboratively crafting and executing strategic campaigns for each of the 50 states, providing each with a unique plan of action to combat the primary drivers of incarceration.

Each day I grow increasingly confident that the Smart Justice Campaign will be remembered as a significant driving force in the toppling of mass incarceration as we know it today. I joined the ACLU because I am a fighter. And today the ACLU is home to our nation’s best fighters. If you don’t believe me, just ask President Trump.

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Valerie Howard-Jones

Mr. Cobb,

Your testimony is inspiring, to say the least! It took a lot for you to not only make the affirmation but keep it; to stick to your conviction and now God has blessed you to sow into the lives of many!

I know it' took a lot, because I have been volunteering in the Federal prison system for about 15 years now and when I see women who come home, and make transition look easy, I am encouraged that every day, every dime, and the decision I made to make a difference has made a difference.

However, I am currently very concerned by the new laws, statues, and procedural changes to the volunteer system with the FBOP. It is becoming increasingly difficult to be a volunteer and make a difference with the way the new regulations seem to have been written or interpreted. My church family and I have been going to Alderson Federal Prison Camp for more years than I can even remember (Christ Mission Workers proceeded my participation by about 20 - 30 years). We drive 5.5 hours, using/spending our own money, for what used to be service on Saturday afternoon, Saturday evening, and then Sunday afternoon. In recent months, due to changes, they have cut out the Saturday evening service, and last month we were informed that we can only do Sunday now. We love the women, but 5.5 hours for a 1.5 hour service?

I guess my question to you Sir, is how can I help with your efforts to put a dent in the recidivism rate, training, housing, and other programs? I live in the Washington metropolitan area and I work for the federal government - Dept. of Health and Human Recourses. I am an ordained elder, associate pastor, I have a BS in Criminal Justice Studies and a MS in Public Administration with a minor in Legal Studies. I went back to school so I could help revamp the CJ and prison system, but in the government, it's not that easy.

Again, your testimony is inspiring! May God continue to bless you as you are a blessing to others.

Sincerely,
Valerie Howard-Jones

Anonymous

Just out of curiosity, have you made any attempt to pay restitution to your victims. The people that you hurt when you performed your criminal acts.
I mean, I wonder how your victims feel about your so called rehabilitation.

Anonymous

What a disingenuous, cynical, crappy comment, Sweetie. You seem mistakenly proud to have typed those silly words.

Eddie B.

Such a cowardly question you couldn't even attach your name to it.

Anonymous

What is wrong with the statement/ question.
According his own statement, he committed violent crimes. So I want to know if he paid restitution to his victims.
I mean he still committed the crimes. There were still victims. Nothing has changed that.

Lia

he did his time. he doesn't need to pay more "restitution" than he already did? i think 6 yrs incarcerated IS his restitution. and i'm sure his victims are glad he turned his life around and he won't do the same thing ever again. it's not "so called" rehabilitation. it's REAL rehabilitation, which is (supposedly) the point of the criminal justice system. now shut up. lol

Anonymous

Unless the criminal pays restitution to his or her victims, the rehabilitation is so-called. And because we do not know the nature of his crimes, we can not say for sure if seven years is sufficient punishment.
Furthermore, we do not know if the victims are thrilled with his so-called rehabilitation. Again we do not know the nature of his crimes. They might be rightly annoyed that he is out of prison.

Shannon Peil

Really, that is all you got out of this article! You have no idea the price that was paid in those six years... and what it took to get back into society because of "crappy" people like you! And the fact you can't even put your name to your comment says what a troll you are!

Amber C

It's sad that you have overlooked the countless adversities this man has faced (and continues to face) because he is a Black male - oppressive ideals and actions which society perpetuates through racial discrimination, biases, intolerance, and hate - of which he continues to triumph - and is now giving back.

But, then again, I wouldn't expect a white male to understand or empathize with social injustices because you have never known any.

Six years of imprisonment has helped to shape who this man has become and the choices he will continue to make in life. It has been a, if not the, defining moment of his life. I imagine this to be a palpable reminder, of his poor choices and motivation for better ones, countless times each day. It likely influences most, if not all, plans, decisions, and actions he makes. That is rehabilitation.

Our society, government, and legal system believe imprisonment is restitution enough. The fact that he has completely turned his life around and has been paying it forward as a civil servant is above and beyond. It is both restitution and rehabilitation. Every day.

Shame on you for being so narrow-minded.

Anonymous

I agree there is a lot of racism out of there. There is a lot this country has to answer for when it comes to racism, treatment of American Indians etc.
However, that is no excuse for committing criminal acts.
Furthermore, a constant reminder of his criminal acts are his victims. Therefore, true rehabilitation, if that even exists, is making restitution for your victims. Any form of rehabilitation that does not include restitution for his or victims is meaningless
Lastly, I feel this way for ALL criminals, black or white.

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