Prison cell (145130)

I have worked in human services for many years with the hungry, homeless and formerly incarcerated. In 2011, while giving a homeless person a ride, I was arrested and falsely charged with receiving stolen property. Even though I was acquitted at trial, the Massachusetts Parole Board revoked my parole and I ended up spending another year in prison before I was finally released, thanks to the campaign launched by my supporters. As a result, based on my own experience, I realized the necessity of reforming the antiquated policies of the Massachusetts parole system and eliminating the abusive practices of parole personnel. So, I founded Project Operation Change, a statewide campaign advocating for the necessary reforms.

In Massachusetts, like in the rest of the country, most of the people being sent back to prison are sent for parole or probation violations. They haven’t committed a new crime; they are merely charged with a technical violation such as failing to report to their parole or probation officers, moving to a different residence without telling their POs, failing to pay supervision fees, failing to keep a job or failing a drug test. The culture of the parole system is to “trail, nail and jail” people. That is devastating for people who are trying to rebuild their lives and for their families, who find themselves that much further behind the eight ball. The culture and practices of parole need to change drastically. 

I also serve on the steering committee of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety. We are pushing for the elimination of mandatory minimums for drug offenses, increased availability and utilization of diversion, compassionate release for elderly and dying prisoners and presumptive parole. Once a person has served the minimum sentence the individual should not be constantly questioned about crimes committed in the past when appearing before the parole board. The board should look at what the person has done since committing the crime and the person should be allowed to move forward. 

My own experience has forged me for this work. Every report about mass incarceration identifies the community most affected as my community—people of color.  Based on my level of consciousness and concern, not only for what I’ve gone through but also for my children, my grandchildren and other members of my community, I am earnestly drawn to advocate for reforms. The way I look at it, there’s not one specific thing that’s going to fix the system. The system of mass incarceration was built incrementally and we must dismantle it incrementally. It’s like peeling the layers of an onion. We have to look at the different layers and organize people to undo a lot of the injustices. My objective is to engage my community and mobilize them in ways to help find their voices so they can advocate for the changes that are important to them.

I am honored to participate in the JusticeLeadershipUSA Leading with Conviction program. JLUSA staff are awesome people and I’m truly grateful for their investment in me as a human being, organizer and activist. My heart is full of admiration, respect and love for my cohort. All told, I’ve been exposed to a spectacular group of people. And, JLUSA has been a great learning experience. I’m already employing the skills I’ve learned. Based on my new skills I am transitioning from human services to being more advocacy-focused. 

Donald Perry holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts and is the 2016 recipient of the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition’s Peg Erlanger Award for his work toward criminal justice reform.