Criminal Justice Reformer Refuses To Give Up

by THOMAS BREEN | Sep 28, 2018 

Louis Reed planned to kill himself last year after he was arrested for allegedly forging checks, then lost his job as Bridgeport’s prison reentry director, and then was rearrested on another round of check forgery charges.

All of this came just a few years after Reed finished a 13-year stint in federal prison for inadvertently shooting a 5-year-old during a retaliatory drive-by in Bridgeport’s Newfield Park neighborhood in 1999.

As he lay in the backseat of his SUV last fall, Reed recalled on a recent episode of WNHH’s Criminal Justice Insider program with Babz Rawls-Ivy and Jeff Grant, he had an epiphany.

Already a man of faith, he heard a soft voice whisper in his ear a verse from the Book of Micah, proclaiming that, “When I sit in darkness, then the Lord shall be a light unto me.”

“I wasn’t born to be the cause of ridicule,” Reed said as he reflected on his motivation to keep working towards criminal justice reform even as he finds himself embroiled yet again with the criminal justice system. “I was born to be a voice of people who are muted.”

Reed currently serves as a national organizer for #Cut50, a criminal justice reform organization co-founded by CNN’s Van Jones that lobbies federal legislators to work towards cutting the country’s prison population in half.

Most of that legislative lobbying, Reed said, has focused on the FIRST STEP Act, a U.S. House of Representatives bill originally pushed by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

“He introduced a bill that was very thin if not skeletal in its structure,” Reed said about early drafts of the bill. “It proposed to be able to expand telephone time and visiting hours for people who are incarcerated at a federal level.”

Reed said that #Cut50 and fellow criminal justice reform advocates fleshed out the bill over the course of last spring to include provisions that they think will significantly reduce the number of people incarcerated in this country, and provide more humane conditions for those currently in federal prison as well as more effective reentry programs for those on their way back into society.

The final version of the FIRST STEP Act, which passed the House in May and is now before the U.S. Senate, calls for the prohibition of women being shackled while they are pregnant and during childbirth and post-partum. (The state General Assembly passed similar legislation in Connecticut last session with Senate Bill 13.)

The amended FIRST STEP act would also provide easier access to basic literacy education, GED testing, and vocational training for federal inmates.

“How are these people going to come back into our communities?” Reed asked. “How are they going to return to the state of Connecticut, if they don’t really have access to basic literacy?”

Furthermore, he said, the bill will require that federal prisoners are designated to a facility no more than 500 driving miles from their last known address. Currently, he said, the designation limit is 500 air miles, which could land a Connecticut federal prisoner in a facility as far away as the deep South.

“People should be within proximity to their family,” he said, since strong family bonds “can actually reduce the probability of reoffending post-incarceration.”

Reed said that his own involvement with the criminal justice system, because of his own mistakes and because of exploitation by family members and because of the challenges of growing up in an environment riddled with violence, sometimes drives him to the pits of despair, as when he considered taking his own life after his most recent public setbacks last fall.

But then, he said, he remembers how much work needs to be done in the world of criminal justice reform, and how he feels called to contribute to that work, and not to his own obsolescence.

“Most people would say, ‘I’m not going to do anything else,’” he said about how some would respond to his experience of being arrested, fired, and arrested again last year. “‘I’m going to go over here to this nebulous place and be obscure and be absolutely incognito and just not do things.’ But I’m one of those people where, the work has to be done. And I’m going to make as much of a contribution to this work as I can.”

Reed said that he has experienced plenty of setbacks in his life that, through force of will, he now sees as character-building moments rather than reasons to give up.

He said that both of his parents were federally incarcerated when he was only 5 years old. When he was 14, he said, he was shot in the chest and nearly died. Whe he was 15, his cousin was shot 32 times in front of his mother and died. When he was 23, he inadvertently shot a 5-year-old child during a drive by targeted at people who had tried to kidnap and rob him. During his nearly 14 years in federal prison, he spent many a night in solitary confinement. After he was released, he got, and then lost, a job in Bridgeport city government after being arrested for charges of check forgery.

“When I look at the trajectory of my life,” he said, “those are the spaces where I’ve learned the most valuable lessons.

“I don’t let every win go to my head, but at the same time, I’m not going to allow a loss to go to my heart. It’s in between that where I can actually learn the greatest lessons in whatever situation or circumstance that I find myself in.”

“Criminal Justice Insider” airs every first and third Friday of the month on WNHH FM at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Listen to the full interview by clicking on the Facebook Live video below.