Series: From the President

5 Black Heroes Who Took on the Fight against Mass Incarceration

Nicholas Turner President & Director // Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Feb 22, 2022
Photo credits: W Haywood Burns image: National Lawyers Guild, Jane Bolin: Library of Congress, Bruce M Wright: African American Registry, Eddie Ellis: Center for NuLeadership on Human Justice and Healing, and Kenneth Thompson: Associated Press. Illustration by Gloria Mendoza.

These Black leaders made history as they fought for racial equality and justice for all people. Their stories inspire Vera today in its mission to end the mass incarceration and fight for the dignity of those most directly impacted by the criminal legal system—people of color, immigrants, and people experiencing poverty.

W. Haywood Burns (1940–1996)

W. Haywood Burns was an attorney and longtime civil rights activist who, in 1969, helped found the National Conference of Black Lawyers, which has represented Black Panthers, Vietnam war resisters, and Assata Shakur, to name a few. Burns got his start in activism as a teenager, participating in a successful effort to integrate a swimming pool in his hometown of Peekskill, New York. He graduated from Harvard College and, while a student at Yale Law School, participated in the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi. He was the assistant counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and served as general counsel to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s campaign. Burns successfully defended Angela Davis against kidnapping and murder charges and coordinated the defense of the 62 incarcerated people indicted in the Attica prison uprising. Burns served as a trustee for several civil rights and justice organizations, including the Vera Institute of Justice. Today, the Haywood Burns Institute works to dismantle structural racism in his honor. It praises Burns as a “beacon of light to those who believe the battle for human rights and justice can be won through activism, humility, and dedication.”

Jane Bolin (1908–2007)

Jane Bolin was the first Black woman judge in the United States. Motivated by seeing depictions of lynchings in the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, Bolin became the first Black woman to earn a law degree from Yale and the first to be hired as an attorney in New York City’s Corporation Counsel’s office. When she was 31, she was appointed to the city’s Domestic Relations Court, later renamed Family Court, and served for four decades. When she was first appointed, Black children were only assigned to Black probation officers, who were few in number and overstretched. Childcare agencies were also permitted to reject Black children on the basis of their race. In her time on the bench, Bolin succeeded in removing race and religion as factors in court assignments, aided in the fight to require that publicly funded childcare agencies accept all children regardless of their race and ethnic background, advocated successfully against a planned whites-only housing project in Harlem, and criticized laws that allowed 13-, 14-, and 15-year-olds to be tried in criminal courts. “I think it's symptomatic of a society that doesn't give priority to its children,” she said. “It would rather have this kind of law rather than putting money where it should be put, correcting the social and economic conditions where children live.”

Kenneth P. Thompson (1966–2016)

Kenneth P. Thompson was elected Brooklyn’s first Black district attorney in 2013 and earned a reputation as a reformer who sought to undo some of the harms inflicted by prosecutors. He ran for office on a platform of change and racial justice, moved by the wrongful conviction of Jabbar Collins, who spent 16 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Thompson established a Conviction Review Unit that worked to free wrongfully convicted people, which became a model for prosecutors around the country. Thompson also declined to prosecute most low-level marijuana possession arrests, with the goal of keeping young people out of the carceral system and sparing them from criminal records that would prevent future success, and expanded restorative justice efforts for otherwise prison-bound young adults through Common Justice. Prior to his historic election, Thompson co-founded the law firm Thompson Wigdor and represented people who had suffered discrimination because of their race, pregnancy status, gender, age, religion, or sexual orientation. While a federal prosecutor, Thompson delivered an opening statement that helped lead to the conviction of former New York City Police Officer Justin Volpe for the beating and torture of Abner Louima. He also helped convince the U.S. Department of Justice to reinvestigate the 1955 murder of Emmett Till.

Edwin “Eddie” Ellis (1941–2014)

Eddie Ellis was a community activist and advocate for formerly incarcerated people. In 1970, he was sent to prison for 25 years. He maintained his innocence, believing his conviction was a result of the FBI's counterintelligence program against Black Panthers. While incarcerated, he earned several degrees. Ellis was part of an organization of incarcerated people known as the Think Tank, which found that 75 percent of the incarcerated population of New York State came from seven neighborhoods in New York City. After his release, he ran classes in those neighborhoods to help break the cycle of incarceration, served as a research fellow at Medgar Evers College, lectured at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and advised Governor Eliot Spitzer and other officials. He also founded the Center for NuLeadership on Human Justice & Healing and developed campaigns to remove barriers to employment for people with criminal convictions, provide culturally competent education, and reduce recidivism. Ellis wrote an Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language, which was foundational in the push for people-first language: “Calling me inmate, convict, prisoner, felon, or offender indicates a lack of understanding of who I am, but more importantly what I can be. . . . If we cannot persuade you to refer to us, and think of us, as people, then all our other efforts at reform and change are seriously compromised.”

Bruce M. Wright (1917–2005)

Bruce M. Wright was called a “one man force for bail reform.” Throughout his 25 years as a judge, he spoke out against injustice in the judicial system. Although he was awarded a scholarship to Princeton University, he was discouraged from attending after the dean of admission learned he was Black. He went on to graduate from Lincoln University and New York Law School and, in 1967, was named counsel to the city's Human Resources Administration. Later, as a New York City Criminal Court judge, Wright became known for setting affordable bail for people with low incomes. Wright considered the bail system to be unfair to the poor and particularly harmful to Black people and other people of color. Despite harsh criticism from police unions and the media, he maintained his commitment to affordable bail. This stance made him “the most controversial judge in New York,” according to a 1974 Harvard Crimson article, and earned him the nickname “Turn ‘em loose Bruce.” He said a more appropriate name would have been “Civil Wright.” He was elected to the New York Supreme Court in 1982. Wright also published three books of poetry. He befriended the poets Leopold Senghor and Langston Hughes and was known to insert literary quotations into his legal opinions. His book Black Robes, White Justice won the 1991 American Book Award.