Rev. Alexis Anderson on Her Black History Heroes and Seeing Hope in the Prison Reform Movement

Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Feb 23, 2022
Illustration by Gloria Mendoza

“We got in the game, we educated ourselves, and we are not going away.”

On January 1, East Baton Rouge Prison ended its contract with a health care provider that had been widely criticized for substandard care. This policy change, unanimously passed by the Baton Rouge Metro Council, was a major victory for the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition. During the five years that CorrectHealth provided health care at the pretrial detention facility, the death rate was more than double the national average.

Rev. Alexis Anderson is a member of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition, in addition to being an ordained African Methodist Episcopal minister and the founder and executive director of PREACH, a nonprofit focusing on competence in basic life skills, computerization, and commerce with a special focus on domestic violence survivors and formerly incarcerated people. She serves on numerous boards, councils, and committees with the mission of improving mental health care, increasing safety for families, and ending draconian punishment. She has partnered with Vera to bring about more humane jail conditions in Louisiana, while fighting to end mass incarceration.

What brought you to justice work?

I have had family members on all sides of this. I have family members who are judges, my sister was a corrections officer for over 30 years, and I have family members who have been through the justice system. I am also a survivor of domestic violence. My father was both a Korean war hero and the most violent human being I knew. You must learn to navigate [justice systems] when there are people who you care about who are impacted. It’s not a one-dimensional thing, and the more we do not know about it, the more people suffer. I am a woman of faith, an educator, and an advocate. When things are happening, you have to educate yourself about them. Then you need to advocate on behalf of people who cannot always advocate for themselves because of their circumstances. I may be most proud of my ability to share what I have learned. And to give people the power to take that information and do something with it.

Describe the fight to get the health care provider changed at the Baton Rouge Parish Prison.

It was a three-year battle. And I can tell you: nobody, including most of our allies, thought we had a snowball’s chance. What they didn’t know is that we were building a template to make this matter to more than just us. We sent information to the health care providers in the community. We engaged anyone who would listen to us. We took social workers down to that jail. We took experts on solitary confinement. We showed up at those many meetings of government, our local Metro Council, our state legislature.

The East Baton Rouge Prison Reform Coalition and our allies found a way to remind the community that people held pretrial were our friends, neighbors, and family members, and they hadn’t even had their day in court, and we stood up when people died in custody and said, “This was a mother, this was a grandmother, this was somebody.” We made sure that people understood that these were people that were created in the image of God. They didn’t belong to the state.

When we started, we couldn’t buy a friend on the Metro Council. Three years later, when the vote finally came to change the health care provider, it was unanimous. The new health care provider is still a private company, but we are going to monitor them. We got in the game, we educated ourselves, and we are not going away.

Please tell us about your current work. What are your current goals?

I want my community to choose not to be a “police state.” If we spend 60 percent of our budget on “public safety,” we are not investing in economic development, community engagement, educational excellence, or environmental exceptionalism. To achieve that goal, I don’t want anybody to sit on the sidelines. I want us to redefine what we mean by “impacted.” If you are a 13-year-old child and you have a parent that is incarcerated, you are an impacted person, and you have a right to stand up and ask for change. We must educate our communities [on] how to engage with their government at every level and get comfortable saying, “I am Susan Jones, and I am now raising my grandchild because you saw fit to have laws that gave people 20 years for marijuana.”

Voting and civic engagement are overarching goals for me. Our public defenders do not have enough money, and that is by policy. In East Baton Rouge Parish, we had 55 people who died in our pretrial facility since 2012, and the underlying reasons are tied directly to elections and policies that flow from those elections.

African American males are disproportionately impacted by the carceral system, and also those who struggle with behavioral health and addiction. If you live in one ZIP code, you get your mental health needs met through community medical resources. But if you live in a low-wealth area, you will be criminalized and sit in jail till the cows come home. Mental health can’t be a health care issue when you are wealthy but criminalized when you are poor.

When people have done their time, we want them to be restored. We don't want people to fail at reentry because they aren’t able to get a license due to [their] formerly incarcerated status, so they can't drive a car, which means they can't get certain jobs. We don't want families to lose their homes because the justice system is continually taking their assets for debts related to an arrest/incarceration.

Who are some of your Black history heroes?

When we talk about role models and heroes, we have them in our own space. For me it starts with my family, beginning with my mother, the late Rev. Martha Crump. She was an ordained minister, a community activist, a devoted grandmother, and a lifelong learner. She was also a domestic violence survivor who went back to college. With four children in tow, she completed her degree. Then, at 70 years old, she decided to go to seminary. I have a beloved cousin who went to prison many years ago and my mother faithfully made sure that she wrote him and kept money on his commissary. She made sure he was never forgotten by his family. My daughter is a producer in Los Angeles and channels her grandmother’s legacy in her social justice work. My youngest son lives in Baton Rouge and recently ran for East Baton Rouge Metro Council. His unapologetic stance on criminal justice reform really stood out.

I also admire Professor Angela Allen-Bell, the B.K. Agnihotri Endowed Professor at Southern University Law Center. She has worked on several historic advocacy campaigns, such as the Angola 3 case, the case of Soledad Brother John Clutchette, and the abolishment of Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury law. She has opened her heart and her massive knowledge base to my work and has so realigned how I use my teaching to empower.

Professor [Andrea] Armstrong, the Loyola University law professor who is a national expert on prison and jail conditions, is another hero. Professor Armstrong founded, a database [and] website that provides facility-level deaths behind bars data and analysis for Louisiana and memorializes lives lost behind bars. She has allowed me to lean on her and learn from her.

I admire Verna Bradley-Jackson, the founder and executive director of One Touch Ministry, which provides housing in East Baton Rouge for formerly incarcerated persons, including those who have been convicted of sex offenses. It is not popular work, because people do a lot of differentiating between good crimes and bad crimes; people who were incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit versus people who committed a crime and turned their lives around. We do a lot of bifurcating. Verna doesn’t do that.

Also, Fannie Lou Hamer, the legendary Mississippi civil rights worker. The lesson I learned from her life is you stay focused on what God told you to stay focused on and your work will build bridges for other people. She addressed the thing that we don't often talk about in the whitewashing of history, which is misogyny. Also, she never forgot about the people of Mississippi, even when she got a national platform.

How do you stay motivated given the magnitude and horrors of mass incarceration?

There is a new miracle every day. You find allies in the most unusual places. You can sometimes feel that nothing is going to get better, particularly when there is a death, because you can’t repair that breach. But people continually surprise me with how brave they are. I am blown away by the family members that have lost people, and they still stay in this fight. I am blown away by their sheer strength and willingness to retell their stories again and again. They are superheroes. And sometimes you will find a policy maker out of the blue who is willing to fight for these things.