by Keith Sanders
One of the most unjust consequences of mass incarceration in America is that it removes millions of citizens from the political process. Most prisoners lose voting privileges at least through their parole, though sometimes for life. But disenfranchisement is not the whole story; people with criminal histories are rarely nominated and elected to public office.
In what might be a first for New York, a former state prisoner was elected to the state Assembly in a January 2022 special election. Then on November 8, 2022, the voters of the state’s 68th Assembly District re-elected Democrat Eddie Gibbs, 53, to represent the same East Harlem community where he grew up in a public housing project with a single mother.
“When you come out of prison you have this rap that you’re a bad guy,” Gibbs said, adding he was glad to be seen “in a different light.”
Back in the 1980s, Gibbs was a teenager living in one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, selling crack cocaine to lift himself, and his mother, out of poverty.
“You didn’t think about repercussions back then, you just made money,” Gibbs said.
At 17, he was attacked and stabbed during a robbery attempt. Gibbs fought back, shooting and killing the other man. On the advice of his public defender, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He spent over a year at the city’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex, followed by another three years in state prisons. Since his release on parole, Gibbs has been on a mission to change how the community perceives and treats ex-prisoners.
One of the first things he did was enroll in comedy classes. Performing stand-up routines as “Good Buddy,” he hoped to “offset the notion that people should be afraid of someone convicted of a violent felony.” Murray Richman, a criminal defense attorney, hired Gibbs as his driver. He eventually convinced the former prisoner to run for the 68th District seat. Gibbs’ first try failed. He became the Democratic Party’s district leader before running again and winning.
As a legislator, Gibbs focuses on issues that personally affected his life: reducing the number of residents in public housing, making the transition from prison to society easier, and removing obstacles ex-prisoners encounter while obtaining state identification.
Among those at Gibbs’ inauguration were U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D), who said he valued Gibbs’ “unique perspective” and “longtime commitment to his community.”
Sources: The City, Gotham Gazette
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