Liz Simons, Chair of the Board of the Heising-Simons Foundation, delivered a slightly revised version of the following remarks at the opening of the Criminal Justice Reform salon on May 26, 2021. The salon was part of the 2021 Philanthropy Innovation Summit Virtual Learning Series, hosted by Stanford PACS.

I’d like to tell you a little story about a moment in time, years ago when I was a new teacher in Oakland, California, and I took my 5th/6thgrade class on a field trip to the old prison on Alcatraz Island. The children were wind-blown and exuberant from the ferry ride, and the island was stunning in the cold sunshine; we were tourists in this prison land from long ago.

At the end, if we dared, we were invited to experience one minute alone in solitary confinement. We all dared. When it was my turn, I remember the metal door shutting behind me and the silence and the blackness. My eyes never adjusted, and I remember trying to imagine what it would be like to be there for an hour. Or days. Or years and years and years. Invisible, even to myself.

The children and I, one by one, emerged pale and quiet, and it was lost on none of us that they were meant to feel this was a lesson, that if they didn’t walk the straight and narrow, this quiet nothingness would be waiting to engulf them when they tripped up.

And sadly, many of these children, all of them Black and Brown, were no strangers to this world; they knew of it through their fathers, their mothers, their older brothers, cousins, and sisters. These were the mid-eighties, the days of Ronald Reagan and his militarized “War on Drugs” that took direct aim at people of color. Already, some of my 11-and-12-year-olds told me, they were being stopped and questioned by the police.

When Reagan took office in 1980, the total US prison population was 329,000, and when he left office eight years later, it had nearly doubled to 627,000. Now we incarcerate more people than any other nation in the world, around two million. Most of them Black and Brown and poor – and most languishing pre-trial in jails, with little or no access to effective legal defense.

Mass incarceration actually peaked in this country around 2007, the same year my husband, Mark, and I started our foundation. My experience as a teacher had drawn me to education philanthropy, and we had started supporting work in early childhood education and care. We also were supporting climate and clean energy and basic science research, which were, and continue to be, important to Mark.

It wasn’t until several years later when our daughter, Caitlin, joined the foundation and asked us point blank how we could not be addressing the most massive national human rights abuse of our time, that we started to support criminal justice reform in the United States. That, along with immigrant rights work, became our foundation’s human rights program, now led by Angie Junck.

Read the full article about criminal justice efforts by Liz Simons at Heising-Simons Foundation.