I can’t remember the first time I met Eddie Ellis. It was sometime in 1997, most likely at one of the meetings for local activists seeking to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws. I don’t remember our initial conversation, what I do remember is shortly after our meeting, Eddie became a ubiquitous presence in my life. Without ever discussing it, he became my mentor. When he suggested I visit the Albany County jail with a friend who ran workshops there, I said okay and began going regularly. When a few months later he asked if I wanted to accompany him on a visit to Green Haven Correctional facility, I again said okay, not thinking it would be a transformational event.
I’ll never forget that day at Green Haven, I felt more safe and welcome than by any group of men, and saw clearly for the first time how the modern prison system has replicated the conditions of chattel slavery – black men in shackles overseen by white men with guns who deny their rights and exploit their labor. I left committed to working for meaningful criminal justice reform, I’m sure that was part of Eddie’s plan.
In 2001 Eddie was part of the delegation I organized to the World Conference Against Racism. It was an incredibly moving and educational experience. We met human rights activists from around the world who deepened our awareness of the global dimensions of racism, gender oppression and economic exploitation. We both reveled in the feeling we had of being part of a global diaspora of African peoples. We debated the meaning of ‘reparations’ in the African and Latin American context and established long-term friendships with the Afro-Colombian delegation. Eddie and I were together in South Africa on 9/11, we were scheduled to return to New York City the next day. During the extra week we were compelled to remain in Cape Town, Eddie talked a lot about the ways the terrorist attack would affect U.S. society. He was prescient in predicting the ways in which criminal justice policies and practices would serve as a blueprint for the ‘war on terrorism’.
Over the next decade Eddie worked with his long-time friend and colleague Divine Pryor, to bring into being his vision for altering the conversation about and treatment of the people who find themselves caught in the net of the criminal justice system. Eddie was first and foremost an intellectual activist, he was always reading and thinking, synthesizing information, evaluating it against lived experiences and sharing his wisdom with all who requested. If he could answer your question or respond to your request, he never said no. As fellow bibliophiles we often shared book recommendations, after reading them, we would compare notes on our review of the work and its value.
I remember long conversations over dinners in cities all over the U.S. (like many NYers we found it easier to meet on the road at conferences than in the city where we both lived) discussing everything from music to art, to philosophy, world history, religion, cuisines, fashion and of course racism in the criminal justice system. I hope future generations will remember the contributions Eddie made to the ways we look at the justice system. It’s because of Eddie and Divine we no longer refer to our brothers and sisters behind the walls as felons and convicts and inmates. They are incarcerated persons and/or prisoners, when they leave, they are formerly incarcerated persons or former prisoners. Youth are not delinquents, they are children in conflict with the law. Words have meaning and power, because of Eddie, I consciously treat them that way.
I never thought to question why Eddie was in my life, we rarely ask why people are our mentors, we’re just grateful that they are. Over the years I came to rely on Eddie’s counsel and comfort during periods of transition or tragedy. He always knew what to say to make me feel better and know that I was not alone. It pains me to think how many years of his life he was forced to spend in isolated and lonely spaces. I’m grateful that he had so many friends and loved ones to transcend the memory of that time and yet I know Eddie didn’t regret his time in prison, he saw it as an important part of his journey, to shine the light on dark and hidden places, to have us see the truth of who we choose to punish and why.
Our last conversation was just a few short weeks ago. We talked about his most recent concept paper – setting forth a framework for a human centered model of justice. I’m sad that Eddie did not live long enough to see his vision come into being, but I am comforted in the knowledge his vision lives on in all of us who loved and honored him.