Elizer Darris is the Co-Executive Director of the Minnesota Freedom Fund – an organization that disrupts the predatory practices of criminal bail and immigration bonds. Chanda sat down with Elizer to talk about the trappings of the criminal justice system and what it takes to be a changemaker.
Chanda Smith Baker 00:11
I want to welcome you to conversations with Chanda, if you don’t mind just introducing yourself to our listeners.
Elizer Darris 00:19
So my name is Elizer Darris and currently co-executive director of the Minnesota Freedom Fund.
Chanda Smith Baker 00:27
Yeah, what is the freedom fund? You’re just, you’re new too, so there’s a whole thing about being a new ED, but that’s all thing and within itself,
Elizer Darris 00:36
Some of, I’m a fresh new ED, and is replete with all of the challenges and all the opportunities that come, you know, with, you know, such a fresh and new title. So it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s challenging times and exciting time, simultaneously. I’m a ball of energy. I don’t know what energy source is gonna be from one minute to the next, and so it’s an exciting challenge that we’re on right now to take the organization to the next level, and so what the Minnesota Freedom Fund does, what any other freedom funds around the entire country do is look to disrupt the predatory practice of cash bail, so that people have an opportunity to have a fair shake with when they’re going through their criminal legal system, to be able to have a good outcome for whatever they’re charged with, and so what we do know is that people who are incarcerated unable to post, 50, 60, a hundred, a couple $1,000 bond or bail. We know that those individuals typically have significantly worse outcomes than people who are just able to post and it’s really values and the means take tests, in terms of worthiness, and so based off of that, organizations like mine seeks to disrupt practices like that in which predatory companies like bail bondsman, you know, really seek to extract resources and prey upon communities, and so we seek to disrupt that type of industry and we are going to disrupt it.
Chanda Smith Baker 02:13
Yeah, I love it just claim your space, and I feel the same way at the Minneapolis Foundation. A couple of years ago, we really started going down, sort of, this bell piece, and I know that I’ve shared this on the podcast before with many people, but the Kalief Browder story, which if you haven’t seen it on Netflix, I swear you have to see it. I mean, you have to have a stomach for his story, but the leadership that, that young man displayed and the conviction that he had touched my entire heart, and when I realized that he sat in Rikers Island for, I think, three years, and in solitary confinement for a year, for thoughts of a backpack, by the way, and I think it was $900 of bail, I began to understand better, through his story, the impact that bail can do on a pre-trial, sort of, before found guilty. What does that mean? What does that mean for justice? What does that mean for lives, and so that really informed my thinking, and we’ve been working on that.
Elizer Darris 03:15
So here’s the thing, Chanda, I’ve been in situations in which you know, I’ve had bail on me. I’ve sat in county jails, I’ve sat in multiple county jails I was, you know, on the same case that I was, you know, ultimately convicted of, and I’m sure we’ll get into some of that, I’ve sat in county jails in St. Louis, up here in Minnesota and Bemidji, Crookston, right? I’ve toured the county jails in Ramsey in Hennepin, and they’re very, very, very miserable places to be, and it is well known, and I mean, well known within people who are incarcerated, that to be in prison, you will have a better existence, more freedoms and more access to your family, than if you are in jail. The conditions are so miserable, that people sometimes seek to get out of conditions like that, even if it means as an innocent person, they make a horrible decision, by pleading guilty to a crime they didn’t commit. People also got to think about their jobs. They got to think about their housing. They got to think about their personal relationships. and so as you’re sitting in these amazingly oppressive conditions, you know, prosecutors are coming through saying, go ahead and sign us we’ll give you 15 years of probation, even get out tomorrow, right go ahead and sign this will get you sent to the Department of Corrections, will knock all of this off right here. You won’t even have to worry about all these additional charges that we’ve been trumped up on top of all of that. You were looking at 50 years, we go ahead and sentence you to three years. You can keep fighting it, it’ll take us about two years. So now you’re thinking like, okay, I’m gonna sit in these miserable conditions, in this county jail for two years and still get 50 years, or I can just go ahead, you know, get my life back on track, take this deal and move forward, not even knowing what you’re really setting yourself up for. What you’re really signing up for. It’s front-end, back-end costs.
Chanda Smith Baker 05:20
Yeah, and they can basically, they don’t have to tell you the truth, right about what they’re offering you, or do they have to be forthcoming about what they’re offering?
Elizer Darris 05:29
So in a situation, like when they’re bringing forth the actual plea deal, they do have to be truthful. You’re talking about the detectives, that detectives can use, you know, more, more conniving, and less than honest tactics, but once the prosecutors come, they have to be completely aboveboard, and so you should not believe that just because the detective said, you know, they were going to work something out with the state, that that’s going to happen, most likely, that’s actually not going to happen, because they’re very territorial, and so you know, an assistant county attorney is not going to really take too kindly to a detective, or to an officer attempting to negotiate pleadings when they feel like that’s their domain, and so they’re, they’re taken under advisement, but you shouldn’t expect to get whatever that officer offered to you, but the cat that’s sitting in it, that the woman or a man is sitting in it, they don’t know, none of this stuff, they believe what they’re being told, right, and they believe when the detective is saying, like, you don’t want to go to prison, I’m telling you. Man it’s miserable in there, people die people doing this, just go ahead and take this deal, and we can get you back out, right, and so, you know, for people look at facing a lot of that oppression, I mean, the quickest, easiest thing to do is to just take the deal and get out. Save your apartment, save your job, right?
Chanda Smith Baker 06:53
Yeah, so the, and then the main purpose of bail in the first place is to have a mechanism to guarantee that they will show back up to court?
Elizer Darris 07:03
Chanda Smith Baker 07:05
So, it’s not necessarily an indication of risk, or guilt, or innocence?
Elizer Darris 07:14
Yeah, yeah, and so it’s not, and the way that we know it’s not, is because like someone can be charged with not paying a traffic ticket, you know, and I didn’t think it turned into a warrant somehow, and somebody could be charged with homicide twice over, right? They killed their family or something, I don’t know, right, but if that person had a $550,000, bail, and the other person had a $500 bill, well, the traffic ticket, and it’s not going to be 500, it might be $250 for the traffic ticket, right? I was exaggerating the traffic ticket person, if they don’t have that, well, they don’t stay in there, but if the person just so happens to have better means than another type of means, they’re going to be able to get out if they put that $550,000 up. So it’s not necessarily an assessment of who’s a risk to public safety, it’s do you have the finances to get out. If you got the finances to get out, because we are right to bail, see, you’re going to get out. If you don’t, you’re going to stay in and if you want to get out, take this deal. So 90% of people take deals.
Chanda Smith Baker 08:20
Ninety percent take deals. Wow, and then Brian Stevenson has the quote where you can be rich and guilty or poor and innocent, and that’s basically what the bail system has done, is created another system, in which the resources that you have actually determined that outcome, not, the crime you committed, essentially.
Elizer Darris 08:44
And it’s not even close, and it’s really well studied that if you’re properly resourced, and if you’re out of custody, you’re going to get, when I say significantly, you’re gonna get significantly less time if you’re able to bail out. If you’re able to bail out and you know, help to participate in your pleadings, even maybe do some investigative type stuff, if you’re able to bail out, you’re going to have significantly less time and a significantly better outcome. Sometimes we’re talking 4,050 bucks like you’re gonna have a significantly better outcome than someone who don’t have access to those separate resources, and they are at the mercy of the attorneys that they have, and whether or not they have access to, you know, investigators and whatnot, and so you’re gonna be at the mercy of the system and a system that feels overloaded and overwhelmed, and many people, actually, do get under an underserved type of representation.
Chanda Smith Baker 09:45
Yeah, at the Minneapolis Foundation, we’ve decided to focus on bail reform, sentencing reform, and probation reform as three primary levers of change. We are putting our leadership behind as a way to reduce the overall sort of population in prison. Do you think those are the right areas first focus on?
Elizer Darris 10:07
Yeah, particularly the probation, right? Especially if you’re talking about the ISR and other department of corrections, so they have enhanced probation, they have ISR, they have regular, the individuals that are on the ISR, and it’s not…
Chanda Smith Baker 10:25
What is that?
Elizer Darris 10:26
So ISR means Intensive Supervised Release right, and it’s not too many states around the country that actually have ISR units, right? But the individuals who are on ISR have a significantly higher probability of being violated. It’s very draconian, it is very intense. When they say intense, they literally mean intense. If you’re minutes late, you’re, you owe me. ISR agents show up to your job, looking like the SWAT team, right, and so let’s say you work at McDonald’s, ISR agents just show up with a full SWAT coming in two, three of them, and then say, we need to talk to you in the back, and it’s like, you’re all at my whole job right now, employers don’t want to see that. They don’t want to terrify or scare their customers into thinking like these people who can come whenever they want, right?
Chanda Smith Baker 11:20
Do they come in, they’re coming in, because they were late to work or late to, you know?
Elizer Darris 11:22
No, that’s a spot check. That’s the spot check.
Chanda Smith Baker 11:27
That’s spot check, but it’s not because they’ve committed a new crime?
Elizer Darris 11:30
You didn’t do nothing wrong. It’s just a spot check, just checking on you, making sure you’re supposed to be where you supposed to be? Right? Employers don’t want to have that kind of energy in their work environment. So, like, you’re on a short leash now, because it’s like, well, you know, it’s a, right, it’s a, it’s not a just call state, you know, but they’re not just going to terminate you, but at the same time, it’s like they didn’t know all of that was coming, and you didn’t know all of that was coming, and so you have a very, very short leash. I’ve heard and I haven’t really researched this, but somewhere between 60 to 70% of people that on ISR are violated, at least once, some, multiple times.
Chanda Smith Baker 12:13
Yeah, and I know, we’ve used examples of folks that, as I say, are still on paper and have responsibilities. If they can’t get approval, let’s say to go to their grandmother’s funeral, and they go, and they’re in violation, they can be sent back to jail. So we have an image of people that go back to jail as people that have committed a new crime, and in some cases, that is true, but in some cases, they’ve actually just violated the conditions of their release.
Elizer Darris 12:41
It’s actually very, very rare for it to be a new crime, right? There’s a low that’s called recidivism, it’s a low recidivism rate. People are being sent back on technical violations, right, stuff that, you know, when the average person does is not even a thing. It doesn’t even really matter, right? Let’s say I did, you know, go to my grandma’s funeral, and you know, I am bereaved. Right? This may have been a person that, you know, and I might, it might be in Wisconsin, you know, and so just the fact that I went over there, came back a few hours later, I have violated, I will be detained, and I will face proceedings. I might get 30 days, and 30 days might not seem like a lot, but if you secured an apartment, secured a job and a number of other things, now, here you are, they can restructure you, meaning don’t send you back, meaning, just don’t say, okay, well, now you got to come into the house at I don’t know, 10 o’clock. They could do that. That’s a tool, that’s in their arsenal, but they’re choosing, this COVID has stopped this a little bit, before then they were choosing and they might kick it right back up once, you know, the COVID crisis disappears. They’re choosing to violate people and send them back for 30 60, 90 days, and at that time, no employers are going to be holding on to your job for an entire month. There’s no landlord, how you gonna pay the rent? Most people are living check to check. So yeah, you gotta go, you’re evicted, right? Your car, it might get taken away, who knows? So now you got to get back out and you’re starting from scratch again, and you have to do the work to build yourself right back up, or you don’t get violated again, and it turns into this.
Chanda Smith Baker 14:26
Yeah, just sort of a vicious cycle that people can’t get off of. Do you ever do you have any idea what the impact on the kids are?
Elizer Darris 14:36
So, I mean, just, so again, the agents not just ISR agents, but any agents really. They can come to your house when they want. I mean, that’s you sign up for them to be able to come when they want. Some of them come at night, and, you know, children, I mean, just imagine, you know, I’m a little kid, my dad, my mom, we all watching a movie together, I don’t know, Bambi, who knows. You get (knocking) at the door. Right? It’s like, we’re waiting for a knock. Well, let’s go check this out, this person comes in, and you seeing your dad, being directed, being, you know, it is very, in front of the family, right? The only thing that dad probably would really want to do is say, Can we go in the back and talk? You know what I mean? Like, because the kid is scared, you get this, because they typically show up, you know, several deep, you get this big, and it’s like, this is this person’s image of their father of this interaction that’s happening. And if anything goes wrong, now the dad is gone, and it’s like, they took my dad away. Right? For whatever reason, and so I just have an issue with, almost, always have an issue when agents show up to someone’s job. I feel like that’s out of bounds. I feel like it’s totally unnecessary. I feel like it disproportionately happens to people that look like you and I, and if reform needs to happen and needs to be in a space like that, there is absolutely no reason in the world. Absolutely no reason in the world for agents to show up to someone’s place of work. Absolutely no reason, unless they believe that something dishonest has happened, and that you are harming someone in that workplace, or that you are doing something less than legal inside of that workplace, then I can understand it, right? But to just show up as a spot check, to me is wholly inappropriate, right? To show up too late at night, to someone’s home, that they have family in, is inappropriate. It’s inappropriate, and it’s emasculating, and it’s dehumanizing, right? And so, I understand, you know, they want people on their toes, you know, they want people to know, at any time we can just show up, Okay, I get it, right? You, you don’t know, you know what hour it’s going to come from. So I guess the notion is to just be on your P’s and Q’s at all hours at all times, because we could, just anytime, come. Okay, I get that, right? That doesn’t make it any less dehumanizing, demoralizing, and embarrassing in front of my family, that this is happening? Because really, I just can’t we just talk on the side? You know what I mean? I don’t want my children to see this. I’m trying to remember my papers.
Chanda Smith Baker 17:36
It also doesn’t seem to have deterred any sort of crime or reduce. I don’t know what the point of it is, I guess. I don’t know what the impact has been other than what you’re saying command and control.
Elizer Darris 17:50
I’s command and control period, that is the absolute heart and soul of it. That’s it. That’s all it is. It’s out there. Like I said, even if we took off the table, the home visits, there’s absolutely no reason to go to a place a person’s place of work. Absolutely no reason, and that’s the type of practice that’s just stopped immediately.
Chanda Smith Baker 18:12
Yes. Okay. So let me so then this comes up for me, like, I think we stopped the no-knock warrants. How does that factor into the agents being able to come home because it feels like it’s very different?
Elizer Darris 18:26
It’s different because you’re technically, so I can’t vote, right? I can’t vote because I’m on probation, right, and so in Minnesota, to serve two-thirds of your sentence, physically in custody, and you can serve 1/3 of your sentence, not physically in custody. And so technically, while we are out here, we’re still under the care of the Commissioner of Corrections. We’re just like freely doing it, right? And so the level of protections that’s afforded to you as a citizen, that I don’t receive those same, so, right now, the agent that’s over me, because I’m still on probation, there’s an agent over me. They can come and search my house right now, just right now search the whole house, right? It doesn’t matter who I have in here, what I got going on. They can just search, a police officer can if I can pull it off for speeding ticket, they see I’m on probation, they can call the probation officer. With you, they would need probable cause and a lot of other things, but with me, the probation officer can tell the officer searched the car made me get out, they can just search it. I lose a lot of those protections like you can vote I can’t vote. So a lot of the typical protections that’s afforded to people, those of us who are on probation or parole, were not afforded those protections.
Chanda Smith Baker 19:49
Let’s talk about how you ended up on parole and on probation, because we’ve talked about it a little bit, but I think, I mean, it’s such, it’s a part of who you are, and part of your journey. We had an opportunity to, to get to know each other a little bit, you know, and after we talked about this piece, I want to talk about our work with the police deadly force working group, but share as much as you feel comfortable about the sort of, I know, I mean, tell me I want to know, a little bit because I think, it’s just, I just think it’s important for people to have context of what’s happening out here.
Elizer Darris 20:29
Actually, so you know, a lot of people look at me today, and they think like, Oh, he’s an attorney, you know, oh, you know, he’s this, and then there’s all of these preconceived notions of who I am, what I’m about, where I’ve gone, and what I have done, and absolutely none of them are right. Right? And then absolutely, none of them are wrong. I’m all of that, and none of that, right? And so one of my mentor said to me, they should be able to smell the penitentiary, right? Like, we should have done what we needed to do at such a level. They sitting here and smell on you, right? And because I set up under the tutelage of men in there, of towering characters and towering intellect, some of the best men to date that I’ve ever met in my life, and I then ran into governors, mayors, CEOs, executive directors, right, you know, shot callers in the streets, and these brothers today are, are some of the best men I’ve ever met in my entire life. And they mentored me from a teenager till I ultimately was released from prison at 32. And so the backstory to that is, you know when I was 15 years old, I ran away from home at a carnival, you know. I just, I couldn’t take it no more. I don’t want to abide by no more rules, policies, restrictions, guidelines, and my mom was putting down on me I wanted, I said, Give us, please.
Chanda Smith Baker 21:59
I mean, can we talk about the carnival, please? Did you say Carnival? We can get to that later anyway, go ahead.
Elizer Darris 22:06
I’m saying about no elephants and tigers. It’s a carnival in St. Louis.
Chanda Smith Baker 22:12
St. Louis just came here when you just went with them.
Elizer Darris 22:15
Rides and games and no tigers and bears and all that. Oh, my goodness. This is rides and games. Not the circus, people be aggravating me with that.
Chanda Smith Baker 22:24
Okay. Yeah, you’re right. I kind of did that. Okay. I’m with you.
Elizer Darris 22:27
It’s a carnival and I was a concessionaire. So I made a decision that you know, I didn’t want to be home no more, and so, you know, the carnival came to town, and I’ve worked for it. You know, because I thought it was a real, I was 15. I thought it was a really cool way to pick up girls, you know what I mean? So they walked by the game, and I could call out to any of them, just call them hey, you try this game yet? They come on what I got to do. Yeah, I thought I had a good time, and so, you know, I got in. I was in summer school because I would have failing grades. I was in eighth grade. And I got into a fight, and then I was expelled. So I knew today, I gotta go home and tell my mom, I’m expelled. I’m flunking so I’m definitely gonna be an eighth grade sound and nothing else to look forward to in this time, so I was like, You know what, that’s it. And so I decided to leave with the carnival. To my mother’s great chagrin, right? And she tried her best to give me the, you know, she was falling behind me in the car. I had a duffel bag full of clothes, and I took a couple of her pillows, and so she was following me behind in the car. She jumped out, She was like, What are you going? I said, I’m leaving with the carnival mom. It’s time. Since then, she was like, well, you ain’t taking my pillow. She took the pillows away. I laugh and I had traveled around the better part of the United States with this condo as far South as Albuquerque, New Mexico, as far north as Roseville, Minnesota, Amarillo, Texas, Minot, North Dakota, Tulsa, you know, just a number, Denver, Colorado, that was one of the most beautiful cities I had been to. So I just traveled around a better party United States with this carnival. But, you know, it wasn’t the easiest life at all. It wasn’t the easiest life in the least bit. You say? It’s a motley crew of people who would almost never typically have contact with each other. Right? And so with us, you know, you had Crips bloodstones vice lords, right, who who really geographically would be dispersed and so you wouldn’t have access to these groups. right. and in St. Louis, is you’re like gridlocked, almost. And so I never went to the arch, you know. You really don’t do all that extra traveling around even in the city. So that the notion of outside of the city, you’ve never even thought about that people live in Baton blocks, right? And so, now you get these groups clashing, and I found myself in the middle of a lot of that. And, you know, ultimately, oh, you know, cut the story short, but ultimately, in the midst of one of these clashes, I participated in taking someone’s life, and, you know, it was a horrible decision to make. It was the combination of multiple skirmishes and clashes between groups of individuals, and, and a man lost his life, and I had responsibility in there, you know, for the part that I played. And I , then, made the decision not to testify against the other adults that was involved, because I was 15, and these were grown men. These guys was in their 20s, and 30s, and 40s, all of them. So everybody was arrested, but not everyone made that type of decision that I made. So they offered me you know, eight years, they offered me 12 years, they offered me 15 years. They, they offered me 30 years, and at this point, I was like, yeah, stop bringing in deals because yeah, first of all, it keep going up, right, and if the most I can face is 30 years, why would I plead guilty to 30 years. I’m gonna just go to trial, so but I was facing first-degree counted. In Minnesota, there’s an automatic sentence if you’re convicted. I think that they thought, no way shape, and in no way shape or form, I would take this all the way to trial.
Chanda Smith Baker 26:40
Did you have the trial, the trial here in Minnesota?
Elizer Darris 26:44
It was right here in Minnesota, because the crime happened in Minnesota, even though they came to St. Louis and brought me back up here.
Chanda Smith Baker 26:50
Elizer Darris 26:52
And so I lost a trial, and I was sentenced to life in prison as a teenager.
Chanda Smith Baker 26:58
Elizer Darris 27:00
At 16, at this time.
Chanda Smith Baker 27:02
And what you could be sentenced to life in prison at age 15, in our state?
Elizer Darris 27:09
At 14. Okay, So there was 14-year-olds, one guy’s name was Jerry Bay, you know, one of, you know, one of my closest buddies. He was so damn, he was so damn tiny. You know, when he first walked into the prison, you know, I remember, you know, and I’m a teenager too, you know, I was, I was probably about 17. Now, I remember seeing this little bitty dude come through, Jerry Bay, I was, like, what? I mean, they got a whole kid up in here. I’m a kid myself, right? You know, but, but he was so incredibly tiny, and I guess he was involved in the drive-by shooting. He wasn’t the shooter, but he was there, and in Minnesota, if you are, if you’re in the vehicle, if you don’t seek to stop whatever is happening, you are considered as guilty as everyone else, right? And he also didn’t take a deal to testify against adults, because he didn’t, he received an accessory charge, and in Minnesota, if you’re an accessory to first-degree murder, you’re also sentenced to life in prison. And so he received a life imprisonment sentence as an accessory to first-degree murder. I’m not sure what they expected out of this 14-year-old, when you have grown men with guns, but I guess you know, he needed to intervene in that situation, and his failure to do so cost him dearly. But again, typically the expectation is for us to take deals. That is what they expected. I’m sure they were also shocked that Jerry also did not take a deal and face that eventual outcome, which was life imprisonment, since he’s still in there right now, as a matter of fact.
Chanda Smith Baker 28:50
That’s crazy. That’s sad. And so you started how much time?
Elizer Darris 28:56
So I served 17. Jerry has been in there for a little over 20 years.
Chanda Smith Baker 29:02
What was that conversation like with your mother?
Elizer Darris 29:05
When I first received the sentence?
Chanda Smith Baker 29:08
When you first had to tell her you were going to jail? I mean, what was that like when she’s, you know, I have this image. I’m a mom of sons, right, of kids, and she’s following you with a backpack. She’s, she’s pouring into you, right? So she wasn’t, like, she wasn’t caring for you, and then now you have to tell her that you were involved in this crime.
Elizer Darris 29:32
I’ll never forget, why didn’t I have to because the cops are there. And so I went to St. Louis, I went back home. I enrolled back in school and everything, you know, that term, and at this point, the past eighth grade, and I was going to just go on with my life. Right? And, no, right. The arm of the law is long, and so it reached out and touch me like AT&T. Mom always told us that if you get in trouble with the police and I am going to turn your butt in, she always said that growing, I mean always said, right? And so they came they not, and they were, you know, 20 of them, all men, their technical stuff, and I was sleeping. I remember dreaming that like they were coming down and they were actually coming down and mom was leading them. My mom stood to the side and they came, they got me, they lifted me off, cuff me all up, and she finally acts. It’s not what is he being charged with, and then the officer said, in the most solemn way possible, murder. And then I just remember hearing the break in her voice, and I never forgot it, and I’ll never forget it, and then she was like, murder, like the way it was just a break in her voice, something broke there, and it just, I just wanted them to just get me out of it. Just like, I didn’t want to, you know, I just wanted to go, I was embarrassed, I felt terrible. I just wanted to just get out of the space as quick as possible if I just wanted them to just like, take me and go. But I’ll never forget the break in her voice. She was shocked, and there was a lot of dismay and terror, in what I heard in her voice, that I would imagine. She never thought that you know, her youngest of her middle child, you know, would be in a type of condition.
Chanda Smith Baker 31:37
And so you just had lunch with her over the weekend, I saw her picture. Yeah. You know, beautiful woman, right? Like moms with their parents, I should say we bear a lot, and obviously, you have done a lot in those years, and one of the things I think I read in social media is fantastic for this is I think you talked about how much time you spend in the library, which is another thing that I think we just kind of have in common. And so you spent your time in there getting mentored and reading. And so school wasn’t maybe it for you but learning and it feels like your curiosity has always been consistent. And so sometimes I think we conflate the structure of education with young people’s willingness to learn to think they’re the same thing, and so you go into prison, and you are on a path to where you are now or what?
Elizer Darris 32:34
When I go into prison, and I made sure the prison was feeling my anger. So I mean, when I first went in there, I was on a warpath, and like, I was, like, I wanted them to feel my anger in my wrath. I couldn’t believe that Jeremy brought back the guilty verdict and that like I was sentenced to life. And so I was not a happy camper, and I wasn’t pretending to be a happy camper. And so I got into a lot of altercations, those first few years inside a prison was very tumultuous, very challenging, and very dark. Those were dark days in my life, to such an extent that the prison made the decision that it was going to separate me from the rest of the masses, and so they sent me to a prison called Oak Park Heights. Oak Park Heights was a level six security prison at the time, that’s a super-maximum. It was one of only a handful of super-maximum prisons in the entire country. Because it was a level six facility, inmates from all around the country could actually be house in there, and so they had federal inmates, and some real serious dudes was in there. And so each unit only can hold 50 people. Now a regular unit can hold hundreds and hundreds of people, I mean, hundreds of people are in the units, but in Oak Park, because it’s all about command and it’s all about control is 50 per unit, right? And it’s amazingly controlled, is incredibly controlled, and so, after a couple of years, they sent me to Oak Park Heights. And it was in Oak Park Heights setup that I ran into one of my most endearing mentors. He actually began to train me in the art of boxing. And so, you know, I was thinking that I was training so that, you know, I could continue to give these dudes to business and back them off on me, you know, and so but what he was actually teaching me was how to discipline my mind and discipline my body, right and, and see myself differently position than what I was. I started to have a little bit more, I started to walk with dignity and a plumb, right, because I could carry myself differently. I didn’t know that that training was going to do all of that for me. Now he didn’t, he wasn’t the one that tried to advance me academically, but I think what he put on me was the discipline necessary to accelerate academically and even when I started studying law and ultimately fought to get my life sentence reversal on appeal, it was the discipline that I’ve received, from him, that even today, it carries with me now. I am a soldier, I am disciplined, and that really helped me. He was like a 60-year-old man, I was a teenager, I was probably 19 at the time, right? So he was like a father figure for me too. He also was studying the bible when I’m in a number of other things. So this is one of the first mentors, but then I had access to brothers like Willy Lloyd, who gave me just dozens of books to read. I kidnap a lot of his books, he never said nothing never made me feel bad. Now, I was the same way when I started mentoring, you want to hold on to my books, but these brothers would just give me books to read and challenge me and just really helped me grow intellectually, spiritually, emotionally. They prepared me for where I’m at today.
Chanda Smith Baker 35:51
The guys who did that for you were they mostly lifers?
Elizer Darris 35:54
Mostly lifers. Mostly lifers.
Chanda Smith Baker 35:57
When they knew that was the way that they chose to give back as to make sure you didn’t come back.
Elizer Darris 36:02
Exactly, exactly. But I’m coming back and I’ve come back, I’ve come back plenty of times. And I told some of them, I’m coming back to get you out. Right? These are some of the best men that I’ve ever met in my life. And this community would only benefit by having these type of cat, like tolerant, where they are respected out here than in the streets. They can say things I hear in the streets that none of these other people running around claiming to be leaders can say, and like that people would move. Right? But that’s because they built rapport with people over many, many, many years inside of there. This is why people wonder, you know, how can somebody like me, right, slide down on some of the brothers I had, and then they say, Brother Darris to me, right? Young people, they want to like posse able to connect with the people in the streets, and a police chief, and it’s over here, it’s because I spent a lot of years in there building relationship. These brothers know me, when they needed a noodle or something to eat, they came to me, I provided that for them, right? I was also elected as the Grand Sheikh in there. That’s a religious title for some of them, I was one of the youngest Grand Sheiks in the country. Every single Friday, I’m dropping measures off of the podium. So I didn’t come out here and all of a sudden started speaking, I was trained as a servant leader by them brothers in there over many, many, many, many, many years. What I’m doing out here now is a continuation of the training and the discipline and the mentorship that I had received over many years inside of prison. They told me, they taught me how to center community. They told me how to serve as a leader, right? They trained and taught me all of this, I didn’t come out here and learn this. They trained me and taught me how to be a servant leader.
Chanda Smith Baker 37:48
And I imagine that not just through your own story because I want to make sure that when people hear us talking, it is not about people not doing time for any crime that was committed, but it is about the system being fair, and it is about providing opportunity for people to come back out and be successful. Right? Is that what we’re talking about? Is it more than that? Is it less than that? Or?
Elizer Darris 38:20
Well, it’s more than that. Right? What would, so let me take a step back. I gotta highlight this. We’re not talking about like, you know, the stuff that I’m talking about, we were breaking the rules to do. So you know, they weren’t supposed to give me books. Technically, they violated prison policy every single time they gave me a book to read. Sometimes we will be down there on the galley, and it’d be eight or nine of us around a table reading, breaking down some kind of science, right? We might have read a passage out of a book. And now we’re going to go around in a circle, we call it a cipher, and everyone is going to give their portion of understanding. Each one teaches one – that’s how we learn. That’s how we train with each other, right? And it’d be another table on the side of us playing cards, playing poker, loud, slamming the cards down, right? Most of the fights break out because of the poker table. I have had so many experiences in which seals would come up to my room. We’re sitting around peaceful just, we’ve got books on the table, and then people would tell us, we’re violating policy because only six people can be around the table at once. And the Yeah, look you have eight so yeah, I got to break this up. I look right over at the poker table. I’m looking, I’m looking at the poker table. Now I’m not gonna snitch, I’m not going to dry snitch and be like, well, you’re gonna say something that’s between don’t say nothing about the poker table. I think loud, they’re slamming cards. This one on the fights is happening. We’re quiet with discipline, we’re reading books. So I wasn’t gonna be like, you want to say something nice, but not them. But I understood where he was coming from. I understand that. I understood the threat that what we were doing represented breaking and cracking open minds. That wasn’t cracking, no minds open, slamming down cards and dominoes and all that. That’s exactly what they wanted them to do.
Chanda Smith Baker 40:12
How many? I was surprised at how many books are actually on the like violation list in prisons.
Elizer Darris 40:18
Some of them, some of the most. Make them make calls, make me want to holler. Are you serious? Are you all serious? I’ll say, you all, you all need to stop?
Chanda Smith Baker 40:35
Yeah, I’ve read that list. I was appalled. I’m like they’re the lies that we are telling ourselves about what we’re trying to do in prison, and I think that the more people know, the more they should be appalled.
Elizer Darris 40:48
You are a mind controller, and so even for me to get into the college classes, the prison officials that was getting the endnotes, we were violating the rules, right? I wasn’t so because if you have murder convictions, you weren’t supposed to be in the classes, but it wasn’t enough people to fill the spots up, and so on the low that the teacher because it was a teacher who would authorize us to get in there on the low low, they would get us in there. Right? So and we also really contributed to the atmosphere, the classrooms, the professors loved us. But if you was convicted of murder, you wasn’t, so I’ll be sitting in opar, minding my business, watching the TV show, and at the bottom of the day, in ticker, it’s gonna say something like if you have a rape crime or murder crime, you can’t sign up for college, and I’m like, I’m literally just sitting here reading about watching the movie. You know what I mean? It’s just like, it’s just constantly hit dead, right? You supposed to like cold towel down and have your head low and just hate yourself, right? Now, I can’t do anything for one of the worst decisions that I’ve ever participated in my life. I did that. Right? But if there is no, if there is no opportunity for transformation, if there is no opportunity for me to do any work, that is good, in order to help to give back, in order to help to restore what I have broken and what others have broken. If there’s no pathway forward, then why do we continue to live? Why don’t we just die? Right? If I’m supposed to be perpetually tied to my worst decision, not my best, but my worst decision, and I’m supposed to be defined by that perpetually, then why continue to live? What is the purpose of my life? Is there any more meaning in my life? Is no good that I do good enough? Is it always the worst that I’ve done? 20 years ago, 30 years ago? How many people have I saved?
Chanda Smith Baker 42:42
Yeah, and I think that’s the point of why we’re working in this criminal justice reform. And I think that’s kind of where we get back to is that there are people that are on paper. There are people that are having people show up to their jobs. There are people that are pleading to charges or not being able to bond out and they’re just caught in this trap and they’ve made some, maybe they’ve made some bad decisions, but they’re trying to find a way to get out of it. Right? So that bad decision isn’t weighing them down in their family down for the rest of their lives, there should be an opportunity to move through that.
Elizer Darris 43:19
Nine out of 10 people may have made a bad decision, right? Let’s say we have that one person who actually didn’t make a bad decision. They’re actually innocent, right? But they feel enormously pressured to, to maintain, they got a family to take care of. They got to get out of here. They got to get out of this county jail. They got to show back up to work Monday. They got to get in there. They can’t they can’t risk losing it all. So then yes, they are going to take that probation for 15 years, now we got a probation cap now that many of our or that many of us have worked. You all helped have worked in coalition to put a cap of five years, not five years, that’s a lot of years. There’s been studies that talk about the diminishing returns of being on probation 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, it just there’s a diminishing return, and actually, the probability of the continuation of that actually have an adverse effect if you own too long, right. And so they’re thinking that they’re getting out, but it’s like, no, you really actually sign it away your right to vote and participate in some of the most basic civic functions of society. Right? And you’re actually signing up to be locked out of society for 15 years. You thought that you was that you were saving yourself by pleading to something that you know, you didn’t do when it actually you were sentencing yourself and then every time and then 15 years, you can be technically brought back to county jail on a technical violation, not a new crime, but a technical violation. You showed up too late. You forgot to report in to something technical, right. I forget all the time, you know what I mean? And I’m very fortunate that people call it be like, did you and I bet on that you know what I did? Because you got a life that you live in, so yeah, you might be signing yourself up for something that’s worse than you would have if you continue to fight for justice, and what was right. I did it, that’s a lot of pressures.
Chanda Smith Baker 45:25
Yeah, I know that I’ve been, you know, I’m a bit of an observer, and I think I shared with you that I saw you working down in Atlanta, and I’ve seen you in different spaces, and I’m always impressed with a couple of things. One is that you’re so open about, sort of, your past and being in prison and giving, I would say, honor to the men that that influenced you, while you were there, I think and then coming out with such passion and connection to making a difference for others, and how they experience not just the justice system, but really just justice. Right? And, you know, before we go, I want to touch on this because you and I were on the police deadly force working group. That first day, though, was a commission, the Attorney General and the Commissioner of Public Safety put together sort of this task team, I think there were 18 or so of us, was a 10-month deal where we were looking at how to reduce deadly incidents by police. It was March of 2019, and we concluded the report came out March of 2020, and that were a year later, and so we just put out, sort of, the progress to that. So if anybody wants to go, look, they can go and find that on the AG’s website. But that first day, so when I got asked to be on it, and so the Minneapolis Foundation funded it, and then I got asked to personally sit on it. So I sat and thought about that for a long time on number one, man, like, do I have the emotional bandwidth? First of all, like, we’re gonna be listening to people that have been impacted by police deadly incidents? Do I have the emotional bandwidth to sit and listen to family members who have lost loved ones? Like that within itself was like, it felt like the biggest responsibility? I think the second thought that I went through is whatever we produce is going to be disappointing to someone, and am I willing to take the shots that are going to come my way? And obviously, I decided to do both. Thank God, right? But then that first meeting, I was really about to just backtrack.
Elizer Darris 47:53
And I felt that energy, I felt what was happening in that moment. I wanted to make sure that I touched base with some of you all because I knew I was gonna need a job.
Chanda Smith Baker 48:03
Yeah. So the first meeting we come in, and there was a group of what, 40 people, that just protested the mass out of that table for three hours. I was good until one of those stood behind me, and then I had to go a little Northside, to get a little Northside, like, you can stand in front of me all day, but you got to get from behind me, because that’s, you know, I’m gonna have to, you’re gonna have to get in front of me, but I just sat there because we’re here for them, and the way that change looks like when you are doing it from within, looks different. And to have your community kind of look at you like you’re selling out or you’re like, dealing with the devil, like, I mean, there was a something that was created, and just like, great angst for me. That particular day. I’m glad I stayed with it, but man, that was just that was one of the hardest things I’ve had.
Elizer Darris 49:02
Yeah, it was, it was intense, but, you know, I roll with that crap. So it was really intense. They were looking at me, like, why are you? But I was there as a function of ACLU. You know, we wanted to make sure that we is part and parcel to these discussions is very, very, very fortunate for this community that you was there as well. I’ve watched, you know, I was impressed and actually motivated by and I look forward to the day in which I’m able to carry myself with the type of dignity and with the passion and with the vigor and be able to speak in like a very clear and cogent way that you were able to communicate very clear idea. It was almost mechanical, right? Yeah. No, I’m not trying to, you know, but it was very methodical. That’s a better word. It was almost methodical when you begin to speak so you would listen and then speak methodically, and I think because we all knew that whatever you was going to ultimately save was going to be pretty reasoned and weighed. I think people will say, as soon as you started, people would just like key in and hope that he would, you know, land closer and, and so the role that you played to get us past so many impasses, right, and, and to prevent, because, you know, I was always, you know ready and willing to if we don’t bring this fire down, I’m gonna bring the fire, right, and so they always knew my energy was I was always ready to go there if they wanted to go there, right. But we needed to be able to continue to move because we are on, we’re all on the same side and somebody has a speaking, but we’re coming from different perspectives here, right, and we needed to be able to be functionally moving forward, and I was just really grateful on so many occasions that you were able to help navigate us through really, really difficult areas of discussion, really difficult, and which sometimes we I remember that time when we just had to take a break. We had to take a break, it got too hot. I was hot. I was hot on my collar, you know, and we needed a break, and then I saw you and the judge and I saw your caucusing, right and I and our prosecutor, the county attorney, I forget the name, because we were at any other point in which we wasn’t seeing it the same way, and I wasn’t willing to do too much moving, right? And they wasn’t willing to do because we’re all thinking we take in major losses here, and so to be able to work these compromises out and watch you do it, it was very instructive to me, and I can’t tell you enough how much I really do. History is gonna record how valuable you were to that process.
Chanda Smith Baker 51:55
Thank you for that. Yeah, that was a good day, and yeah, we caucused. They’re like, why don’t you trust me? I’m like, why don’t you trust me? Like, I mean, why don’t you trust us? Like there’s a community voice, but I think that you know, we did we caucused right at the Minneapolis Foundation out the door, we came back in, like we reached an agreement.
Elizer Darris 52:19
And I was like, what, and then the lobbyists was like Why? We like this, you know, and so and it was, it was reasonable. I wasn’t you know, I couldn’t get everything I wanted and they wasn’t, we all didn’t get everything we wanted, but we work this thing out, and if you noticed, there wasn’t too much thinking that had to be done, you know, with the legislature in the last session. Why? Because we did all of that. We’ve fought them paddles, and we fought them things enthusiastically and with vigor, and so what they ended up doing was implementing what we came up with.
Chanda Smith Baker 52:55
That’s exactly right, and I think, you know, there were so many lessons, right, like just sticking it out. I remember that first day that I said was as grueling, and, man, it was long, I guess, all kinds of offended. I felt all kinds of compassion. I mean, there was just a range of everything, and I remember hours, man, and I remember when we took a break, and then one of, to share, who was protesting, as I walked by her, I looked at her and then we gave each other a hug. Just give me a hug, right? So we like hug each other and we move along. But when I’m looking at what’s happening, right, and I know this is, this is a broad sweep, but you have people that wants to their tables where people they disagree with, and we basically sat at a table with people that we probably wouldn’t even be with for 10 months, and we’ve made a lot of progress on that one thing, right, and being able to stick with it or being able to say, Look, I’m willing to compromise, to some extent, but you know, but there are some things that I’m not I’m unwilling to move on. And so, you know, tell me your thing, and let’s figure it out, and us be able to move in a room, I think was a really important lesson that I understood, and I know the importance of it. It’s not like it doesn’t happen every day. But in issues like this, that is so polarizing to be around the table. We were on the table with 60% law enforcement, basically.
Elizer Darris 54:27
Yeah. But we had firepower, like, you know, we had some strong, we have strong energy on our side, too, and so, while we were outnumbered like I said, when you spoke all sides, listen, because it was going to be fair and measured and all of that. And so and so yeah, we had really, we had the right people there. I’ll say the community was really, really well served by having us there. You know, Dr. Tyner, Dr. Brittany Lewis, you know what I mean? They were really well served by the brilliant minds who were, you know, we were stewards of our community inside of those, those very difficult discussions, and my, it was difficult, you know, because, you know, we have to hear testimony of anguish, testimony of family members, you know, that I never see their loved one again, and, you know, then all of the technical testimony that we would have to go in and, you know, decipher through all of that stuff, and come up with meaning, and then come up with policy-based off of that meeting, and so it wasn’t the easiest task.
Chanda Smith Baker 55:36
No, it wasn’t, it wasn’t, it was worth it, it felt worth it. And I was glad to be with you. I witness you to be pretty excellent at that table, too, by the way. You know, I can move all sides, when you come out with like, and policy, HR 2050. You have all the policies down the path. I’m like, Okay, this dude study, and I can just, I know human behavior. You know, I can talk, and I can listen, I’m observant, and I can pull it together. But I do feel like that, that was just…
Elizer Darris 56:12
I’m a legal eagle. I’m a study up on it, you know? Say it, right? So I am, so that goes back to like, even when I was in, I know, we got to go. Yeah, even when I was in prison, you know, I started studying, I got my GED, and I started going to college classes, I would read up on the subject of the professor several months before the class, just so I can go in there and debate with those professors. And just like this, I was a total contrarian, my entire sentence in there, and I’m a contrarian today, that’s why I need people like you.
Chanda Smith Baker 56:47
I love it, though. I love, I love all of everything that you’re bringing, everything.
Elizer Darris 56:52
Everything brought together, you know. I’m just not going to be trying to do all of that. I’m going to be providing a question for us. But we need to, we need bridge builders, we need people to contextualize, and we need, you know, people who get access and spaces in places that other people don’t. People like you and I are now getting access deeply into helping to create policy reforms. We’re bridges between a lot of the energy and efforts that are boots on the ground, we have to translate that into actual policy that is actually implemented. And so we’re all in operating in our capacities in serving these roles.
Chanda Smith Baker 57:31
Yeah, it’s one of the I guess, as we close, one of the things when I think about when people are like the activists, and I’m like, you know, there’s activists. I feel like activists are taking on I might even be well articulated at this point, but there are people that are protesting, and there are activists that are leading movements, like BLM and other movements, right. There are activists that are activating within organizations and institutions and really pushing change. There are activists that are working on policy level, like I really invite people to look at who are the change-makers, and the way that they deliver how they do change might be different. Because I think that as especially as the broader community, the white community is looking at how they can be allies. I think they are, I would not I would look at all of the breadth of what people are bringing to this work right now. Right? Because folks that really need support that are moving, really fantastic change within systems. I would say like you the work you did at the ACLU, the work you will do with the Minnesota Freedom Fund, and I really appreciate the work of that organization who will be partnering with you really closely. And if listeners want to find out more, they can go to that website, the minnesotafreedomfund.org. Absolutely. Well, I appreciate you. Thank you for having this conversation.
Elizer Darris 58:58
This was painless. I was so scared.
Chanda Smith Baker 59:00
I told you I don’t know why.
Elizer Darris 59:02
You know why I see you and I want to know that energy. I’m seeing you in operation. Oh, God. Let me study up. I don’t even know what to study. She won’t even tell me what to study?
Chanda Smith Baker 59:14
No, because I want it to be just like this just free-flowing. I want it to be about you. I just like to prompt questions and let people talk.
Elizer Darris 59:23
That’s what’s up, and I appreciate you. I appreciate all the work you’re doing. I look forward to having, you know, a really long-term partnership with you and just being excited to see you in space, and when I see you in space, I know everything is all right.
Chanda Smith Baker 59:36
Good deal, back at you.
Souphak Kienitz 59:41
That’s Elizer Darris and our host Chanda Smith Baker. And once again, if you like what you hear, please follow us from wherever you listen to your podcast. To learn more about the Minnesota Freedom Fund, visit minnesotafreedomfund.com. I’m Souphak Kienitz from the Minneapolis Foundation. Thank you for listening to Conversations with ChandaClose Transcript -
Elizer is the Co-Executive Director with the Minnesota Freedom Fund. He works to reduce mass incarceration, reform the criminal legal system, and create racial equity. As a juvenile, he was sentenced to life in prison. But he studied in prison and worked with his state-appointed counsel to get his life sentence reversed on appeal. Upon his release, Elizer became a business owner, consultant, educator, community organizer, youth mentor, and motivational speaker. Elizer was an African American Leadership Forum (AALF) 2017 Josie R. Johnson Leadership Fellow, was the field operations director for the Nekima Levy-Pounds for Minneapolis Mayor Campaign in 2017, Campaign Manager for Anika Bowie’s Campaign for St. Paul City Council in 2019, established a consultancy, Darris Consulting Group, where he works with local and county governments to help them center community voice in their policies and practices. Elizer served on the 2019 statewide Working Group empaneled by the State Attorney General and Commissioner of Public Safety that focused on creating and implementing strategies to reduce law enforcement deadly force encounters. He serves on multiple boards and was recently been appointed by Governor Tim Walz in 2020 to the State Board of Public Defense.