Lillie A. Estes Defines Community Justice


Lillie in Action

Lillie Estes in action at a May Day march, 2017. Photo, courtesy of Lille Estes

Lillie Estes is a force of nature. There really is no other way to say it. When she took the stage at Harvard Law School for “Justice Works: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Community Justice,” it was clear that the term “community justice” embodied her lived experience. At a time when Massachusetts’ advocates are hoping to get criminal justice reform passed and are depending on legislation to help transform lives, “community justice” is an alternative, vibrant, and hopeful path towards achieving change.

Community justice, as defined on the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice’s (CHHIR&J) website is “the process of building public policy by incorporating the voices, knowledge and aspirations of individuals living and working in communities decimated by decades of disinvestment, neglect and over-policing.” The CHHIR&J has been pioneering community justice programs at the law school in order to present viable alternatives to the overly harsh and often misguided policies permeating today’s punishment system. On October 3rd, “Justice Works” was one of those programs and featured a variety of speakers who had found ways to demand change on a local level— engaging those who are most impacted and encouraging them to speak out against injustices and for progressive policies.

David Harris, executive director of the CHHIR&J, calls Lillie Estes “the heart and soul of Richmond, Virginia.” In an email, he added, “She has devoted decades to make real the common idea that people in communities must guide their own destiny.”

In a phone interview, Estes called herself a “community strategist.” She spoke about how she has been on a “spiritual journey” from her first efforts to improve the community as a high school student in Newport News, Virginia, and soon after as an active member of the NAACP Youth Council. She moved to Richmond more than 35 years ago.

One of her current passions is RePHRAME or Residents of Public Housing in Richmond Against Mass Eviction. In an op-ed, which Estes co-wrote for the Richmond Times-Dispatch with several other authors, she stated “In Virginia, someone would have to work 128 hours per week at minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom rental home at fair market rent. And in Virginia, landlords have many more rights and protections than tenants.”

To help protect citizens in public housing, Estes said she co-founded RePHRAME, and it has become an example of community justice at work. Estes lives in public housing herself. She said the challenge and the key to getting residents involved is approaching folks on a personal level, letting them know that “Even if I have the power, I will acknowledge your wisdom in your capacity.” She is not above knocking on doors to get residents engaged in change, what she calls a “labor of love and work in progress.” Community meetings and consensus are part and parcel of her process. Estes said it took her five years to convince someone to join the board of RePHRAME because “so many people [in public housing] feel they don’t have any value.” She “pitches it so they don’t get captured by other people.”

RePHRAME’s ambitious work includes: making sure residents do not lose their public housing if redevelopment occurs; as planning for newly created public housing units takes place, insisting that employment, education, and other opportunities from development go to public housing residents; assuring that residents have a voice in decisions regarding their housing and their communities; working to avoid late fees tacked on to rent because of posal system delays. Estes already has helped implement a residents’ “bill of rights” for redevelopment.


2016 article in the Richmond Sun detailed a few of Estes’ other efforts. She serves on the advisory board of the city’s Maggie L. Walker Initiative for Expanding Opportunity and Fighting Poverty. According to the Sun, “The group presented an action plan to Mayor Dwight C. Jones in 2013 to help alleviate poverty in Richmond, where one in four city residents lives at or below the poverty level.” She was instrumental in developing a position in the mayor’s Office of Community Wealth Building to help implement poverty-fighting initiatives. Estes serves on the board of the Virginia Poverty Law Center. She is also behind the 2017-18 Community Justice Film Series in Richmond which is using film as a catalyst for community engagement and promoting “forward-thinking dialogue” around themes such as education, housing, publlc safety, whole body health, transportation, job creation, and wealth building.

Part of improving public housing is improving all of the above issues for residents. Indeed, it is not insignificant that those issues contribute to the life expectancy in the public housing complex where Estes resides—63 years, the lowest in Richmond. According to a Virginia Commonwealth University report, in a suburb just five miles away, people are living twenty years longer.

David Harris pointed out in his email that Estes has continued “to work tirelessly against great odds to identify and amplify” voices of members of impaced communities. Estes told me that her eldest son was murdered in 2010, three days before his 24th birthday. Her son’s best friend, she said in a Richmond Times-Dispatch article,was shot to death on New Year’s Day in South Richmond. Another son is in college and hopes to be a lawyer, and he attended the Harvard event with her. She has worked hard to fight against violence of any kind and to hold her city accountable. She shared that when her mother had a stroke when she was young, Estes learned to speak for her, an art that has truly helped her understand others.

Mothers for Justice and Equality, a national group based in Boston whose mission is to empower mothers to end violence in the streets, awarded Estes a “Mother of Courage Award” in 2016 for her work. Surely there is no one who is more deserving.

Lillie talking

Head shots courtesy of Lillie Estes

As Lillie Estes continues to work for justice in Richmond and surrounding communities, the Houston Institute continues to present important events to amplify the voices of those living and working in communities hardest hit by crime and violence, and to feature activists who champion these issues around the nation.

US Parole Activists Aim to Overhaul a Failing System

“Prisoner” (Image Courtesy of Ade McOren-Campbell / Flickr

Hey folks, please s
ee my newest article at Truthout. Here’s how it begins:

“The United States has the shameful reputation of being the world’s largest jailer, and as the Prison Policy Initiative reported in March, 2017, 2.3 million people are currently locked up in prisons and jails. This mass incarceration continues in spite of the fact that a Brennan Center for Justice report shows that crime is down and rates remain near historic lows.

Furthermore, our punishment system extends beyond the prison walls and includes destructive parole policies. “Max Out,” a 2014 Pew Charitable Trusts report, details that over the past three decades, those sent to prison have been serving longer sentences. They are less likely to earn parole, the opportunity to finish one’s sentence in the community. This occurs in spite of the fact that research shows that longer sentences do not make us safer and do not prevent people from returning to prison, even as they cost more.

But here’s the good news: Activists across the county are seeking remedies for people impacted by this failing parole system, and in some cases, changing the system itself.” more

Prison Abolition Conference


Rachel and Elly

Please read and share my newest on Truthout: “Abolitionists From Around the World Gather to Plan for the End of Prisons.” It starts like so: “In July 2017 more than 200 people from across the globe met for four days in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which was once home to abolitionist Frederick Douglass and a major stop on the Underground Railroad. Meeting intentionally in a place with such historical significance to the abolition movement, conferees came together to learn more about the relationship between the carceral state and struggles against colonialism and slavery.”

Above is a picture of Massachusetts activists Elly Kaulfis (R) and Rachel Corey (L), not included in the article but there workshop is discussed

Prison Writer Slammed With Another Stint in Solitary


Federal prison

Please see my newest on HuffPost which begins: “It shouldn’t be surprising to hear federal prisoner and prisoner rights advocate Christopher Zoukis, who has written four books and produced countless articles for outlets such as the New York Daily News, Prison Legal News, and the Huffington Post, is under fire once again for his writing activities. Accused of running a business, so far he has served 30 days in solitary confinement. This is the third time Zoukis has received sanctions for his writing actions, with five months in the hole being the most severe punishment to date.  MORE

ACTION ALERT: July 11/12 calls for Parole Reform!


I am posting this important notice for Massachusetts from the Steering Committee of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety (CEPS).

As many of you know, there have been hearings by the Joint Committee on the Judiciary this summer on many bills that are important to everyone fighting for justice. One area which is crucial, but unfortunately not on everyone’s radar, is parole. The Coalition for Effective Public Safety is writing to urge you to TAKE ACTION TUESDAY-WEDNESDAY THIS WEEK and contact members of the Judiciary Committee to support “An Act Related to Parole,” S.779 (Sen. William Brownsberger) and H.3121 (Rep. Dave Rogers). A Fact Sheet on these parole bills–they are the same–is attached to this email. We have also heard that the Senate will be deciding its priorities on Wednesday, July 12th. Parole reform is crucial if we want to end mass incarceration.

Why we need these bills to become law now

1) They increases Parole Board membership from seven to nine members and requires six members to sit as the full Board for all lifer release hearings. At present, prisoners serving non-life State Prison sentences and House of Correction sentences are not receiving their parole hearings on time.  Some Prisoners’ parole eligibility dates come and go without a parole hearing.  Also, prisoners serving life sentences generally wait between six and eight months for their parole decisions.  Additional Board members will help to correct these serious problems.

These bills also require that at least three members of the Parole Board have at least five years of experience in the fields of psychiatry, psychology, social work, or the treatment of substance use disorder. They also requires that one member be a licensed mental health professional.   Our Parole Board needs members with more diversity of experience in order to  effectively evaluate the people seeking parole who come before it.  

At presentonly one of six members, Dr. Charlene Bonner, has extensive clinical experience as a forensic psychologist. (There is one vacancy) There is no one on the Board with education and experience in clinical social work, psychiatry, medicine or sociology. The Board’s background is primarily in the area of law enforcement. This is not sufficient for the number of prisoners who have mental health issues, substance abuse issues or both (approximately 70% all prisoners).

Additionally, the Parole Board holds over 10,000 hearings a year, where members travel across the state, and in one, two or three-person panels, hear cases. That number includes 200 hearings with the full board for those serving life sentences eligible for parole. That means our one psychologist has no contact with the vast majority of persons seeking parole.  We need Board members who are better trained to evaluate and predict behavior.  That is what parole is all about and the result will be better informed and fairer decisions . There is currently no mechanism to ensure that our Parole Board has the education and skills necessary for well-informed, fair decisions that promotepublic safety.

2)  The Council of State Government data on Massachusetts confirms that we are paroling prisoners at a very low rate and forcing many parole eligible people to wrap up their sentences and transition home with no help and no oversight: in 2015, only 19% of parole eligible prisoners in our Houses of Correction were released on parole; in that same year, while 46.4% of those serving DOC sentences received positive votes for parole, 18% of that group max out and [were] not released to parole supervision. CSG’s research concluded that we need to reduce our prison population through parole. These bills would help us assure that prisoners would not be judged solely on the underlying offense but on positive program accomplishments, detailed post-release plans, strong evidence of rehabilitation and low risk assessment scores. The bills incentivize good behavior and engagement in educational, vocational, and rehabilitative programming by creating a sense that parole release is the individual’s to lose. The parole rate will improve and Massachusetts will save money $5000 to supervise one parolee vs. $53,000 to house a state prisoner.



Co-Chairs are William Brownsberger (Senate) and Claire Cronin (House). Please call the Senate Contact for the Judiciary Committee (617)-722-1280 and the House Contact (617) 722-2396

Tell them: “As a concerned resident of Massachusetts, I am urging the Judiciary Committee to report out favorably parole bills S.779 and H.3121.” 

If you can make a third phone call, listed below are the members of the Judiciary Committee. Click on the names below and you can get their contact info and the areas they represent. If any committee members are your legislators, it would be helpful for you to contact them too. This is a time sensitive issue so thank you for your ACTION NOW!


Senate Members

William N. Brownsberger 

Sonia Chang-Diaz 
Vice Chair

House Members

Claire D. Cronin 

James M. Cantwell 
Vice Chair


FACT SHEET ON PAROLE BILLS available upon request.