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.

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


Inspired by the Women’s March, here I am with my niece only a month after knee surgery! We had 175,000 in Boston. What a day.


Keep the actions going! Here’s more info from the #WomensMarch

Action 1 / 10

Write a postcard to your Senators about what matters most to you – and how you’re going to continue to fight for it in the days, weeks and months ahead. We’re offering printable postcards for you to download.

You can go it alone, or consider inviting some friends, neighbors and fellow Marchers over for a drink or dinner sometime in the next ten days to talk about your experience and fill out your postcards.”

It’s easy! Just print them at home or at a print shop and send to your senators.

For more, see The Campaign that is folowing from the millions who marched world-wide on January 21st: 10 ACTIONS / 100 DAYS.

What writing a book about a juvenile lifer taught me

In April, 2016, my book Boy With A Knife: The Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice was published by Ig Publishing. But getting the book into print was hardly the beginning of my getting to know Karter Reed, a once juvenile lifer, who eventually won parole by suing and then settling with the Parle Board in Massachusetts. It was hardly the beginning of my coming to understand now firmly held beliefs: that our country must not send youth to adult prisons and that as a nation, we have come late to the compassion table


Karter Reed killed a boy when he was sixteen and while there is no excusing the tragedy that his murder of Jason Robinson incurred—for both Jason and Karter’s friends and famiies and for the communities they hailed from—he was a child who ended up serving time in a prison with adults, subject to rape, violence, with difficult barriers to get more than his GED, therapy and age-appropriate programming. Karter was like more than 200,000 youth who each year are tried, sentenced, or imprisoned as adults across the United States. On any given day, 6,000 youth are detained or incarcerated in adult jails and prisons. We know that punishment is more severe for kids of color all across the board and that housing kids with adults creates more mental health as well as safety issues.

I learned all this slowly and much of it through Karter as well as through six years of digging into trial transcripts, books, articles and case studies. This began in 2007, when Karter first wrote me from prison. He asked me, a college professor and writer, if I could help a friend with parole. We wrote over one hundred letters to each other, and I learned the truth about the boy, who in news articles from the early 1990s, had been condemned as a “monster,” carrying out a “methodical crime.” Instead of a monster, I discovered a fallible human being, a teenager at the time of his crime, who had made a serious, life-changing mistake, but had spent his time in prison maturing into a man who thought each day about the life he had taken, while at the same time fighting the unfair and arbitrary justice of prison officials and the parole board.

Through knowing Reed and through my six years of work understanding his case and others like him, I came to see that he would have done fine if tried as a juvenile. And the country would have been safe because he has shown he did have the power to change and was not equally culpable as an adult might have been if convicted of murder. Research has shown us that children are not little adults. Their brains are still developing and this leads to the kind of impulsive, erratic behavior that sends them diving headfirst into dangerous risks because risk can also provide great rewards. They hang out with the “wrong kind of kids” and make poor choices be in storming into a classroom to finish a fight or carrying an open knife to school in a pant’s pocket. As scientists know adolescents mature at varied rates. It is teenagers’ heightened vulnerability to seek rewards and fulfill their need for excitement that drives risky behavior. Karter believed he was standing up for a friend and by finishing a fight, that he would be a heo. How many teens are driven by misguided loyalty to their friends!

When the book came out there were protests from the community where Karter’s crime occurred. The family did not want my book published  because they were afraid that I glorified a killer. But in fact, the book and much of the work about kids like Karter, aims to show that there are many victims who suffer when juveniles create harm. The intent is never to excuse murder. There were also many letters I received from people thankful to hear that Karter had received a second chance with parole, and some who lived in the area, were grateful to learn that kids can change and in fact do.

Our country has come late to giving kids who are sentenced to life second chances. Supreme court cases and changing understandings have helped us along but we have a long way to go. As I wrote in an article for Truthout this year, in “the first-ever national survey of victims’ views on safety and justice, published in August 2016 by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, crime victims overwhelmingly said they support spending money on treatment and crime prevention instead of on prisons and jails.”

Karter Reed is doing well these days. He has earned an Associates Degree (4.0 average!), has a job where he is a manager, owns a house, has developed good relationships with many in his family, and has a fledgling relationship. He constantly reminds me that he is not different from many of the other young men and women who are still behind bars. As the year comes to an end, I urge us all to recommit our efforts to help kids get out of prison. It is not what will help they heal, help communities heal, and as we have shown time and time again, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”