Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Matthew Perry (CAS '19) on the Criminal Justice Nonprofit He Helped Found


Matthew Perry

You were a CAS College Leader and College Captain. Can you talk about those experiences?

I had the amazing opportunity to lead a cohort of first-year CAS students as a College Leader (2017-18), and then got to help plan and administer the College Cohort Program itself as a College Captain (2018-19). I loved both of these roles—the CCP team was incredibly welcoming and developmental, and I’m still good friends with many of my cohort students.  

What did you study at NYU and how did that education shape what you do now?

I majored in Social and Cultural Analysis and focused my studies on the cultural and legal institutions that undergird the carceral state. Now I work for a criminal justice nonprofit—Richmond Community Bail Fund—that I helped found during my second year at NYU. SCA allowed me to critically engage with the root causes of the problems I was seeing in my bail fund work: capitalism and the ideology of punishment. Without that incredibly formative education in my back pocket, my work would be less thoughtful and less effective.

Matthew Perry: his story continues

Can you tell us about Richmond Community Bail Fund?

Richmond Community Bail Fund is a Richmond, VA-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to free people by posting their bail while also working to abolish the practice of incarceration itself. We were formed because people locked up over an inability to afford bail typically face two choices: pay a commercial bondsman to get out and incur predatory interest rates, or sit in jail until trial. Our organization offers a third option: pay nothing, sign nothing, and get out simply because you deserve to. We post bail for everyone referred to us, regardless of their charges or personal background.

We also provide jail support for protesters arrested during our city's anti-police violence uprising. This involves running a 24/7 arrest hotline, paying bail for all protesters who need it, and camping out in the jail parking to provide food/water, medical treatment, and rides home for protesters as they get released. 

What is Court Watch RVA?

Court Watch RVA is a volunteer program I help run that trains Richmond community members to observe and record information about our city’s criminal courts system, which releases very little public data of its own accord. The purpose of the program is twofold: collect and disseminate important information about what happens in our city’s courts, and engage local residents in the work of building more effective and humane responses to harmful (often called “criminal”) behavior. The program is currently paused due to COVID-related court closures, but has gathered data on thousands of cases so far.

How do issues around bail impact communities?

The consequence of bail is incarceration, and the consequences of incarceration are life-destroying for both the individual and their family/community networks. Even one night in jail can result in the loss of housing, employment, child custody, welfare benefits, driving permissions, and countless other critical resources and legal rights. Incarceration is causally linked to lower life-expectancies as well, which means that it’s necessary to understand bail as a matter of life and death—a point for which the lives of Kalief Browder and Layleen Polanco serve as testimony.

What inspired you to get involved in this work?

The people I love who have been directly impacted by the criminal punishment system, the work of abolitionists like Angela Davis, Mariame Kaba, and Dean Spade, and the people of Ferguson who took to the streets in 2014 to resist the brutal, racist oppression of their police force. I also received formative inspiration and mentorship from my fellow organizers at the NYU Incarceration to Education Coalition, especially Cory Greene, Sheba Rivera, Alison Reba, and Amanda Lawson.

How do you sustain positivity and activism in the face of systemic racism?

First, because I know that as difficult and draining as the work of anti-racism can be, declining to act would only make me unhappier. Second, I act alongside friends and mentors who do this work despite facing intense oppression and marginalization, and their dedication strengthens mine. Third, I prioritize self-care by reading Alice Munro short stories and spending time with my cats.

What advice do you have for NYU students?

Don’t view yourself as a product—college is valuable beyond (and exclusively beyond) how it markets you to employers. The people you meet, the values you sharpen, and the different ways of living you encounter are the most valuable resources NYU has to offer. Allow yourself the time you need to enjoy them.  

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