News Desk

August 19, 2015

The Man Who Screamed So Loud the Drug Laws Changed
By Jennifer Gonnerman

After early success as a comedian, Credico, pictured here in 1990, became an activist. Credit PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL A. SMITH / THE LIFE IMAGES COLLECTION / GETTY

Before the term “mass incarceration” started appearing on the front pages of newspapers, before Obama became the first sitting President to visit a federal prison, before Democrats and Republicans began working together on criminal-justice reform, Randy Credico was screaming about the injustices of America’s incarceration policies. He wasn’t writing angry op-eds for newspapers; he was, literally, screaming. One day in 2001, I found him in front of Kings County State Supreme Court, hollering at passersby: “They’re taking black children out of your neighborhood and putting them in Attica! This is a modern-day slave-auction block!” Another day, I caught him in front of Queens State Supreme Court, heckling the employees: “You guys who are assistant D.A.s—get a real job! Quit destroying lives!”

It would have been easy to dismiss him as just another New York City crank. He certainly looked the part, with his curly hair askew, a soggy cigar stuck between his lips. But, as I learned, his animosity toward the prison system was well founded: his father spent almost a decade behind bars before he was born, and he grew up hearing horrific tales about life in prison. Born in 1954, in Monterey Park, California, Credico got an early start as a comedian and appeared on the “Tonight Show” at age thirty. On air, he compared U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick to Eva Braun; he never got invited back. He later believed that his radical politics—combined with a love of cocaine—had derailed his comedy career. At forty-three, he was searching for a second act when he saw a C-SPAN debate about New York’s Rockefeller drug laws, which were then the most punitive in the country. He decided that he would make it his cause to dismantle them.

He began visiting prisons in upstate New York, and befriended inmates and their families. In the spring of 1998, he held his first protest, with a few dozen inmates’ relatives, holding up posters in the rain in front of Rockefeller Center. The protests continued for years—at Rockefeller Center, at courthouses around the city, at politicians’ fund-raisers, at the State Capitol in Albany. When then Governor George Pataki held a fund-raiser at the Yale Club, Credico was across the street with inmates’ family members, waving signs and chanting. I was a reporter for the Village Voice then, and I interviewed him many times. He seemed to spend most of his days on his cell phone: planning events, badgering reporters, fielding calls from prisoners and their relatives. He had a knack for drawing attention, and for converting an argument that had largely been made with numbers into a manifestly human drama. At one point, I calculated that he had generated more than a hundred news stories, largely by inviting reporters to his events and introducing them to the families of inmates. At the end of 2004, New York’s legislators rewrote the Rockefeller drug laws. They made more reforms in 2005 and 2009.

Once his fight was over, Credico lost his focus. He turned himself into a perpetual political candidate—running for the U.S. Senate, New York City Mayor, and New York State Governor—which brought him some attention from reporters but not enough votes to pose a threat to more mainstream candidates. Cocaine and alcohol became harder to resist, and when he got drunk he had a bad habit of shooting off nasty mass e-mails to friends, acquaintances, politicians, journalists, and activists. He called various targets “shameless,” a “clown,” and a “pile of lard.” He told the leaders of one progressive group that they were all a “bunch of non working, trust funded white people.” Every morning, he would wake up unable to remember what he had written, and open his computer to discover who was no longer talking to him.

Then, in August, 2014, he got arrested in the Bronx for “menacing” a police sergeant with an umbrella. He strongly denied the charge, but after his arrest his drinking got worse. “A bottle of tequila one day, a bottle of bourbon the next day,” he says. “I was so depressed. I hated going to sleep because I knew I had to wake up.” He started working on a book, which he titled “Suicide Note.” On January 16th, the twenty-third anniversary of his father’s death, he posted pictures on his Facebook page of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and other writers who had taken their lives.

The political satirist Barry Crimmins, a friend of almost thirty-five years, picked up the phone. “It wasn’t too hard to put two and two together, so I just called him up,” Crimmins says. “Mainly I told him I loved him, and I needed him around.” At first Credico tried to deny that he was suicidal, but eventually he admitted it, and somehow, earlier this year, he got sober.

Crimmins, who has followed Credico’s activist work over the years, has a theory about what drives him. “I think all this work he’s done has been this cry of love towards his father,” he says. “I just know he thought the world of his father and never hid or ran from his criminal background, and understood early on that things can break the wrong way. You come from the wrong economic circumstances, you get in the wrong situation at a young age, you get caught up in the system, and you’re doomed.”

Now sixty-one years old, Credico has been watching the same issues that he was shouting about in the late 1990s and early 2000s command national attention. He decided to find a way back into this fight, and came up with a new cause. Inspired by Columbia University student activists—who recently convinced Columbia to become the first university to divest from companies that run private prisons—Credico is trying to persuade the public officials overseeing New York City and New York State’s pension funds to do the same.

He zeroed in on two companies, the GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America (C.C.A.). (They operate county jails, state prisons, and immigration detention facilities.) New York State’s retirement fund and New York City’s pensions funds own millions of dollars of shares in both companies. Soon Credico was talking about these investments constantly. “There’s nothing worse than the exploitation of human beings for private profit,” he says. “You can’t invest in something that feeds into human misery.”

Credico has chosen a name for his campaign, EPIC (short for End Prison-Industrial Complex), and set up a Facebook page and a Web site for it. Many activists might focus on researching the companies they are targeting, but one of Credico’s first moves was to order black-and-white-striped prisoner costumes, which he plans to use when he holds protests outside the offices of the state and city comptrollers. “Whatever I have left in my bag of tricks is going to be used on this,” Credico says. “If New York rolls, I think other states would roll, too.” He may succeed again, or maybe his efforts will fizzle out. Politicians and the press are now more focused on criminal-justice reforms than they have been in years, which means his main challenge may be staying sober enough to lead his campaign.

Learn how you can get involved with EPIC

Together, we can make a difference

End Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) is a proactive organization dedicated to a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system from top to bottom. From police, the prosecutors to judges, precinct jails, city jails, state and fed prisons, private prisons, appeals courts and other spokes in the broken wheel of justice, EPIC is committed to use its energy and creative human resources to effect profound and lasting changes to a cruel and unusual, racist and Kafkaesque system of mass incarceration. We are an activist organization. The focus of EPIC is use our resources for operations rather than administration. A major focus will be put on prosecutors and judges.


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Albany Times Union
Divest funds from jails
Investing N.Y. pensions in prisons morally reprehensible and fiscally irresponsible

By Randy Credico, Commentary

August 22, 2015

Fernando Wood, courtesy of the film Lincoln, is best remembered for leading the House of Representatives floor fight against the 13th Amendment. One has to do some research to learn more about the man because the epic flick reveals very little of Wood's background or why he so vehemently opposed the abolition of slavery.

Wood was a multi-term congressman, a Tammany Grand Sachem and two-time New York City mayor. Moreover, he was an unsavory, opportunistic businessman. He made a colossal fortune in shipping, mostly from transporting cotton to northern ports and Great Britain. And, he wasn't alone; New York City was the hub that fed the world's insatiable appetite for cotton, tobacco and other commodities produced by slave labor. Wood was so closely joined to the slave state hip that, as mayor, he submitted a bill to the common council calling for New York to secede from the Union.

Well, that was then and this is now. Or is it?

Both the New York City and New York state pension funds have a direct stake in corporations that are second cousins to slavery, the private prison industry. This is a shocking revelation. I know and respect the stewards of these funds, Tom DiNapoli and Scott Stringer. They both have impressive civil rights records. As members of the New York state Assembly, they supported the grassroots movement to repeal the racist Rockefeller Drug Laws. It is hard to believe that two of the most progressive elected officials in New York would take workers' wages and invest them into such an inhumane enterprise.

The only explanation I could come up with is that they must have not have known that their respective pension funds were directly connected to such a repulsive operation. I brought my concerns to the attention of both men weeks ago, and, as of this writing, nothing has changed. Well, it's one thing not to know, it's quite another matter not to care.

As Michelle Alexander put it in "The New Jim Crow," mass incarceration in the United States has emerged as "a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow." Investing in companies that profit from this system is morally indefensible. I know both DiNapoli and Stringer have voiced opposition to mass incarceration. Yet in order to realize an increased value in the private prison portion of their equity portfolio, they must hope for what they claim to oppose – the expansion of the private prison system and the growth of mass incarceration.

But it's not just morally reprehensible to invest in prisons, it is also fiscally irresponsible. Two of the private prison stocks the city and state have wagered pension fund money on, the GEO Group and Correctional Corporation of America (CCA), companies that control approximately 75 percent of the prison market, are heading south, constantly hitting new 52-week lows. From President Barack Obama's recent spate of pardons to pending state and federal legislation to cut prison sentences for low level, non-violent offenders to the #BlackLivesMatter movement calling for an end to the prison industrial complex, the writing is on the wall. Prisons are no longer a growth industry.

Columbia University recently became the first U.S. university to divest from prisons. This turn of events was the result of a fervent, well-organized student protest movement against mass incarceration. Those students are inspiring protests and direct action across the nation. They've inspired me, too.

The fact that New York finally ended slavery in 1827 didn't prevent individuals like Fernando Wood from making their fortunes on the backs of enslaved people in states that did. That came to an end in 1865 with the passage of the 13th amendment. And now? There is one GEO group facility (federally funded) in New York state, and none operated by CCA. But the lack of private prisons within our borders hasn't prevented individuals and institutions here from cynically capitalizing off of those that exist outside of our borders. This is a paradox only Fernando Wood and his Tammany cronies would appreciate.

Randy Credico, of New York City, is a comedian, activist, and founder of End Prison Industrial Complex Now.

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