Updated: Dec 25, 2021
On the criminal injustice system and the Remedy Project.
By Edie Conekin-Tooze
David Simpson is a former Columbia Justice-in-Education Scholar who spent ten years in federal prison. He has garnered hard-won expertise on the injustices of the “justice” system and has dedicated his post-carceral life to making conditions more humane for those still on the inside. While incarcerated, Simpson familiarized himself with the administrative remedy process—the formal grievance process by which incarcerated people seek justice for violations of their rights by Federal Bureau of Prisons staff. Simpson went on to file numerous remedies on behalf of himself and others he met in prison. After he was released, while taking classes at Columbia through the Justice-in-Education program, Simpson began to train Columbia students to write and file remedies on behalf of incarcerated people. In January 2020, he and Anna Sugrue, BC ’20, launched the Remedy Project, formerly known as the Student Justice League. So far, Simpson has trained 16 Columbia students, with another 26 currently in training. Since the summer, the Remedy Project has filed over 100 remedies on behalf of their 150 registered incarcerated clients.
I have known Simpson since I first joined the Remedy Project as an advocate last year. He takes a very hands-on approach to the process of writing remedies, so we regularly spend hours on the phone discussing whichever case I am currently working on. I have been struck by his remarkable enthusiasm and commitment to the amelioration of the lives of incarcerated people. However, I knew little of his background until our Conversation, in which he shared his story, he told me, because it speaks to broader patterns of injustice in America’s carceral system.
Simpson was born in Florida but as a baby, he moved with his mother to Trinidad and Tobago, where he eventually trained to be an electrician. There he often heard that “everybody wanted to come to the United States of America,” and the familiar refrain that “life is easier over there.” Intrigued, Simpson used his citizenship to move to New Jersey in 1998, where he became a successful electrician, married, and had two sons. In 2006, a childhood friend of Simpson’s asked him to pick up a woman from the airport. He obliged, oblivious to the fact that this request was a test run for a drug-smuggling operation. Though the woman was not carrying drugs, she was caught by police at the airport as a potential drug-smuggling suspect. The police then arrested Simpson as part of the conspiracy and responded to his claims of innocence by asking him to participate in a sting to catch the true culprits. Simpson refused, fearing for the lives of his family in Trinidad: “When folks get involved with stuff like that here, people in Trinidad die. Folks retaliate against their family members in Trinidad.” The police, in turn, told him, “Basically, if you don’t help us, we’re going to make sure you don’t see your kids for a really long time.’”
Simpson went home that night, but the police kept their word. In the end, the entire drug smuggling effort was pinned on Simpson based on the testimony of one woman—testimony, Simpson said, the prosecutor had induced her to change over the course of the trial. He told me this was retaliation for his refusal to participate in the sting: “I did not cooperate and their mentality is to punish, especially folks that look like me, and get us into the system because there’s no one to defend us.”
Simpson described his incarceration as an outgrowth of American carceral “programming” rooted in Drug War militarism. “Because it’s a war,” the logic goes, “there will be collateral damage. We are going to hurt a lot of people, and we will do so knowingly and intentionally … to win this war on drugs. Because we need folks in the system so that the system continues to operate.”
Simpson was first sent to MDC Brooklyn, where he first experienced carceral injustice and first took action against it. Outraged by the facility’s negligent treatment of his friend Oney—a man with a brain tumor who had suffered through a medical episode that was ignored, then dismissed by prison staff—Simpson wrote a letter to Oney’s judge. Simpson’s letter yielded results: The judge chastised the medical staff and called for Oney to get a full medical diagnosis, at a significant financial cost to the prison.
But this was also Simpson’s first taste of retaliation. After his sentencing, he received a series of harsh disciplinary punishments for small infractions, such as storing fruit from the mess hall in his locker to eat later. He later learned that these were reprisals for embarrassing the staff at MDC Brooklyn. After being moved to a higher-security prison in Texas as a result of one such infraction, Simpson met Garry Okpala, an incarcerated former paralegal. It was Okpala who taught Simpson how to write administrative remedies. Simpson, in turn, began writing countless remedies on behalf of fellow incarcerated people. When he got out, he turned this effort into what would become the Remedy Project. In the conversation that follows, we discuss the project’s genesis and Simpson’s vision for the future.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue and White: Why do you think more incarcerated people aren’t familiar with the administrative remedy process? And what are the biggest barriers to incarcerated people successfully filing remedies by themselves?
David Simpson: One of the reasons why people incarcerated are not familiar with the process is because they are not trained in doing the process and using the process right because it’s actually (as you well know and other advocates well know) something that is very tedious and confusing. Okpala trained me, and so that’s how I knew how to do the administrative remedies. But Okpala didn’t have a class session going on where he would train all them incarcerated persons. When one comes into a prison, there’s an orientation that they go through. They will mention that the process exists, and that’s it.
I think the whole process was designed … to make it hard for incarcerated persons to get into the courts with arguments. They take it and they hide it. They throw it away. They reject you for frivolous reasons. They retaliate against you when you file it. They throw you in the SHU [“special housing unit,” more commonly known as solitary confinement]. We literally have guys in the SHU right now because of remedies that we have done for them.
The administrative remedy process is not going to go anywhere until there is sufficient, substantial outside eyes looking at the way this is done, and who is doing it, and what’s being done to those who are doing it. Until that’s done, that process is not going to go anywhere and people are going to continue suffering, losing legs and lives and everything else in prison.
B&W: When did you get the idea for the Remedy Project and what gave you the idea?
DS: While incarcerated, I knew that I had a great skill of doing remedies to help folks. Guys were heartbroken that I was leaving because they knew that when I left, there was no one to keep prison officials at bay. They knew at the time, “Hey, if you mess with me, I’m going to go by Simpson. And Simpson’s going to write you up.” That kept everybody respectful and doing what they’re supposed to do, to a certain extent.
I started thinking, then: Can you go out there and do this? Most of the remedies that I’ve done, I’ve done them for free … because guys couldn’t necessarily pay you to do that. A lot of them were in prison for a long time and their rights are being violated. They don’t have access to immediate funds. Now, if you’re on the outside, you have to take care of family. You have to rent a place. And then there’s the hindrance of: Well, they don’t want you being in contact because you’re on federal probation. I knew that that’s why nobody who’s left from before me with the same knowledge and understanding—that they have never done it. As far as doing an administrative remedy, they don’t know about that on the outside, and nobody’s interested in it, even though it’s very important.
Columbia University had a pilot program that they were starting there at MDC Brooklyn, where Professor Mercer and some others came in and taught philosophy classes. When I saw that, I was like, “Man, philosophy class. I’m not going to do anything with it.” But it’s one of the most substantial courses that I’ve ever seen offered in the prison system. So I signed up for it. Seeing Professor Mercer coming in and trying to make change, and trying to do good, gave me a little bit of inspiration, a little bit of hope that things will get better on the inside of prisons.
Based on that program, I qualified to be able to enter Columbia University when I got out. So when I got out and I got to the halfway house, I went up to the Justice Center and became a JIE scholar—Justice-In-Education scholar. One of the classes that I had had a mixture of incarcerated persons and regular matriculated students at Columbia. That’s where I first experienced the fact that there were a lot of young, intelligent, bright people who cared about the justice system. I couldn’t believe that people actually cared. I just figured no one cares because when you are inside the prison, you don’t see all this stuff. I’m saying to myself, “Man, this is a big movement. Folks are really trying to make some change.” But I’m like, “While they are trying to change all these laws and stuff, people are still suffering on the inside. People are still hurting daily. Who is helping them? No one.”
I’m still trying to figure it out while I’m at the halfway house. I'm still doing remedies on behalf of myself [and] for other folks also who are being taken advantage of at the halfway house. Then halfway house staff retaliate against me and send me back into prison at MDC Brooklyn for the last four months of my incarceration. That’s when it dawned on me: “David, you have these young folks in that class that you met that seemed genuinely and honestly caring about what happened to you and what’s going on in prison. And maybe this fight that you’re trying to fight is not yours. What if you gave them this fight? Would they be successful?” Well, the only way that they would know how to fight the Federal Bureau of Prisons on the inside because they were never incarcerated, is for them to be trained. I said, “Well, who will train them?” I say, “Well, you could use folks like yourself.”
My classmates had reached out to me and wrote me letters [while I was reincarcerated]. And one of them, in particular, who was extremely concerned and friendly beyond measure was Anna Sugrue [BC ’20]. When I came back out and I ran into her and I spoke with her, I said, “You know, Anna, I have an idea, what if we got together and I teach you and students on how to do what I did in the prison that helped a lot of people tremendously, immediately, real-time effect on folks’ lives. Would that be something you’d be interested in?” She got all bright-eyed and excited. “Oh, that sounds like a great idea. Yeah, why not?” I said, “OK, we'll work on it.” And it took off from there. That’s really how SJL came to be, because of my unfortunate suffering.
Even though that four months in MDC was kind of harsh … I had a chance to think and once I thought to myself: If you do it yourself, they’re going to retaliate. But if you use the student, it’s a different ballgame.
B&W: I’m really struck by your attitude towards all of this. It would be really easy to be incredibly psychologically broken down by, first, the experience of unjustly being incarcerated and then second, the experience of pretty constant retaliation in the face of you seeking justice. And yet you still are trying to fight for justice. You are still an optimistic person. You don’t think the world is totally awful. How do you think you got to that place?
DS: When you say I don’t think the world is totally awful [laughs], I might disagree with that a little bit.
B&W: You are optimistic enough to want to do the Remedy Project and not just give up on everything.
DS: Well. The truth is I don’t have faith in man as a whole … to fix the issues or the problems that we have on Earth. Do I see the United States being better? Do I see a better life or better future here in the United States? Only for certain people, and not necessarily the ones who look like me. I believe that the United States of America is too damaged as a people to recover fully to the point where I will feel safe for myself and my kids, that they would survive without the harsh life that has been doled out to me and so many others. But I am inspired to not just cut and run and to put a great effort into helping resolve the issues, because I’m inspired by folks like yourself, Professor Mercer, and Anna, and all those who do believe that it could be done and are willing to give their all to try and get it done. That is my inspiration.
If it were not for you guys, I would not be doing what I’m doing—I would be working electrical, piling up as much money as I can, with no more than a five-year maximum stay in the United States and saving every dime. I don’t want to know that I have the knowledge and understanding to help in such a great feat, and I ran and didn't help.
B&W: Before you found administrative remedies how [did] you psychologically deal with the experience of unjustly being incarcerated?
DS: That goes to the root or the source of who I am, and what I am today. That comes from the fact that I did not grow up in the United States of America and that I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago. I did not suffer the mental abuse and programming that most Americans that look like myself suffer. I was not programmed to receive abuse and just act like it was OK. So when what was done to me was done to me, my survival instinct kicked in. I needed to get out. I need to survive for myself, my wife, and my kids.
B&W: Thinking back to the Remedy Project, now you have it up and running. What is a case the Remedy Project has worked on that’s been particularly important to you?
DS: I am proud of the first case that was worked on by some of the first students in the first cohort. I think, to be exact, it’s Hanna Dobroszycki [BC ’23], Hannah Lin [CC ’23], and Colin Adams [GSAS ’23] … that worked on Adolphus Nwokedi[’s case]. He reached out to me and he said, “Man, I need some help. I’m supposed to go to a halfway house, but they’re telling me that they’re not going to send me, anymore.” I provided them with the information, and I said, “This is a real case. If you do what I taught you to do, and you do it right, it will work.” All three worked on it and each one provided their spin. I put it together, and I packaged it, and I sent it off to Mr. Nwokedi, and he submitted it to the staff. And the same staff who was telling him weeks before that he’s probably going to spend the rest of his time at MDC Brooklyn was now telling him, “Hey, pack your stuff, get ready. We about to ship you to the halfway house.” That was a proud moment, a moment where I saw that what it is that we are putting in motion, can work, can happen, can be done.
B&W: Could you talk a bit about the retaliation that the Remedy Project is currently facing—I believe at FCI Manchester—and what the plan is to overcome it?
DS: At FCI Manchester, they’re messing with the mail that’s going in to folks. When we send them [our clients] the remedy, we send them with all the additional pages that they would need, so they don’t have to go spend whatever little money they have to make copies and then take extra time—because sometimes it’s a week before they get … to the library to make copies. We put the whole thing together so they have nothing to do other than to hand it over to the counselor. When we send that, they take it and they open it and they take it apart. First, they take all the originals right there, they keep the form, make a copy of that, and then give the guys one or two pages of the other stuff that they copy and the rest. How is a person supposed to submit a good grievance with that? How are folks supposed to believe in us and what we are doing, if the prison officials are still getting away with doing stuff like that?
B&W: But there is a future vision for how we're going to overcome this, right? Could you talk a little bit about that?
DS: Yes. There is a public advocacy platform that we are in the process of developing. I see the students that we’re working with now at Columbia and Barnard developing this platform. But then students across America joining this platform to create a powerful force, a massive body in one location, to bring attention—immediate and outright attention—to situations of individuals and/or prisons … hindering our work. I see this platform being linked to government officials. The citizens and/or the students can’t make the prison officials do anything, but they can bring attention to what the prison officials are doing, so that their government officials can say, “We can’t be looking this bad to have these students crying out like that. Take care of that.”
B&W: Could you talk briefly about your larger vision for the Remedy Project in the future?
DS: Right now, we are just doing administrative remedies for those who are incarcerated in federal prisons. However, we will also be doing administrative remedies for folks in the states, in every state. Of course, the first one will be designed for New York, and then we’ll be able to manipulate that in every state. I also envision us doing parole and probation advocacy heavily, also on behalf of folks who are impacted by that in both federal and state.
This is all designed to be powered and generated by students, so as long as the students care about this issue and are passionate about this issue, the Remedy Project will be successful.
B&W: If a Columbia student is reading this, and they want to get involved with the Remedy Project, how can they do so?
DS: All they got to do is go to the website and sign up and hit us up. Just make themselves present, make us know that they’re here and they're interested. There’s work to be done. Now is the time!
Go to The Remedy Project’s website to donate or get involved.