Mayor Cravins became the leading voice on juvenile justice reform in the LA Senate as the chair of the Judicial B Committee, which had oversight of the Louisiana corrections system. In 2001, he co-authored sweeping legislation which resulted in closure of the infamous Tallulah Prison in Tallulah, LA. Also, in 2003, he co-authored and helped pass the most sweeping Juvenile Justice Reform measures in the state’s history. The legislation changes the focus from incarceration to community-based programs which provide counseling and treatment.
In addition, he was named “Conservationist of the Year” in 1995 for his leadership in protecting our environment and natural resources. He was named in 2001 to serve as a prestigious “Toll Fellow” by the National Council of State Legislatures. This honor is bestowed on a select group of government leaders who demonstrate extraordinary leadership, commitment and compassion.
From 2006-2010, Vanita was a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, where she won a landmark settlement on behalf of immigrant children detained in a converted medium security, privately-run prison in Texas. Prior to joining the ACLU, Vanita was at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund where she successfully led the effort to overturn the wrongful drug convictions of 38 defendants in Tulia, Texas, and served on the legal team that won freedom for renowned prison journalist Wilbert Rideau in his fourth retrial after he had already spent 44 years in prison.
Vanita has won numerous awards for her advocacy and has been quoted extensively in national and international media on racial justice and criminal justice issues. She has served as a consultant for the Open Society Institute on various international human rights projects in Central Europe and Africa. She serves on the board of OSI Roma Initiatives and Working Films, Inc., as well as on the advisory committee of Human Rights Watch US Programs. Vanita is a graduate of Yale University and New York University School of Law.
In 1976, Wilbert became editor of The Angolite, the prisoner-produced newsmagazine, and was the first prisoner in American penal history to win freedom from censorship. Over the next quarter century, he won many of the nation’s highest journalism awards, including the prestigious George Polk Award, for his outstanding contributions to public understanding of the criminal justice and prison systems. In 1979, he became the first prisoner ever to receive the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award for an investigative exposé, “Conversations with the Dead,” that resulted in the release of a number of long-term inmates “lost” in the Louisiana prison system. In 1984, he was selected to participate in an unprecedented nationally televised dialogue with Chief Justice Warren Burger of the Supreme Court on ABC-TV’s Nightline.
In March 1993, Life magazine called him “The Most Rehabilitated Prisoner in America.” That same year, he ventured into broadcast journalism, producing award-winning reports for national radio and television. In 1996, he became the only prisoner ever to receive the Louisiana Bar Association’s highest journalistic honor for a documentary film he co-produced, Final Judgment: The Execution of Antonio James. In 1998, he co-directed a documentary, The Farm: Angola, USA, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award. He is the co-editor of The Wall Is Strong: Corrections in Louisiana, a textbook now in its fourth edition; Life Sentences, an anthology of articles from The Angolite; and In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance, his autobiography.
For two decades, as Louisiana’s most prominent prisoner, he traveled throughout the state, lecturing about journalism and criminal justice at universities and talking to court probationers and troubled youths at the request of judges and school authorities. In 2000, Wilbert won a new trial because of the systematic exclusion of blacks from the grand jury that indicted him in 1961. On January 15, 2005, a racially-mixed jury convicted him of manslaughter, a crime for which he had already served 23 years more than the maximum sentence. He was released immediately. Wilbert was given the 2005 Champion of Justice Award by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and also honored by the Southern Center for Human Rights with its Human Rights Award for 2005. A 2007 Soros Justice Media Fellow, he is now a consultant, specializing in capital client communications and problems.