Prison reform advocates march from NYC to Albany

NY Daily News from The Associated Press
September 13, 2017

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A group marching from Harlem to Albany to protest the state's treatment of prisoners has made it to the state Capitol.

The Alliance of Families for Justice spent 18 days on the road to draw attention to what they say are routine human rights violations in state correctional facilities.

Nine people walked the entire 140-mile stretch. Hundreds more joined the group on certain days.

The group's executive director, Soffiyah (Soh-FEE'-ah) Elijah, said Wednesday that the march succeeded in highlighting concerns about the abuse and exploitation of inmates. She says it also helped encourage more people with concerns to get involved.

A message seeking comment on the march from state corrections officials was not immediately returned Wednesday.

Activists call for closure of Attica prison

On eve of uprising's anniversary, marchers walk from Harlem to Albany

Rick Karlin
Tuesday, September 12, 2017

With Sept. 13 marking the 46th Anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, a group of prison reform advocates have completed a walk from Harlem to the State Capitol where they are urging a slate of changes including a renewed call to close the notorious western New York prison.  

“It’s a blight. A blemish on New York,” Soffiyah Elijah, organizer of the Alliance of Families for Justice, said as she led a small group of marchers up Central Avenue, more than two weeks after leaving New York City on Aug. 26.

Closure of Attica, which has been sought by some reform advocates for a while, may be the highlight of the Alliance’s list of demands.

But the group is also calling for reductions in the use of solitary confinement and for measures to halt what they say is violence and abuse against inmates across the state, especially in the wake of the 2015 escape of two inmates from the maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora. One escapee, Richard Matt, was eventually shot and killed while David Sweat was shot, injured and captured.

As for Attica, Elijah believes it could be closed if prison officials focused more on downgrading the security ratings of inmates who stay out of trouble and work toward rehabilitation while serving their sentences.

She believes that could result in moving more people from maximum security prisons like Attica to lower-level facilities.

During their march, which took them through the Bronx, Yonkers and along Route 9 up the Hudson Valley into Rensselaer and then Albany, they met with a variety of supporters including church groups and other activists.

 Not everyone was pleased to see the marchers, said Elijah who noted one man in the Westchester County village of Buchanan tried to spray them with a garden hose.

But there are lots of receptive people too, and they met with at least two state lawmakers, Westchester Democratic Assemblyman Tom Abinanti and Bronx Democratic Senator Gustavo Rivera who marched with the group for a while.

Many members of the group have loved ones who are incarcerated. 518-454-5758 @RickKarlinTU

Commentary: New York falls short on dignity in its prisons

By Soffiyah Elijah
Commentary - Times Union
Saturday, September 9, 2017
(Reprinted from the Times Union)

Our state may lead the nation in progress on fronts like welfare and public health, but when it comes to treating those in our criminal justice system with dignity, New York's progress is insufficient. Many New Yorkers are fed up with the dismal state of New York's prison system and we are doing something about it.

On Aug. 26, family members, formerly incarcerated people and a host of other concerned community members began the March for Justice. Led by the Alliance of Families for Justice, we are walking from Harlem to Albany to bring these issues to the attention of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state Legislature and the public. We are calling for meaningful reform of the use of solitary confinement, reform of the parole system, more support for family visitation to people in prison, and we are also calling for the closure of the notorious Attica prison. We will arrive Wednesday in Albany, the anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison massacre, and will make our case to elected officials and the public at a rally at West Capitol Park.

When someone is sentenced to prison, their families serve the time with them. They suffer in silence. The Alliance of Families for Justice helps families transform their pain into power.

One week after Karl Taylor was killed in April 2015 in what authorities say was a fight with guards at Sullivan Correctional Facility, Samuel Harrell also died in a struggle with guards at Fishkill Correctional Facility. Terry Cooper died at Clinton Correctional Facility a year later under circumstances that to this day remain unknown. No guards have been prosecuted in these cases.

New York is notorious for the culture of violence that pervades its prisons. Abuse by guards is routine and accepted as part of the prison "experience." Guards can inflict physical and mental abuse and often do so without disciplinary action. We need our state government to start looking at the contracts it signs with correction officer unions to make sure they include accountability measures that stop them from beating and killing those living in our jails and prisons.

New York is failing incarcerated people in several other areas, as well. Despite reforms on solitary confinement, the practice is still aggressively used as a disciplinary tool while research shows the damaging psychological effects of prolonged isolation. The American Psychological Association outlines the adverse mental health problems caused by solitary confinement and notes that "mentally impaired prisoners are disproportionately represented in solitary confinement." Yet more than 4,000 people are subjected to solitary confinement in New York prisons every day, which is nearly 9 percent of the total prison population.

New York's prison system also fails our youth. Earlier this year the state Legislature passed a bill to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18, beginning in October 2019. Before this law, New York was one of only two states that automatically charged 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. The majority of them were prosecuted for misdemeanor crimes according to state arrest records. The new law is a welcome reform, but today, youths continue to live in New York's adult prisons where they are physically abused by guards in similar fashion to their older counterparts. What is being done to protect them?

Health care is another area of documented failure. One private medical company under contract with the state was criticized for "egregious lapses in medical care" leading to six inmate deaths between 2009 and 2012. And right here in Albany, responding to the recent death of Mark Cannon in the Albany County jail, the state Commission of Correction found the mental health care he received to be "so grossly inadequate ... it shocks the conscience."

Cuomo is to be commended for allotting funds for higher education programs for people in New York prisons, but when we know that for every $1 spent on education in prisons, we save $4 or $5 down the line, why limit those educational opportunities only to people serving the last five years of their sentences?

As people with family members in prison, and their supporters, we know that when someone is sentenced to prison, their families serve the time with them. Too often, families suffer in silence. With this March for Justice, the Alliance of Families for Justice and our allies are helping families of people in prison transform their pain into power.

Soffiyah Elijah is the founder and director of the Alliance of Families for Justice.

Alliance of Families for Justice march through Columbia-Greene raising awareness of prison abuse

Daniel Zuckerman and Richard Moody
Reprinted from Columbia-Greene Media
September 8, 2017

A group from New York City and its suburbs arrived in Hudson as they marched to raise awareness about the effects of mass incarceration and the human rights violations that persist in the corrections system in New York.

In Catskill the marchers were hosted by the First Reformed Church of Catskill where they talked about abuses in New York’s prisons and jails.

The New York chapter of the non-profit organization Alliance of Families for Justice, which provides support to families of people who are incarcerated or were previously incarcerated, started their March for Justice, from Harlem to Albany, Aug. 26, and on day 13 of the march the group stopped in Catskill and on day 14 they trekked across the Rip Van Winkle to stay at the Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood.

The march will stop in Albany on Wednesday, culminating with a rally in West Capitol Park on the anniversary of the 1971 uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility.

“There are now eight core members of our group and then each day we’ve been joined by other people who have marched,” said Alliance of Families For Justice Executive Director Soffiyah Elijah. “The way the march is constructed, people can do as much or as little as they like.”

The group’s goals include closing Attica, stopping abuse and death in prisons by staff and ending solitary confinement, Elijah said. Elijah read the names of inmates at different prisons across the state who were beaten to death by corrections officers who have not been charged or prosecuted.

“This is not a case of a few bad apples; I only wish that it was,” Elijah said. “It’s a pervasive culture of abuse, human rights violations and torture and terror and that is why we’re marching.”

Elijah shared a story about a former inmate at Attica named George Williams, who was beaten months before he was due to be released after serving a sentence for robbing jewelry stores in 2011. When Elijah heard the news, she assumed Williams was dead but she received a phone call from Williams. He said he wanted to meet with her.

“What had happened to him was unspeakable,” Elijah said. “What he wanted to know was how he could help us draw attention to what was happening to people in prison.”

Elijah said many members of the organization and everyone in the core marching group have had or have someone close to them in prison or jail.

Elijah has received many letters from prison inmates across the state from 2011 to 2017. They said they were subjected to water boardings and beatings.

“The letters didn’t come from Guantanamo and the letters didn’t come from Abu Ghraib, they came from prisons in New York state,” Elijah said. “There’s not one thing that’s listed here that didn’t appear in at least three letters.”

Marcher Kevin Barron got involved because of the effect being in prison has on families. Barron is familiar with this from experience — he took care of his family, with five children, while his wife served a nine-and-a-half-year sentence.

“I knew the struggle that happens when you take someone out of the household, how that affects everybody involved,” Barron said. “The [families of inmates] in a sense imprisoned also — families are affected psychologically, financially, emotionally.”

Barron said after his wife was released from prison, the family continued to face effects related to her incarceration.

“The effects carry over because she has to find a job, her diet is not normal, she has to get used to life outside again and adjust to being in a family again, because she has been gone for most of our kids’ formative years,” Barron said. “You go in one way and you come out a different way.”

Ivy, one of the core members of the march who is going to be 87 years old on Sunday, said she was introduced to the Alliance by a friend of hers whose son was also incarcerated.

“I don’t like going to the prison, it feels like slavery to me. The guards treat us like we are inmates, it’s humiliating,” she said. “My whole being is changed when I go there.”

Ivy said she likes to think the march is making a difference, “I have never done anything like this before and I have learned a lot. It has made a difference in me.”

There are many ways for people to get involved with spreading awareness of prison abuses, including marching, writing to local officials and simply telling other people, Elijah said.

“We all know that the grapevine is the most effective tool of communication in the community,” Elijah said. “Spreading the word is always part of your tool kit.”

Barron said people live in communities with prisons and jails, and communities that are reliant on those prisons for economic reasons, and they do not even know what is happening behind the walls.

“Anyone who has any feeling for humanity should speak out against these violations,” Barron said.

During the stops on the march, Elijah and the marchers heard from corrections officers who have shared their experiences of abuse they witnessed on the job.

“I have gotten calls and emails from many people who work inside facilities who are afraid to be public because they’re afraid of retaliation,” Elijah said after the meeting.

The outrage over the Attica uprising has not diminished to this day, Elijah said.

“I was mortified then about what was done to the men in Attica, the treatment they had been subjected to that resulted in them feeling that they had to protest with their lives,” Elijah said. “The families have still not received an apology for what happened.”

Rev. Joanna Tipple was happy to host the marchers in her church and said she was first made aware of the march from Rabbi Zoe Zak of Temple Israel in Catskill.

“It never hurts to hear about the things that we need to be paying attention to,” Tipple said.

Tipple had told a group of people she was with about the meeting Wednesday and said there was an awkwardness about it because of the mindset that people do not get in trouble unless they have done something wrong.

“When I talk about social justice or other people talk about these concerns it feels like it turns into an ‘us vs. them,’” Tipple said. “There has to be a way where law enforcement can be part of the solution.”

Kite’s Nest Executive Director Kaya Weidman thought the lecture was important especially since prisons are a large part of the local economy in Greene and Columbia counties.

“So many people on this side of the river and the other side of the river are affected by them either because their loved ones are incarcerated or their loved ones are working in the prisons,” Weidman said. “I feel so honored that the folks from the March of Justice to share their stories.”

Weidman finds that are many children who are affected by the prison system because they have relatives who have served prison sentences.

“We have young people who themselves have gone into the system and come back out or who are still locked up in prisons in our community,” Weidman said. “This is changing their lives and it’s going to take a long time for them to work through what they end up experiencing.”

Lilly Osei-Tutu, of Brooklyn, is one of the marchers and said the support of her fellow marchers is what keeps her going on this journey.

“We are always laughing, if you had spent the day with us you’d probably hear nothing but laughter,” Osei-Tutu said. “We always support each other.”

Osei-Tutu said the work of raising awareness of prison abuses will continue.

“It will be more important to see how we take everything that we’ve done thus far and turn that into something moving forward because you don’t want to lose the energy,” Osei-Tutu said.

Barron said more work needs to be done.

“After this march, after the cameras are gone, that is when the real work begins,” Barron said. “We have to do some concrete things now. We have hard work ahead of us to really make a difference.”

To reach reporter Daniel Zuckerman email or follow him on Twitter @DZuckerman_CGM

New Attica documents reveal inmate accounts of torture after 1971 prison riot

Documents released after two-year appeal by New York attorney general are from 1975 report conducted in wake of five-day prison riot that left 43 dead

Newly unsealed documents about the retaking of New York’s Attica prison in the aftermath of a 1971 riot reveal witness and inmate accounts of torture, burns and sexual abuse by prison officials.

Police and guards regained control of the prison on 13 September 1971, ending a five-day riot that left 43 inmates, officers and civilians dead.

The documents, released on Thursday after a two-year appeal by the state attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, amount to 46 pages of a multi-volume 1975 report by Judge Bernard Meyer, who was appointed to investigate whether there was a cover-up of what happened at the prison.

In the unsealed documents, Meyer wrote that investigators failed to interview people who could have described horrific abuses, and who could have identified the perpetrators if they had been contacted promptly. Abuses continued against inmates, witnesses said, after police and guards regained control.

“Today, we are shining new light on one of the darkest chapters of our history,” said Marty Mack, executive deputy attorney general. “We hope that, with the release of the Meyer report, we can bring the families of Attica uprising victims closer to closure and help future generations of Americans learn from this tragic event.”

According to Meyer, one national guardsman who helped treat inmates after the riot “saw stretchers deliberately tilted, saw guards beat inmates on medical carts with clubs, saw a prison doctor pull an inmate off a cart and kick him in the stomach”.

The soldier witnessed “inmates beaten while running a gauntlet” and also heard a civilian refuse to allow a national guard field hospital on prison grounds. Federal investigators never tried to contact the man, Meyers wrote.

James Watson, another national guardsman, said he saw inmates beaten on stretchers, “poked in the groin and rectum with nightsticks, [and] beaten while running through gauntlets”. Watson said on one occasion he saw an inmate beaten by seven prison officers.

Robert Jenks, a staff physician at a nearby hospital, reported seeing “an inmate with large wounds around his rectum which were not from gunshot and which, he later heard, had been caused by a broken bottle”. Jenks said he was refused permission to evacuate “an inmate who had suffered severe brain damage” and saw people with untreated fractures and who had not received blood transfusions.

Inmates also reported brutality, even as some faced criminal charges for their part in the riots. The documents include the account of inmate Jacques Roberts, who said that he was “beaten with clubs” and forced to run a gauntlet, during which his teeth were knocked out and he was “beaten with rifle butts while lying prone”.

Then a shot went off in the yard, and Roberts said he heard “an officer in an orange raincoat [say] ‘[He] ain’t dead yet’,” using a racial slur. Roberts said he had “a lit cigarette shoved by a trooper into his rectum”, a finger broken during a second gauntlet, and that troopers subsequently assaulted him in the hospital.

Inmates Frank Lott and Roger Champen also described beatings, being marked with Xs and having matches thrown at them.

Clarence Jones, co-chair of the investigatory Goldman Panel, also reported seeing numerous injuries on inmates, including cigarette burns. The panel told the police that they believed there had been “post-riot brutality”, but Meyers notes that investigators’ primary concerns were with what happened before the riot.

In some cases, as with the account of a US army observer, entire testimonies remain redacted.

Former prisoners and their families have alleged abuses by prison guards; overcrowding, poor living conditions and guard brutality have beencited as some of the reasons for prisoners revolting with clubs and knives and threatening to kill hostages. Meyer noted that while 62 prisoners were indicted for their roles in the riot, only one state trooper was indicted for his actions, and that the grand jury declined to indict four others.

Prisoners killed three inmates and one guard during the riot and subsequent siege. Police and guards shot dead 29 inmates and 10 hostages as they retook the prison.

Meyer also noted that reports of the panel members did not reach the investigation until as long as four years afterward.

Meyer concluded that there was no “intentional cover-up”, but wrote that serious errors, omissions, and delays tainted the investigation: “The decision to conduct the investigation sequentially or chronologically rather than topically was a serious error of judgment.”

His findings have been public for decades, but the hundreds of pages of factual evidence he used remain sealed in two other volumes of the report. Of particular concern to Meyer was whether investigators had a conflict of interest as they interviewed inmates, who might face criminal charges over the riot, about what guards did afterward.

Michael Smith, a corrections officer taken hostage in the riot and shot when the prison was stormed by police, told the Associated Press a huge amount of information was still being suppressed.

“The truth will all come out someday but I don’t know if anybody’s going to be alive who was involved in the event,” he said.

Schneiderman originally attempted to have the entire report unsealed, redacting the names of grand jury witnesses, but a New York court declined to release the full findings. In 2000, the state settled a lawsuit brought by 1,280 inmates for $8m.

“Attica is not going to go away until the whole truth of it is told,” Jonathan Gradess, an attorney who has assisted a group called the Forgotten Victims of Attica, told the Democrat and Chronicle. “The whole truth is going to be every line on every piece of paper.”

Kevin Barron: Black Stories Matter

Reprinted from TMI Project:

One of the most difficult times of my life was listening to the guilty verdict in my wife’s trial, watching her taken away in handcuffs, and then having to tell my five children ages 2, 5, 7, 10, and 20 that their mother would not be home for a very long time, which turned out to be nearly ten years.

I immediately had to shift my focus to the care of my children and how I would manage that without my wife. I had to assure my wife that there would be no lapse in their education, healthcare, clothing, and food needs. I had to be there for them emotionally and psychologically.

Because we no longer had my wife’s salary we had to sell our house that we worked so hard to purchase. We had to move twice; once to her mother’s house and then to my mother’s house. Even though we appreciated the accommodations the conditions were not the best.

The trips to visit my wife were both joyful and stressful. There was joy in seeing her but the pain of her not being able to come home with us was extraordinary. At one point, for no apparent reason she was transferred nearly six hours away to another facility far from me and our children. The visits were stressful due to the waiting and searching procedures (two times the kids and I were randomly selected for drug searches, during which in further humiliation, tape and a sticky roller was used to run over our clothes, money, and footwear in search of drug residue), the restrictions, the bad vending machine food, and the high cost of purchasing the food.

We were blessed to have support from family, friends, and church members. Most families of the incarcerated don’t have this support. When my wife was finally released there was an adjustment period for her and for us. It took her over a year to find work, and because of crowded conditions we still weren’t able to live together until we found an apartment of our own. Thankfully, today we are a united family again under one roof. I have great admiration for my wife and children. They showed courage, love, and resilience throughout the whole situation.

My heart goes out to all families of incarcerated loved ones who are often neglected and forgotten. I can only imagine how hard it is for those who don’t have a base of support, which is why I will be participating in the March for Justice from Harlem to Albany to raise awareness about the inhumanity and the injustice that is taking place in our criminal justice system.

America must do more to help family members of incarcerated

Tiffany McFadden
Republished from Opinion - USA Today
Aug. 25, 2017

More than half of imprisoned adults have minor children. And those kids often suffer trauma, end up in the system, or both.

Forced into the system

I was 4 years old when I was removed from my mother's custody, but she had been cycling through the criminal justice system since I was born. I went to stay with my Aunt Pattie, the sister of the man believed to be my father. Aunt Pattie held judgments about my mom's ability to parent. Consequently, I went for years without hearing my mother’s voice. Not seeing or speaking with my mother had a profound impact on me — and I resented my aunt and acted out. By the time I was 11, my rebellious nature proved too much for Aunt Pattie, and she turned me over to the custody of New York state.

And so my entanglement with the foster care system began.

I spent four years with a family in Brownsville, N.Y. Perhaps because the husband had himself served time in prison before finding God through Pentecostalism, the couple understood the importance of a mother in her child’s life. They made sure I visited my mom in prison and spoke with her on the phone — after years of being without her. 

Eventually, I ended up in the home of a woman who was committed to making sure I had a strong sense of myself as a black woman. A recovering addict, she understood the criminal justice system firsthand and tried to provide the support I needed in my life. She had a vast library of books, and on the first day I arrived in her home, I was told to choose one. I picked Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the story of a black slave mother making heartbreaking choices to keep her family together. It was the first time I saw my shattered family experience through the lens of racial justice. Its message pushes me to this day.

My teenage years and early 20s were riddled with instability, but I eventually found a stable home and a steady job. In 2008, when I was 24, I got my GED. In 2012, I earned my bachelor’s in English from City College of New York. I have worked hard for a master's in social work from Hunter College. My story has a happy ending. Unfortunately, my brother Sequan has not fared as well.

The abuse of incarcerated people at the hands of guards frequently goes unnoticed and unpunished. But Sequan was beaten so badly by Rikers Island corrections officers that the abusers went to trial.

Sequan has been caught up in the criminal justice system and struggled to find his way out of it ever since. I believe that the separation from our mother and all that Sequan experienced during his own foster care journey led him down the path to prison.

Families struggle with mental health issues

The fact is that family members of the incarcerated suffer a lot. Families have reported a variety of mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress, according to a 2015 report by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together and Research Action Design. About half of the family members attributed a health issue to their loved one's incarceration. That takes a toll on communities.

Today, I help families deal with the collateral damage of having an incarcerated family member by advocating for services for the families of incarcerated people. I’m also the lead organizer of a 19-day march of these families, from New York City to Albany. The March for Justice is a collective effort by family members, formerly incarcerated people and a host of other concerned community members that will step off in Harlem on Saturday to shine a light on the abuses in prisons and to advocate for supporting family relationships.

I’ll be marching alongside a mother who has a 20-year-old son with mental health problems at Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, N.Y. She says he was placed in solitary confinement for 45 days without any explanation. We have found no record, no citation that states a reason for putting a young man with mental health issues in conditions that cause mental disease in healthy people.

Before being put in solitary confinement, her son told her that the guards had been taunting him. In prison, the sharp edges of soda cans have been used by incarcerated people to slit their own wrists. This woman's son said a guard or guards repeatedly held a can up to the bars of his cell, the subtext being that a guard could cut him and say he did it himself.

I’m marching for her son. I’m marching for Sequan, who was beaten within an inch of his life. I’m marching for the countless children, parents, brothers and sisters in families ripped apart by the criminal justice system. I’m marching so our voices will be heard and the criminal justice system will be improved.

We need our leaders to stop the systemic abuse of people on both sides of the bars. Who’s with me?

Tiffany McFadden was a ward of New York state (Office of Children and Family Services — OCFS) for 17 years. She is the project director of the CUNY-HRA (Human Resource Administration) Initiative — CUNY Research Foundation. Tiffany is also the logistical lead for the March for Justice and a volunteer for the Alliance of Families for Justice.