Two cities, one block: Families bear brunt of incarceration system

By Nakechia Gay
AFJ Staff

Every Friday night, hidden between Columbus Circle’s luxury shops, Michelin-starred restaurants, billion dollar company headquarters, and five-star hotels, dozens of people wait for either donated clothing or a bus to visit loved ones in upstate prisons. These are two distinct groups waiting in the same spot for different reasons. Yet, their connection to one another is apparent.

On a recent Friday around midnight, I met a formerly incarcerated man waiting for donations. He stood next to a mother on her way to visit her incarcerated son. This is our modern-day tale of two cities. It is also a clear portrait of the financial burden of mass incarceration on low-income families.

Low-income communities are disproportionately over-policed, which results in overrepresentation of low-income people in prisons inconveniently located more than 100 miles away from their families. As a result, family members have to choose between paying for necessities such as food or bus tickets. Or the utility bill versus hotels. For a family of three, a trip’s total cost, which includes bus tickets, food, and housing; over the course of their loved one’s 25-year sentence adds up to create a crushing financial burden. This financial disadvantage stalls most hope or plans for upward social mobility and family stability.

This financial disadvantage doesn’t end once their loved one is released from prison. Men and women coming home from prison are often discriminated against for housing, employment, and education preventing them from financially supporting themselves and their families. The integration back into society often stalls.

This system isn’t correcting any societal ills, but creating a cycle of marginalization for millions of children, funneling a new generation into the over-policed school-to-prison pipeline. The ladder to financial stability remains broken from one generation to the next.

The Alliance of Families for Justice (AFJ) wants to break this cycle. We strive to end the financial burdens so many of these families have to face by supporting and empowering them to become advocates and amplify their presence in the discussion around prison reform. Every weekend, you can find AFJ volunteers galvanizing this future group of advocates at prison bus stops in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. For those interested in being part of the solution, you can attend our monthly meetings, volunteer, donate, and spread the word.