Criminal U backs AFJ stand in NY

REPOSTED courtesty of

NEW YORK—Soffiyah Elijah and the Alliance of Families for Justice have plans. Big plans that include leading a march across the 180-mile swath of New York from Manhattan to the state house in Albany. But the march couldn’t come soon enough, Elijah said, after reading of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s attempt to cut costs at the expense of families of those incarcerated in the state.

“My blood is boiling,” she said when first announced. “If we could march down to Cuomo’s office right now we would.”

The governor would do well to bear that in mind. She’ll be on his doorstep with a motivated crowd of supporters soon enough.


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Cuomo’s plan to reduce prison visits at maximum-security prisons from seven days a week to three would allegedly save an estimated $2.6 million, but it ran counter to a growing body of evidence and support for prison reform that requires more contact with family and friends, not less, Elijah said.

“It is embarrassing to think that for this small cost savings the governor would restrict the opportunity to strengthen family ties,” she said.

The governor got the message. He announced earlier this week that he had dropped the plan to restrict visits. Elijah said confronting regressive policies is one thing. But her organization and its New York partners are determined to advance the cause of social justice as well.

The majority of families impacted by mass incarceration are poor and people of color who bear the brunt of the devastating impact the criminal justice system has on their communities, Elijah said.

Standing with families

Elijah, a criminal defense attorney and advocate of human rights for the past thirty-five years, says experience has taught her not to expect much support from those in power. Speaking truth to power, she says, has always been a needed and vital role, one she did while representing  Marilyn Buck, the former Black Panthers’ leaders dubbed one of “The San Francisco Eight,” and many political prisoners. Elijah continues this work as the founder of a statewide nonprofit, Alliance of Families for Justice, based in Harlem, NY.

Actor and activist Danny Glover is a founding board member. He said the organization is uniquely confronting the widespread impact on underserved communities by working directly with families of those incarcerated and people with a criminal record.

“When a person is incarcerated they leave a family behind in the community,” Glover said. “The Alliance of Families has an innovative approach… Our mission is to support, empower and mobilize families of people who are incarcerated and people with criminal records.”

The need is apparent he said, noting there are more than 50,000 people incarcerated in New York state alone.  Once incarcerated, these people are dehumanized and cut off from family support.

Standing for justice

Cuomo’s failed policy initiative would have continued that disturbing trend of destroying families, ignoring human rights and fueling the era of mass incarceration and mass criminalization, Elijah said.

AFJ will stand in the gap, according to Elijah, offering human contact and needed support while demanding change from those in power. The combination of practical support and political involvement builds close ties and support for those who often have none, says Antonio Yarbough, a board member who has helped the fledgling organization’s “buddy system.”

Yarbough knows the obstacles a person faces upon release from New York prisons. After serving more than two decades at the notorious Attica Correctional Facility for the murder of 3 family members, Yarbough was exonerated and freed in 2014. Less than 48 hours after his release Yarbough was interviewed by Piers Morgan on CNN.

“I think anybody who has listened to this is going to share my horror and outrage on what you've had to go through,” Morgan said during the interview “…and to try to show it's a very important issue.”

Yarbough, who adjusted with the help of key friends, is now working to ease that isolation for others by pairing of formerly incarcerated person with those being released.

“When you are in prison, you are stuck in time,” he says. “People want to help, but don’t know what to do. I can say, ‘I know what you’re going through.”

Standing for human rights

Elijah said supporting those who survive the dehumanization of incarceration is not enough. Wholesale reform lies at the heart of the organization’s march in the fall culminating on Sept. 13 at the State House.

The Attica rebellion in Sept. of 1971 remains the worst prison uprising in American history. On Sept. 13th of that year, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered the violent retaking of Attica prison resulting in the death of 43 people, including all the hostages. AFJ’s timing is intentional, precisely because the human rights abuses that motivated the uprising 46 years ago remain a concern today.

“We are marching for Justice in September to commemorate the 46th anniversary of the Attica uprising and massacre. Attica is symbolic of the atrocities that happen everyday in New York’s jails and prisons,” Elijah said.

During the three-week march, the Alliance of Families for Justice will call attention to various human rights abuses they allege are commonplace in New York's jails and prisons. Their concerns include physical abuse, solitary confinement, the treatment of incarcerated women and domestic violence survivors, parole reform, treatment of the mentally ill in prisons and raising the age of criminal responsibility.

Throughout the march, AFJ will hold press conferences, teach-ins and community education forums to heighten awareness of these daily atrocities.

"It is time for everyone to know that New Yorkers have their own Guantanamo problem in their backyard," Elijah said.