The March for Justice Demands an End to Human Rights Abuses in NY Prisons

BY JAMIE MALESZKA
AUGUST 23, 2017
REPRINTED FROM MASS APPEAL

"System change isn't a spectator sport."

The flow of energy necessary to magnify true social change can begin with a single step. This weekend, The March for Justice, an undertaking of the Alliance of Families for Justice (AFJ) will embark on a 19-day journey—entirely on foot—from NYC to Albany, to call attention to the ongoing human rights abuses in New York State’s prisons and jails.

The families of those who are incarcerated, and people who have a criminal record, will be leading the way.

It is the core mission of AFJ, an entirely volunteer-driven non-profit, to ensure that those who are directly impacted and carry the burden of mass incarceration are at the forefront in the movement for justice reform and in the shaping of a path forward.

Kicking off at the National Black Theatre in Harlem this Saturday, August 26th, marchers will walk approximately 10 miles per day en route to state’s capital. They will stop for teach-ins and press conferences in prison and college towns along the way. The March for Justice will then culminate with a rally in Albany on Wednesday, September 13th, the anniversary of the 1971 Attica State Correctional Facility uprising and massacre.

And although 46 years have passed since the seminal 4-day rebellion of more than 1200 inmates at the upstate prison that ended horrifically, many of their demands still ring true today. The human rights violations remain unchanged—at Attica and throughout facilities in all of New York State.

The March for Justice aims to incite meaningful reform regarding the use of solitary confinement, parole, and our cash-bail system. It calls for the shuttering of Attica, the halting of this era of mass criminalization and the eliminating of the human rights abuses behind bars.

A core team of marchers will complete the entire route (it is approximately 135 miles between NYC and Albany), but they will be joined daily by others from all walks of life who want to support the cause along the way.

MASS APPEAL sat down with Soffiyah Elijah, the Executive Director and Founder of AFJ—who has committed her life to justice reform—to learn more.

Why are the families of those doing time—the sisters, brothers, mothers, their children—and the community at large not typically included in the discussion regarding the impact of mass incarceration?

Soffiyah Elijah: I can think of a few reasons. One is, the majority of the people who are incarcerated come from impoverished communities, and as a society, we’ve made it clear that we don’t care about those communities, or the people who live in them. The fact that people from these communities are suffering and experiencing the impact of mass incarceration is not chosen. As a society, we’ve indicated that we don’t care anything about.

Is their exclusion from the system working exactly as it was intended? Do the different systems function to specifically drown out those voices?

I don’t think that the systems, and the people who create these systems, necessarily even believe there are voices to be drowned out. To them, they simply don’t count. The people whose voices need to be heard aren’t even considered as being relevant, or having a voice, by the powers that be, by and large. Most of the time, it’s not even a plan of, “We’re going to drown out, or devise a way to ignore those voices.” They don’t even give any credit to the fact that people have a voice to disagree with what’s going on.

In fact, if you talk to law enforcement, when they use militaristic strategies in black, or brown, or poor communities, the quick response that their lawyers give is, “Well, the community complained about a problem. We’re just being responsive to what the community wants.” But, if there were to be a demonstration, or a rally, or a massive outcry from the community challenging it, then somebody definitely doesn’t have a voice.

How does the Alliance of Families for Justice combat and strive to change that and amplify those voices?

The Alliance for Families of Justice uses a three-prong strategy, which is to support, and empower, and then mobilize families of people who are incarcerated, and people who have a criminal record. We recognize that the criminal and justice system has done huge, emotional, mental, economic, and physical damage to the people who are impacted most: the people behind the walls, and the families that they’ve left behind.

We start off with supporting people, listening to what they have experienced. Letting them know that they’re not alone, letting them know that they don’t have to suffer in silence, or alone, or continue to suffer, period. That they can see the kind of support necessary to enable them to feel empowered in the situation, as opposed to helpless, which is the mantra we hear from so many families when they first come to us. Then, once fairly empowered … then, to mobilize. They can use their power to bring about the kind of changes that they want to see in the system. That’s exactly what the March for Justice is designed to do.

Glen E. Martin‘s words immediately come to mind: “Those closest to the problem are those closest to the solution, and furthest from the necessary resources.” They hold the answers on how to move forward.

Yes. We also have to recognize that the people who hold the answers, are also the people who hold the pain. Part of our strategy at the Alliance of Families for Justice, is to enable people, and transform their pain into power.

How was the idea for the March for Justice born? I understand this is something you’ve been envisioning for some time.

That’s true. For a few years. With each horrific story of someone being murdered, in prison or in jail, or being horribly abused, or a failure to receive appropriate mental health care, or being thrown in solitary confinement for hundreds and hundreds of days, and experiencing the pain and suffering that they and their family members went through, the flame for doing this march just grew brighter and brighter.

What are some of the key issues that the March aims to bring attention to?

I think one of the overarching themes is to eliminate all human rights abuses that are happening in the prisons and jails throughout New York State. That’s the overarching theme. Shutting down Attica, is also a call, and it’s because of their iconic role that Attica plays, and has played in the history of incarceration in this country for decades. Not that it’s the only horrific prison, but it’s certainly representative of the horrors that happen in various prisons throughout the state. Then, there’s our host of related issues, like solitary confinement, like the treatment of the mentally challenged, the need to expand and provide quality, educational and programmatic, and vocational opportunities. The need to have gender-specific programming for women inside. The needs of the LGBTQ community should be specific to their situations. The need to provide adequate quality medical care. To name a few. Then, there are related issues, like bail reform, wrongful convictions, like drug policy reform. All of which are connected. There are organizations that focus on each of those issues that are also participating in the March.

Enroute to Albany, you’ll be joining forces with a network of other advocates?

Oh, yeah. Advocates from all over the state. Actually, whether they are in a prison town or not, and even people who aren’t advocates. We’ve got a faith-based community. We’ve got students, nurses, doctors, teachers, lawyers, performers, some kind of everybody.

The possibility exists that as you make stops in these prison towns, there could be a convergence of families on both sides of the incarceration equation. Those whose entire local economy thrives on the prison industry could come face to face with the families of those doing time. There might even be a conversation between those two “sides.”

Exactly. Exactly. That’s part of the dialogue that we’ve already been starting before the march. We’ve built partnerships with some people up in Adirondack, where the Clinton Prison and several other prisons are located. That started a conversation that’s never been had before. There’s this unspoken wall, or divide between upstate and downstate. And although the majority of the people who are incarcerated come from downstate, the majority of the people who feed their families from the prison economy, are upstate and the two never had an opportunity to share the same space, and just talk as people. This march also enables us to build that dialogue and to take down those walls. To build unity, instead of divisions.