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 dzuckerman@thedailymail.net or follow him on Twitter @DZuckerman_CGM