Credit: Lem Peterkin photo

As the Alliance of Families for Justice approaches the upcoming date for the March for Justice on Aug. 26, three family members from the AFJ spoke with the Amsterdam News about their future participation and commitment for the March for Justice. The three family members preferred to remain anonymous for confidentiality purposes.

The March for Justice is a 19-day march that will travel from New York City to Albany. The participants can choose to walk part of the way or the entire route. For example, participants can choose to walk from New York City to Yonkers.

The Amsterdam News spoke with a daughter who has a mother and brother who are incarcerated for more than 10 years on separate bids. A second person is the spouse of a wife who is incarcerated for 17 years. A third person is the mother of a son incarcerated for 16 to 25 years.

The daughter said, “My personal view is this is a unique event, for several reasons. One being that it is an action that seeks to include the voices of incarcerated people whose human rights have been violated while serving their time. Second, the March for Justice provides opportunity and space for family members to raise their voices as well. When a person is sent to prison to serve time, their family members are served a bid as well.”

Asked about what inspired her to join the March for Justice, the daughter replied, “I come to this work as a family member directly affected by the destruction of mass incarceration. My mother rotated in and out of the system for well over 20 years of my life.

Because of this, my body lingered in the foster care system, until I aged out at 21 years old. Her mother, my maternal grandmother, served time at Bedford Hills, when I was a child. My brother is currently serving time at a New York state prison, a 14 year bid.”

The spouse said she is excited about the march. “My wife is in prison for 17 years,” she said. “The prison has abused her with impunity.” The spouse added that the incarcerated wife has been abused within the prison system while the system itself does not deal with any consequences.

The mother said her son was offered a plea deal of 16 to 25 years, but it was never formally documented. According to the mother, her son was “railroaded” in his trial. She said her son has been “a model prisoner,” but he was moved to the “nastiest” cell block in the prison, where incarcerated people smoke K-2 marijuana, and pepper-spray is regularly sprayed.

“Right now, I’m trying to get the support that I need to gear myself up for the fight,” she said.

According to the mother, the fumes affected her son’s speech so much that he had to go to the prison’s doctors.

She continued, “I just went to see him three weeks ago and to see him looking somewhat vulnerable. It’s working on me right now…it’s just awful. So I got to really work on with whoever I got to work with and if I need to do letters and petitions and whatever I need to do right now [then] I got to get all the support I can get to help my child in this particular situation.”

Aside from family members of incarcerated people, students, community leaders, members of faith-based organizations, organized labor, social workers, lawyers, teachers, service providers, policy makers, academics, athletes, elected officials from local municipalities, organizers, health professionals and celebrities will be attending the March for Justice, according to the AFJ press release.

According to Soffiyah Elijah, executive director and founder of AFJ, in a meeting July 27 at the National Black Theatre in Harlem, the New York State Nurses Association is endorsing the AFJ and will do health assessments if necessary. Sam North of the Peekskill chapter of the NAACP, who is the second vice president and chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, said that the Peekskill chapter of the NAACP will be at the march. However, they haven’t officially endorsed the march.

When asked about the chapter’s support of AFJ’s policy positions, North said that the NAACP is “very much in line” with many of AFJ’s prison reform policies. Also, he said that the Peekskill NAACP are interested in raising awareness about Samuel Harrell, who is an incarcerated person who was allegedly beaten to death by several corrections officers in the Fishkill Correctional Facility. An investigation into Harrell’s death is ongoing, but none of the officers involved have been charged.

July 29, Elijah, along with Angel Solis, a Columbia University student and AFJ volunteer, were interviewed by Kevin Barron, the host of Black Rising Radio, about the upcoming March for Justice. “The focus of the March for Justice is to expose the human rights abuses that happen every day in the prisons and jails across New York State and to call the elimination of them and the shutdown of Attica prison,” said Elijah.

When asked about how mass incarceration affects families, Solis told Barron that families are dying, not just biologically but dying in the sense of the relationship. “What happens to the prisoners that ultimately, while we’re holding on at the very ledges of despair, it comes to a point where you see no one up there with an extended hand?” said Solis. “You just end up letting go and when you fall into that darkness in prison, you end up becoming like even worse of a person to some extent because you just stop caring.”

Solis added, “Prison is not the hardest thing. The hardest thing is not being behind bars or serving time. It’s losing one’s ties to one’s society in the form of family and friends.”

Tiffany McFadden, a New York writer who is a volunteer with Alliance of Families for Justice, wrote on the AFJ website, “Courts won’t allow the capping of phone rates in prisons, even though it would be the humane way to treat the incarcerated. The courts should then help incarcerated families and communities.”

McFadden was responding to a June 17 editorial in The Washington Post about a federal appeals court decision denying the Federal Communications Commission the ability to cap prison phone rates within states. According to The Washington Post, the real losers are incarcerated people and their families.

“Families must be part of the rehabilitation process,” said McFadden. “When they’re separated, the incarcerated lose their strongest support network and family members are punished, too.”

According to the March for Justice executive summary, AFJ, founded in September 2016, is a growing organization that comprises families affected by the prison system, individuals with criminal records, people who work within the criminal justice system (lawyers and social workers) and individuals who have concerns about our current criminal justice system.

The daughter with the incarcerated mother and brother met Elijah at an event in October 2016. “She heard me speak during a Q&A,” said the daughter. “At the end of the event, Soffiyah approached me and suggested that I follow up with her immediately.”

Asked when she most wanted this upcoming march to accomplish, the daughter responded, “There are several things that I want to get out of this action. If I had to pick one, I want families across NYS and NYC to know that the Alliance of Families for Justice is in the community to serve and support them, as they support their loved ones serving time. The more people that know about the action, the stronger chances will be to stop the horrific brutalization that’s happening to incarcerated people across this state.”

Asked what she wanted the march to accomplish, the spouse with the incarcerated wife said the goal is to “build statewide unity” with the state government and work for them to form statewide organizations. She said New York State could be “influenced in ways that you can’t even imagine.”

Maya Jenkins, a senior from Yale University, is currently working on a thesis that focuses on the damaging effects of prison on home and community. Jenkins is currently looking for people who were formerly incarcerated or have formerly incarcerated loved ones. According to Jenkins, anonymous “mental mapping” interviews about the formerly incarcerated people’s experiences will be conducted and it should take no more than an hour and the participants will be compensated $20 in exchange for participation.

According to the prep sheet handed out by Elijah, the materials to bring on the march are snacks, sleeping bags, walking shoes, hats (for weather), ponchos (for rain), bug spray, towels, washcloths, toiletries, fanny packs (small bag), foot blister cream, laundry detergent, laundry bags, pajamas, phone chargers, sunscreen, and medication and vitamins. Elijah emphasized that the march would be peaceful and respectful. Drugs and alcohol are banned as is foul language.

Barron said he is getting the word out about the march to WBAI, Black Rising Radio, USA Today, New York Daily News and more. A video will be posted on the AFJ website that highlights people’s personal perspectives on the march.

The Amsterdam News asked Elijah’s opinion about the much publicized conditions on Rikers Island. “What happens in Rikers happens in other jails,” she said.