Do Better New York: Protect Incarcerated Peoples’ Lives

A Message From Soffiyah Elijah, Executive Director of Alliance of Families for Justice:

Like many Black kids in the U.S. I learned at a very young age never to trust the cops. That was not a lesson that my parents taught me. They didn’t get a chance because the cops beat them to it when they murdered the unarmed innocent son of our neighbor.

I didn’t understand systems of racism and oppression then but I understood that the people paid to protect me and my community had violated my trust and murdered my friend’s brother. There were no videotaped accounts of his murder and there were no demonstrations. His family was left to grieve and never recover. Our community was left to mourn and suffer. I was left to never forget.

As the years rolled forward, there were many more murders by the cops and other law enforcement types. The names are too numerous to list them all,but a few, such as 10 year old Clifford Glover, young Tamir Rice, Anthony Baez, Sandra Bland, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Eleanor Bumpers, Eric Garner, Tony McDade and now George Floyd, emphasize the point. And there were and still are white vigilantes murdering Black people with impunity — witness James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper,Texas, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and Trayvon Martin in Florida. Some of these murders have been captured on camera and oftentimes they have been followed by protests and outrage. Sadly though, they have never been followed by systemic change.

Like the abuse of power exercised by cops on the street, far too often prison guards engage in the same abuse of power. The difference, however, is that the abuse behind prison walls isn’t captured on camera, it rarely comes to the attention of the general public and the larger society has been programmed not to care what happens to human beings in cages; human beings behind prison walls — they are out of sight and out of mind.

Leonard Strickland — murdered at Clinton CF in 2010, Karl Taylor — murdered at Sullivan CF in 2015, Samuel Harrell — murdered at Fishkill in 2015, John McMillon — murdered at Great Meadow CF in 2019; the list is much much longer… and then there’s young Dante Taylor — who after being brutally beaten by guards at Wende CF in 2017, committed suicide. All of these deaths have been ignored by Governor Cuomo.

In similar fashion to the callous disregard for the lives of incarcerated people shown by society at large when incarcerated people are physically abused, governors around the country and in New York (the epicenter of the pandemic) in particular have turned their backs, shut their eyes and closed their ears to the pounding drum of death beating inside prisons.

The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed over 24,000 lives in New York alone and yet, there is no comprehensive plan for testing all 40,000 incarcerated people in the state prisons. And, there is no meaningful plan to release them. Their lives (and those of their families with whom they will eventually reunite) hang in the balance of the “petri dishes” U.S. Attorney General Barr appropriately tagged the prisons. Despite that tag and letters from legislators, philanthropists, a former health commissioner and the Brooklyn District Attorney — NOTHING has been done to adequately protect the lives of the incarcerated in the Empire State.

Reluctantly and belatedly DOCCS announced that it was issuing 12 inch handkerchiefs to incarcerated people to protect themselves and surgical masks to guards who could use them if they saw fit. Not only are the handkerchiefs inadequate protection, they are not large enough to tie around your face to use as a mask. Query, why aren’t masks issued to all the people who have to live in these petri dishes? The only masks now available to incarcerated people are the disposable ones donated by a group of nonprofit organizations. Could it be that the lives of these 40,000 people weren’t valued enough to spend the nominal amount of money it would cost to provide them with at least two quality masks?

In 2017 AFJ, joined by thousands of caring New Yorkers along the way, marched for 19 days from Harlem to Albany to draw attention to the human rights abuses taking place in New York’s prisons and jails. We educated many people along the way, most of whom have continued to pay attention and express their concerns.

Today, three years later, there are daily protests in the streets about police brutality, racism and inequality. Prisons are the poster child for all three of these issues. In the past month there have been hundreds of thousands of people protesting in the streets and shouting “BLACK LIVES MATTER”; calling for an end to business as usual. They want an end to racism, oppression, inequality and police brutality. They want to see a better world — one where everyone has a fair and equal chance to realize their dreams. A world where punishment is not society’s default response to wrongdoing. They know that the system must be radically changed. It cannot be reformed. A complete overhaul is in order. They know that just like slavery could not be reformed, the repressive racist criminal injustice system cannot be reformed on either side of the prison walls.

AFJ is powered by and for the families of incarcerated New Yorkers and allies across the state. www.afj-ny.org