Our inspiration for this year's American Ethical Union (AEU) Assembly programming was Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
(click here for more information
). For several years, the National Leaders Council, guided by our Social Justice Caucus, has studied issues impacting the health and well-being of humanity in order to raise our awareness, sharpen our advocacy, and encourage our members to take action. This year, moved by Alexander's personal experience and well-documented analysis, we felt the call to do more.
Here is an excerpt to prove my point:
Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton's family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises—the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one's life. Cotton's great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.
Unfortunately, Michelle Alexander was unavailable to address us; however, Ernest Drucker was available and his analysis in A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America
also made the case. Drucker spoke at our platform on Saturday, June 16, kicking off a day of hearing from other speakers in the area of criminal justice reform and learning about what we could do in our own communities. Another highlight was the National Ethical Service's luncheon speaker former Governor David Paterson, whose work on dropping the infamous Rockefeller drug laws and engaging personality really brought home the importance of community activism.
Friday evening's presentation of the documentary "Zero Percent" about the Hudson Link educational program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, NY gave the audience an inside view of life behind bars. The presentation included conversation with Brian Fisher, NYS Commissioner of Correctional Services; Sean Pica, Director of Hudson Link; and several graduates. We learned of the obstacles that prisoners must overcome, and the hope, however fragile at times, of receiving an education. Pica, himself a graduate, will make the film available, through the AEU, to Societies wishing to show it in their communities.
I want to acknowledge the generosity of all the presenters who answered our phone calls and emails and pointed us in new directions, asking their colleagues to support our efforts and inspiring us with their hard work and dedication. Clearly, theirs is a labor of love, and that made it one for us, too.
The following is a brief description of the workshops with contact information for the presenters. The goal of this programming was to bring our members into personal contact with people working with prisoners and their families, and to seek out opportunities in their own communities when they returned home. We were most fortunate to hear their stories and share our stories with them. If you were unable to attend, please visit the websites listed below.What Volunteers Can Do
There are many ways to help inmates and their families: offering visitors basic breakfast food after their often long and arduous trips; donating books to prison libraries, teaching a literacy class, and simply listening with an open heart. There are as many ways as there are needs and caring people willing to meet them.
- Marian Farrell, Ossining Prison Ministry (marifarr[at]aol.com)
- Dawn Ravella, Director, Mission and Outreach, Reformed Church of Bronxville (dawn[at]reformedchurch.org)
- Kate Farren, Drama Coach, Rehabilitation Through the Arts (kfarren1202[at]earthlink.net) – "RTA was founded in Sing Sing in 1996. Today we work in five New York State prisons with innovative programs in theatre, dance, creative writing, voice and visual art. RTA is dedicated to using the creative arts as a tool for social and cognitive transformation behind prison walls. RTA changes lives!"
- Ted Kuhn, Music Teacher, Sing Sing Prison, RTA (kuhnted[at]hotmail.com)
Justice for Juveniles
Nationally, 1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetimes. Boys are five times as likely to be incarcerated as girls, but the number of girls in the juvenile justice system is rising. This rate of incarceration endangers children at younger and younger ages, forming what is called "a cradle to prison pipeline." We can make a difference in these children's lives now!
- Marianne Kennedy, University of Vermont: Policy Research Center and Vermont Center for Clinical and Transitional Science (mariannekennedy[at]gmail.com)
- Anne Klaeysen, Leader, New York Society for Ethical Culture (aklaeysen[at]nysec.org) NYSEC ran a series of conferences on "Justice for Juveniles: A Call to Ethical Action!" and has partnered with the Osborne Association to provide remote televisitation for incarcerated parents and their children.
- Carmen Perez, Executive Director, The Gathering for Justice (thegathering4justice[at]gmail.com)
- Gabrielle Prisco, Director, Juvenile Justice Project, Correctional Association of NYC (gprisco[at]correctionalassociation.org) Here is also a link to her article on "When the Cure Makes You Ill: Seven Core Principles to Change the Course of Youth Justice."
Education and the Arts
Lives are transformed every day in small classrooms behind prison walls. Programs providing education and life skills, participation in the arts, and re-entry support help the incarcerated make a positive impact on their own lives, families, and communities.
- Sean Pica, Executive Director, Hudson Link (spica[at]hudsonlink.org) "Hudson Link was founded when state and federal funding for college education in prisons stopped. In 1998, inmates at Sing Sing Correctional Facility reached out to religious and academic volunteers for help. The loss of a college program was having a devastating effect on prison morale. The volunteers responded. Under the leadership of Dr. Anne Reissner, Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison was founded to restore college education at Sing Sing through private funding. We are a link, connecting the prison administration, our educational partners and you—our supporters—making it possible for incarcerated men and women to experience the transformative power of education."
- Javier Cardona, Arts and Education Director, RTA (xabielpr[at]gmail.com) (See above for website.)
- Max Kenner, Founder and Executive Director, Bard Prison Initiative (kenner[at]bard.edu) "The Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) creates the opportunity for incarcerated men and women to earn a Bard College degree while serving their sentences. The academic standards and workload are rigorous, based on an unusual mix of attention to developmental skills and ambitious college study. The rate of post-release employment among the program's participants is high and recidivism is stunningly low. By challenging incarcerated men and women with a liberal education, BPI works to redefine the relationship between educational opportunity and criminal justice."
The Experience Inside and Re-entry
There is no preparation for life behind bars; one enters alone and learns how to survive. Everything is reduced to basics, calling upon inner resources and outside support. Challenges that many inmates faced in their communities (lack of education, economic hardship, and mental health issues) also challenge the rehabilitation resources of prisons.
- John Conyers, Executive Director, Saving Our Society (jcsos[at]ymail.org) "SOS dedicates itself to promoting second chances, preventing and reducing crime and achieving success over recidivism and stereotyping through advocacy, education, employment, volunteerism and service."
- Kathy Boudin, Director, Criminal Justice Initiative Supporting Children, Families and Communities, School of Social Work, Columbia University (kb2023[at]columbia.edu)
Children of the Incarcerated
When a parent enters prison, children are abandoned, their lives forever changed. There are programs available that help children overcome stigma and isolation to achieve their full potential through counseling, support groups, mentoring and supervised visitation. Broken families can heal, and we can help.
- Elizabeth Gaynes, Executive Director, Osborne Association (egaynes[at]osborneny.org) "The Osborne Association offers opportunities for individuals who have been in conflict with the law to transform their lives through innovative, effective, and replicable programs that serve the community by reducing crime and its human and economic costs. We offer opportunities for reform and rehabilitation through public education, advocacy, and alternatives to incarceration that respect the dignity of people and honor their capacity to change."
- Kathy Boudin – (See above for contact information.)
There are policies and procedures that our states and nation can adopt to foster a more effective, efficient and humane criminal justice system and a safer, more just society. Relying only on imprisonment as a response to crime is costly and counterproductive. It fails to take into account the human capacity to change and continues to punish people long after their sentences have been served by denying them the right to vote. Learn how to advocate for reform through legislation.
- Glenn Martin, Vice-President of Development and Public Affairs and Director, David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy, Fortune Society – c/o assistant John Runowicz (jrunowicz[at]fortunesociety.org) "The Fortune Society's mission is to support successful reentry from prison and promote alternatives to incarceration, thus strengthening the fabric of our communities."
- Evan Goldstein, Policy Coordinator, Drug Policy Alliance (evangoldstein[at]gmail.com) "The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) is the nation's leading organization promoting alternatives to current drug policy that are grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights. . . DPA is actively involved in the legislative process and seeks to roll back the excesses of the drug war, block new, harmful initiatives, and promote sensible drug policy reforms. As a result of our work, hundreds of thousands of people have been diverted from incarceration to drug treatment programs, hundreds of thousands of sick and dying patients can safely access their medicine without being considered criminals under the law, and states like California have saved more than $2.5 billion by eliminating wasteful and ineffective law enforcement, prosecution and prison expenditures."
Law Enforcement Perspective
Neighborhoods flourish when people feel safe to leave their homes, travel to work and school, and enjoy social relationships. Crime threatens lives, property, health and safety. We rely upon law enforcement institutions to protect us, and many people put their own lives at risk to do so. In order to change the negative aspects of law enforcement, we need to appreciate its positive aspects, and engage in a process of understanding that can lead to change.
- David Soares, District Attorney, Albany County (davidsoares2012[at]gmail.com)
- Dora Schriro, Commissioner, NYC Department of Corrections (dora.schriro[at]doc.nyc.gov)
- Kevin Steele, Albany County Sheriff's office
View photos from the AEU Assembly here. Videos will be posted on the AEU website.