The growing campaign to end the New Jim Crow

Alan Bean and Melanie Wilmoth

Just a few nights ago, activists, former prisoners, and concerned citizens gathered at Riverside Church in New York to discuss mass incarceration and the criminal justice system. These individuals are launching a campaign built around the ideas expressed by Michelle Alexander in her book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Especially concerned with the effect our broken justice system has on people of color, these organizers are advocating for a complete transformation of our system of mass incarceration. MW

I met Jazz Hayden at a conference in Chicago a while back and have been following his work ever since.  Pockets of resistance to the New Jim Crow are popping up across the country and Jazz is at the forefront of this movement.  AGB

Prison Activists Work to End Racial Bias in Justice System

By Nat Rudarakanchana

On a quiet Friday evening, a band of grizzled but passionate prison activists wound its way through the corridors of Riverside Church, into a bright business-like meeting room. On the agenda this night: the launching of a campaign to end what they call the “New Jim Crow.”

The phrase refers to academic Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” which argues that the American criminal justice system is both unjust and racist. Several city-based activists dealing with the rights of prisoners have heard of the book: more than a few highly recommend it, too.

Among those present at this private meeting were two Harlem residents who have endured the prison system for decades and survived to tell the tale.

“We do this and we live this 24/7, all day every day,” said Joseph “Jazz” Hayden, a 70-year-old organizer and activist who had been in prison for 20 years. “But others don’t necessarily know what we’re doing, or know much about the issues we’re dealing with.”

Several of those attending the meeting are associated with the Riverside Church Prison Ministry, a longstanding and well-known prison activist group which receives financial grants from Riverside Church. While the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow is committed to completely transforming what they view as a racist and damaging system of mass incarceration, the regular work of the Riverside Church Prison Ministry involves visiting and writing letters to prisoners, campaigning to strengthen prisoner’s rights, and helping the formerly imprisoned to secure employment and housing.

Common issues here especially pertinent to uptown residents include the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans and Latinos, as well as the way in which young offenders can quickly become locked into the criminal justice system, often unfairly.

Youths from upper Manhattan account for about 77 percent of Manhattan’s total juvenile detainee population, according to the 2010 New York City Community Snapshots available online.

According to these same community profiles, in all four of the uptown Community Boards – 9 through 12 – more than 90 percent of those incarcerated are either African-American or Hispanic.

As Larry White, a 76-year-old community advocate and policy liaison for the Fortune Society, who was himself imprisoned for 32 years, puts it, “How do we transform a system that we find unbearable?”

Still, it isn’t only uptown residents who care about the rights of the incarcerated. A symposium on criminal justice last month organized by the Think Outside the Cell Foundation, which campaigns for the rights and reputations of prisoners, attracted at least 1,500 people throughout the day from all across the city to Riverside Church. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and City Councilman Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn also attended.

“We remain separate and unequal on the streets of New York,” Stringer said at the event, where he spoke about the need to change the widespread police practice of stopping and searching individuals on city streets.

Stringer received a round of applause when he said: “85 percent of those stopped are black or Latino, who are nine times more likely to be stopped than whites. … We cannot wait a minute longer to have a serious conversation about stop and frisk and its collateral effects on our community.”

Asked about Chief Judge Jonathan Lipmann’s recent proposals to raise the age at which teenagers in New York are tried as adults instead of juveniles, Stringer agreed that the proposal deserved exploration. He added, “Criminalizing teenagers without an idea of what adult prison looks like is not a good idea.”

New York and North Carolina are the only two states in the nation that try 16-year-olds in adult criminal courts, rather than in family court with juvenile justice punishments.

However, some local activists and residents hold slightly more cautious views on the relationship between criminal justice and upper Manhattan specifically.

Nina Saxon, a community youth activist born and raised in East Harlem, outlined several possible reasons why younger residents of upper Manhattan may be more prone to arrest and incarceration.

“If you look at the demographics of East Harlem, including the unemployment rates, the drug incident rates, and all the arrests, along with the concentration of public housing,” she said, “it makes more sense.

“There are no jobs or training programs. Our youth don’t have any role models: we need real role models who look like us.”

Similarly, after the first official public meeting of the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, a week after the national symposium, independent consultant Anna Barrow said: “I think people in Harlem are oblivious to these problems. They’ve come to accept these conditions as normal.

“My 36-year-old son talked with friends mostly about plans to end up in prison, instead of talking about plans for employment.

“He also said that being stopped and searched by police has happened to him at least two or three times a week, for 10 years now.”

While Saxon and Barrow are more realistic about the problems faced by uptowners struggling with the criminal justice system, they are nonetheless passionate about fixing what they see as injustices.

Saxon volunteers with the Riverside Church Prison Ministry and teaches women ages 17-62 in Manhattan’s Bayview Correctional Facility. She described the “intense” work as “one of the best things in my life.”

The apparent common factor among these prison activists, who encompass diverse backgrounds and motivations, is visible excitement about recent events, coupled with a commitment to genuine reform, if not revolution, with respect to this country’s criminal justice system.

7 thoughts on “The growing campaign to end the New Jim Crow

  1. In Canada, our pending “Safe Streets and Communities” bill from our new “tough on crime” brand government has something to say about juvenile offenders–the main concern of the criminal justice system is “the protection of society”. It’s not enough for it to be one principle among restitution, rehabilitation, etc. as it was before.
    Now, for young offenders:
    “violent offense” now includes, for example, reckless speeding away from police through a residential zone, so warrants custody in a youth facility.
    “serious violent offense” like rape, murder, manslaughter, may still be raised to adult court, but if the youth is at least 14, the prosecutor must try it in adult court or explain to the youth judge why it was not tried in adult court.
    Confidentiality of youth criminal records, and their seal when a person reaches 18 is taken very seriously in Canada. Many of the provisions of this law would make petty crimes of youths, settled without formal penalties, open to all police, and make public the names of all youths convicted of serious violent crimes, even if it was dealt with in the youthful offender system.
    Another clause reminiscent of US mass incarceration is the decision to imprison youth who have a repeated record of petty offenses. The results of this cannot be good, even excluding the need for our Provincial government to spend more money on youth, as well as new adult, prisons.
    In our co-op of 200 mixed income units, it seems every 10-15 years or so we get a bunch of young teens who try break-and-entering on an amateur basis. God help us if one of the kids has gone to Willingdon, our local youth detention–then we have a serious problem. My husband’s a locksmith, and has a terrible time finding good apprentices–he figures detention centre graduates would be terrific–if he could trust them with his tools.

  2. I wanted to mention, too, that there is no mention anywhere of bias against First Nations (native) peoples in the legislation, since this really isn’t a concern of this Government. There is a Supreme Court decision that there are needs of First Nations culture that the Justice System leaves out, and there are special deprivations that they have, especially social and economic. They are over-represented in general in the prisons and youth criminal justice systems.

  3. This growing movement has mushroomed all a cross this country. I am presently in LA meeting with the Formerly Incarcerated Peisoners movement who are building a movement in over 12 states to restore their human and civil rights. We thank you Alan Bean for your recognition of our work. I will see you, hopefully, on the 11th at the campaign to end the death penalty in Austin Texas.

  4. Dear Formerly Incarcerated,

    I believe that YOUR movement has to connect with other folk and other movements. I suggest that Educational Movements that are on the cutting edge should be one of the Groups YOU collaborate with. When You have your meetings and conferences, YOU speak to the same folks and I call that talking to the Chorus! COSEBOC, Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color is one Organization I believe You should connect with. Rumble Young Man Rumble is another and of course The Fatherhood Initiative that is International, but one of President Barack Obama’s programs to get families back together via Father’s loving and taking care of their Children. A Diversity is what I’m talking about! The Folks who normally don’t get involved with the Formerly Incarcerated are the exact people YOU need to recruit and connect with. This is my suggestions after checking out the Formerly Incarcerated Movement for decades!

    In the interest of working together,

    Zachary C. Husser, Community Organizer

  5. I suggest we see the “New JIm Crow” as a moral issue and not a financial issue. In response to our present recession and budget crisis states are doing a little bit to try to cut back on arrests and sentencing, and making adjustments in their laws about drug possession, but for financial reasons alone. Excessive and prejudiced incarceration is a moral, and therefore a church, issue, and not only a way to cut back on state budgets. I haven’t heard Occupy Wall Street even raise this issue.

  6. Movements are built in stages. First you organize the core group of organizers and then you reach out to others with a common interest. There is always the tendency within groups to want to jump over necessary steps in the process and then they are forced to come back and revisit those skipped over stages. Our ultimate vision is to get the community organized to speak in one voice for its common interest. Martin Luther King and the civil rights struggle faced this same challenge, as does every movement in the world. Eventually, we will get it right. Meanwhile, thanks for your “constructive” criticism.

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