After two if its members were frustrated by prison authorities and local police in their attempts to communicate and share an open letter with visitors to prisoners at South Woods State Princeton in Bridgeton, NJ on March 21, Decarcerate the Garden State has decided that it will challenge the policies that denied them what they consider their “free speech and expression” rights to make such communications.
In an article at the group’s blog site, the group’s co-founder Bob Witanek detailed how authorities interfered with their ability to distribute a letter to prisoner visitors inviting the visitors to attend a panel discussion scheduled to take place in the City of Bridgeton on April 4.
Prison authorities told the activists that they were prohibited to be on the parking lot and even on the right of way grass by the side of the road. Local police told them that they can not set up at the edge of the road either and advised them that the only option was to be on the opposite side of the street from the facility, thus placing the street as a barrier for any opportunity to share the letter with visitors or engage visitors to prisoners in conversation about the group’s decarceration demands. Local police referred to the public financed prison property as "private property."
The group has thus far reached out to the constitutional attorney Bennet Zurofsky and to the NJ ACLU looking for representation to challenge the policies that were stated by the corrections officers and policy they encountered.
According to Bob Witanek’s writing on the group’s blog site, “Given the large numbers of incarcerated – visitation is unfortunately part of Main Street USA and as such – advocates need to have the right and ability to communicate directly with incarceration visitors. In the early 90s in the lead up to Gulf War I NJ activists challenged and won limited access to shopping malls in NJ on the grounds of their being the main street even though they are private property. In this case, the suggestion that the prison lot and sidewalks outside the facility are “private” when indeed it is constructed with tax dollars and the COs there are on the public payroll is possibly challenge-able. “
Attorney Bennet Zurofsky’s first response to hearing of the incident is as follows:
“Bob Witanek - I agree with your hunch that you have greater free speech rights in the public areas outside of South Woods Prison than the Department of Corrections and the Bridgeton Police were willing to recognize. To begin, property owned by the State of New Jersey is public property and most certainly is NOT private property as the local police told you. Because it is prison property it may be subject to some regulation beyond that permitted on Main Street (as you put it), but regulations that completely prohibit effective hand-billing outside of the security perimeter and along the side of a road or near a parking lot entrance so that you could effectively reach visitors would (in my view) almost certainly be held unconstitutional under both the State and Federal Constitutions. . . . I suggest that you contact ACLU of New Jersey which I think is likely to be interested in defending your right to this sort of leafleting in the immediate vicinity of a prison.”
Decarcerate the Garden State has sent a letter to NJ ACLU formally seeking representation to challenge the prison and local police policies that deny the group a means to “effectively” share hand bills and communicate with visitors of prisoners. The letter can be viewed at this link:
According to the letter: “While prison authorities will no doubt say that they have unique concerns, the situation with mass incarceration and the racial dynamics of incarceration, particularly in NJ, means that prisons during visitation hours are . . . in effect part of Main Street in America, particularly for the impoverished and for residents of color that are so disproportionately effected by mass incareration. Any unique concerns authorities might have need to be balanced to the constitutional rights of advocates and visitors and some form of accommodation per the NJ and US Constitutions needs to be established.”
Ari Rosmarin, an attorney on staff at NJ ACLU has confirmed that the request has been forwarded to their in take department.
The event the group is organizing on April 4 in Bridgeton will take place at 3:30 pm, at the St. Andrews Episcopal “Church of the Resurrection”, 186 E Commerce St, Bridgeton, NJ. It will feature presentations by Shesheena Bray co-founder of the Philadelphia Coalition for R.E.A.L (Racial, Economic and Legal Justice), Renee Felton, Founder Southwoods Family United, discussion of the situations with the police “slaying” of Jerame Reid as well as other presentations, a question and answer session and light refreshments. The event is free and open to the public.
For more information on the event and on the plans to challenge NJ prison authority policies that prevent “effective” free speech expression to visitors of incarcerated persons in NJ, call 908-881-5275.