Monday, March 30, 2015

Bridgeton Mayor Calls for Outside the Box Thinking on Jailing – We Agree

“Decarcerating Bridgeton / Southwoods” is the title of a panel discussion scheduled to occur Saturday, April 4, 3:30pm at the Church of the Resurrection (St. Andrew's Episcopal), 186 E Commerce Street , Bridgeton, NJ.  The event is sponsored by our organization Decarcerate the Garden State.  For more information- see press release at the following link:
Just days before our panel event, coincidentally, Albert B. Kelly the Mayor of Bridgeton has published an excellent opinion piece in the NJ dot com news services:

Mayor Kelly is calling for outside the box thinking to resolve the issue of too many lives turning sour after a bout with jail.  This makes perfect sense and is part of what our organization will be addressing at this Saturday’s event.

We welcome Mayor Kelly’s words and encourage other local officials to also take a closer look at this issue.  We also encourage Mayor Kelly to move beyond the box in how the City of Bridgeton is policed and what crimes are prosecuted and how they are prosecuted right there in Bridgeton.  Mayors have executive powers – they have influence on how police departments are run and by whom.  They have the authority  - especially if partnered with council and the community to decide what type of policing occurs.

Similarly there are prosecutors in NJ calling for changes to NJ’s drug laws yet they continue to prosecute per those laws.  They have power to change their prosecutorial style to affect immediate change while continuing to join with the rest of us in the fight to change the laws.

From our planning meetings with Bridgeton residents, we have learned that some of this outside of the box thinking can indeed be applied to Bridgeton.  The police arrest reports tell you that as well.  How many small time drug arrests are being made?  How many police hours are spent filling out reports, testifying, gathering evidence to prosecute these very low level offenses right there in Bridgeton?  How much paid time does the local prosecutor and the local judge spend and how much paid time do local police spend testifying to have people put in jail for the very low level infractions.

Indeed, the mayor and council can call upon the prosecutor to pull the docket list right now – to select cases that fall in the category as described in the Mayor’s op-ed and to dismiss those charges. That would be some *awesome out of the box thinking*. 

The mayor and council can sit down with the police brass and lay out a new strategy for policing the city.  Indeed Bridgeton can use some toning down given the aftermath of the police killing of Jerame Reid as he attempted to emerge from a vehicle holding his empty hands out of the window on December 30, 2014.  

How about an amnesty for low level offenses?  How about a moratorium – on marijuana law enforcement?  How about an ordinance decriminalizing marijuana in Bridgeton (like nearby Philadelphia)?

We also suggest that Bridgeton can introduce a resolution to back our efforts to pass a NJ Decarceration Act.

We applaud Mayor Kelly’s insightful piece today – it definitely sets the tone for our event this Saturday.

We invite Mayor Kelly and other local leaders to attend our event – to listen to the panelists and to continue to provide leadership on solutions to the issues of mass incarceration.  

The communities that are targeted by mass incarceration, over enforcement of nuisance laws, profiling, street harassment of impoverished residents are looking for bold leadership – people who are willing to fight to pass laws that lead to large scale reduction in incarceration levels and wholesale change to how laws are enforced, people who are willing to use the power they already possess to affect immediate change.  That type of leadership will go far on the shoulders of the communities super oppressed by mass incarceration.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Press Release: Bridgeton Decarceration Panel Discussion

For Immediate Release
Contact: Bob Witanek 908-881-5275

Tour de Decarcerate – the traveling panel discussion of the statewide organization Decarcerate the Garden State is about to land in Bridgeton, NJ this Saturday, April 4.  The event is scheduled to occur at 3:30 pm at the Church of the Resurrection, formerly St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 186 E. Commerce Street.
From the flier announcing the event, the group states: “On the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, let his spirit kindle in our new civil rights struggle for decarceration.  Come to Bridgeton NJ to a panel discussion on fighting to Decarcerate the Garden State.”

The event will feature a key note presentation by Shesheena Bray. an education mentor for Philadelphia college students and a co-founder and organizer for The Philadelphia Coalition for R.E.A.L (Racial, Economic and Legal Justice).  She will give the historical back drop and broad over view of the mass incarceration issue.

A member of the newly founded Southwoods Family United organization, Renee Felton will address the event.  Renee Felton’s son Kwadir Felton was blinded for life by a police bullet when he was 18 and is now serving at South Woods for what the group considers “an unjust conviction.”

Gary Frazier founder and CEO of Camden Comeback will also address the event.

They will talk about the need for family involvement in the struggle to end mass incarceration.

Bridgeton has recently been beset by a controversial shooting by police of Jerame Reid who – per a video tape of the event – was attempting to surrender to  police with his hands up before he was shot dead.  Local civil rights leaders will provide an update on that situation.

There will be a presentation by local youth community member Shiquera Sierra on the “school to prison” pipeline and the need for youth engagement in the effort to end mass incarceration.

As usual at these events, there will also be a presentation by a member of Decarcerate the Garden State on the group’s 6-point action plan and a question and answer, audience participation portion of the event as well as other local discussion on needs of the Bridgeton community.

A particular focus of this panel will be organizing among families of the incarcerated and reaching out to the incarcerated themselves.  Decarcerate the Garden State members recently came to South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton to hand out letters inviting visitors to incarcerated persons to attend their April 4 event.  After handing a few letters out, they were largely thwarted by corrections officers as well as Bridgeton police.  The group is seeking legal representation to challenge what they see as the prevention of their “free expression” in their attempts to organize among visitors on prison grounds which they say is like “main street USA” on visitors day.

The event is timed at 3:30 pm to give an opportunity for afternoon visitors to get to the event which is just 2 miles from the prison.  They are offering rides to visitors from the prison which can be arranged by calling 908-881-5275.

At the panel discussion at the Church of the Resurrection, which is free and open to the public, there will be light refreshments.  For more details, interested persons are encouraged to call 908-881-5275.

Decarcerate the Garden State advocates the passage of the "NJ Decarceration Act" which would reduce NJ's state incarceration levels by 50% over 4 years.  

Decarcerate the Garden State has a Facebook group of over 600 members at:

There is a Facebook event at:  


Poking A Hole in the Prison Wall – Writing to the Incarcerated in NJ

Part of the challenge we face in building an effective decarceration movement that can make effective demands and prevail and actually win some freedom and win some improvements for those locked down is to build convergence and then unity between advocates for decarceration, families of the incarcerated and those who are currently and formerly incarcerated or potentially to be incarcerated.

The prison walls that confine also serve as a dividing line effectively interfering with the kind of unity we need to advance forward our struggle.  Those on the inside are largely unaware that we have begun to stir on the outside for changes in NJ.  We on the outside are largely unaware of just how miserable and oppressive are the conditions on the other side of the walls.  The system commits many crimes of abuse, neglect and worse totally shielded from public knowledge and sight.

What can we do to attempt to break a hole through the dividing wall?  It is an important question and the answer is part of what we need to figure out to move our efforts to a new level.  I want to invite every reader of this article to join me in beginning to test if the dividing wall is penetrable.

I am suggesting a writing campaign – not so much to become prisoner pen pals – though that is part of the tactic – but to open a collective dialogue between proponents of our fight directly with the incarcerated.  The idea is this – participating decarceration proponents reach out to 1 – 5 (or more) incarcerated persons via a letter.  You can take the example below for starters and modify it to your liking, send it as is or write your own letter from scratch.

In the letter we introduce ourselves as members of Decarcerate the Garden State.  We talk a little bit about what the organization does and what are our aims.  We can also add a little about our own personal philosophy or opinions about mass incarceration and solutions.  We can ask the incarcerated person to write back, let us know what they think of our efforts.  We can suggest that if they have friends and family on the outside that are supportive of them that they contact them and ask that they get in contact with our organization.  We can also suggest that they let other incarcerated persons know about our efforts and encourage them to invite their outside supporters to also contact us.  We can also invite them to contact us if they know of issues going on inside the facility of abuse, neglect, systemic violence, etc.  Let them know that if there is a way for us to act in support of improvements that we will try to figure out a way to do that.  Also we can let them know that if there is information that they want to make public – we can help to facilitate that – while using discretion and protecting our sources about such information.

If you have a Post Office Box or you can use your own return address for the correspondence – that works – or you can use the following return address: PO Box 25331, Newark, NJ 07101. 

Let us know who you are writing to – send the information to and we can let you know if you get a response.   Letting us know also tells us if we are having any success in encouraging this action step.
So you are probably wondering – who should I write to?  That is up to you.  If you have relatives, friends, acquaintances that you know are on the inside you can write to them.   You also can search the prisoner database – look up incarcerated persons – and pick one or more that you want to write to.  The address format is the incarcerated man or woman’s name followed by their prison ID number and then the address for the facility they are incarcerated in.  For example, if sending to Southwoods incarcerated:

Prisoner Name, 999999A
South Woods State Prison
215 Burlington Rd. South
Bridgeton, NJ 08302
(Where 999999A is the prison ID that you can obtain from the prisoner search website)

Here is the search site: .  You can enter a couple of letters – into the last name or a common last name.  You can select a particular facility if you want to focus on a facility.  Women organizers can consider focusing on Edna Mahan facility.

The addresses of each facility can be found at the NJ Department of Corrections website:

Unlike a simple prison pen pal project, this is an organizing effort.   Ideally, we should coordinate if we find incarcerated persons that are interested in getting involved and if there are those that want to share information with the public, we should determine the best way to productively share the information.  If we are approached for assistance in advocating to resolve an issue – we can share ideas about how to best go about providing support and take action accordingly.
Summarizing the goals of the effort:
1.       To communicate to the incarcerated about the efforts of Decarcerate the Garden State and give a little hopefulness that the idea of such external support might engender.
2.       To invite the incarcerated to share information about how to connect with our organization to their loved ones or any support networks they might have outside.
3.       To give a voice to the incarcerated by offering to facilitate their communications if they are interested to the outside.
4.       Should any issues be identified, to offer support and possibly action from the outside to pressure for improvements.

Here is a sample letter – feel free to copy and use as is, modify to your liking or write your own letters in your own words:

Dear <Incarecerated Person’s Name>,

I am writing to you as a member of a statewide organization called Decarcerate the Garden State.  Our goals are to fight for changes in NJ laws to bring about large scale reductions of the number of incarcerated prisoners in the state of NJ and to provide community projects that help former prisoners achieve success, jobs and other support for NJ’s impoverished communities.  We also want improved conditions for those that are incarcerated.

To achieve our goals we need greater unity particularly with those that are incarcerated and their families.  We are reaching out to incarcerated men and women, like yourself to let you know about our efforts and to find out if you are interested in becoming part of the efforts.

A key way those that are incarcerated behind NJ’s prison walls can help is, if you have any family or support on the outside, if you can contact them and let them know about our group and ask them to contact us.  They can reach us through e-mail address or search for us on the internet: Decarcerate the Garden State, and they will find out website, blog, facebook group, etc.

You can also let other incarcerated men and women know about what we are doing and encourage them also to reach out to their loved ones.

We also want to offer support – if there are issues that are going on inside the prison that people on the outside should know about, if there are harmful conditions that should be improved, you can communicate with us and if you request it, we can keep your name out of it.  You can also encourage your family members to let us know about any such conditions.

If you have any suggestions and advice as to how to better advocate toward our goals of an end to mass incarceration in NJ, please feel free to share those. 

If interested, please be encourage to write back to me at:

<Your Name>
PO Box 25331
Newark, NJ 07101

<Your Name>

Related topics:

Interview with Free Alabama Movement:

Challenging Prison Policies Preventing Direct Communication to Visitors