Friday, August 15, 2014

Decarceration Movement Must Make Demands!

 “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Frederick Douglass

The Committee to Decarcerate the Garden State was recently approached to get involved in a rally of sorts in Trenton, the capitol of NJ, against “mass incarceration.”  Our organization has authored a proposed bill we are calling the NJ Decarceration Act.  

As I was the one approached, I suggested a couple of modifications to the flier and the theme of the event.

The first modification was to change reference to mass incarceration of “our citizens.”

To me that language is divisive for two reasons:

1.       Non-citizens are also victimized by mass incarceration for trumped up charges and non-violent offenses.
2.       Non-citizens are being “mass detained” and mass detention is part of the same system of ths US carceral state and the propensity to confine millions in the USA.

Fortunately the committee organizing this rally changed that language – which would have precluded any potential support from immigrant rights groups that are allied against mass detention of the immigrant population.  

The other modification suggested was to add to the theme of the rally the demand that the politicians in Trenton “Pass the NJ Decarceration Act.”  Unfortunately that proposed modification to the event was *not* enacted.  The committee held a meeting (I was not invited) and a discussion where I am told the addition of the demand was voted down.  I do not have too many specifics on the reasoning behind that.

As is stands, the planned rally at the NJ Statehouse in Trenton on October 27 from noon to 2 pm has as the theme:

“Stop the Mass Incarceration of Our People  . . . The cancer of mass incarceration from the beginning was nothing but a “New Jim Crow.”   We Say No More!  Join Us!”

The modified version of the flier had inserted “Pass the NJ Decarceration Act!” after ‘our people.’
The organizing committee unfortunately voted that down.

I am writing about this not to disparage those who do not want to take up this specific demand as part of the rally as I believe they are good people who are working hard on an important issue.  My purpose is to stress the utmost importance for this effort – and any movement that wants change – to make very specific demands of those with power.

There is a growing sentiment in each state and across the nation to “end mass incarceration.”  It is an easy slogan to latch on to and to come across as if you are an ally of those who are targeted by this malady.  You got politicians in both parties, far right wingers, mainstream news outlets all saying we need to “decarcerate.”

All well in good but our demands to “decarcerate” need to be more than vague platitudes.  Specifically we need to call upon these politicians to actually pass laws that reduce mass incarceration with short term and long term goals.  The NJ Decarceration Act was drafted with input from dozens of people, mostly from the Newark, NJ area.  It calls for reductions in the number of incarcerated in NJ state facilities to be reduced by 50% in the next 4 years.

We call upon the decarcerators of NJ to embrace the NJ Decarceration Act.  Recognize the draft we are proposing as a living document.  It will no doubt go through many changes from when it is initially introduced, discussed, debated and negotiated through the NJ legislation process.  It is our job to fight all along the way to keep it as strong as possible.

In order to be successful, we need unity around the act . . . we need to make the demand of its passage as a center piece of our decarceration work, be it our writings, our tabling, our discussions and meetings large and small.

We need to circulate the online version of the petition:

More importantly we need to get face to face signatures since this gives us an opportunity to talk up the issues on the street, in the classroom, in the park or wherever we might be (print from this link):

And while you are collecting face to face signatures – share a copy of the NJ Decarcerator with each signer – write to for your petition / NJ Decarcerator kits.  Contact us also to invite us to participate in a meeting, panel discussion, forum or other event in your town around building a unified movement to Decarcerate the Garden State.

Organizations, please draft your own letters to your state legislatures demanding that they introduce and pass the NJ Decarceration Act!

It is great that everyone wants to end mass incarceration – but let us be specific in our demands.  Don’t just create platforms for politicians (and others) to develop prison reform cred through eloquent speeches without actually using the power in their hands to deliver quick and effective prison release!

Let the battle be joined!  Decarcerate the Garden State!  Pass the NJ Decarceration Act!

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