There are over 2.2 million families in America for whom the holiday season is extremely difficult. As co-workers, fellow parishioners, friends and colleagues wish them happy holidays and inquire whether they will be getting together with family, they cringe and struggle to respond in a way that does not reveal that for them the holidays are a harsh reminder of the pain, separation and loneliness that incarceration means for them. For them, there is no holiday dinner at a nice restaurant, shopping outing for gifts, decorating a tree or attending a religious service. On New Year’s Eve they will not share a kiss at midnight or hold each other tightly. In fact, the words “Happy New Year” ring hollow and reopen the wounds of separation.
These families struggle to maintain their bond by saving precious little funds to pay for phone calls, visits, commissary, and care packages. The economic burden of incarceration on families is tough, but the emotional burden is overwhelming.
As one mother recently shared when speaking about her 6 year old son, “He just wants his dad to push him on the swing at the playground.” Her college age daughter wants her dad to meet her boyfriend and tell her if he approves.
Her husband is serving 15 to life and has been incarcerated since their son was 4 months old.
This mom works as a nurse at a local hospital and just wants her children to have a chance to get ahead in life, but she is struggling to support her daughter’s higher education and pay for piano lessons for her son. At least once a month she tries to visit her husband who is incarcerated 700 miles from home. She doesn’t own a car so the least expensive way for her to visit is to take a chartered bus that costs $65 round trip for adults, and $35 for her son. In addition to the $100 in bus fare, there is the cost of food during the trip, money to purchase food in the visiting room vending machines, and the items she’ll take in a care package to leave for her husband.
Some months she cannot afford to make the trip so she chooses to just mail the care package. The package is priority sometimes because it can include perishable items such as nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables which are not available in the state prison system. She is already worried that her husband has lost weight during his incarceration and his health seems to be declining.
On top of all of this, there isn’t really anyone in her life with whom she can share her concerns. Her siblings don’t understand why she stays with her “jailbird” husband. Her friends don’t know how long his sentence is. She doesn’t want to upset him by telling him that she is worried. So, she holds it all in and does her best to maintain the household, herself, and their marriage.
It’s an overwhelming bundle of stress, and it’s already taking a big toll on her physical and mental health. She suffers from depression, stress-related weight gain, and migraine headaches that make it more difficult for her to help her son with his homework after school. The downward spiral is frightening, and it’s real.
In response to the heartbreaking crisis we both saw happening to millions of American families dealing with the negative side effects of incarceration, Danny [Glover] and I founded the Alliance of Families for Justice (AFJ) in central Harlem, New York in the fall of 2016.
The location of AFJ is intentional and strategic as Harlem is known as “the re-entry corridor” in New York. AFJ’s mission is to support, empower and mobilize families with incarcerated loved ones and people with a criminal record. Here, wives, husbands, mothers, grandfathers, daughters, aunties, uncles, and sons find comfort and an empathetic ear. AFJ is like an oasis for them. It is a place where they can share their pain without judgment and shed the shame they have harbored. They no longer have to hide or pretend that the person they love isn’t in prison.
When we founded AFJ, we did so from the heart.
Danny Glover: As a young man and the oldest of five children, I saw the anguish on my mother’s face when neighbors would inquire about her “other” sons. My first career dream was to become a probation officer. I watched all my brothers go through the youth justice system, eventually matriculating to the State penitentiary system. My mom and dad often had to make the choice of either attending church or taking those long drives to remote California prisons to visit my brothers. And on the occasions when I came along, I felt the humiliation of watching my parents being subjected to searches and scanning as if they had broken the law. I hated it.
Soffiyah Elijah: And for me, as a teenage girl, I started visiting my high school sweetheart in an upstate maximum security prison. The contrast of the prison setting bumped against the pristine ivy league campus where I was a student less than 40 miles away was instructive. Everyone in that visiting room, other than the guards, was Black or Brown. Everyone. And all of the guards, every single one of them, were white. I never told any of my friends or my family that my boyfriend was incarcerated. At that young age, I knew that I couldn’t. I held it in, and the shame ate at my soul.
The racial dynamics and social control of prisons were so very tangible to both of us, long before our political evolvement. So, founding AFJ was deeply personal for us, as it was for most of our board members and volunteers. Most of us have a personal experience that mirrors in one way or another, the story of the nurse struggling to maintain her family.
Families form the fiber of any community and when the families are in crisis, the community is in crisis. Poor Black and Brown communities have been devastated by mass incarceration and the collateral consequences of that devastation are immeasurable.
By providing families the supports they need to heal, AFJ tills the fertile soil where the seeds of hope and rejuvenation can sprout. In this way, the receptivity for empowerment is created, nurtured and optimized. Once they are empowered, family members can act on their own behalf and can mobilize others to do the same.
AFJ didn’t need to read research studies, or consult with academic experts about what was needed to reverse the devastation of mass incarceration on families. We took our lived experiences and created the solutions that we knew would work. Our first year of operation has been a huge success. In the coming years, we plan to replicate the AFJ model throughout the country. Until mass incarceration is ended, there will always be a deep need for what AFJ is doing.