The work of art included canvas paintings, watercolor, abstract drawings on poster board and sculpture. Some of the sculptures contained the interests of AFJ members, such as member Takeasha who works as a beautician. She created hairstyles on salon mannequins with messages related to AFJ’s mission, including a cornrowed style with the words “justice” and “AFJ” in braids. Her daughter also contributed a piece: a family portrait with her mother next to a broken heart, her father behind bars with a low battery over his head depicting the lack of food he received inside, and himself a letter with the Inscription “I wish I could be with you this Christmas. “Takeasha’s husband is currently in a facility where visits have not yet resumed. This time of year is particularly difficult for her family as her birthday is on Christmas Eve and her husband’s on Christmas Day.
AFJ plans to use the artwork for future rallies and online social media campaigns. The group often rallies in Albany in front of the state assembly or around the governor’s office. AFJ also hopes that the artwork and event of the day will draw attention to the group’s specific needs for the New York government. Cuomo offers incarcerated people basic protection against COVID-19 and extends visits to their families.
Drawing of the member of the Alliance of Families for Justice, Mesha, with lyrics often sung at AFJ meetings and protests.
Among those calls is the reinstatement of the family reunification program that allowed some incarcerated New Yorkers to spend extended periods of time with their families in an apartment-style trailer outside the prison. Luceita, an AFJ member, told Prism that her family benefited from the family reunification program as her husband served a 25-year prison sentence that was recently extended for another 15 months. The program, she said, “is holding up [incarcerated people] the feeling of being human again ”but for the past seven months the Department of Corrections and Community Oversight (DOCCS) has suspended this.
That decision was made when the pandemic hit because of a number of other restrictions: all 52 prisons in the state suspended visits between March and August. Forty-one has since resumed visits, but with significant additional constraints such as reduced time, fewer family members, and fewer available data.
Takeasha said these restrictions not only affect relationships between people within and their families, but also don’t even adequately protect people in custody from COVID-19. She said that the facility’s staff are primarily turning prisons into hotspots and that she has heard of guards who do not wear masks or social distancing themselves while denying those affected fresh personal protective equipment (PPE). Family members are also not allowed to send masks or give them to loved ones during visits.
Takeasha also expressed concern about the detainees’ lack of attention to the general health of the detainees. “There is no heat, hot water, or hot meals,” she told Prism. “There are no nutrients to build your immune system.”
In a year that saw so many black people die, she said the added threat of the pandemic in prisons had “completely traumatized” her.
“When someone holds on to loved ones and houses them, it shows that those in power are doing everything they can to encourage death,” she said.
In addition to providing an open and safe visit for families and increased protection against COVID-19, AFJ is calling on the state to resume processing marriage proposals for those employed with people domestically, as well as for the rest of the state’s population. The group is asking Governor Cuomo and the DOCCS to publish a detailed public plan to help meet them requirements and provide ongoing updates as they are implemented.
Watercolor on canvas by Mesha, a member of the Alliance of Families for Justice.
While AFJ sets a date for the next personal protest due to the drop in temperatures, Mesha, a member of the past four years, is hoping that one of the pieces she has created – a watercolor painting of a sunset over blue waters with the slogan “Justice is on the horizon “- become a banner for a future rally.
No two stories among AFJ members are the same: some have loved loved ones in facilities that allow visits while others don’t, and some rigid sentences that could extend into the next decade while others only have a few months left waiting for her loved one to come home. Still, being in community with people who understand some semblance of your experience can be a lifeline. As Luceita described, “allow us to be free”.
For people with imprisoned loved ones who may not have such a community and need support, Mesha gave important advice: “Stay in touch with your loved ones as much as possible to feel that this bond still exists. Mesha said. “This time the bond can get stronger.”
Until recently, Mesha’s husband used a tablet to send their emails, but recently it broke and he got very frustrated, she said. In response, she told him that the two of them “need to make it work,” and turned to other forms of communication such as phone calls and handwritten letters.
Takeasha repeated Mesha’s advice and encouraged people to be understanding and patient with their loved ones within, even as the demands of their own personal lives continue to increase.
“Understanding your position and not taking things personally will go a long way,” said Takeasha. “You cannot imagine what your loved one is going through.”
Her message applies equally to the general public at this time of year, who must show a better understanding of both those incarcerated and those who love them.
Tamar Sarai Davis is Prismas’ criminal justice reporter. Follow her on Twitter @ Bytamarsarai.
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