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New Yorkers Who March for Justice Reform: ‘We Have a Long Road Ahead of Us’

“Everywhere we go, people want to know who we are, where we come from, where we’re going, so we tell them, we are a family, a diverse family, a mighty, mighty family, headed to Albany, fighting for justice …”

NEW YORK — The civil rights marchers had gone about a mile and change into Wappinger Falls, a quaint village in Dutchess County, New York, when it was time for a bathroom break.

“Sometimes,” one of the marchers joked, “you need to take a bathroom break for justice.”

The three-vehicle caravan of a ramshackle school bus, a 12-foot Penske moving truck and a Toyota FJ Cruiser that had followed the marchers from Harlem all pulled to a stop at the curb.

The marchers had been walking for about an hour on a bleak and unseasonably cold and rainy September morning without incident when they decided to stop at a coffee shop along Main Street. A handful had been on foot from the starting point in Harlem on an 180-mile walk to Albany, New York, in an attempt to draw attention to the abuses in state prisons and, they hoped, bring about some reforms. Others had just joined the group a few hours ago.

A few of the marchers, a mix of white and black, young and old, gay, trans and straight, went inside the coffee shop to grab a hot drink to warm up They were a bedraggled bunch. Many had slept the night before on cots and inflatable mattresses in the sanctuary of a nearby church. So the warm, dry Ground Hog coffee shop was a welcome relief.

Stepping into the shop felt like stepping back in time to Mayberry or some other small-town idyll, aside from the cleverly named espresso drinks on the chalkboard like dirty chai latte or coconut moka. The chessboard-tiled floors, wooden tables and framed black-and-white photographs all had the feel of a timeless bit of Americana.

The customers, all of them white, lifted their heads up from breakfasts of French toast and omelets to observe the wet group of marchers ambling past, wearing a quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky on the back of their T-shirts. It read: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

As the marchers lined up, the opening piano riff of Lynard Skynard’s “Free Bird” came over the speakers. The man taking orders came out from behind the slatted wood counter and approached a 30-year-old black woman, one of the march’s organizers.

“You all need to leave,” he said. “You all need to get out. Now.”

“Why is that?” Lilly Oseitutu replied in a lilting London accent.

“We’re busy and can’t have you blocking up our establishment,” he snapped back.

The two squared off in the middle of the cramped dining room. Ronnie Van Zant sang, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?”

“I don’t understand,” she replied making a deliberate effort to remain calm. “We’re paying customers. Why would we have to leave?”

The counter man was in no mood for an argument and shook his head.

“I want you back outside now,” he said.

“We’re not leaving,” she replied.

The man held his ground for a few beats, then shook his head in disgust and returned to his station behind the counter.

The woman went to the bathroom and left the shop a few minutes later.

“You’re damn right I’m not leaving, I’m a paying customer. What does he think this is?” she asked no one in particular. The patrons watched as the door shut behind her and “Free Bird” reached its rousing final chorus.

“Lord knows, I can’t change, Lord help me, I can’t change ...”

The march’s origins

When Soffiyah Elijah, the march’s leader and chief organizer, hears about the incident inside the coffee shop she is not surprised.

“Remember when I told you we were heading Up South,” she said. “This is Up

South.”

Elijah lifts her red megaphone to her mouth and leads the group in a new chant. They have a long way to go yet.

The nonprofit organization she founded and is executive director of, Alliance of Families for Justice, came up with the march. Here is an incomplete list of some of the abuses behind prison walls she is hoping to end. She has them printed on a pamphlet with a pair of black hands in handcuffs on one side and a white hand clutching a billy club on the other: Waterboarding. Mangled ears. Plastic bags held over prisoners’ faces. Teeth kicked out. Prisoners shackled and thrown down flights of stairs. Years spent in solitary confinement.

Lilly Oseitutu yells into megaphones during the March for Justice.

When the nation saw students punched and kicked for trying to integrate lunch counters, or marchers going from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama, hit with billy clubs and tear gassed, it was outraged. That led to two signature pieces of civil rights legislation.

But, Elijah said, New Yorkers remain indifferent to the savagery in the state prisons that line the march’s route to Albany. That’s why she self-consciously borrowed from an effective civil rights tactic from the 1950s and 1960s. She wants to get people to see that the injustices plaguing the modern criminal justice system have parallels to the past. She sees a profound disconnect between how people lionize the work done in the civil rights movement but remain oblivious to the need for one in present.

It’s a paradox that frustrates Elijah and many who have dedicated themselves to the work of making reforms to the state’s criminal justice system — from the juvenile justice system to adult prisons. She, like many activists and advocates for juvenile justice reform and ending abuses behind prison walls, gets frustrated that the public does not see this as an urgent civil rights catastrophe going in New York state. It’s a partisan issue at best that gets bogged down in predictable policy debates in Albany.

All the while, people like Elijah, the alliance board and its members, made up mostly of volunteers who have seen firsthand what happens behind bars in New York state or who have family there now, watch as children and adults, a staggering number of them black and brown, get beaten out of sight in one of the prisons nestled deep in the bucolic woods and farms of the Hudson Valley.

She thinks the 21st century is in as desperate need for a civil rights movement as the 20th century was, and that the work started then is not done. It’s something she learned working as a defense attorney for decades.

“I started to grasp what my client’s families were going through,” she said. “Particularly mothers and spouses, mothers and partners, fathers and what they were going through. And the agony that they experienced having someone incarcerated. And they would suffer in silence, there was nowhere for them to go, there was no organization, there was nothing. They wouldn’t tell their pastor, they wouldn’t tell their fellow parishioners, frequently they wouldn’t tell other relatives. They would say, ‘Oh Johnny went down South to visit his relatives,’ but like I said, Up South.”

Elijah first stepped into a New York prison because she was in love. She was 17 and her boyfriend was in Auburn Correctional Facility. He was a few years older and was in for a drug charge. His older siblings had already died of heroin overdoses. Elijah was a freshman at Cornell University, an elite private school about 30 miles from the prison. She scheduled her classes so she would have Thursdays free.

“He was someone that I knew that I cared about,” she said. “So I went.”

On her class-free days she would go to the Greyhound station, take the bus to Auburn and visit him.

“I didn’t tell anybody,” Elijah said. “My parents went to their grave never knowing.”

Although she didn’t know it at the time, she said, those visits to the prisons were making a mark on a teenage girl that would shape the lawyer, prison reformer and civil rights advocate she would become.

“What struck me was that everybody in the visiting room being visited looked like me, and all the guards looked like you,” she said, motioning to a white man. “And that was really stark to me, really stark.”

Elijah explained the origins of her brainchild, the March for Justice, sitting on a beat-up metal chair at a rickety foldout table in the lobby of the Unitarian Universalist church in Poughkeepsie, New York. Just down the hall in the sanctuary is where she would be spending the night with the rest of the marchers.

“The other thing that was stark to me was that I saw so many people from my neighborhood in that prison who I had thought had gone down South to visit relatives. I didn’t know they had gone Up South.”

Elijah’s Alliance of Families for Justice is dedicated to ending abuses behind the walls of New York state prisons and helping families of prisoners on the other side. She conceived of the March for Justice, a 180-mile walk from Harlem’s National Black Theater to Albany’s Capitol Building, as a way to be more aggressive in getting out the message of prison abuse.

She witnessed those abuses first-hand while she was the executive director of the Correctional Association, from 2011 until last year. It is the only private organization in the state with the legal authority to access prisons. The legislature granted it the authority in 1846 to inspect prison conditions and report back to the public.

But Elijah felt the association wasn’t doing enough for families, so she founded the Alliance to support incarcerated people and people with criminal records, and their families. Its purpose is also to mobilize people to put pressure on the political system to make sweeping institutional change. That was part of the inspiration for the March for Justice.

Soffiya Elijah and Lilly Oseitutu sell T-shirts and other merchandise before an evening event.

“When you are trying to move people you have to deal with their hearts and minds, and you can’t do hearts and minds on the phone,” she said. “You have to literally bring it to their living rooms, or at least to their neighborhood — the March for Justice brings it to people’s neighborhood, it brings it to their churches, their houses of worship.”

Justice, but first forms and stretches

It’s not even 9 a.m. on Sunday morning and Lilly Oseitutu in her second church. She describes herself as the “co-logistical coordinator of the whole damn thing.” She walks around the lobby with three clipboards with forms for new arrivals looking to join the march. One is for an emergency contact in case anything happens on the way.

After all the new arrivals fill out their forms they head into a wide hallway of the Beacon Light Tabernacle Seventh Day Adventist Church. Oseitutu takes a head count — 15 will march today — and turns the crowd over to Elijah. Outside it’s gray and overcast with a cold steady drizzle. Elijah speaks the letter “S.” Bill, who wears a long scraggly beard and camouflage and seems like a veteran of the civil rights battles of the 1960s, leans toward a newcomer and whispers, “When Miss Elijah says ‘S’ it means be quiet.”

Elijah turns to the group and flashes a broad, warm smile.

“Welcome to the March for Justice,” she said. “We’re scheduled to do 14 miles in the rain!

“I’m going to start with the importance of following leadership. Oseitutu and I call all the shots. When in doubt,” and then she paused and corrected herself. “I’m not even going to say the word doubt. Just ask us. If anything comes up — ask. If we say get off the road and on the bus, you will get off the road and onto the bus.

“We have a long road ahead of us. There will be times when you can’t be heard and we’ll say reserve your voices and just march. And when we say that, just march.”

After she laid out the importance of leadership, it was time for chi. Every morning Elijah leads the marchers in a series of stretches designed to get people’s chi going. She jokes that you can’t get justice without the chi. After series of twists, toe grabs and leg stretches it’s time to hit the road.

“This is a good time for a bathroom break because we don’t know where the next bathroom will be. So now is the time!”

Bathrooms, snacks, potential allergies volunteer marchers might have, roads with shoulders, alerting police departments, routes, alternative routes, places that will have outlets to charge phones, accommodations, sleeping arrangements, laundry — when you spend a few days on the March for Justice you get a sense of how much of the work is dedicated to a dizzying array of minutiae, tasks and navigating around unexpected obstacles that pop up, both major and minor.

Everyone climbs on the bus. Elijah is riding in another of the caravan vehicles. But she gives some final words of wisdom from the doorway.

The drivers of the March for Justice caravan watch the marchers from a parking lot.

“Our goal is to be what?” she asks the passengers. They look back blankly. Elijah nods. “To be safe!” She flashes a mischievous grin. “If you get a little anxious, sing ‘The wheels of the bus go round and round’!”

Bill turns the key, the bus makes a loud wrenching noise and rumbles to life, headed to the next spot where the organizers have found a safe marching route.

Banners hang from each side of the bus covering the windows. On them are pictures of some of the incarcerated people and their families they are marching to help. The feeble light creates a gloomy atmosphere, but it doesn’t affect the marchers. The mood on the bus is upbeat. A few women are trying to retrace yesterday’s route on a map.

Another clutch of newcomers are engaged in lively chat, the kind of conversation you expect out of strangers who just met in a church lobby at 8 in the morning. Miss Ivey, the oldest member of the group who has been with the group since they left Harlem on Aug. 26, is napping. Her son has been in a New York state prison for two decades. She calls him daily to keep him updated on their progress.

Bill pulls the bus into a Valero gas station in Wappinger Falls about nine miles outside Poughkeepsie. Kevin Barron, the media coordinator, stand up and shouts: “OK, everybody off!”

The marchers gather gear. The banner carriers work out the best way to hold them so they can be seen by passers-by. Elijah makes sure everyone has a poncho as the rain continues to steadily fall.

“Hey, does anyone want a megaphone,” one marcher shouted to the crowd. “I have two,” she said, raising the bright red amplifiers in the air.

They’re on the move.

Elijah lifts a megaphone to her mouth and shouts the first of dozens of call-and-response chants she will lead that day:

“One, two, three, four! Tell me what we’re marching for,” she says, almost singing the words. “Five, six, seven, eight! An end to the prison state!”

A car zooms by honks and waves. Elijah doesn’t miss a beat as she smiles and waves back.

Hot soup and a new home for the night

After Oseitutu’s showdown at the coffee shop, the rest of the march goes without incident. A few people roll their windows low enough to voice their displeasure. But most of their reception is positive, with people scooching their windows down to wave. The afternoon turns into a torrent and Elijah decides to drive the remainder of the day’s route. Everyone piles back in and Bill delivers them to a Unitarian Universalist church.

Everyone forms a bucket brigade and helps haul in all the supplies from the Penske truck. Once everything is inside the church, people settle in for lunch. A pile of brown bags sits on one table, and two pots of steaming soup sit on another. Volunteers made homemade chicken noodle soup and veggie and bean wraps. Stickers are on the foldout tables with bold black lettering that read: #Feed the Resistance.

Elijah calls out “S” and the room falls silent. She tells everyone what’s on the menu.

“The lunch is vegan, the cookies are not,” and then she starts singing it, as she would a march chant.

During lunch many of the participants talk about what brought them out to join the March for Justice and walk in a cold, dreary rain. Chaia Lehrer, a member of Mid-Hudson Jews for Racial Justice, explains it with a picture she recently took.

The March for Justice went on despite the rain.

“It’s totally off the road, it’s way back behind the woods,” she said, almost with an air of paranoia. “That’s how they do it. They hide it back in the country so no one can see it — so no one knows.”

Lehrer pulls out her phone and pulls up a photo. It is a picture of a sign. Highland Residential Center Office of Children and Family Services. It’s a juvenile center that was at the heart of a 2010 lawsuit for numerous abuses.

She pulls up another. This one is a picture of a nondescript building behind a fence ringed with barbed wire.

“Who knows what’s going on in there,” she says in a whisper.

Lehrer explains that her main frustration is that the children in the facility have no connection to the community in the surrounding area, and the community has no connection to the children. There is no incentive, she said, for anyone in the community to care about what is happening to the children imprisoned behind the gates.

“There are no kids from around here in there,” she says with a dismissive wave. “These are all kids from the city. The community has no connection to what is going on in the facility. Their parents are too far away to know. It’s a very bad situation.”

She pointed to the members of the march scattered around the sanctuary.

“This is the civil rights movement,” Lehrer said. “This is just the next phase of the civil rights movement. This is how civil rights abuses happen now. Locking people up, putting them under supervision. Making a whole new class of people with no rights.”

Jake Salt agrees that the March for Justice is at the heart of a burgeoning civil rights movement.

Salt, 31, said he first realized that the criminal justice system was broken when he got arrested for a prank gone wrong when he was a teenager, in the early 2000s. Salt and two friends were in the Youth Detention Center in Passaic, New Jersey. Salt, who is white, was in a holding cell awaiting an appearance when another teenager, who was black, approached him. Salt remember the black teenager yelling at him that he and his two white friends were going to be out of here and that everyone else in the cell would be stuck in jail.

“He was right,” Salt said, talking in the Unitarian church’s sanctuary after lunch. “The three white kids went home. All the black and brown kids stayed in jail.”

Growing up white and middle class insulated him from the pipeline that eventually funnels many black and Hispanic children into the adult prison system, he said.

“I was able to go through a year of probation and live my life and not be exposed to recidivism,” Salt said.

The experience forever changed his worldview. Salt, who now runs the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center, dedicated his life to activism because of that day in the court. He said it was important for him to come out and show solidarity with the March for Justice because so many LGBTQ, especially youth of color, are vulnerable to the juvenile justice system.

“Sure, I’m in this Universalist Unitarian church sitting being able to feel great about being able to go and march and make a difference, and that’s fine,” he said. “But there’s a lot of people out there who could be doing the same thing but they didn’t have the chance because the way they looked sent them down a different path.”

After the volunteer marchers who just signed up for the day leave and only the hard-core marchers remain, Elijah places a computer on one of the lunch tables and plays a video from the day before. It shows the march going past the Fishkill Correctional Facility. An administrator comes out and tells them to leave. They refuse. Oseitutu and the administrator get into a heated argument. As they go back and forth, corrections vehicles race past in what appears to be an attempt to intimidate them.

Jake Salt hangs out at a Universal Unitarian Church after marching from Beacon to Poughkeepsie, New York.

Miss Ivey, the oldest member of the group at 82, has a son serving time there. He is 55 and has been inside for two decades. She talked to him on the phone later on. He told her he couldn’t hear them. She counseled him not to mention it to the other inmates. She was worried that the word would get out and her son would face retribution from the corrections officers.

Day 9: Next stop, New Paltz

The next morning is the same as the one before. More forms, a head count, more channeling the chi. Elijah warns the new marchers to be polite and not get into any skirmishes with anyone who might disagree with their message along the route.

She points to Miss Ivey. “Miss Ivey is here to make sure there is no counter-revolutionary activity,” she tells them, smiling. “If anyone gets out of line she is here to straighten them out.”

During breakfast, a heated argument breaks out among a few marchers about the best way to persuade people to their cause. One argues for direct action and confrontation, the other for persuasion. They agree to disagree.

Everyone is ready to go by 9 a.m. They file out with Elijah at the front. As the marchers make their way up the church driveway and down a narrow sidewalk a few step on someone’s lawn. Elijah cautions them to be careful.

“We don’t want to disrespect anybody’s property,” she tells them. “So please go single file.”

They are headed for Hudson Valley Rail Trail. After conferring with Oseitutu and Barron, Elijah decides that since it’s Labor Day they will be able to reach a lot of people with their message. She is concerned because this will be the first time the caravan won’t be by their side. The trail doesn’t allow cars. But, it's a warm and sunny day, and she expects there to be a lot of people out.

Soffiya Elijah (third from left) negotiates with a Park Department employee (far left) about marching across the Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie.

While they are walking along Hooker Avenue, a white man in another pickup truck slows down and honks to get the marchers’ attention. Then he stuck his hand out the window and gave them the middle finger.

“We’re getting mixed responses,” Oseitutu said. “Very mixed responses.”

It is a sign of things to come.

First the march enters downtown Poughkeepsie, where Oseitutu said she has encountered more resistance to the message since they left Harlem. She has been darting back and forth across the street handing out fliers. She goes into businesses like a barber shop and Dunkin’ Donuts and makes her pitch.

Oseitutu tries to give a flier to a woman but she refuses.

“Black people kidnapped my kids,” she shouts. “You got to stop doing what you’re doing!”

“It’s to be expected,” Oseitutu says as she hustles across the street to hand another passerby a flier. “The further we head upstate we go, the more we are going to be encountering people who are resistant to our message. But I have really been feeling it today.”

When Oseitutu recounts the encounter with the woman to Elijah, she flashes a sardonic smile.

“Black people kidnapped her kids,” Elijah said sarcastically. “White people kidnapped my family. Did you say that?” she asked Oseitutu.

“No,” she replied. “I should’ve said that.”

“Listen,” Elijah said. “We don’t want to have a lecture about kidnapping.” 

One of the marchers taking part from Poughkeepsie to New Paltz, New York.

Taking the scenic route for justice

It doesn’t take long along the Rail Trail, a pedestrian trail that has a bridge that spans the Hudson River offering a stunning view, when they encounter their first obstacle. After a bathroom break at the port-a-potties and guzzling some water in the shade, they make their way to the bridge but are stopped by a Parks Department worker driving a golf cart.

“Who’s got the permit, you can’t march without a permit,” she says with finality.

After some initial confusion, Elijah approached the parks employee.

“I called the police station in the area and alerted them that we were coming and that we would be coming through.”

The employee starts shaking her head before Elijah can finish her sentence.

“There’s going to be no marching today,” she said. “Not without a permit.”

“Well,” Elijah said with a weary smile. “I’ve been marching all the way from Harlem. I’m not turning back.”

The two women stare at each other. After a few beats, the mechanical, officious bureaucratic demeanor of the parks employee melts away and her off-the-clock personality comes through.

“All right, listen,” she said. “You all go ahead and march. Just try to keep it to one side and watch out for the bikes.”

Can we chant, one of the marchers chimes in. The question hangs in the air for what seems like an eternity. For a second it seems like the hard-won victory may be derailed. The emotions that play across Elijah’s face make it evident this was a rookie question. Seasoned protesters know you never ask for permission.

The parks employee takes a deep breath, sighs, drops her chin to her chest and nods.

“Go ahead, chant,” she said. And then she leans forward and whispers to Elijah: “Keep up the good work!”

Crossing the Hudson

The small victory rallies the marchers, and they need it. They have logged about 5 miles under a bright sun and seem tired. All except Elijah. On the March for Justice she is equal parts drum major, singer, coach and CEO. At the front of the march she appears to fall into a reverie, slowly nodding her head and moving like a dancer, crouching with athletic ease.

Elijah gets the marchers organized and has them shouting another chant. She waves and beams a huge smile to visitors on their Labor Day strolls who gawk at the marchers navigating the crowds. Meanwhile Oseitutu and Ray Ray are sprinting up to people, handing out fliers to anyone who will take them.

Ray Ray, 42, a black activist from Poughkeepsie, approaches a white man along the trail and tries to hand him a flyer. He refuses. “Ninety-five percent of all the people in there deserve to be in there,” he said. “They’re all killers.”

Ray Ray politely disagrees and points to some of the facts on the flier. She then points out the Alliance for Families for Justice website, which has information and data on New York state prisoners. He does not show any interest.

Ray Ray tries another tactic.

“If you think that people who are killers or hurt other people should be put in prison, you should be marching with us. That’s what we’re fighting against. These prisoners are getting beaten and tortured and sometimes killed.”

A marcher comes out of a coffee shop where she stopped to use the bathroom.

The man does not agree. Ray Ray thanks him for his time, joins the chant and jogs to catch up with the march.

Another white man shouts at Oseitutu: “Can you please keep moving? We’re trying to enjoy our Labor Day.”

Oseitutu responds politely but forcefully.

“Actually, we have as much right to be here as you do,” she said. “So sit there and listen.”

Jayme Schultz, 38, who is white, had not planned on marching. She was out on a leisurely walk with her son on her shoulders when she noticed Oseitutu enthusiastically handing out fliers to passers-by. She changed her route and joined in the march from the rear. After a few paces she started joining in the chants.

“I saw them and it seemed like the right thing to do,” she said.

Schultz talked about a friend who was teaching behind the walls of a local prison. The administration would constantly sabotage her efforts to do her job, the friend said.

Jayme Schultz and her son Arthur joined the march on the Walkway Over the Hudson for a while.

“She came out of that experience completely changed,” she said. “She saw lots of abuses and the corrections officers treating the prisoners so badly, calling them racial insults. She said they were treated so poorly.”

Schultz said she had no doubt that the abuses in prisons and the racial inequities in New York’s criminal justice system represent a civil rights crisis.

“Absolutely,” she said. “That’s why it’s such a good thing these marchers are out here. You need to make people feel uncomfortable. They live their comfortable lives and they aren’t touched by any of the horrors that are going. You need to make them feel uncomfortable. You need to put it right in their faces where they live, where they go for their Labor Day walks.”

When she got across the bridge she stopped. She had a long walk ahead of her to get back home and needed to get her son lunch. Arthur, still on his mother’s neck, craned his neck to watch the marchers head off into the distance.

“I want to go,” he said in a disappointed voice.

“I know you don’t want to stop, you want to keep going,” Schultz said in a reassuring tone. “It’s OK, buddy, we’ll be able to join up again some other time!”

Not a safe route

After they cross the bridge and head farther north on the trail, the crowds diminish. They are now walking through towering woods that occasionally create a canopy with dappled light on the path. Elijah announces there won’t be any more chants until they reach a more dense area.

“I want you to conserve your energy,” she tells them.

The marchers slow their pace and chat among themselves, recalling some of the encounters they’ve had along the way.

There are exercise stations set up along the trail. One of them has a sign mounted that reads: Hamstring Stretch. Ray Ray sees it and gets excited.

“Oh man, hamstring stretch, I need that,” she said.

She jogs over and slings her leg up one of the bars and starts leaning in. She groans as she stretches.

“All right,” she said, limbered up. “Time to go.”

Ray Ray takes a stretch break halfway between Poughkeepsie and New Paltz, New York.

About a mile or so later, they reach Tony Williams Park, where another volunteer has lunch waiting. Two big trays of peanut noodles, one with chicken, another strictly vegetarian, and an economy-sized bag of ginger snaps for dessert. There’s a sense of camaraderie among the group. Even though many of them met in a strange church about seven hours earlier, they are laughing, hugging and sharing intimate conversation.

After lunch, Elijah, Oseitutu and Barron spread a map out on one of the picnic tables and assess the next move to New Paltz. The only road to New Paltz from the park has no shoulder. Elijah decides it’s too dangerous and tells Bill to get the bus ready.

Elijah explains to everyone that they need to drive the next few miles. They look visibly disappointed. They relish hitting the pavement. But Elijah is insistent.

“It’s just not a safe route,” she said.

New Paltz is where Elijah is scheduled to meet a 105-year-old named Journey Truth.

She wants to join the march.

The road to New Paltz

The mood turns at New Paltz. More people join the marchers as they make their way through downtown. At the head of the march is Elijah, trotting backwards, shouting one of her favorite chants:

“Everywhere we go, people want to know, who we are, where we come from, where we’re going, so we tell them, we are a family, a diverse family, a mighty, mighty family, headed to Albany, fighting for justice …”

Right behind her, singing along, are Miss Ivey and Journey Truth, a local, a former artist and activist who insisted on joining the march. She is being pushed in her wheelchair. Miss Ivey stands next to her, clutching her walker. The crowd is as big as it has been in days and the sidewalks are narrow.

The road is steep and they have to be careful. Miss Ivey and Journey Truth are determined. They find each other in the scrum of the march and reach out for each other. They clasp hands for a brief moment and look at each other while they sing.

Truth can’t make it to the end of the march. She is wheeled back to her car, where a marcher and her caretaker gently guide her into the passenger seat of a car.

“She’s 105 years old; she’s seen everything,” said Amy Trompetter, one of the many friends of Truth’s who care for her. But, she added, Truth is horrified by what the prisoners in New York endure. “She is going to leave the planet soon. She knows this. But she’s determined in helping to lead the struggle.” 

Journey Truth, 105 (in wheelchair), and Miss Ivey, 82 (using walker), march down the streets toward New Paltz, New York, with the March for Justice.

Unfinished business

The gloom that had settled on the group after the run-ins in Poughkeepsie has lifted as they make their way through historic New Paltz. As they approach the Reformed Church of New Paltz, they can see a huge crowd waiting for them. The crowd is jubilant, cheering them as they make their way into the driveway. The front lawn is covered with picnic tables that have spread out on them farm corn, casseroles, potato salad, burgers, hot dogs and a variety of homemade treats.

A celebratory feeling is in the air. Miss Ivey gets a burger and a hot dog, a little squirt of ketchup and mustard on each. Miss Ivey lives in the East New York neighborhood in Brooklyn, but was born in Selma and moved to the Florida Panhandle town of Pensacola when she was still a toddler. She still spent many of her summers in Alabama growing up, and said her time there had had a big influence on her.

“Now, when we were in the South, white people were the ones who taught their children there was a difference between black and white,” she said, munching on her burger. “Preaching hate at the dinner table. Black people didn’t do that. They just told us to be careful. They just told us what to be careful of. They never taught us to hate.”

She recently went back to Alabama to visit Edmund Pettus Bridge with seven of her grandchildren. But she said, civil rights isn’t a chapter to be relegated to a stale history book. There is no doubt in her mind that the March for Justice is part of a movement.

“It’s civil rights, it’s human rights, it’s the whole nine yards,” she said. “The brutality shown to the inmates. There’s no reason for a human being to be treated that way, to be dehumanized. What we’re marching for is unfinished business from the old days.”

A huge gust of wind blows through, knocking over some cups and causing a minor commotion.

“The wind is telling us,” Miss Ivey said. “We got to get moving.”

Bill helps escort Miss Ivey down the stairs to the basement. Elijah, Oseitutu and Kevin Barron are already there, converting a foldout table into a makeshift information booth. They stack their literature in neat piles and arrange their merchandise. After they’re done, they sit and relax for a moment.

Barron looks at Oseitutu.

“Tired?” he asked.

“I could sleep for three days,” she replied, hanging her head with exhaustion.

Barron, 62, arches his eyebrows and looks puckish.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“What does my age have to do with anything,” she shot back. “I’ve just marched for nine days. I don’t care how old I am, I am going to be tired.”

“How old are you?” he asked again.

“I’m 30,” she said. “Were you doing 19-day marches when you were 30?”

Barron leans back in his chair and waves his hand dismissively.

“I could have marched to California when I was 30,” he responded with a grin.

Elijah, who has been enjoying watching the exchange, chimes in. She turned to Barron.

“Do you remember what you said to me when I said we’re going to be marching from Harlem to Albany?”

“No,” Barron said.

“You said, ‘Who?’” Elijah responded. “‘We’ is a plural pronoun last time I checked.”

The anecdote has them all laughing, but it’s short-lived. Moments later, people coming for that evening’s program are already crowding around the table. They start asking about T-shirts and tote bags, and inquiring about the pamphlets.

The march has ended for the day, but their work has just begun.

Check out previous New York March coverage


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Public Health, Juvenile Justice System Reformers Are on Common Ground

It’s not every day that people working on health collaborate closely with people who think about how to reform the juvenile justice system. I was recently part of a research project that did just that.

I’m a public health researcher. Recently, my organization, Human Impact Partners, researched and wrote a report looking at how youth arrest can have a lifelong harmful impact for a person. Our report, Reducing Youth Arrests Keeps Kids Healthy and Successful, found that having a youth arrest would:

  • Increase anxiety, stress and other mental health issues
  • Increase the risk of injury and premature mortality
  • Increase labeling as “delinquent,” stigmatization and risk of further rearrest due to labeling
  • Lower opportunity due to higher rates of dropout and unemployment — all of which have well-established ties to long-term health.

We worked with public health departments (Washtenaw County Public Health and the Detroit Health Department), the Michigan Public Health Institute, the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency and faith-based community organizers MOSES.

At the same time, one of our collaborating partners, the Michigan Council, had done primary research into youth diversion practices across the entire state of Michigan. Their study, Restoring Kids, Restoring Communities, found that diversion practices varied widely due to varying resources, capacity and philosophies in counties — and less than 1 in 5 actually evaluate their programs. They found that 90 percent of youth diversion program services begin only after a youth has already been arrested due in part to a financial incentive for post-arrest diversion — counties are reimbursed by the state for youth services only after a petition has been filed with the court.

For both our organizations, some of the main recommendations were to stop criminalizing adolescent behavior, train professionals to de-escalate problem behavior before an arrest is necessary and to divert youth away from the juvenile system pre-arrest. This would lead to better health and opportunity outcomes for youth, as well as less involvement in the juvenile system.

As a researcher new to the juvenile justice world, I was surprised about how many policies, programs and interventions exist that would decrease the harmful effects of arrest. Several promising practices we highlighted were:

  • Civil citations programs for youth: Instead of arresting youth for misbehaviors, law enforcement officials can issue a citation to divert them from the juvenile justice system, holding them accountable for their actions while offering supports such as early intervention, counseling, education and other programming. A study of a statewide civil citations program in Florida show that youth in pre-arrest diversion programs are 2.5 times less likely to reoffend. And the program is so cost-effective that they are exploring making civil citations mandatory for several juvenile offenses. In one year, a civil citations program in Florida saved the state at least $13 million.
  • Training police who come into contact with youth about youth development, such as StopWatch, which trained subway police officers and decreased youth arrests from 680 in 2001 to 84 in 2009.
  • Expunging prior arrests from people’s records. A Stanford University study found that average change in yearly income after expungement was almost $6,200, and a Michigan State University paper about expungement for youth found higher rates of college attendance and future earnings.
  • And other restorative justice and trauma-informed approaches.

Several diversion programs that the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency highlighted in their report include:

  • The Ingham Teen Court. Youth charged with first-time misdemeanors as well as local students facing suspension/expulsion can have their cases heard before a jury of their peers, rather than face formal court involvement.
  • Wayne County Right TRAC program and prevention services. Wayne County has attracted nationwide attention for their Juvenile Assessment Center, which uses an evidence-based assessment tool to create treatment plans for youth both post-arrest (Right TRAC) but also simply when they are referred for behavioral issues.
  • Washtenaw County Sky Squad. A student-led restorative justice practice where student volunteers lead restorative circles with students in conflict who are at risk of suspension or expulsion and work collaboratively to come to an agreement on how to move forward.

Several of our partners are now moving forward in Detroit and Washtenaw County to try to implement some of the recommendations from the reports.

The funny thing is that while our worlds — juvenile justice system and public health — are worlds away, our philosophies were very similar. Let’s decrease the reach of law enforcement in the lives of children and support them with opportunities to live a fulfilling, successful and healthy life.

Kim Gilhuly leads Human Impact Partners’ Health Instead of Punishment program, which uses public health research, advocacy and capacity building to reform the criminal justice system. She is also responsible for convening alliances of public health and criminal justice stakeholders to advocate for a public health approach to our criminal justice problems.

Funding, Oversight Next Questions for Florida’s Private Youth Prison System

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By the end of the summer, Florida will have cut all ties with youth prison contractor Youth Services International, a company that’s been plagued by allegations of abuse and substandard conditions for decades.

Over the years, state after state abandoned their contracts with YSI until the for-profit company was operating only in Florida. But earlier this year, state officials said the company would end all contracts with YSI as the result of a lawsuit.

As new companies take over the contracts, the change raises the question of whether advocates and lawmakers who have fought hard against YSI will continue to examine the use of private, for-profit contractors in juvenile justice.

In Florida, a mix of for-profit and nonprofit companies run all the state’s 57 long-term juvenile facilities.

The issue isn’t likely to drop off the radar screen entirely. YSI’s problems drew attention from lawmakers, the press and the public — and that’s a good thing, said Deborrah Brodsky, director of the Project on Accountable Justice, a criminal justice think tank based at Florida State University.

“This is a larger signal that the winds have changed more broadly, that we as a society expect better,” she said.

State law requires officials to contract with private companies at residential facilities, so the focus is likely to be on oversight and funding for the system, rather than an overhaul that does away with for-profit contractors, those in the field say.

Ending contracts

State officials announced in March that the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) would end all seven of its remaining multimillion-dollar contracts in the state because of a whistleblower lawsuit alleging YSI failed to provide appropriate and necessary services and falsified documents related to the terms of the company’s contracts.

YSI disputed the charges.

“While Youth Services International believes there is no merit to this lawsuit, it made the decision to settle the case in an effort to put the four-year litigation in the past and avoid the future cost and distraction of a continued legal defense regarding this matter," a company spokesman said at the time, according to news reports.

Of the seven facilities formerly run by YSI, Sequel TSI of Florida was scheduled to begin operating four of the facilities in August and early September: Charles Britt Academy, Pompano Youth Treatment Center, Duval Youth Academy and Marion Youth Academy. Rite of Passage was scheduled to begin operating Joann Bridges Academy and Youth Opportunities International was scheduled to begin operating the Broward Youth Treatment Center, both on Thursday.

The state does not plan to enter into a new contract for the seventh facility, Broward Girls Academy. The remaining girls at the program will either finish their treatment plans or be moved to different programs.

Florida has used private facilities for decades and made the move to privatize its long-term facilities entirely in 2013. The state is one of the heaviest users of private facilities in the country, according to the 2015 federal Juvenile Residential Facility Census, which is based on 2012 data.

Other heavy users of private facilities include Alabama and Pennsylvania, while places like Maine, Hawaii and Vermont have few if any juveniles in private custody.

Nationwide, 49 percent of juvenile facilities — both local and state, short-term and long-term — were privately operated, according to the federal census. Those facilities held 31 percent of juvenile offenders. Though there were more local facilities, state facilities held nearly as many youth.

Some advocates and lawmakers question the wisdom of using for-profit providers at all for the juvenile justice system, saying that a profit motive means companies may cut corners, which can lead to inadequate facilities, services and even abuse.

“YSI is part of a systemic problem that Florida and all states should pay attention to, and that’s when you have private for-profit company there are skewed incentives,” said Mishi Faruqee, national field director at the Youth First Initiative, a campaign to end the use of youth prisons.

One way to move away from the use of such companies is for states to invest aggressively in community-based alternatives to incarceration, she said. A shrinking population of juveniles could discourage companies whose main interests are their own bottom lines, she said.

Cathy Craig-Myers, executive director at the Florida Juvenile Justice Association, a trade group that includes the state’s residential facility contractors, said companies that fail to meet muster should be removed from private systems when necessary.

But private facilities can and do meet the needs of juveniles, she said. And they help the state because they’re specialized, nimble and can save the state money, she said.

Accountability is central to a working system, Craig-Myers said.

“The key to successful privatization is that the person who contracts those dollars out knows what they want and monitors the hell out of it,” she said.

In 2011, the state began a comprehensive review of its funding, contract management and oversight practices that has put in place new ways to ensure safety and quality, a DJJ spokeswoman said.

“As the Department contracts with private providers, as required by state law, we work to strengthen our requirements for services to ensure first and foremost that youth are receiving the services they need but also to negotiate for value-added services to further enhance the rehabilitation and treatment of youth,” she wrote in a statement.

Commitments drop

As in states across the country, the number of juveniles in Florida’s long-term facilities is dropping. During fiscal year 2012-13, judges sent 3,067 juveniles to residential commitment facilities, a 33 percent drop from 4,585 two years earlier, according to state data.

Brodsky also thinks the continued drop in commitments could change the industry, by opening a path for even more oversight by DJJ. Clear, consistent data coupled with smaller numbers invites scrutiny, she said.

More broadly, the data is likely to highlight whether juvenile residential commitment is working at all, or whether the state should be even more aggressive about moving toward community-based alternatives.

“That’s the more fundamental question to ask. If we’re not getting the outcomes we want at tremendous expense to the taxpayer, we should scrutinize if that’s the system we really want,” she said.

As the numbers drop, another factor the state will have to consider is whether funding is adequate to meet the needs of the youth whose problems or offenses are considered serious enough to require long-term commitment, Craig-Myers said.

“That’s the big question that we have to pitch to the Legislature this year: that we have to reinvest,” she said.

Local officials

Dave Kerner, a state representative from Palm Beach, said he expects much of the monitoring in the wake of YSI to come from local officials — with the hope that DJJ will provide needed oversight. He doesn’t expect state lawmakers to pay the issue significant attention anytime soon though.

“It’s a very pro-business, pro-privatization Legislature right now,” said Kerner, who’s skeptical about the use of for-profit providers.

In Kerner’s district, that means local lawmakers will continue to track developments at the Palm Beach Youth Academy, a high-risk residential treatment facility for young men that YSI ran until last year.

The company lost their contract there after allegations of abuse and safety risks, and Sequel took over.

Palm Beach Commissioner Shelley Vana, who spearheaded the effort to document abuses at the facility, said she’s continued her regular tours of the facility since the change and is optimistic about what she sees.

And Kerner, who is running to replace Vana (the election is Tuesday) when she is term-limited out of office this fall, has pledged to continue her work.

Officials must stay vigilant on behalf of a vulnerable constituency, Vana said.
“These are kids who don’t vote. Their parents likely don’t vote. They have no voice,” she said.

How Prosecutors in Florida Gained Incredible Power Over the Fate of Juveniles

Florida’s Historic Capitol and Florida State Capitol
Florida’s Historic Capitol and Florida State Capitol

From the The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville / (MCT)

The headlines screamed across the world, branding Florida as a state of baby-faced murderers:

“Sun ‘N’ Guns: Florida crime surge rocks Canadians”

“Fear of Florida the latest phobia: State officials are as worried as the tourists”

“State of terror: Florida killing spoils Disney World dream for a million holiday Brits”

That was 1993. Nine tourists visiting the Sunshine State had died violently in the span of a year, several at the hands of gun-wielding teenagers.

Florida’s multibillion-dollar tourist industry was near panic. The Florida legislature called an emergency session.

“Law enforcement, whether it was city police or sheriff’s offices, were screaming to have something done,” said former Florida Rep. Buzz Ritchie “They would pick up a teenager, a child if you will, for doing something that was obviously a felony, but they’re back on the street the next morning.”

What they did was give state attorneys incredible power over the fate of juveniles in the judicial system.

SEE ALSO: Angela Corey's office threatens Jacksonville area juveniles with adult charges, Matt Shirk and private attorneys say

The Times-Union reported Sunday that Public Defender Matt Shirk and private lawyers say State Attorney Angela Corey, whose circuit includes Jacksonville, has used that power to unfairly threaten juveniles with being sent to adult court if they don’t accept record-staining direct commitments to juvenile-incarceration facilities.

Corey’s office said juvenile cases are handled no differently than adult cases, according to a statement released Friday.

Shirk said state law needs to be changed to provide checks and balances.

Confronting Teenage Crime

Direct commitments — the power given to prosecutors in 1994 — are usually plea deals. When juveniles agree to plea deals, they are often incarcerated without the chance to hear the evidence against them, examine police work or interview witnesses. Also, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) typically is not given the chance to evaluate the juvenile’s background and needs.

Shirk’s office estimates that more than 800 juveniles in the past five years were first threatened with adult charges before accepting pleas. The Times-Union’s analysis also found a disproportionate number of low-risk youth from the Jacksonville area are being incarcerated, compared to other Florida judicial circuits.

Before 1994, judges would hold a special hearing, much like a small trial, where both sides would argue their case to decide which court would be best for each contested case.

After this law was changed, state attorneys could send children directly to adult court without that hearing and without a juvenile judge’s go-ahead.

Former state Rep. Elvin Martinez, one of the Democrat sponsors of the bill that gave state attorneys power over direct filing, said lawmakers were forced to act to get juvenile crime under control.

Ritchie, another Democrat co-sponsor of that bill, said juveniles would come in for committing felonies, would get released from juvenile court and, like “a revolving door,” would be back in court days later for another felony.

“We were seeing patterns of behavior from certain juveniles,” said Ritchie, now president of the Gulf Coast Community Bank in Pensacola. “There was some evidence that certain judges would not incarcerate. Certain judges would just turn loose.”

“Some of the prosecutors weren’t acting serious enough, in my opinion,” said Martinez, who is also a retired criminal judge.

But the true driving force was the public perception that crime was out of control in Florida, especially crimes committed by kids.

No Votes Against

In 1993, German tourists Jorg and Sonya Schell had just gotten to their motel after a dinner out in Homestead when a group of teenagers tried to rob them, the Miami Herald reported. Two 16-year-olds and a 17-year-old came up to them, and one grabbed Sonya Schell’s purse. She screamed. As her husband rushed toward her, one of the teens shot him fatally in the neck. One teen was sentenced to life in prison, one to 25 years and another to 20 years, the Herald reported.

That fall, British tourist Gary Colley was sleeping in his car at a rest stop on Interstate 10 near Monticello, the Ocala Star-Banner reported. Several youth told him to get out of the car, and Colley threw the vehicle in reverse. Someone shot Colley in the neck through the window, killing him. One of the attackers, who was 16 at the time of the shooting, was sentenced to life in prison, and other teens were given shorter prison sentences, the Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times reported.

State lawmakers passed the bill unanimously, along with various others reforming Florida’s juvenile justice system.

A "Baby Step" May Be First

Sending children to adult court is a practice that’s been around for about a century, but it stuck as a legal practice in the 1960s. Questions about which crimes merited adult court were settled when the U.S. Supreme Court decided children as young as 16 could be sent to adult court if they’d committed a felony.

The typical process at that time included a special hearing, called a judicial waiver. Prosecutors would ask the judge for the hearing, both sides would convene and present their cases and the judge would decide whether juvenile or adult court was best.

The Florida legislation then allowed state attorneys to bypass that hearing by sending the juvenile’s case directly to adult court — the process called direct file — starting July 1, 1994.

That law change also let prosecutors send children as young as 14 to adult court if they met a certain criminal threshold, which included committing felonies with guns.

Florida isn’t the only state that allows prosecutors, rather than judges, to make the decision to charge a juvenile as an adult.

Fifteen states give prosecutors that authority, according to the most recent tally from the U.S. Department of Justice. Of those, 11 states allow a juvenile filed in adult court ask a judge to review that decision, a process called a reverse waiver.

Asking for a reverse waiver isn’t an option in Florida.

Marie Osborne, the head of the juvenile division in Miami-Dade’s Public Defender’s Office, said juveniles would be better served with a judicial waiver, where the juvenile judge would make the decision on whether to charge a juvenile as an adult.

Under that structure the state would make arguments for adult court and the defense would make arguments for juvenile sanctions.

“Now that’s due process,” Osborne said.

Osborne said the juvenile system’s caseloads are significantly slimmer than decades ago, providing more time for judges to make the decisions. And now there’s more research and evidence on how juveniles’ brains work.

Rob Mason, the head of the juvenile division for the Public Defender’s Office in Jacksonville, agreed with Osborne because juvenile judges are more familiar with juvenile services and research. But he also said the defense community may have to live with a “baby step” in the form of the reverse waiver.

“We’re hoping for reverse waiver just because we’re trying to get something going that helps us,” Mason said.

"Most powerful office holders"

Lawmakers said they knew the power they were handing state attorneys. That power isn’t a problem as long as it is used properly, they said.

“The prosecutors are the most powerful office holders known to man,” Martinez said. “That’s why it’s so important you have a state attorney who is not ambitious and just follows the law.”

Ritchie said the legislation certainly strengthened state attorneys, and he said he felt they would use this power wisely.

“We strengthened them measurably,” Ritchie said. “We did intend for them to have that discretion.”

When told by a reporter about how Corey’s office is accused of leveraging the threat of direct filing against juveniles, Ritchie said he wasn’t familiar with how Corey runs her office, but couldn’t imagine Corey’s office would be using the threat of direct filing unless prosecutors feel juvenile court won’t give these children the help they need.

“You might have a good percentage of prosecutors that have lost confidence that the juvenile justice system is going to do anything,” he said.

Having the ability to send a child directly to adult court was — and still is — a valuable resource, said Bill Cervone, state attorney for the Gainesville area.

Sending a child to adult court takes consideration, he said, but sometimes it’s the best option for the child. If a teen has a drug problem, sometimes they can get better care from an adult program than a juvenile one. Sending a toughened youth to a juvenile facility where he would be a bad influence on younger, less hardened kids is also a bad idea.

Cervone, who has worked for the state attorney’s office since 1973, said “the basic criteria that motivates [his office] to put a child into adult court really did not change” after state attorneys’ power was expanded.

“Certainly, in those cases that we deemed appropriate, it made the process much simpler,” he said. “I think it is an appropriate use of discretion for us to have so long as you have some guidance, which the legislation has given us.”

When asked about Corey’s specific practices, Cervone said it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to comment on the operations of another state attorney.

A Change by Law or Ballot

After state law changed in 1994, state attorneys across Florida each had their own way of using the new sovereignty. Some stuck to their old standards and only sent children to adult court when there were no other options, said Frank Orlando, former juvenile and circuit court judge. Some pushed forward with their new power, much like the way Angela Corey’s office currently handles cases.

“Some state attorneys have an automatic list. You do this; you go to adult court,” said Orlando, who is now the director of the Center for the Study of Youth Policy at Nova Southeastern University in the Fort Lauderdale area. “Any child who was involved with those crimes, no matter what his crime or her crime was, they were just direct filed automatically.”

Changing this power would take nothing less than a change in state law, something current lawmakers say is unlikely. Rather, they said, it’s important that the public voices their opinion by voting for state attorneys whom they trust to use all powers — including direct filing — appropriately.

Shirk, the Jacksonville-area public defender, said the laws on charging juveniles as adults should to be changed to allow for review of these cases, the Times-Union reported Sunday.

“You change the law, then you don’t have those problems. You don’t have those threats,” he said.

Corey said during a November debate on juvenile issues that the state’s laws do not need changing.

“What you have to do is appreciate the laws that our legislators have given us where in Florida we have the ability to put a juvenile into adult court and still give them juvenile sanctions if it’s appropriate,” she said. “It’s a good law; it’s worked for all these years and there’s no reason to change it.”

Florida Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Democrat who represents parts of Jacksonville, said she isn’t surprised to hear complaints that Corey uses coercive tactics to get juveniles to accept plea deals.

“She has always said if there was a gun involved, there would be no mercy, period,” Gibson said. “That doesn’t mean people should be threatened.”

She said she’s displeased with Corey’s methods but said a law change is unlikely.

“Even though I wasn’t in the Legislature when (it) changed the law, I am more than certain that that could not have been the intent of the legislation and it certainly is not proper due process at all,” she said. “I think the state attorney can do better than that. I think they can do better by a young person than that.”

Florida Sen. John Thrasher, a Republican whose district includes St. Johns County, said giving state attorneys the ability to control direct filing gives them an essential tool to do their jobs.

“It’s worked for 20 years. I think it’s always been used in a consistent manner with the law,” he said. “They should have that right. I think it’s appropriate for their job.”

Thrasher voted in 1993 to change state law to give state attorneys authority over direct filing. He noted he was part of a Republican minority, and the bill was supported heavily by the Democratic majority.

Thrasher said it would be inappropriate to comment on the actions of an elected official outside of his district.

“If people feel like they’re not doing their job or they’re doing it inappropriately,” Thrasher said, “then they certainly have the right and they should make that known at the ballot box.”

 

Meredith Rutland: (904) 359-4161; Topher Sanders: (904) 359-4169

———

©2014 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)

Visit The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.) at www.jacksonville.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

 

No Longer Silent

The White House Boys speak out on abuses suffered at the hands of a Florida reform school.

>> Click here to read the main story "The Ghosts of the Past" by James Swift 

Bob Baxter.
Bob Baxter.

Bob Baxter was 15 when his mother asked a judge to send him to Marianna.

“I never saw a judge or nothing,” said the now 80-year-old Baxter. “I went to a courthouse and I sat in a chair outside. The deputy came and got me, and the next thing I know, I was in Marianna.” It was 1950.

After just three weeks at the facility, Baxter tried to escape. On the run for several days, he was apprehended by Marianna officials and taken to the infamous “White House,” where he was beaten with a wooden board. He made a second escape attempt, and received an even more terrible beating. “I woke up in the hospital,” Baxter said. “I never ran again.”

He joined the United States Marine Corps after leaving Marianna. His experiences at the reform school, he said, were worse than what he experienced in the Korean War.

“Nothing they could do to me in Korea,” he said, “matched Marianna.”

Joseph Johnson, 67, went to the Florida School for Boys’ Okeechobee campus at the age of 12. “The judge told me I was going down there to ride horses, play ball, go to school,” he said. “He didn’t know Okeechobee was the stepson of Marianna.”

At the facility, Johnson claimed to have been molested by staffers twice. The abuse he suffered in Okeechobee, he recalled, “messed me up really bad” and “gave me a lot of complexes.”

In the last few months before his release, Johnson slept in a broom closet. He had made a bed on the floor and used a nightlight on the wall to read passages from the Bible. He begged God to do anything to get him out of the facility.

For half a century, the only person he ever talked to about his experiences in Okeechobee was his wife. At the behest of a priest, he traveled back to the campus in 2000.

While the Marianna campus had “the White House,” the Okeechobee campus, Johnson said, had “the Library.” There, he said boys were often handcuffed to beds and brutally beaten.

During his visit, Johnson said his priest and his wife encountered a man that not only confirmed his stories of abuse, but actually showed them physical evidence.

“He opened up a desk drawer,” Johnson said, “and pulled out handcuffs, chains and the whips that they used on us.”

He described the leather straps used on children at the facility. “About five and a half, six inches wide, about two and a half feet long, with a big wooden handle on it,” he said. “When they beat you with that, you’re not going to walk or sit down for the next week.”

Other former Florida School for Boys residents have spoken of similar experiences:

Aaron Burns, 41, is one of the younger ex-White House Boys. He spent time at the Marianna campus from 1986 until 1989.

One day, he recalled getting hit in the head while watching television. He thought he had been struck by a mop by a fellow resident. However, when he awoke, his supervisors -- commonly referred to as “cottage parents” or “cottage fathers” by many White House Boys -- seemed less than concerned about his injury.

“I woke up,” he said, “and the cottage parents were still sitting at their desks, laughing.”

Growing up, Burns said, his stay at the facility filled him with confusion, anger and loneliness. “There’s a lot of dark secrets at that place,” he said. “If you made it after you got out of Marianna without going to prison, I’m surprised.”

James Denyke, 64, was sent to Marianna for being “incorrigible.” He arrived at the facility in 1964, at age 15. He went to the White House just once during his 18-month stay. “One time was enough for me,” he said. “I’d rather stick my head in the oven than go through that again.”

The smell of the room and the sound of the industrial fan, are scorched into his memory. “I hear that goddamn fan, because it was deafening,” he said. The worst part, he said, was having to listen to other children get beaten before him.

As an adult, he was given a three-year sentence for stealing a car. The vehicle, he said, belonged to one of his former cottage fathers at the Boys School. He drifted for several years afterwards, and developed a serious alcohol problem. Outside of sobering up, he said the greatest accomplishment of his life was receiving a full pardon from the governor of Florida. Today, he’s the sergeant-at-arms for the White House Boys; his motorcycle flies the official WHB colors.

He said he’s not looking for compensation from the state.

“An apology is what we’re looking for,” he said. “And them admitting wrongdoing for all of us who’ve suffered.”

Doug Stover
Doug Stover

Doug Stover was another resident at the Okeechobee campus. Now 63, he entered the facility in 1966, when he was 16 years old.

One day, another boy at the reform school attacked Stover. Later in the day, Stover cursed at him. Guards overheard Stover, and punished him by hitting him 35 times with a leather belt.

Cottage fathers at the campus, Stover said, periodically threw boxing gloves to residents and forced them to fight for their entertainment. The guards would make bets and laugh, he said.

After leaving the school, Stover did what many boys at the facility attempted to -- push the experiences to the recesses of his mind. Now in his 60s, he still feels traces of that boyhood fear.

He is unable to fully address his traumatic experiences at the facility, so financial compensation would do him little good, he said.

“I want the state of Florida to write me a personal apology, and I want it public,” he said. “I want them to hold themselves accountable for their action and inactions to the abuse of children.”

South Florida Squeezes School-to-Prison Pipeline

School board members, Superintendent Robert W. Runcie, partners and students at the signing of the Collaborative Agreement on School Discipline.
School board members, Superintendent Robert W. Runcie, partners and students at the signing of the Collaborative Agreement on School Discipline.

South Florida’s Broward County School Board voted unanimously to sign new rules, written by many hands, which are meant to drive down arrests and their unintended consequences in the state’s second most populous school district.

The Nov. 5 Memorandum of Understanding approved by the school board has its signatories promise “appropriate responses and use of resources when responding to school-based misbehavior.”

Broward County School Superintendent Robert Runcie said the signing of the MOU was a historic day for ending the “schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline”: school discipline practices that channel fairly inoffensive young people into the criminal justice system.

schoolppipe_series“The agreement brings together district officials and community partners to create an alternative to failed zero-tolerance policies,” he tweeted just after the signing ceremony.

It marks a “return to common sense” in school discipline, said Ft. Lauderdale NAACP branch President Marcia Ellison, who has been pushing for changes for years.

The document specifies how school administrators are to use the discipline matrix and recommends that first-time, low-level offenses be handled at school, even if their act meets the technical definition of a misdemeanor. It also directs all parties involved in discipline to consider a student’s age, history or other potentially mitigating factors.

The signers of the Broward document include the area’s state prosecutor and public defender, the chief judge of the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit, the Broward sheriff, the Ft. Lauderdale police and the state Department of Juvenile Justice.

“All different stakeholders at the table recognize that this is a problem,” said Ellison.

“You have to realize,” said Ellison, “that children who were exhibiting delinquent behavior … that behavior could have been running in the hallway, could be yelling in the cafeteria … could be scribbling on a wall, and that it would be referred to law enforcement.”

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Learn more about school discipline reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub HERE.

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And in Florida, she added, that means a permanent arrest record that appears in background checks that employers, the military and others can order from the state.

Many school systems are already following a Broward-like disciplinary model, or are looking into something similar.

But what sets Broward apart is the very broad, deep and complete buy-in, said Alana Greer, a staff attorney with the Advancement Project, a Washington D.C.-based civil rights organization that supports the MOU principles and works on juvenile justice issues in several states.

“They changed the Code of Conduct, they created this agreement, they created an intervention program, all working together so that the programs and policies were all created to support one another,” said Greer.

“We’ve seen districts in places after many years of campaigns and work get to that place,” she said, but “we’ve never seen anyone do it in one move.”

She also said it’s rare to find people who see school discipline as a racial justice issue.

The Nov. 5 document says that youth of color are disproportionally arrested for the same schoolhouse antics as white youth, a pattern that’s been alleged or documented in other jurisdictions.

And in the 2011-2012 school year, Broward arrested more students on campus than any other Florida system: 1,062.

The new Code of Conduct has been in effect since this August. Arrests, suspensions and expulsions are each down by more than 40 percent compared to the same time last year, according to county data.

But in Florida, school boards control policy, so the discipline a child experiences still depends heavily on where he or she lives.

In Jacksonville, the Urban League announced last month that it and other community partners are forming a coalition to push for greater use of civil citations, rather than arrests, for certain juvenile offenses.

“The problem is that Florida is criminalizing youthful behavior,” said David Utter, the director of policy for Florida at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is part of the Jacksonville coalition.

But the support he’s starting to see for civil citations is “an indication or acknowledgement that for thousands, if not tens of thousands of children arrested in Florida, it’s unnecessary,” said Utter.

In Florida, on-campus arrest rates for grades six through 12 vary by county, according to state numbers.

In the 2011-2012 school year, Broward County arrested eight of every 1,000 students. Dade, which includes Miami, tied for the lowest rate with rural Holmes County, at three out of every 1,000.  The highest was rural Madison County, which arrested 50 of its 1,369 students, or, 3.7 percent of them.

Head of Florida DJJ Meets with Protesters Demanding ‘Trayvon Martin Civil Rights Act’

The Dream Defenders occupy the capitol building in Tallahassee, Fla.
The Dream Defenders occupy the capitol building in Tallahassee, Fla.

On Monday, Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Secretary met with demonstrators, who are camping outside the office of Gov. Rick Scott in protest of the state’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” laws.

Secretary Wansley Walters held a meeting with representatives of the Dream Defenders, an activist group that has pledged to remain inside the State Capitol until Gov. Scott holds a special legislative meeting addressing a litany of issues. The crux of their demands is the implementation of a “Trayvon Martin Civil Rights Act,” which would not only eliminate the state’s “Stand Your Ground” legislation, but also forbid racial profiling practices and dissolve “zero tolerance” policies in Florida schools.

Dream Defenders speak with DJJ Wansley
Dream Defenders speak with DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters on Monday.

The organization, composed of college students and other young people from Florida, have staged the sit-in for approximately a week. Despite the demonstration, Scott had stated that he will not hold a special session to address their concerns.

According to the Miami Herald, Walters - who was appointed by Scott to speak to the protestors - discussed several topics with the activists, including the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“I think when you work with kids, things should be handled on a case-by-case basis,” Walters reportedly told the demonstrators. “I am not a supporter of zero tolerance.”

Walters and the protestors also discussed the practice of housing adults and juvenile offenders in the same facilities, as well as the increased use of “civil citations” as alternatives to juvenile arrests. Walters reportedly told representatives of the Dream Defenders that the DJJ was working on developing new policies and procedures regarding the issues they were most concerned about, adding that she believed that Florida has made more progress in resolving those issues “than any other state in the union.”

The Dream Defenders occupy the capitol building in Tallahassee, Fla.
The Dream Defenders occupy the capitol building in Tallahassee, Fla.

After the meeting, however, demonstrators remained inside the Tallahassee Capitol Building.

“We were looking for a repeal of zero-tolerance policy, we were looking for a way to get our children out of adult prisons, we were looking for a way to protect them in detention facilities,” Dream Defender Ciara Taylor allegedly told Walters, according to WTSP.com.

“And you were silent the entire legislative session on those bills.”

It Is Time for a Change, When Schools traumatize Kids

How we respond to young people when they make us mad can make or break them, emotionally and physically. Notwithstanding the studies showing genetic pre-disposition to alcoholism and other traits, we enter this world with a blank slate.

We are born with great potential to do wonderful things and experience that happiness as referenced in the Declaration of Independence. Despite our inalienable right to pursue happiness, this pursuit is thwarted for many children and young people who are traumatized at the hands of their parents or caretakers through abuse, neglect, violence and other toxic stressors. The blank slate brought into the world gets filled with some pretty ugly scribbling that makes it difficult for the rest of us to understand, including the child.

When children experience complex trauma -- violence, hurt, neglect, stress caused by a caretaker -- the brain gets re-wired. Dr. Julian Ford, a leading researcher of childhood trauma as a pathway to delinquency, describes the affect of traumatization on a child as "Dis-empowerment"-- or an "automatic shift from a brain/body that is fully able to experience what is important in life to being in survival mode."

When this occurs, the brain and personality may be disrupted and in turn the child's ability to resolve stressful situations can be compromised.  This dis-empowering event or events alters the child's brain to where ordinary stress becomes a struggle to survive -- it triggers an alarm in the brain that won't turn off!

Children suffering "dis-empowerment" may "cope by resorting to indifference, defiance, or aggression as self-protective reactions." When this occurs, children usually exhibit risk-taking behaviors including rule breaking, fighting back and hurting others. And this, says Dr. Ford, is the pathway to delinquency.

There is growing research into childhood trauma in the traditional sense of parental or caretaker abuse and neglect as well as serious life stressors such as witnessing violence, experiencing the death of a caretaker, or the separation of parents.

But I ask to what extent our school systems -- with the aid of police and the courts -- have caused the "dis-empowerment" of children and consequently compromise their pursuit of happiness?

We have a compulsory school attendance law mandating children attend school. We make them leave their homes and spend most of their waking hours under a roof with hundreds of other kids. When we send our kids to school, the school exercises control over them using the doctrine of "in loco parentis" - -a Latin phrase meaning "In the place of a parent." Lets face it, school administrators and teachers are caretakers. They are acting in the place of a parent to do what's in the best interest of the child.

In our current era of zero tolerance laws and policies to punish students with suspension, expulsion, and arrest, schools, in their role as a parent, overreact in many circumstances that can traumatize those they are obliged to protect?

I am not even referring to those students who have already experienced childhood trauma and enter our schools with existing vulnerabilities due to "dis-empowerment" and now re-traumatized with handcuffs, a ride in the back of a patrol car, the experience of booking procedures and maybe a jail cell.

Let's stick to the kids that did not experience childhood trauma -- the kids that are relatively healthy in an emotional sense, but sometimes get caught up in the juvenile version of the Jerry Springer Show. Let's not forget that kids are neurologically wired to do stupid things. They are under neurological construction and need positive surroundings and thoughtful and deliberative responses from their adult caretakers when they find themselves in stressful circumstances.

Last year, a deputy in our campus police program was called to a classroom to confront a disruptive student. The child got upset at a teacher's directive and went off. In the old days -- before we developed our school referral reduction protocol -- a complaint would have been filed with the court and maybe the child handcuffed. Instead, using crisis intervention skills, the deputy made inquiries and learned that the student did not have anything to eat in 24 hours. She took the student to the cafeteria, fed her, and the student was fine the rest of the day. A referral was made to social services to look into the matter.

In another school, a deputy was called to a classroom. This time it was a student throwing items and threatening to kill the teacher. The student had to be removed from the classroom immediately. Again, in the old days, she would have been handcuffed and transported to juvenile court intake -- no questions asked.  Afterall, she threatened to kill a teacher! Instead, the deputy isolated her, calmed her down, and using crisis intervention discovered that her mother’s live-in boyfriend was raping her. She was taken into protective custody -- not arrested --and her mother's boyfriend arrested instead.

What are we doing to kids when the adults wear zero tolerances glasses? Why can't we see the many missed opportunities to save kids from traumatic circumstances? Why do we insist on pursuing a policy that re-traumatizes traumatized kids and traumatize emotionally healthy kids?

Take for instance the recent case of the 8-year-old Georgia student who brought an unloaded gun to school in his backpack. The administrators admit that the child's intention was to show it off. There was no intent to hurt anyone. But our laws demand that this 8-year-old must be expelled from school for one year. The caretakers in his life -- the school -- is kicking him out of what is equivalent to his home away from home. The place that serves as the best protective buffer against delinquency --education and social development. Will this child be traumatized--"dis-empowered?"

I think many would be surprised to find how many campus police prefer Clayton County Georgia's model of Positive Student Engagement over arresting as a means of policing on campus. Myself and Lt. Francisco Romero of the Clayton County Police Department recently traveled to Broward County, Fla. to deliver training on this model. When all was said and done, a survey was taken of police on the question: "How many would favor a no arrest policy of nonviolent misdemeanants?" It was unanimous -- all campus police raised their hands!

I was overwhelmed when Major Miguel A. Martinez of the Hallandale Beach Police Department modified Maslow's quote of a "hammer" and "nail' to fit the campus police scenario -- "If the only tool is a cop--than every problem is a crime."

We cannot arrest our way out of every problem. It's not that simple!

We are capable of doing better for our children.

Success in Juvenile Justice Diversions May Influence Treatment of Adult Offenders in Florida

In October, officials in one Florida community announced that its local police force would now have the ability to issue civil citations in lieu of formal arrests for certain crimes. The Leon County, Fla., measure targeting a largely adult-offender base takes many cues from the state’s juvenile justice system, which has seen vast improvements to juvenile crime rates due to lock-up alternatives.

According to the News Service of Florida  proponents of a statewide movement issue more citations to and arrest fewer adult offenders – if the individual has committed a non-violent crime and has no previous arrest record -- claim that such a policy would save the state tens of millions of dollars in annual incarceration expenses.

Tentative plans would require adult offenders in Leon County - which contains the state capital of Tallahassee - to undergo an assessment within three days of a citation, in addition to performing community service or receiving substance abuse treatment if it may have been a contributing factor to the crime.

Leon County officials began issuing civil citations for non-violent juvenile offenders in 1995. A Florida Department of Juvenile Justice report states that in 2009 and 2010, approximately 7,000 juveniles throughout the state were given civil citations, with only 7 percent re-offending. A 2011 report issued by the Associated Industries of Florida Foundation suggests that through diversion programs the state’s juvenile detention population could be reduced by as much as 40 percent.

“It worked so well with the juveniles that we think it’ll work really well with adults,” Smart Justice Alliance CEO and President Mark Flynn told ABC-affiliate WZVN.

Photo from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice website. 

Focus on the Infant while Understanding Teenage Parents

If you’ve worked with, defended, advocated for or made decisions about at-risk youth, you’ve surely run into the difficult problem of teenagers becoming parents themselves.

As a juvenile judge in Florida, I remember becoming frustrated at the apparent immature, selfish, unrealistic and irresponsible behavior displayed by these young moms and dads in dealing with life’s most important task: raising a child.

But, you know what? I often forgot about the baby. In my haste to modify probation and curfew to allow, in fact encourage, these young parents to accept an equal responsibility for their infant or toddler, I often ruled without considering the newborn’s needs. We all need to be educated about teen parents, never-married parents (without a relationship) and the significance of infant attachment as it relates to the regulation of emotions, behaviors and attention spans.

Two plenary sessions at the recent annual conference of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts in Chicago this June provided a lot of helpful information to anyone who deals with teen or never-married parents. Plenty of research on attachment confirms that the 0-3 baby and toddler need stability; routine; a home with the same sounds, smells and touches; one or two primary caregivers to bond to, trust and connect with, and peace.

So, as juvenile judge, what was I thinking of when I encouraged a teenage mom, 16, and dad, 17, to “split the baby” between them. Mom would get four nights a week; three. Since Mom went to school and Dad worked full time, and they couldn’t agree, they both found their own day care provider. One night a week during the time they had custody of the baby, each of them attended night school, so grandparents on each side picked up the baby. They attended two different churches on Saturday and Sunday, with different child-care centers. I counted at least ten caregivers in about five different places each week! Not good for the baby’s continued brain development and ability to grow emotionally.  Yet it was something I thought would encourage parental responsibility. Often these cases don’t get to family court, so a juvenile judge may be making rulings that affect a child’s mental and emotional development.  We need more training, I believe.

We also need to be a little more understanding of the way the teen parents react to their newborn.

According to Mindy F. Mitnick, Ed.M., M.A., a licensed psychologist from Minneapolis, and presenter at the conference, in many ways these teenagers are behaving just like adult “never- married parents” who struggle to share parenting with people they barely know except for that one-night stand, the tryst in the back seat, or the encounter after too much to drink. Speaking at the 49th Annual Conference of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts in Chicago, Dr. Mitnick outlined the foundations for a healthy co-parenting relationship. I learned why emotionally immature teenagers have such difficulties as young parents, and why equally shared parenting for teenagers who live apart may be harmful to their child.

“Relationship 101,” Dr. Mitnick said, “begins with trust, mutual support, healthy partners, and a balance of power. People who’ve been married, have an established relationship, and then get divorced, can work hard to build back the relationship they had in the beginning.” Never-married people lack this foundation and have little or no experience to build upon.

Now, then, apply this to teenagers-- teenagers with raging hormones, developing brains, poor impulse control and often little or no parental role models—and it’s easy to see the depth of the problem. Then, to complicate matters, consider the infant or toddler’s needs in connection with the developing brain and attachment needs. Maybe grandparent takeovers aren’t such a bad idea?

According to Dr. Mitnick, unmarried fathers were less likely to be involved in decision-making, they reported interference from the mother and were distrustful.  Unmarried mothers tended to use negative gate-keeping practices, limited the fathers’ access, especially overnights, disputed parenting time sharing and prevented fathers from decision-making roles. Add to these factors the inability to pay child support, and grandparent concerns or takeovers, and teenage co-parenting becomes an impossible dream.

Finally, it’s a sign of progress to get teen parents to agree, especially if the child’s attachment’s needs are met. All those who work with juveniles would benefit from the types of inquiry Dr. Mitnick made. She left the audience with helpful questions along “the spectrum” of relationships between unmarried parents that might be a guide for counselors, mentors or decision makers:

  • Was the birth “planned” by one or both parties?
  • Did both parents attend prenatal appointments and birthing classes?
  • Was the father present at the birth? If not, why not?
  • Was the father allowed to parent the infant?
  • Do either have prior parenting experience?
  • Do either have appropriate extended family support?
  • Are there other children who relate to this child?
  • Where do the parents fall on the spectrum of conflict: origin, intensity, duration?

Nothing good comes from a father’s absence, Dr. Mitnick concluded. Communication, mutual respect, flexibility and shared child raising values are the keys to building trust, she said.

So, if you find yourselves involved with teenage parents, the utmost patience, time and energy is going to be required to help them build a relationship built on trust, especially if they haven’t experienced trust in many of their childhood relationships. And don’t forget the baby. The children deserve nothing less.