“The US has four times the prison rates of the rest of the world,” said activist Bob Witanek to one of many passers-by in downtown New Brunswick on Saturday. “It’s much more disproportionate for blacks and Latinos,” he often followed.
Indeed. The United States is currently the world leader, by far, in human incarceration, and has one of the most imprisoned populations in world history. If we include those out of jail under state supervision, no nation before has come close. Minorities are particularly under the gun. African-Americans, comprising only 0.6% of the world’s population, make up around 12% of its prisoners. Nationally, around half of the 2.2 million inmates are locked away for non-violent offenses, many of which are drug related.
Bob Witanek is part of a growing movement called Decarcerate NJ, which aims to lessen New Jersey’s – and America’s – prison population. The event during Labor Day weekend was an outreach gathering aimed at bringing more citizens into the fold.
“Nothing compares to having your feet on the ground,” says Witanek. “Social media is great, but if you don’t have a physical presence, you are still largely invisible.” Decarcerate NJ has very recently moved from an online petition, which garnered 1200 signatures, to a paper one with three hundred more, a third of which came on Saturday in New Brunswick.
The movement was born from an effort to make sure that any marijuana legalization in New Jersey is retroactive, meaning that it would include prison release and dismissal of charges for marijuana and related offenses. Organizers understood that there were thousands in prison for equally unnecessary reasons like other non-violent drug crimes and small scale economic infractions, and decided to broaden the act from marijuana to a more general decarceration campaign.
The biggest event thus far was organized mainly by Newark residents over the course of two months – a 200-strong panel discussion at the City Hall steps on July 30. The event was culminated by a rousing speech from Johanna Fernandez, shown below. The group has also met with State Senator Ronald Rice about the cause. You can read their open letter to the Senator here.
Decarcerate NJ’s mission, and its activities, have been endorsed by the People’s Organization for Progress, the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, NJ Communities United, as well as featured in articles at Black Agenda Report and the New York Amsterdam news.
On Saturday in New Brunswick, a good portion of signees walked by briskly only to do an about face when they heard the cause.
“My brother is in prison,” said one man, Keith, shortly after he softened his tone upon learning Decarcerate NJ’s objectives. “Everyone knows someone in jail,” said one woman as she inked her name and email address. Others engaged organizers in lengthy political discussions, ranging from stop and frisk policies, to prison’s propagation of violence, to former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. They all left with a copy of the summer/fall 2014 edition of NJ Decarcerator, the group’s first printed newsletter. It can be read online here.
Dev Parmar, a nineteen year-old Rutgers student and native of Texas, was one of six Decarcerate NJ activists on hand. “Change of any kind is for the youth,” declared Dev. “The future belongs to us so it is important for us to gain both a voice and a vote in these sorts of movements.”
Due to social media, Decarcerate NJ activists were no stranger to the activities of Plainfield’s own young people. “Us seasoned community organizers are not only inspired by groups like KYSS, but we can become educated in being more effective in our means of struggle,” said Bob Witanek, who acknowledged both the differences of the two groups’ stated goals as well as the overlap. “In our decades, we as a collective haven’t been able to mount the kinds of challenges to the status quo and it has left a mess that today’s youth in this country must inherit. Hopefully, with the youth in the driver’s seat, we can turn this around.”
Decarcerate NJ aims to hold community outreach events and discussions in at least ten locations by the end of this year. Large events in Camden and Newark are on the horizon this fall, the latter scheduled for November 14. They also plan to do outreach at prison visitation lines.
Anyone wishing to distribute the NJ Decarcerator, or those otherwise interested in Decarcerate NJ should contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call (908) 881-5275. You can also join the two hundred members of their Facebook group, who regularly discuss and share on the subject of mass imprisonment and post relevant events.