A grassroots call for a national rally for prison and sentencing reform will bear fruit eight days from now, as thousands of people are expected to descend on Washington, DC, for a demonstration next Saturday -- August 13 -- demanding an end to criminal justice policies that have resulted in the United States becoming the world's leading jailer. The brainchild of Montgomery, Alabama, radio personality Roberta Franklin, the Journey for Justice is gathering support from a broad range of prison, civil rights, social justice, and drug policy reform organizations, including a healthy sample of locally-based prisoner friend and family and ex-prisoner groups.
The Journey for Justice has been endorsed by national drug reform organizations, including DRCNet, Drug Policy Alliance, Harm Reduction Coalition, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, The November Coalition, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the US Marijuana Party and the Women's Organization for Drug Prohibition Reform, as well as groups such as Critical Resistance, which seeks to "abolish the prison-industrial complex," Morris Dees' Southern Poverty Law Center, the Southern Center for Human Rights, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
But equally important is the upswell of grassroots activism and small, local organizations coming together for the cause. In Montgomery, local women held fish fries to raise money for chartered buses. In New York and Boston, local groups have pulled together to charter more buses. It is a similar story in communities across the country, with prisoners' friends and families joining with activists and reformers to rent more buses and more vans.
People all coming by plane, train, and automobile, and at least one man, is coming by bicycle -- all the way from California. "My brother is serving a 26-year-to-life sentence in California under the three-strikes law," said David Losa, the Santa Barbara representative of Families to Amend California's Three-Strikes (FACTS) in Montgomery Wednesday. Losa's brother Doug is one of about half a million nonviolent drug prisoners doing time in America. He went down over trace amounts of methamphetamine. "I've been riding about a hundred miles a day across the country trying to get some coverage of these unjust laws," he told DRCNet. "We need national attention on this issue; we need to take the national stage."
Losa said he will be joined in Washington, DC, next weekend by about 25 fellow FACTS members who are making the trip from the West Coast. "It's quite an undertaking," he said. "It mirrors the struggle we face in reforming our sentencing policies."
"I'm going to DC because I know exactly what it's like to be incarcerated and there are no words to describe the degree of suffering that incarceration inflicts upon the soul of a human being," said Amy Ralston, a former drug war prisoner granted clemency nine years into her 24-year sentence by then President Bill Clinton. "Incarceration, in many ways is probably more painful than the death of a loved one because there is no solace or closure, knowing/believing that your loved one has gone to heaven or has found peace in another place/state of being," she told DRCNet. "But they are not gone and in fact they are living in a place that one can only compare to hell on earth. A phone call at Christmas is never a joyful one. Every time I called home to wish my parents 'Merry Christmas' my mother would break down in tears and I would choke tears back so as not to upset her more than she already was."
Someone has to speak for prisoners, said Ralston, who has formed a foundation called CAN-DO to press for clemency for more prisoners. "Except for our family members, no one seems to care about people in prison. I went to prison believing that if the people only knew how draconian our drug laws were, public outcry would demand that changes be made. The only way that can happen is through solidarity and for events such as this march in DC to occur. I am fortunate and privileged to have this opportunity to attend this march and would not miss it for the world."
Also making the cross-continent trek are November Coalition activists Chuck Armsbury, Nora Callahan, and Tom Murlowski, who start driving from Colville, Washington, early next week. "We're just really excited," said Callahan. "We're hearing from people all around the country saying they're going to be there. I think enough people will show up that this will mark the date of the first major protest against the prison industrial complex," she told DRCNet.
The time is right, said Eric Sterling, head of the suburban DC-based Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, who will speak at the event. "There are nationwide protests that come to Washington for all sorts of issues," he told DRCNet. "It's about time there are more national protests against the way our justice system has gone off track."
The August 13 protest should draw "a few thousand," Callahan predicted. "We've seen a lot of interest in the South, and of course, the closer to DC, the more interest. I've noticed a real outpouring in New York and New England as well."
The Journey for Justice is bringing together two forces for change -- prison activists and drug reformers -- whose interests are not completely congruent. While drug reformers naturally tend to focus on drug war prisoners, prison activists focus on all prisoners. "Some people are complaining this is all about drugs," said Callahan, "but if it seems there is an emphasis on drugs it is because there is an emphasis on drug offenders in the criminal justice system. Still, we are marching under one banner to demand that system be reviewed in its entirety."
"So far, things are moving along fine," said Journey for Justice organizer Roberta Franklin. "The response has been tremendous, and we now have organizations like the Drug Policy Alliance on board. We're going to create a mass movement just like in the 1950s and 1960s because the prison situation is just so rotten we have to create a mass movement," she told DRCNet. "We have to educate the people. When the people see it is going to require this kind of action, they will step forward."
Franklin, too, was optimistic there would be a healthy turnout, and gave some credit to Drug War Chronicle. "We've got buses chartered from Birmingham and Mobile and Dothan and Selma, and that's just Alabama. We've got people driving vans and carloads. We're looking at good numbers of people coming from Texas and Mississippi and Georgia. We've got people coming from New York and Baltimore, and DC people coming out," she said. "After your article two weeks ago, things really started happening."
It's not too late to make plans to join the Journey for Justice in Washington next weekend -- visit their web site for further information.