Activists join forces to help families visit North Country inmates

— Photo by Kevin Barron 
Martha Swan, at left, and Soffiyah Elijah, at right, are the co-founders of Friends in the Adirondacks. With them is Rita Khweye, a law student and Alliance volunteer.

She slept like a baby while listening to the sound of water in the creek outside, said Carol Harriott, referring to the time she accepted an offer from a woman near Lake Placid to stay overnight at her home during a weekend visit to her son, an inmate at Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone, near the Canadian border.

Offering hospitality to families who have traveled for hours to visit inmates in North Country prisons is one part of the mission of a new organization called Friends in the Adirondacks. The other part is “opening hearts and minds” of residents of the Adirondacks and “helping them move beyond the stereotypes that render inmates and their families invisible,” said the group’s cofounder, Martha Swan.

Family members are often met with hostility from prison staff and local residents, said the group’s other cofounder, Soffiyah Elijah.

Members of the group host inmates’ visiting families for meals or for overnight stays that make the long trip from New York City less grueling. Otherwise, a typical visit on a bus from New York City involves leaving late on a Friday or Saturday night and riding for as long as nine hours and then being deposited in front of the prison sometimes hours before it opens; visitors then get back on the bus in the late afternoon and return to the city 24 hours after they first left.

Friends of the Adirondacks was conceived by Swan and Elijah — both activists, the former in the Adirondacks and the latter in New York City.

Swan is the founder and executive director of John Brown Lives!, a not-for-profit organization in the Adirondacks that supports human rights and social-justice issues in the memory of abolitionist John Brown; she is also the Spanish teacher for the tiny school district of Newcomb.

Elijah is founder and executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice in Manhattan, which supports and mobilizes families of people who are in prison or who have a criminal record, helping them advocate for change. Elijah is a criminal defense lawyer and former law professor who headed the not-for-profit Correctional Association before she founded the Alliance of Families for Justice.  

 

— Photo from Martha Swan
This poem, written in his hand by Albert Harriott, an inmate in the state prison in Malone, was read aloud by Martha Swan at John Brown Day 2017 in May. 

 

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair
Holding a wreath that she will lay on a grave at the John Brown Farm in the Adirondacks, Carol Harriott listens to a speaker during John Brown Day in May. Her son is incarcerated in the Adirondacks. John Brown, his son, and a number of those who fought alongside Brown to end slavery are buried on the farm.

 

A family turned away

Swan said one inspiration for their collaboration came from an experience she had last summer.

It was a “hot, hot day,” and she was leaving Clinton Correctional Facility in the village of Dannemora after a meeting or interview, the details of which she has since forgotten, although she clearly remembers what happened afterward.

Outside, she saw what looked like a family of three — an older mother, and a young man and woman — looking frantic.

“Where do we get in?” they asked her. The prison at Dannemora is large and daunting, she said.

She explained to them how to enter, but, minutes later, as she was driving away, she saw them back outside the building again. She stopped to ask what happened, and they told her that visiting hours end at 3 p.m., but that the prison stops letting people in at 2:30.

She asked if they needed a place to stay, adding that her house was on the way out of town. Would they like to stop there?

“Of course they said ‘No, thank you,’” she recalled, “because who’s going to say to a perfect stranger, ‘Yes, sure, I’d like to come to your house?’”

It was only after she had driven away, she said, that she realized she should have given them her phone number, so maybe they could reconsider, or get in touch the next time they came. She drove back and tried to find them, but couldn’t.

“So there were people who made the arduous journey, hoping to see their loved ones, who were turned away,” Swan said.

During a conference call that fall, Swan and John Brown Lives! board member Jeff Jones asked Elijah what they could do in the North Country that might be of use to prisoners’ families.

That was when the idea came up, Swan said, of a hospitality network.

The first people who were hosted in the North Country were two women who were coming to see their husbands, and who planned to leave the New York City at 11 p.m. and drive through the night to Malone, Swan said. She suggested to one of the women, “If you can leave any earlier, why don’t you stay here?” So they arrived at her house at about 8 p.m.

“We had a lovely dinner, and they got off on their way at 6 a.m.,” Swan recalled. Before they left, she said, “The women and I looked at one another like, ‘We’ve just given birth to Friends in the Adirondacks.’”

Swan said that at one point the group had tried showing up in the morning at the prison gates with coffee, fruit, and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for the children Elijah estimates that perhaps a fourth of the visitors bring children with them.

“It turned out that that was not useful,” Swan said. “People just really want to get in there.”

Swan emphasized that the group’s efforts are all decided in consultation with Elijah and the family members they are trying to help.

More successful than the early-morning refreshments has been bringing snacks near the end of visiting hours, for people to eat while waiting or on the bus.

“When people come out, these prisons are in the middle of nowhere,” said Elijah. “Sometimes there might be a 7-11.” Hospitality trailers outside the prisons have bathrooms, but don’t necessarily have any food, so in some cases the only food people might eat for the entire 24 hours is whatever supplies they brought with them.

 

— Photo from Soffiyah Elijah
Soffiyah Elijah is a criminal defense lawyer and former law professor who headed the not-for-profit Correctional Association before she founded the Alliance of Families for Justice. She and Martha Swan founded Friends in the Adirondacks, a group that provides hospitality for family members visiting loved ones who are incarcerated in North Country prisons.

 

View from a prisoner’s mother

Guards sometimes deny families visits, Carol Harriott said, for no good reason; she said that she has been turned away sometimes.

Her son, Albert Harriott, has served five years of a 13-year sentence for kidnapping during a drug deal gone bad, an incident his mother calls “bogus” and “a set-up.”

She describes the events leading to his arrest this way: Her son’s money was lost when an acquaintance went into a building to buy marijuana with Harriott’s money and then came out and said he had been violently robbed of it; her son then drove the accomplice around looking for the robber, and the accomplice had called his family members, claiming he was being kidnapped.

Referring to the mission of Friends in the Adirondacks, Elijah said, “Just seeing a friendly face is a big step in the right direction.”

Harriott hopes to visit her son this coming weekend. She plans to stop and see a play being performed at the Essex Theater Company: “The Birds” was written by Irish playwright Conor McPherson based on the same short story by Daphne du Maurier that inspired the Hitchcock film.

The play features three lead actors. One of them is Martha Swan.

Guards respond to accusations

Elijah said that families report that guards are often rude. She has heard stories about guards who have used racial epithets to refer to inmates, when talking about the inmates to their families. Guards discuss women’s clothing in detail, Elijah said, talking about whether a blouse is too sheer or a skirt too short.

Families have reported to her feeling violated when they have to stand against a wall and have a photo taken, like a mug shot. As a matter of policy, she said, women have been asked to remove underwire bras, “So imagine a grandmother, now they have to go in [to the visiting center] braless.”

Tom Mailey, director of public information for the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, responded, through The Enterprise, “DOCCS is committed to maintaining strong family ties and ensuring that individuals are able to stay connected to loved ones throughout their incarceration.

“DOCCS encourages continued family bonds and prepares inmates for their return to society through facility visits, structured visitation programs, and family events which bring over 500,000 visitors to the State’s prisons each year.”

A DOCCS directive, listed on its website, states clothing containing metal or wire, including underwire bras, may cause the metal detector to alert and require further processing.  Photographs are taken of all adult visitors to DOCCS facilities, including volunteers and employees, for the visitor-identification system.

DOCCS’s Employee Manual requires all oral and written communications by employees to all other employees, the public, other agencies, and inmates, be accomplished in a professional, courteous, and dignified manner; that no employee shall discriminate against or harass any person on the basis of age, race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, military status, sex, disability, predisposing genetic characteristics, marital status, and domestic-violence-victim status; and that an employee refrain from the use of indecent, profane, threatening, or abusive language or gestures while on duty.

“DOCCS has zero tolerance for discriminatory behavior in its facilities,” said Mailey, “and all security staff are trained in interpersonal communication to ensure appropriate and professional interactions between staff, inmates, and visitors.”

Differential treatment

Swan said that during the last 40 years of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, blacks and Latinos far more than whites were arrested, convicted, and incarcerated on drug charges. Swan attended the State University of New York at Oswego years ago and said, “There was a lot of use of drugs, but I don’t remember a single arrest. Not one. That’s glaring, when you think about it.”

She calls this pattern “a continuation of the strictures and attitudes that founded this country.”

Alice Green, director of the Center for Law and Justice in Albany who has a doctorate in criminal justice, grew up in the Adirondacks and is writing about racial tensions in the Adirondacks as part of a book that she is currently working on.

She said that she has known a number of families who looked into relocating to the North Country when people they loved were going to be serving long sentences there and had felt that they were not welcome there.

Green cited statistics from the 2010 Decennial Census as analyzed by Jan Vink of the Cornell Program on Applied Demographics, showing that, in 2010, the total Adirondack Park population was about 130,000. About 124,000 of that population — or 95 percent — reported being Caucasian, while 3,300 were black. Of the 5,000 or so of the population that were incarcerated, about 1,700 — or 35 percent — were white and 2,700 were black.

The future of Friends in the Adirondacks

One way that the organization hopes to expand, Swan said, is by creating a network of people between New York City and the prisons who can help out as needed. She said that those first two women whom she had hosted overnight had left during a snowstorm and had run into car trouble near Queensbury late on Sunday night.

After they called Swan to ask if she had any ideas, she had called everyone she knew who might know a mechanic, without much luck; happily, the women’s car had made it the rest of the way back. But the incident made Swan realize, she said, that, “We need a network of friendship and hospitality up and down the Hudson.”

Swan said that she can’t overemphasize “how reciprocal this all feels.” She recalled a day when she showed up at a prison’s hospitality center — the trailer outside where visitors stop on the way in and out — with a basket of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. “There was Carol,” she said, “vivacious and welcoming.” She introduced Swan to all of the other families there, which meant that she was not a perfect stranger any longer, as she had been with that family she had seen outside Clinton Correctional months earlier.

“I needed her, and I needed to be welcomed and befriended by her. It’s very much a two-way street, like all friendship is,” Swan said.

An upcoming event organized by the Alliance of Families for Justice will see marchers walking from Harlem to Albany to bring attention to human-rights abuses in New York State prisons and jails, according to the Alliance website.  

The March for Justice leaves Harlem on Aug. 26 and arrives in Albany on Sept. 13, which Swan observed is the 46th anniversary of the Attica Prison riot in 1971.

A rally in Albany will mark the end of the march.

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