by Clyanna Lightbourn

Clyanna Lightbourn, Statewide Civil Rights Organizer for Citizen Action of New York, and John Legend, Founder of Free America, attended an MSNBC Town Hall event with Lester Holt on criminal justice reform at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to an MSNBC Town Hall event in Sing Sing Correctional Facility with John Legend, Loretta Lynch, Senator Gianaris and a number of other people who, like me, believe in ending mass incarceration. This was the first-ever town hall taped in a prison and the conversation was about the harm, inequity and injustice driven by mass incarceration.

Sitting in Sign Sing prison for a town hall was certainly an odd feeling. Sitting on the edge of the Hudson, a cool breeze comes from the water and boats sail by as we are surrounded by barbed wire, armed guards, grey cinder blocks, and ear splitting alarms and buzzes, as doors opened and closed to let in the guests of the town hall and the long-term residents incarcerated in the prison.

If New York were a country, it would have the sixth-highest incarceration rate in the world. For generations, the crisis of mass incarceration and criminalization has devastated families and communities across the State. Since the very beginning, the justice system has trapped people on the margins of society in an endless cycle of punishment. Prisons and jails are tools for revenge and generational trauma.

During the town hall, John Legend’s words reframed the bleak crisis of mass incarceration for many by pointing out the way mass incarceration not only punishes the individual, but the communities and families that depend on them: “When you lock someone up, you’re locking their family up with them.”

The underinvestment in Black, Brown and low-income communities forces more and more people into an underground economy. Neighborhoods are over-policed and under-resourced. The underinvestment also occurs in rural upstate communities that force towns and counties to build their local economies around jails and prisons, which in turn pressures elected leaders to keep beds full at all costs — this is how mass incarceration profits off of Black, Brown, and poor people.

It’s important that we understand the justice system is not “broken.” It’s working exactly the way it was intended: to punish Black, Brown and low-income people. Instead of repairing harm, creating accountability and restoring relationships, the system multiplies harm, breaks apart families, and creates lasting trauma. Each stage of the justice system has been designed to inflict the maximum punishment on the most vulnerable members of our society: people of color, queer and transgender people, immigrants, people with mental health issues and disabilities, and poor people. When our friends, neighbors and family members are being targeted by law enforcement and locked in cages, it becomes impossible for us to build the strong, resilient and inclusive communities we all want to see.

That is why Citizen Action of New York is building local power through our #DemandJustice campaign, and is fighting to hold District Attorneys accountable, end mass incarceration, fundamentally transform the system and repair the harm done to our communities by investing in quality public schools, living wage jobs, affordable housing, mental health services, healthcare, transportation and affordable childcare. Jails and prisons are not social safety nets. And our schools should be a pipeline to success — not prisons.

If you are interested in participating in our local work to #DemandJustice and end mass incarceration, but have no clue where to start, have some ideas of your own about how to do this work, or have questions about mass incarceration, please feel free to email me for more info at [email protected]

We also have weekly meetings across New York State to discuss local issues and ways to end mass incarceration. Join the #DemandJustice movement!