The Fight For Incarcerated People’s Rights in Connecticut
COVID-19 & the Violation of Rights
By: Dilawaiz Rao, PDF Intern
“I was shot by the police, and because I was on parole when I got shot by the police, everyone else told the narrative of what happened during that incident,” said Jewu Richardson, founder and organizer of Building It Together, one of Peace Development Fund’s 2022 Community Organizing Grantees.
Building It Together, New Haven, Connecticut
The United States incarcerates more people, in absolute number and per capita, than any other nation. Our current prolonged era of mass incarceration has led to staggering imprisonment rates in the United States, particularly among some of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups. Many of the issues arising in prison settings result from socioeconomic and systemic disparities in the criminal justice system. Societal, racial and other forms of discrimination may be equally reflected in criminal justice policies and practices. Over the last decade, more folks have been pushing for reform nationally and in the states. Connecticut is one of the states that has made progress toward ending mass incarceration, but the work is far from over.
Prejudice and discrimination follows BIPOC and LGBTQ+ individuals wherever they go, in the systems and institutions they belong to, or in communities they enter. Institutional racism is a significant factor in mass incarceration and disparities in treatment in the criminal justice system. The fact that most people of color have been touched by mass incarceration is a tough reality. Yet there continues to be a deep skepticism around systemic racism. Many think that claims of “systemic racism” accuses everyone in the system of being racist instead of looking at how laws and policies disadvantage certain classes. Much of the criminal justice system was built and established during the Jim Crow era- an era when many people believed in and most systems facilitated segregation. These systems and institutions generate racially disparate outcomes, evidenced by the disproportionate incarceration rates among people of color in the US.
Racial disparities in Connecticut’s prisons are among the worst in the country. The state detains Black youth ten times more often than white youth. According to the Connecticut ACLU, Connecticut disproportionately sentences people of color to special parole, a highly restrictive form of state supervision that can set people up for everlasting punishment. Black people represent 11% of Connecticut residents but 41% of the incarcerated population. In Connecticut, black people were four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. Thousands of people in Connecticut who have been convicted of non-violent crimes — including marijuana offenses — end up with lengthy sentences or back in prison due to failure to rehabilitate/reintegrate back into society.
The Prison Policy Initiative, Prison Vaccination Data
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, Connecticut has an incarceration rate of 349 per 100,000 people. Since 1968, Connecticut has increased the incarceration rate by 334% to more than 13,000 people in jail and prison today, leading to overcrowding in prisons. The consequences of overcrowding have been even more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Densely packed prisons and jails have presented dangerous and uncontrollable conditions for the transmission of COVID-19. As of August 15, 2022, only 56% of corrections staff in Connecticut prisons had received the COVID-19 vaccine. This is a much lower rate than many other states including 87% of staff in New Mexico, 72% in Virginia, 71% in Maine, and 93% in Mississippi. Many believe that Connecticut failed to utilize a comprehensive plan to deal with the pandemic. As of July 7, 2022, 27 inmates in CT have passed away due to COVID-19.
New Britain Racial Justice Coalition (NBRJC), New Britain, Connecticut
The Peace Development Fund supports organizations nationwide organizing for human rights, including prison reform. These organizations are challenging oppressive systems and fighting for racial and economic justice. PDF’s Community Organizing Grants program empowers grassroots organizations such as Building It Together and the New Britain Racial Justice Coalition (NBRJC) to ensure racial and economic justice is served in Connecticut.
“I sat in my cell, and I would just watch the police justify me being shot all because I was a convicted felon,” Richardson said, “They would mess facts up, and I wanted to advocate for myself but had no entity to reach out to.” Richardson founded Building It Together to help and empower people inside prison walls to build an avenue for themselves. Building It Together seeks to build abolitionist education, organizing, and community inside of prisons in hopes of prison abolition and an end to incarceration in all of its forms.
Photo courtesy of Jewu Richardson
As a group of formerly incarcerated people, Building It Together advocates for the end of mass incarceration and any other systems of punishment. According to Richardson, “People who are not from incarcerated communities are put into leadership positions, but do not know how to allocate specific resources to these people.” Building It Together is working towards forming solidarity and self-sufficiency within incarcerated Black and Brown communities.
“We can’t even stand on our front porch without being questioned by the police,” Richardson said, “They try to demonize us.”
Similarly, in the same battle for liberation, the New Britain Racial Justice Coalition (NBRJC) prioritizes reform for the most marginalized members of their community. NBRJC’s overall mission is to promote racial and economic justice across all institutions, focusing primarily on four key areas: access to education, affordable housing, public safety, and health. They recently launched the Alternatives to Incarceration campaign, which seeks to advocate for divestment from prisons and policing towards mental health, education, and housing resources.
Alicia Strong, President and Co-Founder of NBRJC co-founded this organization after the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. “There is an outrage on issues, particularly with the police when it’s outside of Connecticut,” says Strong, “But when things happen close to home, all of these excuses are made.”
Alice Strong, Speaking at a protest in front of CT DOC.
Strong emphasized the shortcomings of Connecticut’s prisons, noting that “the prison and justice system are completely flawed at every single level, there are so many barriers which is an intentional product from a system that does not prioritize human beings but prioritizes profit and capital.”
“NBRJC tries to engage the people who are often forgotten in political processes,” says Strong, “We try to lessen barriers through mutual aid grants and educating people about political and civic education.”
While mass incarceration is an issue of politics and policy, it is also a profound moral crisis. Racial justice will remain a distant dream until we change what we choose to criminalize and reform institutions and our systems. It is time to make Connecticut a leader in the abolition of mass incarceration. Connecticut has made progress in this fight, thanks to the work of PDF grantees such as Building It Together and the New Britain Racial Justice Coalition. It is crucial to support the work of these organizations by understanding we cannot solve our social problems with prisons. We must address the pain and suffering our system has inflicted and develop mechanisms of accountability.
To learn more about PDF’s 40-year history of promoting peace and social justice, as well as the organizations supported by these efforts, visit our website or follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. If you would like to support our fight against incarceration and additional grantmaking efforts, please consider making a contribution today!
Photo courtesy of Dilawaiz Rao
Author: Dilawaiz Rao, Intern
Dilawaiz is a student at Mount Holyoke College and is pursuing a degree in Politics and Computer Science. She was born and raised in Connecticut and joined PDF as an intern this summer. She intends to craft policies that address challenges and new possibilities for the future. She is grateful for the opportunity to support PDF’s peace and justice efforts.