Clutching candles in the frigid cold, a group of 50 people gathered before the state courthouse on Elm Street to rally for prison reform on Martin Luther King day. Local activists gave speeches about the condition of Connecticut prisons, the lack of funding for alternatives to incarceration, and the state’s decision to export prisoners out of state rather than reform current prison standards.
“King would certainly condemn the violence and abuse and humiliation that takes place in prisons and the disgraceful lack of rehabilitative programs,” said Sally Joughin, a member of People Against Injustice, a group that was present at the rally.
This demonstration was one of four that took place simultaneously in Bridgeport, Hartford and Waterbury. The day was chosen not only because of Dr. King’s birthday, Joughin said, but also because the late state senator Alvin Penn’s birthday was on Jan. 16. Penn was a strong supporter of prison reform in Connecticut.
Patricia Dillon of New Haven’s 92nd Assembly District made a speech to the group about the need for a change in the state policy.
“This is a criminal justice system which has failed,” Dillon said. “It is important that we not let this go.”
Dillon also addressed the disparity between people of different races and classes who spend time in prison.
“Our president made some mistakes when he was 18,” Dillon said. “And if our president were of a different color and born in a different place, he would be doing time.”
Community members who participated in the rally agreed that there is significant injustice for certain groups of people.
“What’s going on is terrible,” Colin Cascia said. “Just seeing so many people who get away with things.”
After Dillon’s speech, a statement by an anonymous Connecticut prisoner was read aloud, which addressed the condition of state prisons. The statement included graphic descriptions of the smell of feces, sweat, vomit and blood within the cells.
In addition to commentary on state prisons, many statements were made about the war on drugs, which Joughin said has aided in the imprisonment of many minorities.
“This is a war on drugs where sides are chosen based on race and class,” said Barbara Fair, one of the organizers of the rally. “The main targets for incarceration are blacks and Latinos.”
Fair said organizers have already written and proposed alternatives to the Connecticut Department of Correction. Changes include more rehab programs, which could provide a more viable alternative for drug users than incarceration. Social programs would also alleviate the overcrowding of state prisons, Fair said.
“I’m very pleased about the level of commitment,” Fair said. “[The government] thinks about the money, but not the suffering of prisoners or their kids.”
Participants felt that Martin Luther King Day was an appropriate time to unite and rally for a cause that some feel has been neglected.
“I feel good that I’m doing my part and helping to continue Dr. King’s legacy,” Shelton Tucker said.