The formerly incarcerated need good-paying jobs. They need safe and stable housing. And they need state politicians to know that they will not be overlooked.
Two dozen criminal justice reform advocates chanted that message and cheered on Monday evening as they marched down College Street from Chapel Street to the Shubert Theater during the hour before a gubernatorial debate between Democratic candidate Ned Lamont and Republican candidate Bob Stefanowski.
The march was led by organizers from the Smart Justice campaign of the Connecticut branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Anderson Curtis, a 55-year-old Westville native who works as a field organizer for Smart Justice, said that the campaign’s mission is to keep the issues of mass incarceration, racial discrimination, and economic hardship for the formerly incarcerated at the forefront of politicians’ minds during the ramp up to the state and federal elections in November.
Curtis said that the Smart Justice campaign is led by the formerly incarcerated, like himself, because the organizers believe that “those closest to the problem may be closest to the solution, even though they are furthest from the resources.”
Curtis said that between his 20s and his 40s, he was in and out of prison every few months, primarily for charges related to his struggles with drug addiction. Since he last got out of prison 11 years ago, he said, he has struggled to find stable employment and quality housing, even though he has an associate’s degree.
“We talk about a second-chance society,” he said. “Often it’s just lip service.” He said that employers need to know that the formerly incarcerated are some of the best workers in the world, since they are intensely driven and loyal and do not take work for granted.
As far as reforms go, he said he would like to see medication-assisted treatment available in prisons. He’d also like to see more early releases of prisoners, the elimination of racial disparities in cash bail, and the provision of people on parole and people in prisons with the right to vote.
The rally began at the corner of Chapel Street and College Street, where the Southern Connecticut State University’s Blue Steel Drumline sent a quivering, galvanizing rhythm through the small crowd that had gathered by the bus stop on Chapel. Whoops of applause flew towards the percussionists every time a drumstick flew across a snare.
Sandy Lomonico, a Hartford-based organizer for Smart Justice, said that Connecticut pays on average $53,000 per year for each prisoner in the state. She said that is the third highest incarceration-cost-per-capita in the nation. She said budget hawks should look towards reducing state prison populations if they are honest about wanting to cut into state spending.
“Unemployment is at 27 percent for the formerly incarcerated,” she said. She said that a good-paying job is the most important thing, and the most difficult to find, for people coming out of prison.
Local criminal justice reform advocate Barbara Fair made a more pointed critique of the racial foundation of mass incarceration in this country when it was her time to take the megaphone.
“They have been caging people for hundreds of years,” she said about this country’s penal system. “They’re criminalizing just about every behavior that we have, and they selectively enforce the law on certain communities. That’s why you see so many black and brown people in prison. Not because they commit more crimes, but because their crimes are selectively enforced.”
Just after 5:30, the crowd marched the half block down College Street to the Shubert Theater, where dozens of Lamont and Stefanowski supporters waved their signs, changed for their candidate, and made way for the criminal justice crew with the blue shirts and the bull horn.
“”Let us live! Let us work!” they show. “People, not prisons! People, not prisons!”
Outside of the theater, Fair and the other Smart Justice campaigners engaged in a short back-and-forth with the Republican candidate Bob Stefanowski’s supporters.
“We will not be ignored,” Fair said. “We pay taxes just like you do.” She said that Stefanowski should reduce the number of prisons and the number of people incarcerated in this state if he truly wants to cut the state budget.
“You will not continue to cage our people and get our damn vote,” she said. “It’s not gonna happen.”
When Lamont arrived, trailing the SCSU drumline and with a few dozen poster-waving supporters in his own wake, Fair pointed to the young percussionists and said to the recently arrived Democrats, “They are not just here for entertainment.”
She said that the teenagers in the drumline need good-paying jobs too, and that they are the next governor’s constituents as any other supporters who showed up on Monday night.
As Lamont entered the theater and Stefanowski bypassed the crowds to get to the stage, the criminal justice reform group continued their calls for, “People, not prisons! People, not prisons!”
Watch parts of the rally on Facebook Live below.