Like the rest of the United States, New York State has seen a ballooning prison population since the early days of the War on Drugs and Reagan-era tough-on-crime policies. As of February, NYS held about 43,500 people behind bars—with nearly 340,000 living New Yorkers having faced incarceration at some point in their lives (Brennan Center 2021). Three-quarters of this population is Black or Latino, and between 1983 and 2015 there was a 64 percent increase in the state’s incarcerated population (Vera 2019).
In recent years, campaigns for decarceration have become increasingly mainstream, and this past year, Decarcerate the Hudson Valley, a new coalition of local advocacy organizations, has joined the fight. Formed in 2020 by a number of groups including For the Many (formerly Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson), Newburgh LGBTQ+ Center, Black Lives Matter Hudson Valley and Dutchess County Progressive Action Alliance (DCPAA), Decarcerate works to lobby for state-level pieces of legislation that will help to reduce the Hudson Valley’s jail and prison population.
“Decarcerate the Hudson Valley is a coalition that brings together activists, community members, and impacted people in order to organize to address these inequities in our communities,” elaborated Political Coordinator at For the Many Brahvan Ranga. “We’re working with our partner organizations to lower incarceration rates, hold law enforcement accountable, and shift the focus of our criminal legal system from punishment to rehabilitation.”
According to Director of the Queer Justice Committee at the Newburgh LGBTQ+ Center Alisha Kohn, Decarcerate was inspired by the Justice Roadmap, a slate of legislation developed by numerous statewide organizations with the goal of ending mass incarceration. It was coordinated by the NYC and Syracuse-based Center for Community Alternatives due to the unique political environment of the Hudson Valley. Kohn explained that the frequency of partisan flips in the region, combined with the tendency of local Democratic legislators to sometimes lean conservative, makes Decarcerate’s regionalized advocacy even more important.
Kohn clarified that Decarcerate limits their advocacy work to collaborating with Democratic leaders. However, Matt Carroll, the leader of DCPAA’s Social Justice Team, explained that despite this, generating change has still proven difficult. “We were hoping the Democratic supermajority would make getting much-needed progressive legislation passed easier, but it seems to take pretty much the same effort,” he noted. “A lot of major issues continue to be put off like addressing healthcare and fair pay. Luckily, one area that is getting more attention is the problem of mass incarceration.” And within this area, Decarcerate is deeply involved.
Speaking on Decarcerate’s achievements thus far, Kohn said, “We’ve got the legalization of marijuana, the solitary confinement bill, the decriminalization of carrying syringes, and achieving youth justice”—which calls to mind the fact that up until April of this year, NYS incarcerated seven-year-olds. While noting that this minimum age was only raised to 12, she explained that the coalition’s work focuses on “moving the needle,” with the expectation that small victories now will lead to bigger wins later.
Kohn and Ranga elaborated on a few specific pieces of legislation that Decarcerate is working closely with. They recently passed the HALT Solitary Act, which substantially limits the use of solitary confinement and bans it among vulnerable populations, and the Less is More Act, which will prevent people from being reincarcerated for non-criminal parole violations. In NYS, 40 percent of people admitted to prisons are there for minor parole violations—nearly three times the national average (Columbia University 2021). Additionally, they are also fighting to pass the Clean Slate Act, which would automatically clear one’s criminal record once they are eligible; the Elder Parole and Fair & Timely Parole Acts; and the Trans Prisoner Rights Act, which would allow for trans people to be housed in facilities of their choice, receive proper medication & hygenic items and access gender-affirming clothing.
Already, it seems that the mission of Decarcerate is working. Kohn underscored her close working relationships with NYS Senators Jonathan Jacobson and James Skoufis—specifically highlighting the importance that these relationships had in passing the HALT solitary confinement bill. “[Skoufis] was really against it. He wasn’t really forward. He hadn’t given anybody any type of straight answer. And just before he went into the vote, we got a call from his office [saying that] he was going to vote yes,” said Kohn. Coincidentally, she explained, Skoufis’ vote was that which was needed to achieve a supermajority—critical considering former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s outspoken opposition to the bill.
In Dutchess County, prison populations have decreased since 2019, and across NYS the prison population is down 33 percent since 2000 (Vera). Still, there is work to be done. And while this work is happening on the state level, the impacts can still be felt close to home. “In Dutchess County, legislation was passed to not only improve the condition of the Dutchess County jail, but to expand it. We did not need a bigger jail. Now the goal will be to fill the beds. Too many of the people being incarcerated in Dutchess County are there for mental health issues. We need to deal with people who have mental health issues more appropriately,” urged Carroll.
“We talk with community members every day who are victims of this cruel and unjust system, from undocumented immigrants who are afraid of being ripped from their families and taken to a correctional facility, to Black and brown folks who live in fear in the face of militarized and unaccountable law enforcement, to the families of those who have been incarcerated on nonviolent drug crimes,” explained Ranga, adding,“This current system creates an atmosphere of fear and mistrust —and rips apart families and communities of color across the Hudson Valley.”
But as for who bears responsibility for easing our reliance on New York’s massive carceral system, the answer is a complicated one. Citing the Dutchess County Legislature’s $200 million investment in a new jail, Ranga emphasized the coalition’s focus on flipping the county legislature blue in order to offer new opportunities for progressive impact. Others also highlighted the difficulties of narrowing their focus. “We can’t pinpoint certain individuals or particular groups. The responsibility is shared. It will take all of us. We need to increase public awareness and fight disinformation,” insisted Carroll.
“For this to be a successful movement towards liberation … it has to be a collective fight of academics, to people who have been impacted, to organizers, to people all across the spectrum coming together and fighting the fight,” explained Kohn. “It’s building collective power versus having individual power.”