Putting People Before Prisons on April 18th

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On Thursday, April 18, the Correctional Association of New York held its first annual “People Before Prisons” Benefit at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall.

Over 300 guests attended this major fundraiser for the Correctional Association, which featured cocktails, dining, a silent auction, live entertainment and moving speeches from the Correctional Association’s outstanding 2013 honorees, New York State Assemblymember Jeffrion L. Aubry; Correctional Association board member Ralph S. Brown, Jr.; MSNBC TV host Melissa Harris-Perry; and filmmaker and author Eugene Jarecki.

The theme of the benefit, “People Before Prisons,” exemplified the heart of the CA’s 169-year-old mission.  During the pre-program cocktail reception, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Atrium was abuzz with people of all ages and from all walks of life, joining together to show their support for the CA’s mission to create a criminal justice system that treats people and their families with humanity, dignity and justice.

As the reception filled up, guests outbid each other on exciting raffle and silent auction items,  ranging from signed baseball memorabilia; to JetBlue airfare and hotel accommodations;  to yoga, acupuncture and reiki healing packages; and many more, all generously donated to the CA.

Jacqueline Velez

Jacqueline Velez poses with her portrait and photographer Bud Glick.
Benefit guests were invited to view a series of portraits depicting the stories and images of a few of the CA’s advocates and staff members.

 

Professor Charles Ogletree of Harvard University was the evening's emcee.

Professor Charles Ogletree

 

Following opening remarks from the evening’s emcee Professor Charles Ogletree, CA staff member Tyrrell Muhammad presented long-time legislative ally Assemblymember Jeffrion Aubry with his award.

Assemblymember Aubry and Tyrrell Muhammad

Muhammad (pictured on right) attested to how critical and meaningful Assemblymember Aubry’s prolific work in the State Legislature has been for the lives of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and their families.

 

Mujahid Farid, who works at the CA leading a project to promote the parole of elderly and aging people in prison, introduced honoree Ralph S. Brown, Jr. to the audience:

Mujahid Farid

Farid is currently leading a project to promote the parole of elderly and aging people in prison.

“My work and all of the work we do at the CA makes a real difference in dismantling the Prison-Industrial Complex,” Farid remarked.

“The struggle to address our nation’s crisis of mass incarceration takes all kinds of people and the formation of battalions on many fronts.  We all have a role to play in this great struggle.  Shortly before I came to work at the CA, I had been incarcerated for 33 years.  But I spent most of those decades building with others; learning and working for positive change — and of course — aging. On the other side of the prison walls, Ralph Brown was doing the same, engaged in the same struggle.  Mr. Brown has been dedicated to this struggle for decades.  He has dutifully helped steer this organization to make sure it continues on the right path.  And he has done this not from a distant perch, but by his direct actions and on-the-ground involvement.  With the prison visiting team he has visited countless prisons over the years and played a significant role in bearing witness to what happens behind bars.”

Soffiyah Elijah and Ralph Brown

CA executive director Soffiyah Elijah takes the stage to present the organization’s beloved board member with its esteemed “1844 Award,” named for the year the organization was founded.

 

Eddie Rosario presented Eugene Jarecki, director, writer and producer of war on drugs documentary The House I Live In, with his award, remarking that “…in pulling back the veil of ignorance surrounding the war on drugs,” Mr. Jarecki “has skillfully documented, in disturbing and unflinching detail, the systematic and institutional banality of evil.” Rosario recounted a personal story about this “banality” for the audience – how 22 years ago, upon his own release from Sing Sing prison, he was told confidently by a guard “you’ll be back.” Two decades later, Rosario did indeed return to the prison – but as Associate Director of the CA’s prison monitoring project, using the CA’s legislative mandate to monitor conditions of confinement inside of New York’s prisons and advocate for lasting change to the system.

Eddie Rosario and Eugene Jarecki

Eugene Jarecki, Soffiyah Elijah and Malaak Shabazz.

After receiving his award, Mr. Jarecki spoke forcefully about the utter failure that is the United States’ decades-long war on drugs. Emphasizing that the public and our leaders in government are now beginning to wake up to this travesty, and the political landscape is beginning to shift, Mr. Jarecki pledged his intention to “strike while the iron is hot, and take the beast down.”  Mr. Jarecki’s obvious dedication, passion and bravery to speak out against injustice caused the room to erupt into applause. “I have received an Emmy award in this very same room,” Mr. Jarecki remarked, “but this honor, this evening, and this cause is much closer to my heart.”

Joy Reid greets Melissa Harris-Perry on stage.

 

Joy Reid, managing editor of TheGrio.com, on-air contributor on MSNBC, political columnist for the Miami Herald and editor of the political blog The Reid Report introduced her fellow political “nerd” Melissa Harris-Perry. Ms. Harris-Perry is the host of MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor of political science at Tulane University, and the founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race and Politics in the South. She is a frequent commenter on criminal justice and mass incarceration, and a rare and needed voice in the mainstream media on these critical issues.

Melissa Harris-Perry

 

Ms. Harris-Perry remarked that every single black man in her life has been affected by the criminal justice system. She noted that while she herself had never been incarcerated, as black woman who loves black men, she too has been deeply hurt and touched by the criminal justice system.  “No one,” she argued “is untouched by the harms of mass incarceration.”

Jacqueline Velez recites a poem for guests.

Jacqueline Velez recites a poem for guests.

 

Jacqueline Velez, a staff member at the CA’s Women in Prison Project and a graduate of the CA’s ReConnect leadership and advocacy training program for formerly incarcerated women, related personally to Ms. Harris-Perry’s remarks,  and then spoke to the audience about who she is. “I am a formerly incarcerated woman,” Ms. Velez remarked.  “I am more than my mistakes.  I am more than my experience of incarceration.  I am a mother of two beautiful children. I am advocate. I am an activist. I am making change, here at the CA.” Among these things, Ms. Velez is also a writer, and went on to share with the audience one of her original poems.

Bryonn Bain performed excerpts from "Lyrics from Lockdown"

Bryonn Bain performed excerpts from “Lyrics from Lockdown”

 

Interspersed between the evening’s remarks was an inspiring musical performance from Bryonn Bain, the creator and star of “Lyrics from Lockdown,” and a member of the Correctional Association’s Board of Directors.  Bain performed two moving excerpts from “Lyrics from Lockdown,” his original one-man show that blends hip-hop, poetry, calypso to tell the outrageous and true story of his wrongful incarceration in New York City.  “Lyrics” recently completed its first-ever extended run at the National Black Theatre in Harlem, co-produced by the Correctional Association and Gina and Harry Belafonte (reviewed here by the New York Times).

The Legendary Escorts

The Legendary Escorts entertained with smooth R&B jazz infused hits.

 

Beginning and capping off the program were soulful performances from R&B group “The Legendary Escorts,” who were formed inside prison several decades ago and now travel the country in dapper matching suits, captivating audiences with their new and old hits.

We are tremendously grateful to our generous donors, event supporters, talented entertainers, and, of course, to our outstanding set of 2013 honorees for making this event a wonderful success for the Correctional Association.The proceeds from this successful evening will help to support the critical work the CA does all year long to build a more humane, fair and just criminal justice system. We look forward to reporting our successes back to our supporters, friends and allies — and to building on this momentum together to create a world that can truly put “people before prisons.”

To view more photos from the evening, visit our Facebook page.