Compelling social justice advocacy and activism must take the form of multidimensional organizing and intersectional thinking. Justice NOW in Oakland, California is a brilliant example of this kind of work.
Justice NOW works to end violence against women and stop their imprisonment. They operate on the belief that prisons and the incarceration system do not make our communities safer. Instead, they argue that the current prison industrial complex causes harm to people it imprisons as well as the families and communities that they leave behind. About 78 percent of women in prison have children, but they are very often incarcerated in federal prisons out of state or in state prisons in remote towns. Less than half of these women are able to see their children and families. (For a detailed account, see the Amnesty International Report, "Not Part of My Sentence: Violation of the Human Rights in Custody: Impact on Children of Women in Prison" 1999.)
With these foundational beliefs, Justice NOW holds the very unique position working within prisons and on behalf of prisoners and their families while promoting prison and policing alternatives. At this point, you might be thinking a very common question: In a world where violence against women is detrimental to the very fabric of our society how is it possible to advocate for justice while opposing the very system supposedly designed to keep women safe?
I have heard the folks at Justice NOW answer this question several times, and they reply by emphasizing the many-pronged approach to their organizing:
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They provide legal services, work with prisoners and their families on political education and mobilization, and they train new generations of activists and lawyers to contribute to this work. But to answer the question, they devote much of their program work to building coalitions that promote safety and individual accountability without depending on the incarceration system as it stands.
They argue that the traditional law enforcement approach to violence against women has not resulted in a corresponding decrease in violence. Furthermore, for communities of color and immigrant communities, the prevalent strategy is, at times, counter-effective given that these communities also face a threat of violence in the home from the very same law enforcement authorities that are charged with their protection.
As for women in prison, violence perpetuated by prison staff affects women's reproductive freedom directly. At times, intervention in a woman's pregnancy by enforcement officials who appeal to the "welfare of the fetus," affect the outcome of the pregnancy. Women in the California prison system are denied access to necessary medical diets, basic hygiene products like soap, shampoo and toothpaste, as well as essential medication. In light of these injustices, the Justice NOW interns and staff provide legal services in areas of need identified by women prisoners, including the following:
- compassionate release;
- healthcare access;
- defense of parental rights;
- sentencing mitigation;
- placement in community-based programs.
In addition to their legal services and other public education campaigns, are two other incredible projects:
- The Building a World Without Prisons campaign highlights ideas and strategies of women in prison to challenge the current reliance on policing and prisons. Through the use of popular education, training, theater, music, art, and community organizing, the goal of this project is to create a vision of a world without prisons and develop the tools to make it a reality now.
- The Voices Project is a community dialogue project that is comprised of interviews with prisoners, community members and people on the street to foster ongoing conversation, with a more intimate approach to the issues central to Justice NOW's political work.
The work that the wonderful people at Justice NOW are committed to provides the perfect example of the kind of work we hear advocated for regularly but seen rarely: service driven, vision oriented and intersectional.