ISSUES
Seeking justice, every Wednesday
By Christopher Schobert

The scene on past Wednesdays at the corner of Delaware and Church. Photos courtesy of Karima Amin.
There are plenty of aspects of life in WNY where our traditional systems have failed us. These are areas where dedicated, passionate individuals need to take action. But how many among us actually do? Driving downtown midweek during the past few months, you may have seen a group of sign-wielders in front of the embattled Erie County Holding Center, the place that has become a symbol, to many, of governmental and institutional failure, a place of poor conditions, prisoner maltreatment, and a shocking number of suicides.

Think about that for a second. There are individuals out there who are still willing to stand in the cold, the wind, the snow, and the rain, and rally around a cause. And not just any cause, but prisoners’ rights. Who, after all, is there to stand up for the incarcerated?

Karima Amin, Jordan Gerow, and the Erie County Prisoners Rights Coalition, that’s who. In August of last year, Amin’s long-running group, Prisoners Are People Too!, joined with several other organizations to form the Buffalo Prison Abuse Project, now known as the Prisoners Rights Coalition. Amin is cochair of the coalition along with Gerow, and as she explains, the Holding Center controversy is not a new story. In fact, she says, the problems that currently exist have been apparent for decades. “Abuse, both physical and mental, is rampant, and professionalism is at an all-time low,” says Amin. She hopes the recent Department of Justice suit against the county might finally lead to real change: “I believe this is the beginning of county government’s being held accountable for the loss of life and the lack of care and concern for those being held … But there should be more public outrage.”

Amin and members of Gerow’s organization have braved miserable winter weather conditions to hold weekly demonstrations and rallies, and continued to offer real solutions. The response from authorities? You can probably guess. As Amin said in April, “We’ve been a presence on the corner of Delaware and Church for several months and still there are those who have no idea that serious issues of abuse and unprofessionalism exist in both of our county jails—the Holding Center and the Correctional Facility. Keanu Reeves had no problem getting into the holding center—twice—to work on his film, and we couldn’t get an audience with Timothy Howard.”


“It’s a problem that starts with consciousness,” says Gerow. “Most folks out there want to believe that there’s not a problem, or that it’s not serious, or that even if there are serious breaches of rights going on, we should chalk it up to being what the prisoners brought on themselves. Most folks don’t want to deal with the reality that we have a real human rights problem on our hands two blocks from City Hall.” Many of us, including those in power, don’t consider how prisoners are housed and treated until we have to—until something happens like what’s happened in Erie County. Case in point, Gerow says, is the response of County Executive Chris Collins and attorney Cheryl Green. “Collins and Green told the media every chance they could get that the Holding Center wasn’t supposed to provide the services of ‘a good hotel.’ Does a good hotel keep a dozen folks in a small room for hours with no toilet, people getting sick, and no supervision? Take people onto off-camera elevators and beat them with walkie-talkies? Try to stage fights between its patrons? Keep them locked up without access to toilet paper, soap, or toothpaste? How about refusing to call an ambulance when somebody is bleeding, their nose is broken, and their teeth kicked in? This isn’t fantasy, and it isn’t hysteria. People can’t believe this is all really true, that it’s really happening in our own backyard. Well, it is. And it’s our job to stop it.”

Whether you care specifically about this issue or not, seeing individuals who care enough about others to take action is downright inspiring. It’s true political activism, on a local scale, and a sharp slap in the face to the overwhelming apathy that grips most. The Coalition website at www.eriecountyprisonersrightscoalition.viviti.com offers a detailed summary of what the protests are all about, and why the issues at hand have drawn such passion. Meetings are held at 6 p.m. every Wednesday at 14 Allen Street, and folks are still coming together at the corner of Delaware and Church at 5 p.m. on Wednesdays.

“We’re all volunteers, and we’re all self-organized, and that’s a powerful thing,” adds Gerow. “Because that means that we’re not a special interest, and we’re not some self-concerned organization fanning its feathers. We’re just real voices from the community, and we want real justice.”

Christopher Schobert is a Squeaky Wheel boardmember. An extended version of this piece will run in Squeaky’s upcoming annual Squealer publication; see www.squeaky.org for details.


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