New York

Breaking Down Prison Walls


On Friday nights, Columbus Circle becomes the stage for one of New York City’s saddest dramas. From 9 p.m. until past midnight, hundreds of tired women and a few tired men crowd onto 14 buses, their arms full with snacks, clothes, presents, and babies. By the time they step off the buses into the visiting room of a prison in upstate New York, the sun will be rising.

Last Friday, Randy Credico was working these bus lines, trying to convince family members—mostly wives and mothers and girlfriends—to take yet another bus trip, this time to the state capitol. “Come up to Albany and expose what’s going on with your family,” he said, pushing a flyer into a woman’s hand. “We’ve gotta break down these prison walls.” She glanced down at the advertisement for an upcoming rally, mumbled something about trying to attend, and climbed aboard the bus.

Credico and his allies are in the final stages of planning a protest for May 8, which is the 27th anniversary of the state’s so-called Rockefeller drug laws. These laws have imprisoned thousands of people—sometimes for as long as 15 or 20 years—and led to an explosion in the state’s prison population. To publicize the impact of these laws, Credico is hoping his protest draws at least several hundred people, which was the turnout at a similar event he held last year. To increase attendance, he has broadened this year’s agenda; it will encompass a range of issues, including the death penalty and the state’s parole policies.

Credico, the rally’s chief organizer and the project director of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, sees his goal as simple. “It is to continue to build a street movement that would ultimately revamp our criminal justice system,” he says.

Credico launched this street movement two years ago, when he held his first anniversary protest against the Rockefeller drug laws. About 40 inmates’ relatives showed up. For a few hours, they stood along a strip of sidewalk near Rockefeller Center and held posters decorated with photographs of their imprisoned family members. Ever since, Credico has been staging semiregular rallies around New York. His group has picketed a prison officials’ conference at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the Lower East Side office of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and a fundraiser for Governor George Pataki at South Street Seaport.

While Credico organizes these vigils on his own, the upcoming Albany event requires plenty of help. The union for Legal Aid Society lawyers is sending buses of supporters from New York City. Local 817 of the Teamsters has paid for a bus to transport protesters. And carpools of inmates’ relatives are expected to come from around the state, including Plattsburgh, Schenectady, and Rochester.

Whether another day of sign-waving and slogan-chanting outside the state capitol will push legislators to alter laws is anyone’s guess. There are now three bills in the state legislature designed to repeal or reform the Rockefeller drug laws. Last year, hopes for change soared after Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican, announced that he favored reform. But then the legislative session ended without any change.

Since the Rockefeller drug laws were enacted in 1973, New York’s inmate population has soared from 12,500 to more than 70,000. One-third of the state’s prisoners are doing time for a drug crime. Credico, who has visited inmates in 15 New York prisons, says he worries about the long-term impact of locking up so many people. The organizer knows something about the deep-seated anger that is prison’s legacy; Credico’s own father spent eight years behind bars for cracking a safe during the Depression. “I see it in the faces of people who get out,” he says. “If someone’s mother died while they were in prison, if their wife left them, it could turn someone into a violent person. We’re building walking time bombs.”

For information about the May 8 rally, contact the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice at 212-539-8441.

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