Road Trip Takes Poor People’s Campaign To Elmira’s Prisons

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ITHACA, NY (WSKG) – Activists with the Poor People’s Campaign recently took a road trip to parts of the Southern Tier and the Finger Lakes regions. The Campaign, which was launched by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  is undergoing a revival both nationally and in New York State. The Elmira stop focused on incarceration.

Becca Forsyth lead a group of about 40 people in vans and cars. The first stop was the site of a Civil War prison camp, known as “Hell-mira” for its deadly conditions. Then, they stopped at the community’s two state prisons. One maximum security, the other, super max.

Forsyth is a coordinator for the Poor People’s Campaign and has lived in Elmira her whole life. She’s seen how having two prisons nearby shapes her community.

Celia Clarke/WSKG Public Media

Employees of the Southport super max prison watch on April 5, 2019 as activists from the Poor People’s Campaign stop outside the prison on a tour called, “Doing Time In Elmira” (WSKG/Celia Clarke)

“When you create a system that’s going to hurt people like that,” she said, “it’s not just going to hurt the folks that are in those buildings it’s going to hurt everybody in between, too.”

Among those folks is Jordan Moser, her brother is serving a nine year sentence in the maximum security prison. She and her her boyfriend, Rodney were on the tour. He did time in the maximum security prison, too.   

The Elmira tour ended at a the Frederick Douglas Memorial AME Zion Church downtown.

There, the Poor People’s Campaign held what they call “a hearing.” Something that has been done regularly on a local level. It was a chance for people affected by poverty to share their experiences.

Forsyth spoke about her family’s experiences with the school system’s disciplinary actions. She criticized money spent for additional police in elementary school. She said the students need more social workers instead. Last year, Chemung County approved hiring of four new officers for Elmira’s elementary school.

“By placing police at every turn,” Forsyth said during her ‘testimony’, “we do nothing but increase the chances that our kids will run afoul of the authorities and we’re putting it in their heads that the only way we can ‘control’ these  many ‘criminals’ is by putting police everywhere.”

The next day, the tour moved on to a food pantry in Tompkins County.

In the past, some long-time activists there have criticized the Campaign as just another case of wealthy liberals trying to “do good” without engaging people affected by poverty.

In Elmira, Forsyth says they had a similar issue but now, more people with ‘skin in the game’ are involved.