ITHACA, N.Y.—A fairly nondescript building on West State Street is home to Alliance for Family Justice, a statewide organization whose Ithaca chapter serves as one of the main bridges between people who are incarcerated in central New York and their families out of the area, particularly in New York City.

Run by AFJ Central New York Coordinator Phoebe Brown, who’s also a new Ithaca Common Council member, the office serves as a hub for services and resources for incarcerated people, with guides for agencies and services that could lighten the load on incarcerated people and those around them.

“Now, since we started coming back to the office, we’re still doing those same things and more,” Brown said.

That’s now including a wider net. AFJ’s work has long focused on people who are incarcerated or who are attempting to re-enter daily society after a stay behind bars, but that scope is beginning to expand, as Brown said AFJ has started to add the people who feel the impact of someone they care for becoming incarcerated, while not actually being incarcerated themselves.

“We came together because what we learned is that we talk about men and women re-entering, but we don’t talk about the families, who are also doing time, who are also dealing with crisis and post-traumatic stress,” Brown said. “They’ve also lost someone in the household, someone who may have been contributing to living costs, someone they love.”

Launched in December, the Friends of Alliance for Justice is the group’s latest effort, and its newest in Tompkins County. The purpose of the program is to foster connections between people who are incarcerated and their families, friends and loved ones who are not. It is a collaboration between AFJ and the local Standing Up for Racial Justice, a longtime provider of support for AFJ’s operations as well as its own work.

“People live downstate, so they may not have heard from their loved ones, and they’re worried,” Brown said. “So we, as the central regional group, if we get a call saying they haven’t heard from their people in a while, we can go out in visit.”

Brown said that even extends to finding people who are willing to host visitors coming from elsewhere who want to visit people incarcerated in the central New York area.

It’s only one of the offerings AFJ has — Brown’s co-worker Khalil Bey, describes a recent healing retreat at Blue Mountain, and Brown mentions that there are two more retreats coming up in summer for people AFJ serves, though each of those are dedicated to women and the LGBT community, respectively. That stems from weekly group meetings that help support a variety of people, as described above: those who have actually been behind bars themselves, and others who may be dealing with someone who is there now.

“Those groups started with how hard it was, how many challenges they have,” Brown said. “They’ve really built a cohesive group of people who really support one another.”

As someone who has been incarcerated herself, Brown knows how important maintaining connections is between the incarcerated community and those outside, and how beneficial it can be upon re-entering daily life to have the support system, both from AFJ and from the loved ones they aim to help.

“Most importantly, it’s to reach people who have returned home, people who have loved ones incarcerated, and ask them what it is we can do better,” Brown said. “How can we serve them in a way to help them re-enter that helps them thrive, not just survive? […] One thing they need to know is that we love you unconditionally. You did your time, and now you’re back, and we should not continue to keep you incarcerated, even though you’re out.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com