In early 2020, the emergence of the COVID crisis presented a critical moment for raising awareness of criminal justice reform and the personal experiences of incarcerated individuals and their families. The Alliance of Families for Justice, an advocacy group of-and-for the families of incarcerated New Yorkers and their loved ones, wanted to amplify key voices during this pivotal moment.
AFJ approached The Wakeman Agency to assist them in raising awareness about the condition of prisons during COVID. In particular, they wanted to highlight how the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision that oversees New York prisons was able to lock down every facility with zero transparency as to how they were addressing COVID and the conditions of people behind prison walls. Families were cut off and locked out for a long time. The little information families did receive revealed deeply disturbing health and safety conditions. These voices and stories needed to be amplified to alert the public to shocking treatment of incarcerated people and their families during the pandemic.
BUILDING AN AWARENESS CAMPAIGN WITH THE POWER OF STORY
The Wakeman Agency devised a three-tiered solution to address AFJ’s various goals. This solution focused on the power of storytelling and the importance of emotive connection with the experiences of individuals and families. Personal stories were respectfully used to raise awareness about the treatment of incarcerated people and the conditions of prisons during COVID. The Wakeman Agency guided AFJ through this critical information campaign, which resulted in key media placements and the development of new initiatives.
The partnership between The Wakeman Agency and AFJ resulted in:
- A virtual town hall about conditions in prisons during COVID attended by approx. 150 people. We mobilized the powerful presence of social leaders, politicians, celebrities such as Danny Glover, and New York State legislators to raise awareness and draw attention to the event. This town hall was planned and executed by the Wakeman team early on during the pandemic before remote events became the norm.
- Approximately 170 participants in a new Storytelling Initiative coordinated by Wakeman. The initiative involved writing letters, op-eds, and essays about the personal experiences of families due to inhumane COVID restrictions. These stories were published in City Limits and other outlets. Notably, AFJ founder Soffiyah Elijah and family members of incarcerated individuals were interviewed for a BET/CBS news special on the anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison uprising, connecting past concerns about criminal justice with current issues.
- Media training for 200 family members. Participants reported that the training increased their confidence and made them more comfortable during interviews, legislative testimonies, and other public appearances.
- 75 syndicated stories across broadcast, print/online, and op-eds/essays. A key part of this media campaign was arranging personal interviews and profiles of AFJ leadership and family members (applying the lessons learned in training). Soffiyah Elijah was profiled in The New York Times.
ALERTING THE PUBLIC TO CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM USING HUMAN STORIES
The Wakeman Agency’s work with Alliance of Families for Justice focused on publicizing information critical to conversations about the COVID pandemic and criminal justice reform. To really make an impact on the public, the Wakeman team emphasized stories of personal experience to broadcast the treatment of incarcerated people and their families during COVID. The training and Storytelling Initiative were key to this campaign and resulted in improving media presence, increasing activism toolkits for AFJ leaders and members, and moving conversations about criminal justice from the abstract to the tangible, human impact of shocking policies. The Wakeman Agency mobilized its experience with training, event coordination, and garnering media attention to assist AFJ in uplifting impacted voices about the timely and critical issue of prison conditions during COVID.
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