by Andi Mullin and Amanda Ptashkin. This article originally appeared on the Community Catalyst blog.
During our recent visit to Montgomery, Alabama, we had the opportunity to confront our nation’s gruesome history of slavery, mass incarceration and racism, while also being able to witness descendants of that history participating in democracy, lifting up their voices to make sure their elected officials heard them – and elevating our faith in our democracy in the process.
On our first day, we visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, confronting the harms our nation has inflicted on Black people throughout its history. This visit was – and should be – a painful reminder that our history doesn’t exist in a vacuum and its reverberations continue to be felt today.
Providing a sharp contrast, the next day we joined 300 committed and diverse advocates at the Alabama State Capitol, along with our partners at Alabama Arise for their annual Legislative Day. We were surrounded by individuals coming together for the betterment of their families and communities, and inspired by the commitment of so many Alabamians to both racial and health justice for all.
At the event, Arise educated their grassroots activists and their partners on a comprehensive set of legislative priorities that all, in one way or another, would help to undo the legacy of slavery and racism in Alabama. Arise staff prepared people to meet with lawmakers to share their concerns and to offer solutions. The room was filled with diverse voices – concerned citizens, faith leaders, people with disabilities, students from schools of social work and nursing, people of all races working toward a common goal: making Alabama better for all.
Just days after our return from Alabama, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released a scathing report and letter to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey about the state’s prison system, the culmination of a several-year investigation. The DOJ letter noted that, “…in particular, we have reasonable cause to believe that Alabama routinely violates the constitutional rights of prisoners housed in Alabama’s prisons by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and by failing to provide safe conditions. The violations are exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision and overcrowding.” The state has 50 days to address these deficiencies or the DOJ could bring a suit against it.
While the report‘s descriptions of the treatment of prisoners and their conditions are shocking, after visiting the Memorial and Museum, it is impossible for us not to draw a straight line between the centuries of institutionalized racism and infliction of racial terror on generations of people of color, and the conditions in Alabama’s prisons today. Opened just in the last year, the Memorial and Museum sites, in a tangible and poignant fashion, shine a bright light on the cruelty and injustice of our nation’s history of enslavement and racism and their lasting impacts today. The DOJ report intensely underscores that point. To say that both were striking, gut-wrenching and eye-opening would be an understatement.
That’s the bad news.
But back to the good news in Alabama – and there is lots of it. One of Arise’s top priorities over the last several years has been to expand Medicaid coverage to individuals making up to 138 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, and the advocates were quick to make that a central focus of the Legislative Day, donning “Expand Medicaid” stickers and talking to as many elected officials as possible about the need to close the coverage gap. After the release of the report on the state’s prisons, our partners at Arise have explicitly and eloquently made the connection between the prison report and access to health care. They point to the behavioral and physical health needs of the prison population that could be met, as well as the inevitable economic stimulus associated with bringing millions of federal Medicaid dollars into the state, by closing the gap. Indeed, Arise advocates have astutely positioned Medicaid expansion as a central element of the solution to the problems in the state’s prisons.
It was incredibly moving to take part in the Legislative Day with our partners from Arise. Watching such a diverse group of people, determinedly talking to their elected officials, pushing hard for changes that would make the lives of low-income Alabamians better, was the perfect thing to do after visiting the Museum and Memorial. You cannot avoid our nation’s troubled racial past in Montgomery – it is right in front of you wherever you go, in the city’s monuments and buildings. But meeting so many people in Alabama who have wrestled with this fraught history, acknowledged its real-world impacts today, and committed themselves to repairing and healing those wounds was incredibly inspirational. It was a trip we won’t soon forget.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.