Jalal Sabur, 34, packs CSA goodies into a canvas bag from the cooler in his trunk: kale, lettuce, chard, collard greens, onions, and bell peppers. The vegetables smell sweet and earthy; the onions are spotted with Hudson Valley dirt, where they were recently harvested. Deep purple and green leaves poke out from the like bows garnishing the gift.
Rita Docier, a petite woman with thin, greying dreadlocks, is sure that her son, Isaiah, is going to be thrilled to receive the vegetables. He’s a foodie and misses her cooking dearly. His favorite home-cooked meal is black-eyed peas, which she cooks with bacon or chicken neck. “Every time he calls he asks, ‘Ma what’d you cook today?’ I say, ‘You don’t want me to tell you,’” she says, and laughs.
Docier takes the bag of vegetables and heads up the concrete stairs with her husband, Lincoln, her six-year-old grandson Isaiah Jr., and her three-year-old grandnephew Jalil in tow. They walk around the corner and into the visitor entrance of Green Haven Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York, where Isaiah is incarcerated.
Isaiah, who is 25, is Docier’s youngest child. He has been incarcerated in Green Haven for four years for, “being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Docier. He was set to go to college she says, before the incident that landed him behind bars—which she didn’t care to elaborate or dwell on. Today she was here to see her son, and bring him some nourishment. Because of good behavior, Isaiah allowed to have a small cooking facility in his cell, so can boil or fry the greens.
This is her third trip with Sabur. The journey started around 8 a.m. when he picked the family up at their home in Flatbush, a predominately Caribbean neighborhood in East Brooklyn. They made it to Green Haven at 10 a.m. sharp, just in time for visiting hours.
Sabur’s van line, Victory Project, transports people from New York City to visit incarcerated loved ones upstate. Though three-quarters of the prisoners in New York State are from the five boroughs, prisons are by and large upstate, some as far as a nine- or ten-hour drive away, making it difficult—and expensive—for family members to visit.
Sabur’s rates are as modest as he can afford and are the best deal in town, $25 per passenger and $90 for a family of five. A larger company, Prison Gap Buses, charges between $50-$80 per adult passenger depending on the prison, and $20-$40 per child under ten. A ride with Sabur also includes a CSA package. Because the ticket price technically includes the package of food, passengers can pay with their EBT cards, commonly known as food stamps.
“Let’s face it, these are not people with money going to prison. They can’t afford these trips,” said Johnny Perez, an advocate for formerly incarcerated people at the Urban Justice Center, a Manhattan-based legal service and advocacy non-profit. He often refers his clients to Sabur.
The state’s Department of Corrections once ran a free bus program for visitors to all 54 facilities across the state, but it was shut down in 2011 for budgetary reasons, a DOC spokeswoman wrote in an email, adding that the shutdown left thousands in the lurch. An average of 2,120 monthly passengers rode the bus in 2009, she wrote, over three-quarters of whom were from the city.
Access to farm fresh food is not something that many of the families he transports has, not to mention the loved ones who they’re visiting. (If there are leftover vegetables, which there were this day, families take them home.) Sabur’s work falls under the umbrella of food justice, the cousin of social justice and environmental justice, he says. “It's just making sure that everyone has access to the most nutritious, healthiest food possible,” he says. In short, “If you can't have good food, it means you can't be healthy,” he says. And, he says, everyone should have the right to choose what kind of food they put in their body, both for health and cultural reasons.
Sabur also regularly visits and brings food to political prisoners across the state, many of whom are aging and have health problems. Earlier this year he spent an afternoon with Robert Seth Hayes, a former member of the Black Panther Party. Hayes, 67, has been incarcerated since he was 24. He was convicted of fatally shooting a police officer. A young Vietnam Veteran at the time, Hayes describes coming home from the war abroad to the war on the streets here, referring to the politically volatile ‘70s.
Hayes is a petit man who wears gold wire framed bifocal glasses. He and Sabur sit side-by-side at a round table reminiscent of elementary school cafeteria seating. The room has twelve identical tables, about half of which have couples or families sitting around them. Couples hold hands, children sit on their father’s laps. In each group, one man is wearing state-issued green pants. The smell of microwave popcorn permeates the room. Tall vending machines against the wall dispense popcorn bags as well as, candy, packaged hamburgers and chicken sandwiches.
Hayes suffers from diabetes, which he developed in prison and which the diet there exacerbates. “A person of my age and with my afflictions,” he says and shakes his head, “and all we eat is white rice, white pasta. The problem with the state is that it’s one diet fits all – no diabetic, no high cholesterol, they just worry about calorie count,” he says. He relies on Sabur’s visits to get fresh produce. A bag of vegetables and apples would be waiting for Hayes when he returned to his cell. Sabur had given it over to security guards for inspection on the way in.
“Some of these brothers don’t get visits,” he says of the inmates who are not in the visiting room but beyond the heavy door. He says that inmates often attribute the lack of visitors to the cost of bus tickets. Hayes helps Sabur organize on the “inside,” spreading the word about his van trips and CSA packages. Hayes had hung flyers on bulletin boards inside, which he said got people interested. The flyers have since been removed by Correctional Officers, but Hayes is arguing with officials to have them rehung.
The van line and CSA delivery service is part of his larger project to support families of incarcerated people, the incarcerated people themselves, and small farms in rural New York. “There is a larger movement that we’re building, that we have to build to make the economic shift that we want to—to shift from the prison industrial complex to making sure that we have small independent farms that can feed black and brown bodies,” he says. As it stands now, he says, the rural economy is too dependent on the prison industry.
Sabur works with an alliance, which he played a key hand in creating, the Freedom Food Alliance. The alliance includes local farmers, advocacy and activist organizations such as the Bard Food Initiative and the WESPAC Food Justice Committee, and a network of prisoners such as Hayes, families, and young people affected by the justice system who help organize.
This is the first year that he has a budget, which is largely due to funding from his fiscal sponsor WESPAC Food Justice Committee, a Whiteplains-based foundation. This is also the first year that he isn’t farming himself, but is working as an organizer full-time. Becuase of this, his network is key. About fifteen small farms in the Hudson Valley contribute to the Victory Project in some way, most commonly by donating food. It was his plan to source food, and he still would like to, but has been taken aback by how supportive farmers in the area are. “The idea in general is to get a distribution model that supports famers and supports families with members in prison.” This is why he made the organization into a 501(c)3 and is looking for grants constantly.
Tess Parker from Common Hands Farm is running a campaign to raise enough money that their farm can donate CSA produce on a regular basis. “I feel really really excited about the possibilities,” she said of working with Sabur. “If we can help stabilize the vegetable supply, and if he can start to grow the operation and have greater reach… I’m really excited about that possibility,” she said.
One of the other farms that has found means to feed a wide-array of people is Whistle Down, which contributes food to pantries in East New York, Brooklyn with a grant from Just Food, a Manhattan based non-profit. Whistle Down also regularly donates food to Sabur—either by allowing him to glean their fields, or packing bags for him to pick up. Nicholas Pandjins, one of the farm owners, said he was excited when he learned that there was a way to feed his incarcerated neighbors, “I Hadn’t thought that there was any way to get healthy food to them. I was very surprised that you were allowed to bring in,” he said. Indeed, though there is a Department of Corrections directive saying that fresh produce is allowed, degree of pushback from correctional officers varies from prison to prison according to Sabur.
In the valley many young farmers started with ambitions to feed the needy, not just those who can afford farmer’s market prices. “It’s interesting that so many new your farmers came into it interested in food justice,” said Faith Gilbert, 26, who co-runs Letterbox Farm Collective. But, she said, “Once you get into it, you realizing how little capacity you have for it. We need projects like Jalal’s to close that gap.”
At 3:00 p.m. Sabur collects Docier and her family from the Green Haven prison. The boys curl up and fall asleep in the back seat. The adults ride back in silence, thinking about the visit, listening to classic R&B on the radio. You could tell when we were getting closer to the city, Docier noted, because the music came in clear.