Jalal Sabur, 36, packs CSA goodies into a canvas bag from the cooler in the back of his van: kale, lettuce, chard, collard greens, onions and bell peppers. The just-harvested vegetables smell sweet and earthy; the onions are spotted with Hudson Valley dirt. Deep-purple and green leaves poke out from the canvas bag, like bows on a gift.
Rita Docier, a petite woman with thin, graying dreadlocks, is sure that her son Isaiah is going to be thrilled to see these vegetables. He loves great food and misses her cooking. His favorite home-cooked meal is black-eyed peas, which she stews 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. 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 Dutchess County, where her son Isaiah is incarcerated.
Isaiah, who is 25, is Docier’s youngest child. He has been at Green Haven for four years for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, according to Docier. He was set to go to college before the incident that landed him behind bars—which she didn’t care to elaborate or dwell on. Today she’s here to see her son and bring him some nourishment. Because of good behavior, Isaiah is allowed to have a hotplate in his cell, so he 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, called the Victory Bus Project, transports people from New York City for oneday visits to incarcerated loved ones upstate. It is a joint venture between the Freedom Food Alliance and the VROOM Bus Cooperative. The “victory” name was inspired by activist Herman Bell’s Victory Gardens Project, where farmers in Maine grew organic vegetables to be distributed for free in New York City. 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 9- or 10-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 and $80 per adult passenger depending on the prison, and $20 to $40 per child under 10. A ride with Sabur also includes a box of local produce. Because the ticket price technically includes the package of food, passengers can conveniently pay with their EBT cards or SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps.
“Let’s face it, these are not people with money going to prison. They can’t afford these trips,” says Johnny Perez, an advocate for formerly incarcerated people at the Urban Justice Center, a Manhattan-based legal service and advocacy nonprofit. He often refers his clients to Sabur.
The state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) 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, who chose to remain anonymous for this story, wrote in an e-mail 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.
Most of the families that ride this bus don’t have regular access to farm-fresh food; the inmates they are visiting have none. (If there are leftover vegetables, families will take them home on their return trip.) Sabur’s work falls under the umbrella of food justice, a close 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.”
Sabur also regularly visits and brings food to political prisoners across the state, many of them aging and with ongoing health problems. Earlier this year he spent an afternoon with Robert Seth Hayes, a former member of the Black Panther Party who is serving out his term at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg. Hayes, 67, has been incarcerated since he was 24. He was convicted of fatally shooting a police officer.
Hayes is a petite 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 12 identical tables; about half have couples or families sitting around them. Couples hold hands; children sit on their fathers’ 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, he feels, 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,” Hayes says. He relies on Sabur’s visits to get fresh farm produce. Thankfully, 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 his fellow inmates who are not in the visiting room but just 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 by spreading the word about his van trips and CSA packages. Hayes had hung flyers on bulletin boards inside, which he said got inmates interested. The flyers have since been removed by correctional officers, but Hayes is arguing with officials to have them rehung to spread the word.
The Victory Bus project and vegetable delivery service are all part of Sabur’s larger project to support families of incarcerated people, the incarcerated people themselves and small farms in rural New York. The United States has the largest prison population in the world and about 1 out of 100 adults in this country are serving, or have served, time in prison. “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.
Sabur works with the Freedom Food Alliance, which he helped create. 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, their families and young people affected by the justice system. Recently, the Rhinebeck-based Primrose Hill Farm Collective launched an indiegogo campaign to support the ongoing work of the Victory Bus Project and have set out to raise $10,000 for the project.
This is the first year that Sabur has a budget, thanks to funding from the WESPAC Food Justice Committee, a White Plains–based foundation. This is also the first year that he is working as an organizer full-time and not farming himself in Germantown. Because of this, his network of farmers is key. About 15 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 astounded by how supportive farmers in the area are. “The idea in general is to get a distribution model that supports farmers and supports families with members in prison.” This is why Sabur made the organization into a 501(c)3 and is looking for grants constantly. Grant money would pay for produce so that Sabur doesn’t have to ask for donations and the contributing farmers could be paid for their work, as well as expenses such as gas, van maintenance, not to mention Sabur’s living expenses.
Tess Parker from Common Hands Farm in Claverack is running a campaign to raise enough money so that their farm can regularly donate produce. “If he can start to grow the operation and have greater reach…. I’m really excited about that possibility,” says Parker. One of the other farms that has found means to feed a wide array of people is Whistle Down Farm in Hudson, which contributes food to pantries in East New York, Brooklyn, with a grant from Just Food, a Manhattan based nonprofit. Whistle Down Farm 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, says 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 vegetables in,” says Pandjins. Indeed, though there is a Department of Corrections directive saying that fresh produce is allowed, the degree of pushback from correctional officers varies from prison to prison, according to Sabur.
In the Hudson Valley many young farmers started with ambitions to feed the needy, not just those who can afford farmers market prices. “It’s interesting that so many new farmers came into it interested in food justice,” says Faith Gilbert, 26, who co-runs Letterbox Farm Collective, also in Hudson. But, she says, “Once you get into it, you realize 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 backseat. The adults ride back in silence, thinking about the visit, listening to classic R&B through the static on the radio. Isaiah was happy to get the veggies, Docier said. And now she could rest easier knowing that he would have some good nutrition.