Solitary Housing Unit at the Columbia County Fair
by Bob Elmendorf
Old Chatham Meeting
From August 29 through September 3, members from four monthly meetings, with additional volunteers, staffed a booth exhibiting a replica of a solitary housing unit (SHU) at the Columbia County Fair for a total of 65 hours. 26 people participated. The replica was built by Doug Van Zandt, who has taken the replica all around NY State.
The exhibit was funded by a grant from NYYM’s Outreach Initiatives Support Fund, an allocation from Old Chatham Monthly Meeting (OCMM)’s Bob Bacon Fund for Peace & Justice, and with support from OCMM’s Special Projects Budget. Our meeting is very grateful for the financial support it received to present this exhibit.
Our goals were to advocate for passage in the NY State Senate of the Humane Alternatives to Long Term Incarceration (HALT) Act (passed by the NYS Assembly in June), to educate about the problem of mass incarceration in the United States, and to raise the profile of our meeting in the community. We conducted training within our meeting about the HALT act and how to listen carefully to opposing views. We put up all the materials available at the fair on our website. We obtained 360 signatures for the HALT petition which we sent to Victor Pate at the Office of The Correctional Association of NY. Didi Barret, NYS Assembly member for District 106, stopped by, as did Tistrya Houghtling who is running for NYS Assembly District 107. They were both very supportive.
We kept a diary in the SHU which received many entries; some unsympathetic, but most expressing compassion and understanding. We were interviewed by Corrine Carey from radio station WOOC, who made six visits to our exhibit, taping fairgoers’ reactions and talking with our volunteers. We distributed material on the HALT act and on mass incarceration, as well as brochures about our meeting and wallet-sized cards with our website and phone number. We displayed copies for sale of Ellen Condlief Lagemann’s Liberating Minds: The Case for College in Prison, and discussed the book with several people. We had scores of lengthy conversations with prison guards, ex-prison guards, families with current or former prisoners, and the general public, some of them very emotionally moving. Several people remembered our exhibit from last year. It was an excellent outreach project for our meeting.
Challenges this year included soliciting volunteers for the shifts, enduring the heat at the fair, keeping the committee on schedule, and not having time to follow up with those who indicated they wanted additional information.