Photo credit: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press, 2019

Photo credit: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press, 2019

Imagining safety without prisons: Seeking a holistic solution to violence in Detroit

Sebastian Johnson

“Amanda Alexander is deeply invested in “freedom dreams” — bold, transformational visions that focus on what our communities could be, rather than the myriad ways they often disappoint.

At the Detroit Justice Center (DJC), which Alexander founded in 2017, lawyers work with community members to make freedom dreams a reality: a community land trust to protect neighborhoods from gentrification and offer a safe haven for men returning from incarceration; urban gardens that provide neighbors a space for connection and nourish bodies in the midst of a food desert; a bail fund to keep Detroiters from languishing in jail for the crime of being too poor to make bond.

And, most urgently: imagining safe communities without jails and prisons.

Last year, DJC sued Wayne County to stop the construction of a $533 million jail complex in downtown Detroit, arguing that the plan ignored the objections and true needs of the community. (A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in July).The organization has also opposed efforts to equip the city’s police department with facial recognition software.

In her youth, Alexander says, criminal justice reform was an issue “too close to home.” Born just north of Detroit in Southfield, she relocated to Kalamazoo when she was five, after her father was sentenced to two years in prison. As a child, Alexander internalized her family’s silence about her father’s incarceration as shame and stigma. Today, that experience shapes her work. “Organizing,” she says,“is about taking personal pain and transforming it into collective courage.”

After honing her organizing skills in South Africa and Brooklyn (and obtaining her legal degree from Yale), Alexander returned home to found the Prison and Family Justice Project at the University of Michigan Law School, working with incarcerated parents at risk of losing custody of their children. There, she began to develop the combination of legal representation, strategic litigation and advocacy that DJC deploys today. “This is the next iteration of a very long freedom struggle,” she says. “Ending mass incarceration is one fight, but it’s just the first step.”

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