No Justice for Haitian Refugees

No Justice for Haitian Refugees

On May 23rd, the Trump administration will make a decision that could devastate some 50,000 Haitian refugees who immigrated to the United States after the destructive earthquake in 2010 that killed over a quarter of Haitians. Within months, Haitian refugees that survive under temporary protected status in the United States could be forced to leave after having lived here for many years. The Obama administration extended the temporary protected status many times, considering Haiti has not yet recovered from the earthquake. There are still housing shortages, cholera, economic damage, and limited access to medical care. However, the earthquake is not the only reason that Haitians seek refuge, and not everyone is lucky enough to obtain protected status. Many people end up detained and deported.

In February, we traveled to Miami, Florida for a lab focused on immigrant detention. Marleine Bastien, Executive Director of FANM shared her experience of arriving in 1981 as a young refugee. She volunteered at the Haitian refugee center, which at the time was the only agency providing legal services to newly arrived refugees. She spoke of how she had always thought of America as the beacon of human rights, but was gravely disappointed. Refugees come to America for a reason; to escape to a better life. She says that there are pressures that cause people to come, not just because they want to. They come in search of a safe haven, but instead they find themselves detained, and very few have the chance to state their reasons for seeking refuge.

A lot of [refugees] have histories of abuse and of trauma, so we need to create a space so that these refugees and these immigrants have a chance to explain in front of a court and we are obligated by law to create and afford them this basic right. [..] But more and more detained and incarcerated refugees and immigrants are not given that chance.
— Marleine Bastien

Since 2005, nearly a million people have been prosecuted for crimes related to illegal entry. Of those incarcerated, 2.5 million are deported. Some of this is due to overcrowding. Bastien states that detention divides families and there are often cases of physical and sexual abuse that go unreported. She advocates for spaces in which refugees can tell their stories and make a case for themselves.

It is best to afford them the right of due process. Create a space for them to tell their stories, and once they tell their stories, you’ll see that they have strong political asylum claims. And once they [obtain asylum] in a year they can become a permanent resident, and in three years they can become a US citizen.
— Marleine Bastien

Bastien is a licensed clinical social worker and the executive director of FANM, an organization with a mission to empower Haitian women and their families socially, politically and facilitate their adjustments to South Florida. At our lab, she recited a poem she had written in regard to Haitian women who seek refuge in the United States:

We are the women of the world

Lost in a foreign land.

Shamed, Denied, Violated

Tortured, Dilapidated, Maimed

Intimidated, Crushed

Victimized, Abused.

We are the wives, the fiancés, the mothers, daughters

Forced to leave our motherland in conditions not fit for human beings.

We risk our lives in not sea worthy vessels.

After many trials, adversities and tribulations

We make it to the land of the free.

The land of the free?

During our worst nightmare, the dream of being comforted

By the sweet arms of water liberty keeps us going.

Hoping that reality sinks in.

Our dreams are shattered

Steel iron bracelets on our ankles, scars deep in our flesh

Scars that last a lifetime.

Oh yes, we are wide awake right now.

The cold feel of handcuffs leave bruises.

It hurts.

The thumping of heavy metal doors takes away our last hope.

What crimes have we committed?

We are the women of the world in search of a safe haven,

Yet jailed? Treated like criminals?

Who have we killed? Who have we robbed? Who have we maimed?

Is it a crime to seek protection? Safety for our children?

Respect? Dignity? Humanity?

Is it a crime to fight death, desperation?

Is it a crime to want a future?

Is it a crime to year to be free?

Is it a crime to want to live?

Is it a crime to dream? Is it a crime to dream?

We are the women of the world.

Shamed, abused, tortured, dehumanized

Yet not broken.

We are the women of the world

And this is all of us.

We are life.

We are the future.

Support Mass Story Lab’s #MSLSpring25 fundraising drive and help us raise $25,000 to travel to more communities grappling with the impact of mass incarceration. Donate today!

By Claire Zager, Mass Story Lab intern

What Happened to Speedy Trials?

What Happened to Speedy Trials?

Incarceration is no doubt traumatizing for those who experience it themselves, but their families also face vulnerability and turmoil. Having to see their loved ones held in horrifying conditions is difficult enough, but families face many other hardships that go along with having an incarcerated family member. Many families lose a significant portion of their income and drop below the poverty line. Some are forced to raise children alone and risk losing custody. Others experience guilt by association. Those possibilities aside, visiting a family member in a correctional facility can be a nightmare in itself. Not only are they often geographically isolated and challenging to travel to, families are often presented with inadequate visiting facilities in terrible condition and experience traumatic occurrences while only attempting to reconnect with their loved one. Sadly, an average of 45% of inmates lose contact with their families during their incarceration.

Our June 2016 lab focused on closing Rikers Island in New York City, storyteller Anna Pastoressa spoke about her experience as a mother with a son incarcerated in the Rikers Island jail complex. Her son, a talented artist and muralist, was incarcerated in 2010 and has been awaiting trial for six years, all the while being beaten, abused, and sexually assaulted. Her story centered on the first time she visited her son at Rikers. She notes that when she tried to find the jail complex on a map, she discovered just a gray spot in the water with no label. She was anxious as she traveled with many other women and children on the ferry, but the terror began once they all piled out onto the island.

When we landed on Rikers Island, we were greeted by screaming officers with guns. […]  Officers screaming instructions at us like we were cattle.  I had to go through metal detectors, shake my bra, open my zipper, show my underwear, take off my socks and shoes, move here, move there, get sniffed by the dogs… I was in total shock. I was traumatized.
— Anna Pastoressa

Anna had been under the impression that her son would only be on the island temporarily as he awaits trial. Instead, he tries to stay positive amidst the abuse by making toilet paper flowers and using Kool-Aid as paint because he isn’t allowed art supplies.

I’m an immigrant. I studied the ideas of this country, and I thought this country was the land of the free. I had to learn a different lesson. It is not the land of the free. […] What happened to speedy trials?
— Anna Pastoressa

The right to a speedy trial is a constitutional right stated in the sixth amendment but is hindered by current bail processes. 78% of people inside Rikers have not been convicted of the crime they are accused of.

Anna shared that her son had taken a plea deal the day before our lab. She expressed anger that the system had won, though she thought her son would have had great chances in court. “They scored their conviction,” she said. “That’s exactly what they like to do. Make people so weak they can’t face a trial.” She concluded by calling on the audience to work as hard as they can to close Rikers Island for good.

The #CLOSErikers campaign led by JustLeadershipUSA and  Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice recently won a huge victory when Mayor de Blasio announced that he would support plans to close the jail complex in the next 10-years putting a permanent end to the violence and corruption of Rikers Island.

Support Mass Story Lab’s #MSLSpring25 fundraising drive and help us raise $25,000 to travel to more communities grappling with the impact of mass incarceration. Donate today!

By Claire Zager, Mass Story Lab intern

A Decade is too Long to #CLOSERIKERS

A Decade is too Long to #CLOSERIKERS

Rikers Island and violence go hand in hand. The notorious jail complex in New York, known for its brutality and abuse towards the incarcerated both by other occupants and correctional officers, is often described as dangerous, corrupt, and a place of suffering. Whether or not to close Rikers has been an ongoing battle. On March 31st, Mayor Bill de Blasio finally vowed to close Rikers Island and open a series of smaller jails based in the boroughs of New York City. This is provided that the number of people cycling through the system is reduced to 5,000; low enough to accommodate the transition to the new jails. De Blasio stated that the process could take more than a decade to complete. In the meantime, the violence on Rikers continues.

In June 2016, we held our first Mass Story Lab in New York City focused specifically on the negative impact of Rikers Island. Six storytellers spoke of the horrors of the complex. One of those storytellers was Johnny Perez. He was incarcerated as a child at sixteen years old. During his time on the island, he faced extreme violence. Gang violence, he said, was very prevalent.

If you’re not in a gang, you have to fight. You have to fight for your food, your commissary, your sneakers… you have to fight to keep your sanity. You have to fight like there’s no tomorrow because if you don’t, there probably won’t be.
— Johnny Perez

Johnny became physically violent to fend off the gang members, and was thrown in solitary confinement for sixty days. At sixteen years old, he sat completely alone in a concrete room for two months.

At 16 years old I couldn’t understand how I could be placed in a situation where I felt hopeless. My self-esteem was shot. I was angry at myself. I hated myself. I thought about committing suicide.
— Johnny Perez

He recounts how the suicide prevention aid he was provided belonged to the same gang as the fellow detainee that he fought. The staff member tortured him when he was on duty, depriving him of food. Violence by Department of Corrections staff against detainees rose every year from 2008 to 2014. Johnny couldn’t understand that the same people that were sworn to protect him from harm would actually allow it to happen.

You’re either the prey or the person who’s being preyed on. I learned that if I was going to survive, I would have to speak the language of Riker’s Island,” he stated. “The universal language of Riker’s Island is violence.
— Johnny Perez

In the recently released Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform Executive Summary, it is stated,

“All 27 members came together behind a vision for a criminal justice system in New York City that embodies the civic values of liberty, equality, dignity, justice, and public safety. Central to this vision is the primary recommendation of the Commission: Rikers Island must be closed. The Commission has concluded that shuttering Rikers Island is an essential step toward building a more just New York City. Refurbishing Rikers is not enough. Our current approach to incarceration is broken and must be replaced. Acknowledging this, the Commission recommends permanently ending the use of Rikers Island as a jail facility.”

Read the commission’s full report to learn why it’s important to close Rikers Island now.

While progress is being made, 10 years is too long. Justice for people like Johnny cannot wait.

On April 24th, the #CLOSERIKERS campaign is hosting a Rally on the Steps of City Hall. The rally will take place between 10:30am-12:00pm. We urge you to join in the efforts to close Rikers faster. Do your part to end the violence and suffering. Join the #CloseRikers campaign and take action.

Support Mass Story Lab’s #MSLSpring25 Fundraising drive and help us raise $25,000 to travel to more communities grappling with the impact of mass incarceration.

By Claire Zager, Mass Story Lab intern

Dear MSL Community, we need your support

Dear MSL Community, we need your support

Dear Mass Story Lab Supporters

Do you believe stories can create justice?

Just 10 months ago, Mass Story Lab was still an untested idea but we were ready to stake a big claim on the power of community storytelling to create cultural change. So in June 2016, we partnered with JustleadershipUSA’s #CLOSERikers campaign to help shut down New York City’s most notorious jail complex. Less than a year later, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his support for the closure of Rikers Island. It took months and thousands of supporters to make it happen, but it was catalyzed by the stories of people who have lived the trauma of Rikers. That is how stories create justice.

Mass Story Lab has since traveled to Austin, Greensboro, and Miami. In each city, we’ve heard stories calling out the intersections of mass incarceration and mass immigrant detention, revealed the pitfalls in the pathways of prison re-entry, and witnessed communities collaborate in our labs to identify ways to support the most vulnerable targets of this administration’s policies.

Mass Story Lab restores connection and community where once there was isolation, stigma, and shame and we are ready to expand to reach even more communities. Our goal is to raise $25,000 over the next two months. The great news is a generous supporter of Mass Story Lab has already promised a matching donation of $5,000 once we’ve raised an initial $5000. So your donation will have double the impact. Speaking of impact…

When you donate to our #MSLSpring25 Fundraising Drive you’ll help us realize our vision for a world beyond prisons.

With your support, in 2017 we will be able to:

·      Train THREE new MSL facilitators-people with a personal connection to incarceration.  They will travel the country in 2018 facilitating labs to catalyze local action.

·      Focus future labs on three core issue areas: 1) The incarceration of women and girls. 2) Wellness and Re-Entry 3) Designing Safe Communities

·      Build strategic partnerships to connect our local community partners with the right resources and support to advance the solutions generated in their story labs.

This past year we’ve been supported exclusively by partners and donors like you. You are the power behind the stories. THANK YOU in advance for your support.

Here’s how to make a donation:

Write a check payable to our fiscal sponsor, “Fractured Atlas” in the memo line: Mass Story Lab. Mail to:

Create Forward

P.O Box 1070 New York, NY 10037

Mass Story Lab is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of Mass Story Lab must be made payable to Fractured Atlas only and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.


Piper Anderson, Founding Guide

Mass Story Lab


Re-Entry and Rebuilding Relationships with a Father After Prison

Re-Entry and Rebuilding Relationships with a Father After Prison

In recent weeks, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has spoken openly about his admiration for the outdated War on Drugs and Nancy Reagan’s zero tolerance drug campaign, “Just Say No.” This approach was ineffective and caused the US incarceration rate to skyrocket. When policies like these are enforced, the families of those who are incarcerated feel the impact most acutely. Children with incarcerated parents face a plethora of challenges. Those incarcerated find it increasingly difficult to secure successful reentry into their family lives and society.

At our Greensboro lab, storyteller Tiffany Bullard spoke of her father who was incarcerated when she was only two years old. She met him for the first time sixteen years later once he was released. Her story reflects that of the more than 2.7 million children who currently have an incarcerated parent. That is 1 in 28 or 3.6% of American children. Research has shown that nearly half of those incarcerated lose contact with their families, halting any chance for parent-child connection and successful reentry upon release. Tiffany’s story was grounded in a memory of her father taking her out on a fishing boat years after his release and helping her bait her line. She speaks of the silence and awkwardness they felt.

“I met him right after I graduated high school,” she shared. “I remember what it felt like to hate and love him so much. To know that his blood was mine but to feel so cold and very far away from him. […] So much was lost.”
— Tiffany Bullard

There are many reasons why families lose contact with an incarcerated family member. Correctional facilities are often geographically isolated, making travel to and from the facility challenging. Families who are able to visit often face visiting facilities that are inadequate and hinder healthy family interaction. Additionally, family members often report experiencing disrespect from staff when visiting and are subject to extensive security procedures, which can be traumatizing to children. Such obstacles can have lasting effects once the incarcerated family member is released. Tiffany explains,

Incarceration does not just remove a person from society. It strips away our innate ability to connect with one another. Our sense of belonging. Our sense of love.
— Tiffany Bullard

Tiffany highlighted the difficulty that her father has faced in terms of reentry back into society after incarceration, and specifically how difficult it has been for the family to connect.

It has been seventeen years since my father’s release and there is still a part of prison that follows him around. Reentry is not something that happens overnight. Reentry is not just a program, something to quantify or sell or get funding for. It is deeper than that. Reentry is complicated. It is a holistic lifetime journey with many moving pieces, places and people. It is a process that takes time. Sometimes, a lot of damn time.
— Tiffany Bullard

Incarceration creates a barrier between returning citizens and their families and communities. Successful reentry for the formerly incarcerated can be difficult, but people like Tiffany work tirelessly to provide solutions. Tiffany is the Programs Manager for Benevolence Farm, a residential reentry program that supports women leaving the North Carolina prison system by offering housing, employment, career development, and agricultural skill building. To learn more about Benevolence Farm, visit

Visit to find out how you can help us bring Mass Story Labs to 10 communities in 2017.

By Claire Zager, Mass Story Lab Intern