One after one, the names were read solemnly over the makeshift public address system as the candles flickered in the breeze. The gathered crowd was silent and somber. Echoing off the walls of the House of Representatives were the names of those who did not make it home. The list was long and just when it seemed the list was complete another page was turned, and the reading continued.
Many of the pictures on the hand-written posters held by those in the crowd and displayed upon the A-frame stands were those that had not survived being incarcerated in Arizona. Young and old, each image was that of a person who had dreams to come home, promises of a better life with loved ones, and a tragic story of how it all ended unfulfilled all too soon.
The event was the second annual People Not Prisons vigil held at the Arizona State Capitol. The annual vigil is organized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona Smart Justice campaign. At 4:00 PM, as legislators were leaving their respective chambers, the event organizers and attendees handed out Valentine hearts to the members. Each heart contained a Valentine’s wish and a request to support current legislation that would expand the earned release credits a person could earn while in prison. Passing this legislation would provide a path for inmates to earn an opportunity to come home earlier than the 85% of the sentence length currently in place.
After the Valentine hearts were handed out, the event organizers began leading chants with the crowd declaring “Up up with liberation, down down with incarceration”, “People, not prisons”, and other similar unifying messages. They the crowd picked up their signs, formed a line, and began a march around the State Capitol and the Executive building. “Yell so Governor Ducey can hear you on the Ninth floor!” instructed Analise Ortiz, Campaign Strategist for the ACLU-AZ. “Yell so they can hear you at Perryville and Florence!” demanded Rubén Lucio Palomares Jr., Campaign Manager for Smart Justice. The marchers willingly complied.
Although Analise Ortiz and Rubén Lucio Palomares Jr. addressed the crowd several times during the proceedings, the primary event leaders were Smart Justice Organizer Kara Williams and Smart Justice Partnerships Coordinator Khalil Rushdan, both formerly incarcerated in the Arizona prison system.
After the march around the Capitol, the group gathered to hear several speakers talk about their loved ones in prison and those that had never made it home. At one point, Tommy K. Hreniuc, a currently incarcerated man at Eyman Complex in Florence, Arizona, joined the event by phone, gave a prepared speech and thanked all those in attendance for the efforts to reduce the prison population.
Speeches given by several of the attendees spoke of their children, brothers, sisters, and parents going to prison and what hardships that places on the families. Some of the speakers spoke of loved ones that were incarcerated in the Arizona Department of Corrections and never came home. Men and women who lost their lives due to medical neglect, poor conditions of confinement, or violence.
Josie Jensen captivated the crowd as she spoke about her father Jeff Jensen. Josie recounted the pain she felt when she was told that her father died in 2017, three months prior to his release from prison. Through tears, Josie told the crowd about her experience and spoke passionately about the need to reduce the prison population so that others would not have to feel the pain she did from losing her father. This was echoed by her adoptive mother, Jeff Jensen’s sister Danielle Jensen. “We went from making plans for Jeff to come home to plans for his funeral” stated Danielle.
The primary legislative focus was House Bill 2808 and House Bill 2753. Here are organizers and attendees speaking about the current legislative bills and the need for criminal justice reform.
As the night fell and the vigil candles flickered, the stories of separation, loss, hope, and redemption filled the air. Everybody knew as they walked away that there would be a third annual vigil in the same place next year. Resignation to incremental change mixed with cautious optimism and hope of a new day in the eyes of the participants. One question resonating in the air – how long would the list of names be next year.