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SoffiyahSoffiyah Elijah

Soffiyah Elijah is executive director of The Alliance of Families for Justice. For 5 years she was executive director of the Correctional Association of New York. Prior to this she was Clinical Instructor at the Criminal Justice Institute, Harvard Law School. She has had a distinguished career as an attorney and was an assistant professor of law at the City University of New York. She has represented a number of political prisoners and activists in the US including Kwame Turé, Marilyn Buck, and Sundiata Acoli. Sundiata, along with Assata and Zayd Shakur were ambushed by New Jersey State troopers in an infamous "driving while Black" incident in 1973 on the New Jersey Turnpike. Sundiata and Assata were arrested and charged with murder. Zayd was killed by the troopers.

Dr. Elijah has done extensive research on the US criminal justice and prison systems.  Her article on the Cuban prison system was quoted in the 6/17/00 edition of the Miami Herald and has caused some controversy for its balanced approach.

Lessons from our neighbors to the south: the Cuban prison system - reflective observations, 6/2000

Granma article on US criminal justice system, Shaka Sankofa, 6/22/00

March for Justice  7/27/2017 NY Amsterdam News: "Aug. 26, the Alliance of Families for Justice will lead a 19-day march to bring to the attention of the New York State Legislature, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the general public the human rights abuses in New York prisons and jails such as Rikers and Attica, according to the AFJ website. Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of AFJ, organized this march with board members of the AFJ and volunteers. According to the AFJ press release, “The marchers will walk approximately 10 miles a day, culminating 19 days later in a major rally and news conference in Albany on Sept. 13, 2017, the anniversary of the 1971 Attica uprising.”

National Network of Grantmakers Newsletter, 7/06

October 14-17, 2006    See

NNG's 2006 Annual Conference will be held in downtown Chicago at Loyola University's Water Tower Campus.

Human Rights Activist J. Soffiyah Elijah Opens Conference

On Sunday morning, October 15, J. Soffiyah Elijah will offer the NNG audience a human rights perspective to our social justice framework and our criminal justice lens.   As Deputy Director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School, Soffiyah is responsible for leading the fulfillment, development and expansion of the Institute's work to address the urgent needs of the powerless, voiceless and indigent in the criminal justice system. 

 With 20 years in the legal profession, the scope of her keynote address will include her research of the U.S. criminal justice and prison systems and her experiences representing numerous political prisoners and social activists over the past 22 years.  Her travels to Cuba over the past 17 years have enabled her to conduct extensive research on the country's legal system, with a focus on its approach to criminal justice issues        

 Soffijah will draw from her experiences with torture victims in the United States, including post 9/11 victims, the horrors of Chicago detainees and post Katrina treatment of evacuated of pretrial detainees in her opening presentation.                                

Soffiyah insists,  "A civilized society cannot tolerate violations of anyone's human rights, no matter who the accused is or what the accusation may be.  Indeed, a civilized society should ensure that the so-called war on terrorism cannot be used as a ruse to ignore or manipulate the community's sense of fair play and decency. The Universal Declaration of Human rights demands no less from us."   

Acceptance of Torture in the United States  11/1/2005 Monthly Review: "Police brutality and torture in New Orleans is not a new phenomenon. In 1973, a group of men and women alleged to be members of the Black Panther Party were captured in New Orleans. Word of their arrest quickly spread throughout the country. Representatives from the police departments of Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco rushed to New Orleans and interrogated several of the arrestees in between torture sessions conducted by members of that city's police department. The torture and interrogations lasted over a period of 4-5 days. Despite the fact that more than one court has found that the statements extracted from the torture victims were inadmissible in court, law enforcement personnel have persisted in harassing them and their families for over thirty years. From 1972 to 1991, at least 135 arrestees in Chicago were tortured by local police using methods eerily similar to those used by the New Orleans police including beatings, suffocation, and the use of electric shock probes place on the genitals. The horrors of the Chicago arrestees were recently reported before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.5 The cruelty of the Chicago Police Department, like that of the New Orleans Police Department, is commonplace.6 It was the brutality of the Chicago Police Department and the resultant coerced confessions that were responsible in part for then Illinois Governor Ryan declaring a moratorium on the death penalty, finding that too many convictions had been obtained through questionable means."

Castro Strikes a Nerve, 6/3/05top

By Jill Soffiyah Elijah, AlterNet
Posted on June 3, 2005 

In April 2005 the international community began to take a closer look at the United States justice system as its government attempted to explain and or deny the presence of admitted terrorist, Luis Posada Carriles. As news stories sprouted from even mainstream media calling for the extradition of Posada to Venezuela, a country with which the U.S. has had a longstanding extradition treaty, Washington went into a frenzy. 

After some false starts concerning what it was going to do about Posada, Washington "defended" its position by hurling barbs at Cuban President Fidel Castro about the political asylum granted to Assata Shakur by the Cuban government. President Castro retorted that Ms. Shakur had not received justice in the United States and that she, like many other political prisoners, had been persecuted and denied a fair trial. 

By aiming the spotlight on the criminal justice system in the United States, President Castro exposed a tender nerve for Washington. My more than 20 years as a criminal defense lawyer and professor of criminal defense advocacy confirm the widely known assessment that every aspect of the criminal justice system is ripe for criticism and laden with hypocrisy. 

The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other developed nation on earth. The population of the United States comprises 5% of the world's population but its incarcerated population is equal to more than 25% of the world's prisoners. 

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, based on current rates of first incarceration, an estimated 32% of black males will enter state or federal prison during their lifetime, compared to 17% of Hispanic males and 5.9% of white males. In other words, one third of black men can expect to be incarcerated during their life times if they live in the United States. 

Incarceration in the U.S. is a growing industry. In 2001, an estimated 2.7% of adults in the U.S. had served time in prison, up from 1.8% in 1991 and 1.3% in 1974.  The BJS reports that as of December 31, 2001, there were an estimated 5.6 million adults who had ever served time in state or federal prison, including 4.3 million former prisoners and 1.3 million adults in prison. 

At every stage of the criminal justice system in the U.S., blacks, Latinos, Chicanos and other people of color and the poor are disproportionately impacted. Decisions by law enforcement personnel concerning who to stop, who to arrest and how to charge, are all infused with racial bias. Decisions regarding indictments, plea offers and requests for enhanced sentences and the death penalty, are similarly guided by considerations of race and class.

Sentencing decisions regarding probation and incarceration reflect the same racial overtones as the earlier stages of the system. The racist practices of prosecutors was so prevalent that in 1986 the United States Supreme Court finally outlawed the practice of routinely removing blacks from the jury in Batson v. Kentucky (476 U.S. 79). Prior to 1986, the courts routinely ignored the practice. Following Batson, prosecutors simply offered pre-textual reasons for their racist challenges to potential jurors and the courts turned a blind eye. 

Prisoners in the U.S. are systematically incarcerated hundreds, and in many instances thousands, of miles away from their families and loved ones. Family contact is discouraged and thwarted. Frequently family members travel hundreds of miles to visit their loved one and they are denied entry on minor technicalities. 

U.S. prison officials regularly create obstacles when attorneys seek to visit their clients. Memos authorizing the visit mysteriously disappear on the day the attorney arrives for the visit. Use of private attorney-client conference rooms is denied. Visits are inexplicably cut short and routinely monitored by video camera and roaming guards. 

Similar tactics are often employed against political defendants during pretrial proceedings. The cases of both Assata Shakur and the Cuban 5 are reflective of the unconstitutional obstacles created to interfere in trial preparation. Shakur's lawyer, Evelyn Williams, had to obtain a court order to get access to her client. Lawyers for the Cuban 5 were limited to brief designated time periods when they were allowed to meet with their clients prior to trial. 

Such interferences compromise the ability of the defendants and their counsel to develop trial strategy, prepare testimony and make crucial decisions about witnesses and evidence. In the case of the Cuban 5, independent polls showed that it would be impossible for them to get a fair trial in Miami. Despite this objective evidence, the judge denied the defendants' motion for a change of venue, even to Fort Lauderdale, just 30 miles away.

Assata Shakur's requests for a change of venue were initially denied and then finally granted with a move to Morris County, one of the richest and most conservative overwhelmingly white counties in the state of New Jersey. Further, the hysterical pretrial publicity assisted in creating an atmosphere that guaranteed the defendants would not get a fair trial.

Last month President Fidel Castro delivered a calculated series of public addresses that have been heard around the world, including in the United States. The arduous campaign to obtain justice for the Cuban 5 and to expose the hypocrisy of the criminal justice system has been the backdrop to these presentations.

President Castro's expose of the system rings so very true to the millions of Americans who have been incarcerated in the United States and the more than 100 political prisoners who are currently held in its prisons. The millions who have had their lives interrupted by the criminal "justice" system know that fairness is usually an illusion discussed widely in classrooms but not mentioned in courtrooms. They know it's unjust. Castro's pronouncements bear witness to the fact that "justice" in the United States, isn't justice at all.

Jill Soffiyah Elijah, Esq. is deputy director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School.

This editorial does not reflect the viewpoints of Harvard University, Harvard Law School, its programs or departments. Institutional affiliation is listed for identification purposes only.

© 2005 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

View this story online at:

Lessons from our neighbors to the south: the Cuban prison system - reflective observations, 6/2000top


by Prof. Soffiyah Elijah
Clinical Instructor
Criminal Justice Institute
Harvard Law School

Since the island nation of Cuba experienced its successful revolution in 1959 its prison system has been evolving. Despite accusations of harsh human rights abuses from its neighbors to the North, Cuba today maintains a prison system that is in many respects far more humane than Western propaganda would have the uninformed public believe.

My study of the Cuban prison system began in 1987 when I first visited the country to attend a conference co-sponsored by the American Association of Jurists and the Cuban Association of Jurists. I was pleasantly surprised during the trip when the opportunity arose to visit a men's prison. A group of conference attendees traveled by bus to the prison and when we arrived we were not searched and our belongings were not checked. We did not sign in or out. Nobody asked to check our identification. Having visited numerous prisons in the U.S. I have never entered any of them without a thorough search of my person and my belongings. Government issued photo identification is always required.

Although we were given a tour of the prison we were free to wander off and talk with the prisoners unmonitored. We walked all around the facility and were allowed to go into cells, work areas, the cafeteria, hospital, classrooms, recreation area and any other space we chose. This we were allowed to do unaccompanied. The prisoners wore street clothing.

Although one might think that this must have been a minimum or medium security prison, there are no such institutional classifications. Prison institutions are not characterized by security level. Rather prisoners of varying security levels are all housed in the same facility. The four levels of security classification for prisoners are maximum, high, moderate and minimum. The distinction in their security classification is borne out in the frequency with which they are allowed family and conjugal visits, mail, phone privileges and furlough availability. All prisoners, regardless of security level, are afforded at least four family and conjugal visits a year. Prisoners with the lowest security classifications are afforded more frequent family and conjugal visits than higher security classified prisoners.

Needless to say I was a bit taken aback at this very different approach. For the next thirteen years I built on this experience and conducted further research on the Cuban prison system.

In 1988 I returned to Cuba to attend the International Women¹s Conference hosted by the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). Another opportunity arose to visit a prison, this time it was a women’s facility. My impressions were very similar to those I had when I visited the men’s facility. In a nutshell, the Cuban system still impressed me as being more humane than what I had observed in the United States.

Prisoners in Cuba are incarcerated in the province in which they live. A province is the geographic equivalent to a county as we know it in the United States. This is done to facilitate regular contact between prisoners and their families. This contact is seen as an integral part of the prisoner¹s rehabilitation. Families are incorporated through joint counseling into the rehabilitation process. Each prison is staffed with professionals who are trained to assist the family and the prisoner plan for his or her re-entry into the community. The focus is on rehabilitation as opposed to retribution and punishment.

Prisoners or their families may request conditional liberty passes. These are similar to furloughs and are granted to allow the prisoner to tend to his or a family member’s health. The furlough time is counted as part of the sentence.

Prisoners are not obligated to work. Work is considered a right of the prisoner so that he can earn an income. Prisoners are allowed to work in the same sort of employment as they held prior to their incarceration if it is available at the facility where they are being held. They are compensated for their labor at the same wage that free workers are compensated. They are not charged room and board no matter how much they earn. Similarly, they do not have to pay for their education, medical, dental or hospital care or any other activities they experience. Social security benefits and pensions are available to all prison laborers. In the event of a prisoner’s death, his family will receive his pension. A portion of the prisoner’s earnings is sent to his family. Even if a prisoner does not work, his family will be cared for by the State.

Once a prisoner has served at least half of his sentence he can request a conditional release if he is a first offender. A positive conduct record is the primary factor considered in granting the request for relief. The request for conditional release is made to the sentencing tribunal. The district attorney is given an opportunity to be heard with respect to the request. All prisoners are released after serving two thirds of their sentences.

In 1997 the availability of alternatives to incarceration was expanded to cover all defendants sentenced to up to five years incarceration. Previously these alternatives were only available to defendants sentenced to up to three years. The expansion of the availability of alternatives to incarceration to all defendants facing up to five years’ incarceration covered almost 95% of Cuba¹s prisoners. The recidivism rate for those prisoners released pursuant to the use of alternatives to incarceration is less than 15%. These alternatives include a form of probation, conditional release (similar to parole) and suspended sentences.

The conditional release program is very interesting. The defendant lives for twelve days in a residence located near a farm or industrial center. He works at the farm or industrial center during these twelve days. Then he has three days off where he can leave the residence and go home to his family. On the fourth day, the defendant returns to the work site and the residence. The defendant works side by side with non-incarcerated workers who are not informed of his status. He is paid the same wage as his co-workers and is afforded the same benefits and privileges. He works the same shifts and wears civilian clothing. Work alternatives can be revoked if the defendant fails to adhere to the rules and conditions of the program. The sentencing tribunal is informed if the defendant fails to meet the conditions and it can decide to return the defendant to prison.

The goal of the Cuban prison system is to return people to the community as productive contributors as soon as possible. Therefore the focus is not on punishment, but rather on rehabilitation and re-education. Perhaps this goal would be a useful addition to the prison system that has evolved in the United States.


(c) 2000 by Soffiyah Elijah. May not be reprinted without premission.



Host Sheryl McCarthy and guest J. Soffiyah Elijah, recently named
executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, talk about
the organization's role as an independent monitor of conditions in the
state prisons, 5/2011

March for Justice  7/27/2017 NY Amsterdam News: "Aug. 26, the Alliance of Families for Justice will lead a 19-day march to bring to the attention of the New York State Legislature, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the general public the human rights abuses in New York prisons and jails such as Rikers and Attica, according to the AFJ website. Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of AFJ, organized this march with board members of the AFJ and volunteers. According to the AFJ press release, “The marchers will walk approximately 10 miles a day, culminating 19 days later in a major rally and news conference in Albany on Sept. 13, 2017, the anniversary of the 1971 Attica uprising.”

Honoring mothers on both sides of the bars on Mother’s Day  5/14/2017 the Hill: By Soffiyah Elijah

Activists still move in the spirit of John Brown  5/8/2017 NCPR: "Last year's honoree actor Danny Glover and activist Soffiyah Elijah"

Indian Point and Inmates  1/19/2017 NYT: "Governor Cuomo recently announced that Indian Point would be closed in four years. Thousands of people, including pregnant women and children, are incarcerated in facilities within a 50-mile radius of Indian Point and its contaminated groundwater."

Former Black Panther serving life sentence for murder denied release  11/29/2016 Guardian: "“This is a punch to the gut,” said Soffiyah Elijah, an attorney who represented Acoli for decades and visited him days before he learned of his latest denial on 21 November."

Castro Strikes a Nerve  6/3/2005 Alternet: Assata, Posada, the Cuban 5, and the US criminal justice system, by Soffiyah Elijah, Deputy director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School.

Attorneys Visit With Sundiata/Reflections on Organizing!  12/23/2001 Afrikan Identity: Sundiata, along with many other political prisoners, was put in lockdown after 9-11. He is still heavily restricted, as per his attorney - "Sundiata was not informed that his social visits and mail was reinstated, so Soffiyah believe the administration may have lied to her. i'm encouraging everyone to continue to write Sundiata. He is only let out of his cage upon visits, he showers in the cage as well, anyone thats on his visiting list that can, please go and visit with him." Sundiata was in the car with Assata when they were assaulted by a Nazi cell in the NJ State Police.

You're in the Hole - A CRACKDOWN ON DISSIDENT PRISONERS  11/17/2001 The Progressive: USA is a police state: "Since 1973, Sundiata Acoli has been serving a life sentence for the murders of a police officer and a fellow Black Liberation Army member in a shootout in which Acoli drove the getaway car. Shortly after the September 11 attack, he found himself in the hole. Soffiyah Elijah, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School's Criminal Justice Institute, is one of several lawyers who represent Acoli. "None of us have had access to him," she says. I talked to Elijah on October 25. The day before, she said, was her first opportunity to speak with Acoli in nearly six weeks. She said she made so many calls that she lost count. "I was constantly on the phone to the lawyers of the B.O.P. [Bureau of Prisons]," she said. Elijah gave me a copy of a letter on U.S. Department of Justice/Bureau of Prisons stationery. It is dated September 26 and is signed Jake Mendez, Warden of the U.S. Penitentiary in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, where Sundiata Acoli (whose former name, used on all Bureau of Prison records, is Clark Squire) is incarcerated. "Dear Ms. Elijah," says the letter, "I am in receipt of your letter wherein you request Inmate Clark Squire be permitted a legal telephone call. . . . Inmate Squire is currently not authorized telephone privileges, including legal telephone calls. This has been enacted for security reasons. Moreover, my review indicates Inmate Squire does not have legal action pending at this time. Accordingly, I am denying your request to allow Inmate Squire a legal telephone call." Elijah says that the order for Acoli's segregation did not come from the individual prison, but from Washington."

Links/Enlaces top  The Alliance of Families for Justice


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