Instagram/@binghamtonjust The initiative was organized by JUST, a local group that works against mass policing and mass incarceration.

Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier (JUST) has started a video call project to provide support to incarcerated individuals at the Broome County Jail.

As an organization, JUST’s mission is to end mass incarceration and mass policing in the Southern Tier, often through protests and presentations. Its focus is primarily on Broome County Jail, a 536-bed facility located in the city of Binghamton. The goal of the new project is to provide emotional and organizational support to those in Broome County Jail while visitors are not allowed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on the Broome County Jail. According to JUST’s website, between March 18, 2020 and Feb. 24, 2021, Broome County Jail had a 52 percent COVID-19 positivity rate among inmates and a 41 percent positivity rate for correctional officers. According to WSKG, some prisoners reported a lack of adequate precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among inmates, including a lack of mask enforcement and not wiping down surfaces and cells. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Broome County Jail also has enacted a no-visitor policy.

According to Captain David Stanton of the Broome County Department of Corrections, the jail has continued with its no-visitor policy because COVID-19 remains a threat to the safety of the jail’s staff and inmates.

However, Jackson Hengsterman, the coordinator of JUST’s video call project and a junior majoring in English, said the Broome County Jail is using the pandemic to separate incarcerated individuals from their family and friends.

“[Broome County Jail] will keep hiding behind [COVID-19] excuses (despite the fact that, without in-person visitation, the jail was a hotspot for [COVID-19] infection and still is — in other words, visitation is not the problem) but the reality is they are choosing to separate inmates at [Broome County Jail] from their family and friends when numerous, if not all of the jails across the state have opened back up with ease,” Hengsterman wrote in an email. “In my opinion, they know we are watching, and that we will hold them accountable, and they would like to make our job harder.”

As a response to the Broome County Jail’s prohibition of in-person visits, JUST started the video call project to provide support to individuals incarcerated in the jail, according to Hengsterman.

“Each week, we have a team of volunteers make calls to the people they are visiting,” Hengsterman wrote. “On these calls they figure out if the incarcerated person is being mistreated or neglected in any way, and also they make sure that on an emotional level the incarcerated person is faring OK. The mental toll that incarceration takes on people in the [Broome County] Jail is significant, and our work makes it so these folks have a friend and confidant with whom they can discuss the issues that they face. We are not lawyers, so we cannot advise on legal matters, but we do just about everything else.”

Bill Martin, a founding member of JUST and Bartle professor of sociology at Binghamton University, said the Broome County Sheriff’s Office has not been responsive to JUST’s work

“The sheriff is dismissive, [saying that] there are no problems at the [Broome County] Jail, no abuse, no officers to discipline,” Martin wrote in an email. “The [Broome] County executive and auditor refuse to investigate or monitor [the situation]. The jail, the sheriff, the medical [providers] and the county regularly lose wrongful death lawsuits, lawsuits vs. the abuse of youth, etc.”

However, Stanton said he sees JUST’s video call project as a positive program for incarcerated individuals at the jail.

“It’s a good initiative and gives them someone to talk to on the outside, especially for those who don’t have someone to talk to,” Stanton said.

According to Chaviva Liss, a junior majoring in human development, JUST has seen a positive reaction from those incarcerated at Broome County Jail.

“Individuals in Broome County Jail seem to respond well to the work JUST is doing,” Liss wrote in an email. “The individuals we speak with are always coming to us and referencing their peers who have heard of the work JUST is doing and want to get involved themselves so we can start that process for others.”

For students volunteering with JUST, such as Nina Brown, a junior majoring in human development, interacting with individuals incarcerated at Broome County Jail has been an impactful experience.

“I believe JUST’s work can help connect a person like myself who is disconnected from the realities of the incarceration system to see what these inmates and their lives are really like,” Brown wrote in an email. “JUST provides a powerful opportunity for students and others to see the prison system through the same lens that those behind bars do. An experience that a classroom lesson simply can’t provide. By doing this, we are able to come up with better outlets and services for those who need them.”

Hengsterman wrote that he has formed close personal relationships with incarcerated individuals at Broome County Jail through his involvement with JUST.

“I consider many of them friends,” Hengsterman wrote. “They tell me that being a part of this program has made life inside a lot more bearable, as they have something to look forward to each week: a call, a text, etc. This is why we do what we do. The horror of mass incarceration is large and multifaceted. It cannot be solved overnight, or just by one organization; we can, however, person by person, make the experience for incarcerated folks a more humane one. They, like all people, deserve compassion and support. We provide that to the best of our ability.”