Want to organize a #FreeThemAll event in your community? This toolkit can help!
Everyone deserves dignity and justice. But in the United States, 1.8 million people are locked away in prisons, jails, and detention centers, where they are subject to civil and human rights violations and a lack of access to adequate health care.
With the pandemic, the dangers of incarceration multiply exponentially, making every cell and cage a potential death chamber.
Immigration activists, prison abolitionists, and those calling to defund the police are organizing across the country under the call to #FreeThemAll. AFSC and partners have organized days of action to hold protests at prisons, jails, detention centers, ICE offices, state houses, and city halls to demand the immediate release of those held in cages. We hope you will join us!
Carceral spaces have never been safe places. Health care is inadequate and difficult to access, the trauma of confinement itself takes a toll on the physical and mental health of those who are incarcerated, and violations of human and civil rights are rampant. During a pandemic, life-threatening risks multiply exponentially. The nature of confinement makes it impossible for people to practice social distancing, while inadequate health care and limited sanitation supplies encourage COVID-19’s spread. At least 517,116 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in prisons—and more than 2,759 have died. The coronavirus death rate is three times higher for incarcerated people than for the general U.S. population. COVID-19 infection rates are even higher in ICE detention facilities—more than five times that of the general population.
Now is the time to #FreeThemAll.
Our points of unity
We ask that you uphold these values as we join together across the country:
- Center the voices, demands, and leadership of currently and formerly incarcerated and detained people and their families and communities.
- Take precautions to keep participants safe during COVID-19. In actions where social distancing is challenging, please ask all participants to wear masks.
- Adhere to core messages and demands to #FreeThemAll—no one belongs in a cage.
Together, we demand state, local, and federal leaders:
- Release people from prison. Expand and expedite compassionate release, parole, commutation, and early release mechanisms so that elderly people, people who are medically vulnerable, and others who might be eligible for release can return to their homes as quickly as possible. Ensure that everyone has the opportunity for freedom.
- Release everyone held on bail or bond in pretrial detention.
- Release everyone held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody.
- Release everyone held in juvenile detention and youth held in adult facilities. Remove all police from schools.
- Ensure that both incarcerated people and staff have access to free COVID-19 testing and other essential medical services. Waive copays for medical visits, care, and prescriptions. Ensure all incarcerated people and staff have access to accurate and up-to-date health information. Provide free access to cleaning supplies including soap, CDC-recommended hand sanitizer, and protective equipment to all people in custody.
- Take all measures to ensure that people have access to legal representation, legal information, and the courts, even in cases where movement is restricted.
- Provide access to essential services—health care, mental health treatment, housing, and food—for people released from incarceration so they have the tools they need to stay healthy and safe on the outside.
- End immigration enforcement actions, including deportations, and defund ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
- Defund the police.
- Invest in community-based, community-controlled resources that truly keep us safe—education, housing, health care, addiction and mental health treatment, jobs, and job training, environmental protections, food access, meaningful reentry support, and restorative and transformative forms of justice that address the root causes of harm and violence.
Prisons and jails undermine public safety. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world and yet has incredibly high rates of violence. Only by coming together across race and class can we build safe communities and win real change. In December 2020, we completed a national study with U.S. progressives and people who self-identify as Democrats, liberals, or very liberal to determine public support and effective messaging on prison abolition. Here are some messaging tips from our study, to help build greater support for bringing people home:
Dos and Don’ts for building your message:
DO use descriptive, jargon-free language to describe the world we want to see. The restorative justice alternatives to our current criminal legal system that we tested in our study did great! But we found that most people have no idea what we mean when we say “alternatives to incarceration” or “restorative justice”—or worse, they assumed we meant things like house arrest or surveillance through ankle bracelets. Yet, when we even briefly described things like “community-based re-entry programs” and “programs that invest in education and youth,” it increased support for our positions.
DO talk about the “Tough cases.” It may be difficult to talk about people convicted of violent crimes and other tough cases, but this is on everyone’s minds. We saw in our poll and other national polls that there is public support for ending mass incarceration and policies stemming from the war on drugs, but there is also a very clear empathy gap for people charged with or convicted of serious crimes. We saw higher-than-expected support for the idea of opportunities for release paired with community-based re-entry programs for people serving long-term and lifetime sentences. The more concrete we can be about the vision we have, the better.
DO frame content in terms of safety, racism, and the $80 billion we waste annually locking people up. These frames are compelling specifically for center-left and progressive audiences. The “Messages that work” section below shows the most compelling messages, including examples of these frames in use. The top and bottom messages were consistent across the segments for which we have breakouts.
DO frame content using the Race/Class narrative framework. Other research has shown that framing issues like community safety in terms of shared values that bring people together across racial and class differences builds bigger audiences and increases support for our positions. For example, the We Keep Us Safe messaging guide includes research-based messages that help build support for community programs to build real safety while also countering “law and order” narratives.
DON’T forget about the empathy gap. It may be hard for activists and advocates to work on these issues to remember how little empathy many people have for those they see as “criminal.” As with any group that is “othered” in our society, there can be significant social and emotional distance between people who are and are not incarcerated. In a follow-up study we hope we will be able to test into the most effective ways to close this empathy gap. But based on the data we have so far, making sure that the content we produce is attuned to the fact that our audiences—even people who agree with us—don’t automatically have empathy for incarcerated people is critical.
DO use COVID-19 as a hook, but pivot right away. One of the key places where the empathy gap mentioned above shows up is in our messaging on COVID-19. While we know that incarcerated people are at especially high risk of COVID-19, our audiences—even among our progressive and center-left respondents—don’t necessarily prioritize empathy for people inside during this awful time. Participants showed more empathy for prison staff who are at risk of contracting COVID-19 at work and spreading it in their communities than they did for incarcerated people. To the extent that they did show empathy for incarcerated folks, it was limited to people who had committed “low-level” or “non-violent” offenses, but this could be a messaging trap: we want to make it clear in our messaging that we can’t leave anyone behind, and it is not enough to only advocate for some people to be free. At the same time, other research has shown that “Pandemic relief and the economy are our top priorities—not XYZ” is a frame/message that works on related issues. COVID-19 is an important hook for content as well as the #FreeThemAll campaign overall because it is such a huge part of our public discourse. It is important to be aware of the limits of COVID-19-related messaging this issue, and to pivot quickly to more effective frames instead.
Messages that work
Here are some sample messages that our study showed resonated with the largest numbers of progressives:
“Prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers waste billions of taxpayer dollars every year. Taxpayers in the U.S. spend about $80 billion annually keeping people in cages, and yet violence continues to rise. This diverts funds from essential services and community-led programs that better prevent harm. It would make way more sense to spend money on things that reduce crime—like education and economic opportunities—than spending money locking people up.”
“Incarceration undermines public safety. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world and yet has incredibly high rates of gun violence and sexual assault. This country warehouses 1.8 million people—disproportionately people of color and poor people—while doing little to stop harm or help survivors of violence and communities heal.”
“In the U.S., Black people are imprisoned at five times the rate of white people. This level of racial disparity in the system is unacceptable and must be addressed, even if it requires making significant changes to how the criminal legal system works. Racism has no place in our society.”
How to design a powerful action
We ask those interested in taking part to plan a #FreeThemAll action that aligns with your local demands and targets. The event could be a protest, rally, direct action, or vigil, on cars, bikes, or on foot. It could be an educational event, a teach-in, or an art show. For targets, we suggest protests take place either at prisons, jails, detention centers, and juvenile detention centers, or at the location of your targets (for example, the state house, ICE office, etc).
Since every location is different and there are different mechanisms for action at the state, local, and federal level, we know that demands will look different from place to place. But we want to be unified in making demands that will either lead to the release of people from confinement—or stop people from getting sent there in the first place (e.g. police-free schools). We want to collectively raise our voices, in the spirit of the Attica uprising and so many others, to say that no one belongs in a cage.
Here are some tips:
- Make sure you take steps to protect participants from COVID-19. Ask participants to wear masks, hand out masks to anyone who needs them, have volunteers with hand sanitizer, and, as much as possible, allow for social distancing.
- Ensure that your action serves as a platform to hear from those who best understand prison and immigration systems: currently and formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones. If you can’t schedule a speaker with direct experience of these systems, consider reading testimony or playing audio. Find resources here: https://bit.ly/AcrossWalls
- Inspire and connect participants. Music, chanting, grounding exercises, and candle lighting all build a sense of community. If your group isn’t faith-based, connect to your shared values. If you are from a faith tradition, ground the event in scripture or prayer. Find some examples here: afsc.org/welcoming-the-stranger-readings.
- Include speakers and visuals to communicate clearly our demands and name key decision- makers, including local lawmakers, we want to influence. We want all members of our audience—event attendees, media, elected officials, social media followers, and others—to understand the depth of our conviction and what we’re asking them to do.
- Call specifically on your congressional representatives and senators to respond to our shared demands and concerns, whether your solidarity action is at their office or elsewhere. Find resources: afsc.org/freethemall
- Choose a location that connects with key decision-makers directly (a congressperson’s local district office or home, the local ICE field office, state house, city hall, etc.) or with the people you’re trying to reach (prisons, jails, detention centers, etc.).
Here are some forms your action could take:
- Rally and/or march/CARavan.
- Vigil (more resources: afsc.org/vigil-toolkit).
- Jericho walk (more resources: afsc.org/Jericho-walk-guide).
- Fast for justice (more resources: afsc.org/fast-for-immigrant-justice).
- Organized visits to the office of your lawmaker or other key decision-maker.
- Street theater, art projected onto a building, or other creative acts.
- Demonstration at your target’s home or place of work.
- Blessing or ritual for migrants inside a detention center or at the border.
- Educational event.
- Art exhibition.
Here are some questions to help you start planning your action:
Clarify the strategy: What do you want to call attention to with this action? How does this support your campaign or movement goals?
Know the history: What has your group (or other groups) done before to address the issue? How can you build on the history to escalate your tactics?
Identify the opportunity: Why now? What is the action opportunity? Is there a new development on your issue or change in the political climate that you can take advantage of?
Find allies: Who are your existing allies in this work? Who should be involved? Who is also impacted by this issue?
Pick a target: Who is the decision-maker? Who can help you pressure that decision-maker?
Develop action demands: What do you want from your target? What would a “win” look like? Make sure these are realistic, measurable, strategic, and accountable to the impacted community.
Assess your resources: What skills does your group have? How many people will participate? How much money and supplies do you have access to?
Choose a tactic: Make sure it will move you toward achieving your campaign goal and action demands. What exactly will people do? Why will it put pressure on your target? Why is it perfect for this moment?
Determine your audience: Who specifically do you want to mobilize with your action? Is it the public? Consumers? Shareholders? Government officials?
Decide the tone: What will the action feel like? Will the action be jubilant, angry, solemn, or calm? How will the tone impact the target and audience? Do you want to invite or repel them? How will the tone impact your group?
Focus your message: How do you make complicated issues understandable? Keep it short and simple. The message should reflect the tone and clearly communicate your demands.
Create visuals and audio: What will your action look and sound like? What imagery do you need to create? How will you amplify your voices and sound? How will the visuals and audio support your tone and convey your demands?
Choose the location: Where will this action take place? What does that location look and feel like? Is it a community-based location or is it the decision-maker’s territory? Are people familiar with the location?
Scout the location: How will your action logistically take place at the location? How will people get there? What goes on there in the course of a day? Is there security on site?
Make an action plan: Think through the action from start to finish. Assign action roles, make a time schedule, list supplies and equipment needed, finalize logistics. Make backup plans just in case!
Practice the action: Over and over. Then practice some more.
Perform the action: Be flexible, stay true to your action goals and demands, and be safe–eliminate unnecessary risk.
Celebrate! Acknowledge your successes, even if your action demands were not met. Recognize new leadership and congratulate new members.
Debrief the action: What were the action highlights? Where was there room for improvement?
Follow up: Reach out to participants and members, and keep them updated. Make calls to media to get the story out. Provide jail support if necessary and keep track of ongoing legal issues.
How to create and use lightboards for action
What are lightboards?
Lightboards are visual props that spell messages by using LED lights embedded in boards and holding them in high visibility locations at night. Lightboards were made popular by the 'Overpass Light Brigade' formed by activists in Milwaukee, WI during the Wisconsin Uprisings in 2011. Typically, each lightboard is one letter, that when strung together they spell a word or message that supports your cause.
How do you make them?
There are a few different ways to make lightboards, but all of them involve several hours of preparation. The good news is they can be reused many times. Here is a video tutorial from the Overpass Light Brigade of how they make their boards. A simplified version is to do the following:
- Foam core boards
- Battery operated LED lights (with bulbs—NOT the strip kind)
- Hot glue gun
Estimated time: 2-3 hours depending on how many letters you are making.
Step 1: Decide what word or phrase you intend to spell. Determine the number of letters involved. Shorter words and phrases are better, remember that you will need people to hold each letter.
Step 2: For each letter, purchase (or source from somewhere secondhand) a foam core board and a battery operated LED light.
Step 3: Trace the letters with pencil on your boards so that they are a consistent size/font. While doing this, plug in the hot glue gun so that it's getting heated.
Step 4: Using a drill or a sharp, pointed object, poke holes along the traced letter—evenly spaced. These holes are where you will push through each tiny light bulb.
Step 5: From the back side of the lightboard, you will afix the lights to the boards. For each hole, place a drop of hot glue and then immediately push the small light through the hole. Do this until all the holes are filled on the board, and then tape/glue the battery pack to the back of the board. Wait until the glue has dried to put in the batteries and test that the lights work.
Step 6: Repeat this with each letter board.
How do you use them?
Once you've determined your message and scouted your location, recruit enough volunteers to hold the letters—one person per letter. You’ll also need at least one photographer, and at least one person to help with staging and passing out the letters. Once all the lightboards are in order, turn them on and take pictures. If it's in a crowded place, have others passing out flyers or leaflets nearby to help spread the word about your issue. Make sure you do this at night when it is dark out, otherwise the letters will not be visible.
Send your photo to the press, use that photo in future social media zaps, or include in the body of an email you encourage people to send to your target demanding they take action
How to send cards to people in prisons, jails and detention centers
Some tips for writing
Be authentic. This may be some of the only mail that whomever you are writing receives this holiday. Share about why you are writing, and offer messages of hope, solidarity, and inspiration.
Avoid judgement. Keep in mind that none of us should be judged solely for the worst things we’ve done in our lives. Stay away from messages that imply anyone deserves to be in the situation they are in, or that their incarceration will somehow offer rehabilitation. Those are messages that reinforce the prison industrial complex and don’t offer individuals the love, care, and compassion they deserve during this difficult time.
Be creative. Is there a poem you want to include or share? Can you describe how you intend to celebrate the holiday despite COVID-19, and what you will do to support people facing the unjust conditions of incarceration. Go beyond generic messages so that your words spark imagination and connection.
Explain who you are if you are writing to someone you don’t already know. You can decide how much personal info you would like to share, but definitely let them know how you got their address, that you are attending a letter writing event hosted by a particular organization, etc.
Where to send your cards?
If you already have loved ones that are incarcerated, you know where and how to send that mail. Don’t forget to include their identification number on the envelope. Be sure to check and follow guidelines regarding mail at whatever carceral facility you are writing to so it doesn’t get rejected. This often includes no glitter, no crayons, and no stickers or paint. Some prisons only allow certain types of envelopes.
If you don’t have personal relationships with people inside or are not already connected to a letter writing event, we encourage you to join the Black and Pink Holiday Card Campaign and sign up—so that they can get cards to all of the 15,000 incarcerated LGBTQ people in their network.
How to host your own virtual card party:
Step 1: Know your list of who you are sending cards to on the inside. Determine how many people would be needed at a virtual event in order to write all of the cards. Keep in mind it’s difficult for people to write more than 3-5 cards each.
Step 2: Select a date and time for your virtual card party. Check our #FreeThemAll page to participate in one of our program's card writing events.
Step 3: Create an RSVP form for people to register to attend the event.
Step 4: Make sure guests at the event receive holiday cards to write inside. You can mail them to all participants in advance, or encourage everyone to find their own cards to use, or offer a download link for people to print and use matching cards.
Step 5: Make sure everyone attending knows who they are writing to, ideally several people each, by sending each attendee a list of names and addresses before the event begins. Also send a link to whatever mail guidelines exist at the facility that they are sending cards to. Ask them to confirm that they have received the list, so that everyone knows who they are writing to before you begin. Tell participants that if they are not able to write cards to everyone on their list, they should let you know so that someone else can write to the people they don't get to.
Step 6: Host your virtual event! Begin with a short program so people know about why you are gathering, whom you are writing to and why, and go over some tips of what to include and what not to include. Provide time for people to write their messages by playing music, and being available to answer individual questions during writing time. People who have never written to someone in prison before may have a lot of questions! Close out your time together by assessing how many cards you have written, ensuring everyone has the stamps/postage necessary to send them, and thanking everyone for attending.
How to plan a car caravan/noise demo during COVID-19
Considerations for car caravan/noise demo actions during COVID-19:
Here are some tips for protesting during the pandemic in a way that can keep everyone safe and show community resistance to incarceration and detention of our loved ones!
Know the story of your action before you plan it. The action is essentially theatre, so make sure you know the story solid before mapping out a game plan so that you are telling the story you actually want to tell.
- Is the journey of the caravan part of the story? For example, in Chicago we organized a caravan to multiple sites (the Juvenile Detention Center, the Federal prison downtown, and ICE Headquarters before all converging at the Cook County Jail—the largest jail in the country).
- Or is the action at the destination the story? (Our #FreeOurYouth action at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center was to show the young people detained there that we loved them, so it’s the only place we went.)
Once you know the story, what are your goals for the action?
- Make noise so people inside can hear you?
- Look big, to show mass support for your issue?
- Block traffic to cause a disruption?
Scout your meet-up spot
- Have your drivers meet up at a spot to decorate cars and get solid on the plan...
- Does your meet-up spot have enough parking spaces, but won’t draw too much attention? Make sure it doesn’t have a gate that locks!
- How long will it take to get from your meet-up spot to your destination.
Scout your route(s)
- How long do any traffic lights last along your route? Can you have marshalls help block traffic so the caravan can stay together?
- Can you avoiding left turns? That will help keep your caravan together.
- Where are good places for photographers to post up? Along the route or at the destination, think ahead of time about where you will ask your photographers to set up to get the best shots.
- Is there a spot that allows incarcerated foks to see or hear your caravan? Can you design car signs or know when to make noise to attract the attention of those who are inside so they know we are fighting for them?
- If you post the action online, police will be ready and waiting and are more likely to block streets that you may be interested in driving on. But that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, and posting on social media can help with recruitment numbers.
- If you don’t post on social media, you can create a simple Google form where you can have people sign up via email invitations and are more likely to maintain the element of surprise.
Decide how you’ll keep in touch during the caravan/action!
Use a Zoom call (that’s managed by someone off-site) so that drivers can listen to a program and/or get updates about directions, but keep the drivers muted throughout. You could also use a text messaging thread to stay in touch with drivers, but this is best if people have a passenger who can manage the updates on the phone and the driver can keep their eyes and hands on the road!
- Groupme (not encrypted)
Think VISUALS (Collaborate with artists!)
- Go back to the story of the action, and figure out how to show it in signs and/or other props.
- Is there a color theme? Can you provide any signs, balloons, streamers or other materials to drivers so that you look unified?
- Make sure drivers know the hashtags and/or slogans being used for the action and have included those on their signage.
- Use painters tape and masking tape to spell out large words on the sides of vehicles. AVOID clear packing tape as it will damage car paint.
- Are there any props to be deployed once the caravan arrives?
- Cutouts, coffins, banners, stencils, etc.
- Make sure people know their role and where to be/when.
Plan your program
- Virtual program via Zoom or conference call?
- Socially distant and masked protest once you arrive?
- Pre-recorded audio to play/share?
- No program! Just drive and make noise! (If this is the case, then be sure folks know when on the route is best to make noise!)
Prep your drivers! Even more so than traditional protests, it’s important that participants in your action know what’s expected/desired of them.
- Whether to try to obey traffic laws, or stay together and run red lights (will marshalls be blocking traffic for cars?)
- When to honk (Very important! Horns can go out, so it’s important drivers have a signal for when to be the noisiest, instead of asking them to honk the entire time—especially when protesting at sites of incarceration/detention so you can maximize when loved ones inside can hear you).
- What to do once you arrive. Will cars pull over and block traffic? Keep hazards on and circle slowly? Turn off cars and get outside with signs? Etc.
- Other safety considerations including a legal hotline, a support phone number (in case they get separated or lost), and reminders about masking and physical distancing.
- How to decorate their cars (see point 6)
- How to participate in the program (if there is one—point 7)
- If there is a desire for drivers to make NOISE beyond honking, make sure they are aware of that and bring materials that help them do so.
- Sample email to drivers here. (Feel free to make a copy and edit for your own use)
Have a SUPER STRONG SOCIAL MEDIA GAME PLAN.
This is an incredibly important accessibility and justice issue. Access to a car can’t be the only way people can participate. Plus any action is stronger when amplified on social media.
- What is the call to action that you want viewers/observers/supporters of the action to take once they witness it? Who will be posting it and on what account(s)?
- Have multiple methods of documentation:
- Photography: where should photographers send their photos? Here are some great tips on how to cover caravan actions for photographers.
- Videography (when possible, to post recaps at a later date)
- How can people at home participate?
- Sample tweets/Facebook posts
- Selfie photos
- Record videos
- Make signs for their windows
- Light a candle
- What else?
- Who will be posting throughout the action? On what accounts?
Decide in advance how the action will END:
- What’s the signal to drivers for when to end, or is there a given end time? Who will give the signal? Is there any way to close together with a final honk and/or chant/song?
- Police Liaison: Best to be not in a car, so that they can be approached by police.
- Marshalls: Marshalls can be—
- On foot, stationed at corners where turns happen
- On bikes, blocking traffic at intersections as the caravan progresses
- In cars at the front and back to ensure the caravan is staying together
- Think about which kind of marshalling makes the most sense for your action, and have a prep call with your marshalls.
- De-escalators: Do you live somewhere that you expect potential pushback from hostile observers? Have some people ready to help de-escalate that aren’t in vehicles.