The Above Ground Railroad

Yaacov Delaney at the John Rankin House, overlooking past paths to freedom
Yaacov Delaney at the John Rankin House, overlooking past paths to freedom

On Feburary 11, 2014, I emerged from the confines of the Illinois prison system after 22 1/2 years! Over the past two years, many of the goals I set for myself have come into fruition. Before my release, I envisioned that the type of work I would do out here in the “so-called free world” would somewhat reflect the work I’d already been actively immersed in while on the “inside.” What I didn’t foresee was connecting with such an amazing array of talented and passionate people here at OJPC. My two years with OJPC has been a transformative journey. In one way or another, each staff member and our allies have contributed to my productive reentry and positive development. I thank them for being that example for second chance opportunities and not writing anyone off!

Freedom, therefore, is something I continuously reflect upon. I study what it means and what it has meant. Before the Civil War allegedly ended the system of chattel slavery, there existed a secret network organized by people who helped men, women, and children escape their dehumanizing condition. This organized secret network, the Underground Railroad, sometimes provided hiding places, food, and transportation – viable assistance to escape the system of slavery in search of freedom.

Some of the people within this organized secret network were called conductors and/or engineers, and the locations along escape routes were called “stations.” Conductors helped passengers move from one station to the next. Engineers were mainly the leaders who helped the people by providing access to food, shelter and sometimes jobs. Basically, they protected the escaping people from those who were bent on entrapping them back into the dehumanizing system of chattel slavery. This history reveals how it took a well-organized network of people who worked in concert to assist many of the oppressed to gain access to basic human liberties.

Fast forward to 2016. Approximately 2,220,300 adults are currently locked away in state prisons, federal prisons, and county jails. 745,000 black males are in state or federal prison. One in three black men are predicted to be incarcerated in their lifetime. The State of Ohio has the sixth largest prison population, the fourth largest female prison population, and the sixth highest prison admission rate in the country. Mass incarceration in the U.S. is the chattel slavery system by another name, and it must/will be challenged and eventually dismantled.

In the same spirit of the engineers who worked to disrupt chattel slavery, we are now boldly confronting the existing system. OJPC and our allies are in a similar position as the Pre-Civil War Underground Railroad, except we’re a part of a new age, an “Above Ground” network, and we valiantly work to Reclaim Lives, Renew Communities & Restore Justice.