Fighting the good fight

By STEVEN STYCOS  |  April 1, 2009

Many DARE members first join after clashes with the criminal justice system. DARE's vice chair, Rosalina Collazo of Woonsocket, became active in 2002 when her mentally-ill son was accused of murder and imprisoned at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston. He was beaten in prison, she says, and her letters failed to stop the abuse. Then she joined DARE's Behind the Walls prison campaign. "I am listened to because of DARE. Before they totally ignored me," she says. "It has helped my son a lot, because right now he's not getting beaten up."

DARE's chairperson, John Prince of Providence, also works on the Behind the Walls campaign. A former ACI prisoner, Prince notes that DARE last year successfully lobbied for lower mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and a requirement that probationers who are violated for a second offense must be released from jail if they are later found not guilty. Both bills were vetoed by Governor Donald Carcieri, so DARE is again pushing for them at the State House.

The Behind the Walls campaign has also won changes in prison procedures to allow family members to use bathrooms during visiting hours and let prisoners use debit cards for phone calls instead of calling collect. In addition, DARE campaigned to improve prison conditions for immigrants detained by immigration authorities long before the death of Hiu Lui Ng at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls in 2008.

DARE's lead organizer, Mary Kay Harris, joined the group after her son clashed with the Providence police in 1998. "My son was assaulted. I had no other outlet. I felt powerless," she remembers. In response to similar complaints, DARE pushed for a civilian review board to investigate police misconduct. The effort climaxed in 2000 when a black off-duty police officer, Cornel Young Jr., was shot and killed by a white officer. Later, after Mayor Vincent Cianci refused to discuss reforming the police force, DARE organized more than 500 people to demonstrate inside City Hall.

Confronting Cianci was her favorite DARE action, Harris says. "It gave me a sense of empowerment. It took away that sense of powerlessness." In 2002, after Cianci was sent to federal prison, DARE won its campaign when interim Mayor John Lombardi approved an external review board.

Today, Harris's focus at DARE has changed to improving Providence's schools, particularly by reducing student suspensions. DARE convinced the school board to approve alternatives to suspensions, but Harris says it must now convince administrators to use them. A DARE parent committee is also pushing for increased translation services for non-English speaking parents.

DARE's third current campaign focuses on the shortage of affordable housing in Providence. The group has criticized tax breaks for high priced housing developed by the Baltimore developer Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse and more recently knocked on doors to inform people of their rights when banks foreclose on their apartment buildings.

The housing campaign replaces the group's living wage campaign, which failed to win a city ordinance requiring adequate wages for all city workers and employees of city contractors. DARE did help win large pay hikes for Providence bus monitors and teachers aides and resuscitated a city ordinance requiring recipients of city funds to hire city residents.

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