Entrepreneur builds bridges for upstate inmates

Mott Haven’s La Finca del Sur Community Garden is one of a handful of spots around the Bronx where families can pick up nutritious food to bring their loved ones in upstate prison facilities, as part of a new city start-up transport service.

Jalal Sabur delivers food to inmates in upstate prisons.
Jalal Sabur delivers food to an  inmate at an upstate prison facility.

Farmer’s start-up bus line links families divided by jail time

Jalal Sabur handed a canvas grocery bag stuffed with kale, apples and other local produce over to a guard at the Sullivan Correctional Facility, a high-security prison in Fallsburg, NY. The bag would later be delivered to inmate Robert Seth Hayes, who Sabur had come to see.

For the 34 year-old farmer, what started as a personal project has gradually turned into a non-profit start-up business. When Sabur noted that three quarters of the inmates in upstate prisons are from the city, he saw a problem he thought he could help solve. In 2012, he launched Victory Bus Project, to transport families wanting to visit their loved ones at those some of those facilities, and to bring the prisoners low cost, fresh produce from his Germantown, NY farm. 

In his van, Sabur transports residents from neighborhoods around the city to visit their loved ones in over a half-a-dozen state prisons a few hours drive north. Mott Haven’s La Finca del Sur Community Garden on the corner of 138th Street and the Grand Concourse is one of several spots around the city where passengers can pick up bags of food for the trip.

With rates of $25 per passenger and $90 for a family of five, Victory is currently the best deal in town. A larger company, Prison Gap Buses, charges between $50-$80 per adult passenger depending on the distance, and $20-$40 for children under ten.

But the project’s added value is what passengers get to take with them. For the price of a ticket, Sabur’s passengers get a package of fresh food to bring to the inmates they’re visiting. And because the ticket price includes food, passengers can pay with their EBT cards. That makes all the difference for many, said Johnny Perez, an advocate for former inmates at the Urban Justice Center, a Manhattan-based legal service and advocacy non-profit.

“Let’s face it, these are not people with money, going to prison. They can’t afford these trips,” said Perez, who said he often refers his clients to Sabur.

The vegetables are a huge benefit, given the few nutritional choices available in prison, said Hayes.

A former member of the Black Panther Party who has been incarcerated since 1973, Hayes says that the regular visits he receives from his family members, and Sabur, are “the foundation of survival.” That’s no exaggeration, said Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Maintaining ties with family members not only helps inmates cope with time in prison, she said; it also helps former inmates overcome the painful process of reintegrating into society once they are released.

“Pro-social family ties are one of the best indicators of success,” she said. “Lack of recidivism, reintegrating with the community, not being homeless.”

The state’s Department of Corrections once operated free buses for visitors to all 54 facilities across the state, but shut it down in 2011 for budgetary reasons, a DOC spokeswoman wrote in an email to the Herald, adding that the shutdown left thousands in the lurch. An average of 2,120 passengers per month rode the bus in 2009, of whom three-quarters were from the city, she said.

Last summer Sabur started to arrange regular trips, which he said he hopes to make weekly. But despite the low fares and the bonus of a bag of produce, Sabur has had trouble drawing passengers. Part of that may have to do with getting the word out, he said. When Hayes hung flyers promoting the new bus line on the bulletin board at Sullivan Correctional Facility, Sabur said, prison officials promptly ripped them down.

For now, Sabur said, he arranges trips on-demand, and is working to build a network one passenger at a time until potential travelers find out about his business.

“If I could get 700 people a year, I think that would be good,” he said.

For more information on Victory Bus Project or to schedule a ride, contact Jalal Sabur at 914-222-0772 or victorybusproject@gmail.com

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