Editor’s intro: Rev. Joy Powell’s story is not uplifted enough when we speak of political prisoners, and thus many people may not know of her. We seek to shift that by presenting the following piece written by Joy in 2007, with more to follow. Wrongful convictions and over-sentencing are genocidal practices fueling what’s euphmistically called mass incarceration but is modern-day slavery, in Joy’s words “still shackled, still chained.”
by Rev. Joy Powell
I am a pastor and an anti-violence activist from Rochester, New York. There was a time in my life when I was a part of the problem. However, after serving three years in prison for CCS (Criminal possession of a Controlled Substance) in the third degree, I took charge of my life, realizing that there is nothing in this world you’ve ever been through that you can’t pull yourself together after and make a comeback. Upon my release from Taconic Correctional Facility, I immediately began to give back to the community what I felt I had at one point helped destroy as a drug dealer.
I am presently beginning to serve a harsh sentence of 16 years, after being wrongfully convicted of two counts of first-degree burglary and second-degree assault, when the truth of the matter is, the only thing I am guilty of is standing up for Equality and Justice for All. I’ve heard and read about systematic failure or straight up corruption in high places. I never thought in my wildest dreams after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which supposedly freed slaves, that in 2007, I would be faced with this nightmare. My people have come over here in chains and shackles and yet we’re still in chains and shackles. This is far from the American dream.
After my release from prison in 1995, I became a consistent activist and later a pastor. I started out volunteering for the mayor’s office in a program called “The Rochester Challenge Against Violence,” under the supervision of the mayor’s “Crime Czar,” Mr. Van White. I owned a hair salon at that time; however, my burden for troubled youth was so overwhelming that I turned my hair salon into a safe haven. I would teach the youth anti-violence skills and worked with their self-esteem and fed them during the summer and after school.
I would organize neighborhood cleanups and candlelight vigils and take the youth on field trips to colleges and neighborhood centers, where they performed anti-violence skits. I also took them to county jails as a “scared straight” tactic to deter them from becoming a statistic of a negative environment in hopes of encouraging them to become productive citizens.
Due to the death of a 15-year-old boy, who was murdered on the side of my hair salon, I became more active in organizing rallies against violence and drugs that riddled poverty-stricken neighborhoods. In 2001, I became a victim of violence when my 18-year-old son was gunned down on June 13 and died June 14 from his bullet wounds. The neighborhood my son was shot in was filled with boarded up houses, major drug activity, constant shootouts and hopeless, oppressed people.
Therefore, we began to rally and call press conferences concerning the dilapidated living conditions on Fulton Avenue of Rochester, New York, demanding that the boarded up houses be torn down and new ones built. Within nine months, several houses were torn down, including the house my son was gunned down in front of, and brand new houses were built. That street will never be the same as a result of our grassroots efforts.
In my struggle as an activist, I began to draw up the facts, realizing violence and poverty ran hand in hand. I began to hold press conferences concerning my strong views of injustice – as a voice for the voiceless who expressed to me that the community problem was that the people were tired and could no longer deal with being trampled on by the steel plate of oppression. The community never felt apprehensive or threatened by me, since I posed no threat. However, they felt very safe. The only weapon I carried for 12 years was the weapon of non-violent protest.
I never realized how much of a threat one unarmed individual could be until I began to speak out against police brutality. In 2002, six people of color died while in custody of the RPD (Rochester Police Department). In addition, in 2002, there was an African-American man named Lawrence Rogers, who was in Wegmans grocery store in a psychotic mode, screaming, “Jesus is coming and I’m going to die today.” Lawrence was unarmed with only boxers on, which clearly showed that there was a problem. Lawrence was brutally beaten to death by “THUGS IN BLUE SUITS” called the police, who are supposed to protect and serve. Several individuals witnessed this tragic incident and some even videotaped it.
Unfortunately, as a result, concerned citizens who were begging the police to stop also became victims. They were maced, beaten with billy clubs, stomped and arrested. Also, a store manager was maced, beat down, and arrested; later, he learned that he had also been fired for pleading with the police to stop beating Mr. Rogers.
I was a voice for the voiceless who expressed to me that the community problem was that the people were tired and could no longer deal with being trampled on by the steel plate of oppression.
The community was outraged even more after seeing the news announcement by the mayor and chief of police declaring that the murder of Mr. Rogers, by the RPD, was justified. They also commended the officers in the brutal beating of a sick man who needed to be hygienically arrested.
We, the people, were demanding that the policy and procedure of announcing justification of individuals dying while in custody of the police change. I and others feared calling the police because we were afraid of becoming a victim. I also organized a protest against the RPD and the mayor’s office, requesting that they not taint the investigation before it’s investigated.
As a result, a new program was created through the police department called the “Emergency Response Team,” which supposedly trained a team of officers how to negotiate with mentally ill patients, getting them the proper help they need. Also, the chief of RPD did eventually get on a “special news report” recanting his earlier statement of justification in Mr. Rogers’ tragic incident.
Of course, history repeated itself in 2005, when the mother of a 13-year-old girl who was suicidal called 911, extensively explaining to the dispatcher her child’s mental health status and her state of mind at the time. This was a case that fit the criteria of the million dollar “Emergency Response Team,” which is a waste of taxpayers’ money. Instead, a rookie officer named Mark Simmons responded to the call and shot the little 13-year-old girl several times, almost causing her to lose her life. Lashedica Mason posed no threat to anyone but herself, and her situation was a cry for help.
Suspiciously, my son and I were arrested by the officer who shot Lashedica Mason. The strange thing about this arrest was my granddaughter was a victim of abuse, so I called the police not knowing I was going to become a suspect as well as my son. I spoke to the sergeant of my concerns about this fake arrest due to a vendetta officer Simmons had against me for protesting against his inappropriate actions. The charges were later dropped. I also filed an internal affairs complaint concerning this false arrest – I found out a long time ago that the police are not going to police themselves. Therefore, this officer was exonerated, which did not surprise me at all.
According to the police statement, the only person who said Mrs. Thompson had a knife was the policeman who shot her.
My organization, called Equality and Justice for All, collaborated with a few other organizations in Rochester and did meet with the mayor and chief of police with our objectives. All we ever received were justifications and excuses.
Around March 2006, the police were called to the house of a well-known mental health patient named Patricia Thompson. This woman was about 50 years old and had a history of mental illness. Normally, when the police were called, they would mental-hygiene arrest her.
For some reason on this day, the Emergency Response Team, as usual, did not respond but instead sent a rookie officer who had no experience in dealing with psychotic individuals. According to her family members who witnessed the shooting, the late Mrs. Thompson lunged at the police officer telling him to get out of the house.
Officer LaFave gunned Mrs. Thompson down like an animal, forced her 80-year-old husband out of the house in his underwear, in the middle of a blizzard, and forced the 17-year-old daughter, who also witnessed the murder of her mother, to go upstairs, and then bringing her down a half-hour later telling her, “Don’t step on that knife” by a female officer. The girl was absolutely appalled because her mother never had a knife, yet, there was one lying by her hand. So I organized another protest asking, “What happened to the team?”
A gentleman named Andrew Stankevich, from an organization called Friends Helping Friends, and I met with the ex-police chief, who is now the mayor. He stated to Andrew and myself that, according to the police statement, the only person who said Mrs. Thompson had a knife was the policeman who shot her.
Then there was a special news announcement that another mentally ill patient died while in police custody. This was called justified, tainting the investigation before the case was investigated. The only difference was that the new mayor in 2006 was the ex-chief of police, Mayor Duffy. Duffy didn’t say this shooting was justified. Mayor Duffy said: “Statements were being taken from police officers who were separated at the scene to prevent collaboration of reports.” He didn’t mention that the tragic event was witnessed by her own family.
I became scared – all I could think was they are going to kill me, place a knife in my hands, call a press conference and call it justified.
I organized a rally for answers. The only weapon I have used since 1995-2006, is the “weapon of protest.”
Going back to my incarceration from 1992 to 1995, I was victimized by an officer in Albion Correctional Facility. I was raped by an officer which was very traumatizing. As a result of this crime, I went to P.C. (Protective Custody) because the officer was stalking me. This was a nightmare I thought would never end. I reported this to all the appropriate people and I also told my therapist. This is one of the reasons I became an advocate for the mentally ill. Since then, I have suffered from PTSD, anxiety and bipolar disorder. I have a great fear of police officers, mainly male officers.
In the free world, I was also seeing a shrink because of my issues. On several different occasions I expressed to my doctors my fears, which I knew were not a figment of my imagination. I told the therapist how the RPD was after my life and shared how I was told to be careful. For sure, I was like so many activists before me – be killed or definitely set up by the RPD. The thing I feared has finally come upon me.
On Oct. 6, 2006, I was the victim of a violent crime, and to no avail was I protected and served by the police. My injuries did cause me to get treated on the scene and I ended up in the hospital that day. I met with and talked to officers, sergeants and lieutenants from the 6th through the 8th of October. I came to the realization that no justice would be served. I threatened to go to Internal Affairs; they were not happy with that at all.
I was going to go on Oct. 10, because Oct. 9 was Columbus Day. On Oct. 10, 2006, I was on my way to the mall and received a disturbing phone call from my house, from a minister of my congregation. Minister Jewlerus Harley notified me that there were about 10 police searching my house and an investigator wanted to speak to me.
The investigator said, “Rev. Powell, this is Investigator Lafoso, where are you?” I became scared – all I could think was they are going to kill me, place a knife in my hands, call a press conference and call it justified. I asked investigator Lafoso why they were searching my house and did they have a search warrant. The investigator’s reply was, “Rev. Powell, you are a real women of God aren’t you?” I said, “Of course.” And he said, “We need to talk to you.”
The police, the judge and later my own attorney aided and abetted one another.
There was no way I was going to meet 10 police officers and this Lafoso guy by myself. So I replied, “I really don’t like the way that sounds – you guys in my house a day before I go to Internal Affairs. I am going to call an attorney and an activist to meet me at the police headquarters to see if this is a joke.” I had no idea what was going on, but I was not too comfortable.
I also called 911 and had them dispatch a lieutenant I trusted named Lt. Schills. No one at the headquarters seemed to know what was going on, so myself and Missionary Andrew S. waited patiently.
Lt. Schills explained to me that it wasn’t a joke but that I was being charged with two counts of first degree burglary and assault in the second degree. The lieutenant also assured me that I would be escorted safely to booking. I was absolutely appalled. I did not know who I supposedly did these things to, until I was arraigned. To my surprise, the people who victimized me were the accusers. I was totally baffled at the fact that I was being railroaded in 2007.
My attorney requested that all police reports filed by the accuser be subpoenaed. A police report came out during my trial as a follow-up of this burglary-assault. The police report was taken on Oct. 10, 2006, by officer J.C. Nobrega, as a follow-up of the burglary that allegedly took place on Oct. 8, 2006.
Ironically, the officer, whom I threatened to file a case against with Internal Affairs, picked the victim up from the hospital, upon her request, and took her to a pawn shop on Portland Avenue in Rochester, NY, to recover some of her stolen property, which was taken on Oct. 8, 2006, and sold to the pawn shop. The person in question was never arrested, questioned or pursued. In addition, my son, who is severely crippled, was accused in the report of being a participant, along with eight unidentified people in black hoodies and bandanas and black outerwear from head to toe.
I didn’t have a chance during my trial. The police, the judge and later my own attorney aided and abetted one another. The officials went above and beyond the law to get a false conviction. sentencing me with this unconstitutional, 16-year sentence with no DNA or witnesses to corroborate one incredible accuser’s statements and various testimonies. This accuser was also granted immunity to testify against me.
The only thing that I am guilty of, as I stressed to the courts during my sentencing, is standing up for Equality and Justice for All! If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.
I have been unjustly convicted and I am hoping someone who reads my story will reach out to me. My severely disabled son is somewhere on the run for fear of being railroaded or murdered by the RPD. I am hoping that someone can help my son Terrell Blake and myself.
Articles on my life as an activist in Rochester, NY and news reports can be verified.
Rev. Joy Powell
Send our sister some love and light: Reverend Joy Powell, 07G0632, Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, P.O. Box 1000, Bedford Hills, NY 10507-2499.
Note: This open letter was authored by Joy while in prison serving the 16 year sentence. Years later, in December 2009, she was indicted on a cold murder case from 1992. On Aug. 1, 2011, Joy was sentenced to 25 years to life for this second wrongful conviction. Read about the second wrongful conviction at www.freejoypowell.org or in the upcoming July 2022 issue of the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper.