He experienced New York’s system of mass incarceration. And then became a prominent activist in the fight to end it.
Amid the ongoing Albany budget battles, criminal-justice advocates have been fighting hard to preserve the bail reform measures won in 2019.
The struggle became more difficult on Thursday, March 30, when news circulated that beloved activist Marvin Mayfield, Jr. passed away, after a long illness.
As they demanded that Gov. Kathy Hochul not reverse bail reform, Mayfield’s fellow activists chanted his name outside the governor’s office door. Alas, law-and-order reactionaries like Mayor Eric Adams and Michael Bloomberg have Hochul’s ear.
Mayfield, who turned 61 in December, came of age in Bed Stuy during the chaotic 1970s. He joined the Air Force, but became ensnared in the criminal justice system in his early 20s.
As Mayfield explained to CBS reporter Aundrea Cline-Thomas last year, cops in Bed Stuy falsely charged him with a robbery, causing him to spend 11 months on Rikers Island. When the DA’s office offered a plea deal to time-served, Mayfield agreed to it in order to get out of jail.
The criminal record curtailed Mayfield’s career options, and he got caught up in the revolving doors of the justice system. Various low-level convictions brought him to Clinton, Sing Sing and other prisons over the next few decades.
Katie Schaffer, director of advocacy at the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA), met Mayfield via the NYU Prison Education Program in 2016. In 2018, Mayfield became director of organizing for CCA, which works with formerly-incarcerated people in order to reduce New York’s prison population.
“Marvin was scarred by his experience in the criminal justice system,” says Schaffer. “But he also figured out how to thrive on an individual level. He was a brilliant organizer who knew how to support his peers in their efforts to get back on their feet.”
According to VOCAL-NY activist Jon McFarlane, “Marvin would give you the shirt off his back. At the same time, he took a lot of pride in everything he did.” He was “an excellent fighter,” recalls fellow VOCAL member Roger Clark.
Both McFarlane and Clark remember first meeting Mayfield when they worked together with Just Leadership USA, which drove the campaign to shut down Rikers in 2016-17. “With Marvin’s untimely death, the movement lost a giant,” says Glenn E. Martin, figurehead of the Close Rikers effort at the time. Martin sees Mayfield’s “style of servant leadership as a blueprint for emerging leaders in the movement to end mass incarceration.”
Mayfield also believed that activists needed to enjoy themselves. Schaffer says that he was a grill master and was known for his mac and cheese. Clark has fond memories of Marvin on the dance floor.
In recent years, Mayfield lived at Co-op City in the Bronx with Edith Mayfield, his longtime spouse. He is also survived by three sons; two brothers, John and Laurence; and a sister, Carolyn. The family invites the public to a memorial celebration for Marvin that will be held on Saturday, April 8, at the First A.M.E. Zion Church in Bed Stuy.
The best way to honor Mayfield’s life and legacy, say his vast number of activist friends, is to continue the fight for bail reform as well as for any and all measures that bring fairness to New York’s criminal justice system.
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