Letter to Honorable Ronnie Abrams

We Build The Block

Ms. Dana Rachlin
Executive Director
We Build the Block
55 Washington Street #728
Brooklyn, NY 11201

July 2, 2023

Honorable Ronnie Abrams
District Judge 
Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse

40 Foley Square
New York, NY 10007

Dear Honorable Abrams,

My name is Dana Rachlin, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of We Build the Block. Our organization takes a new approach to public safety, one that demonstrates you can stop community violence by providing trauma-informed care and resources to those causing harm. As my co-founder, Michael K. Williams worked closely with me to develop this model. Together, we have directly engaged hundreds of individualscausing and experiencing harm inside and outside the criminal legal system. Michael was a fierce advocate and championed our work as a more just and caring way to create safer, healthier communities. He was also one of my closest friends. 

The grief of living without Michael has been the worst gift of my life. But it is a gift because I am grateful for the opportunity to love and be loved by him. With his legacy in mind, I’m writing today to share the work Michael did in the last years of his life and why I believe he would want you to consider alternatives to incarceration in the sentencing of all the defendants.

I met Michael shortly before he premiered Raised in the System, a documentary highlighting the harmful outcomes of the school-to-prison pipeline. We began screening the documentary across the country for police officers, judges, district attorneys, and the communities and young people impacted by systematic injustice. 

At a screening in a juvenile detention facility in Ohio, Michael shared his story of trauma and addiction. He said, “People are like belly buttons. Some of us are innies who hurt ourselves, and some of us are outies who hurt others. I'm an inny.” A 13-year-old, swimming in his oversized prison jumpsuit, stood up with tears in his eyes and replied, “I hear you, but no one loves me. I just keep ending up here.” Over everyone's uncontrollable sobbing, Michael responded, “I love you, and it's our job to all love one another.” This response captures Michael’s greatest gifts in a single moment; the gifts of radical love and sight. That child was seen, and he was loved.   

Our work at We Build the Block is rooted in this philosophy of love. Michael brought an open heart to everything we did, whether over dinner with young people, on blocks that most would avoid, or in rooms with people causing harm. He believed in the best of us and desperately sought a supportive and inclusive world for all, most importantly those who cause harm. Together, we built programs that show how justice andaccountability can be achieved with care, compassion, and forgiveness. 

We continue Michael’s legacy today with groundbreaking programs that create new public safety models. Our latest initiative is re-imagining harm reduction by teaching both consumers and vendors of drugs about harm-reduction strategies. Through education and strategic engagement, we will reduce drug-related deaths and push back on mass incarceration.

When Michael died, his substance use became the focal point of an often uninformed publicized debate, and his death was a storytelling tool to make the case for heavy-handed enforcement and incarceration, exactly the forces Michael was fighting against. Upon news of the arrests related to the case, I received a barrage of celebratory messages. I responded to none. So many had completely missed Michael’s message and purpose. The men arrested, admitted consumers of substances themselves are now before you, some facing mandatory minimums. Michael would not have celebrated this. I know he would have spent his capital to denounce it. 

When I think of his legacy, I think of his own story of forgiveness. Michael is famously known for a large scar that runs across his beautiful face. Many don’t know that Michael ran into the man who almost killed him years after that fateful attack. When asked what he wanted to do about the man, Michael said, “Nothing.”  He didn’t just talk about interrupting the cycle of harm. He exemplified it.

Judge, I ask you to break the cycle of harm and deliver problem-solving justice. Research shows harsh sentencing policies have not reduced drug use or related crime. Instead, they disproportionately harm communities of color and make the supply chains more dangerous. Mi

chael would not want us to perpetuate this cycle in his name. 

When we have to live with the terrible loss of someone we love, it is instinctual to want ‘something’ to be done about it. Our justice system strives to balance accountability and community safety, but neither is achieved through the incarceration of these individuals. 

Like the 13-year-old in the detention center in Ohio showed us, accountability is difficult amidst a punitive, adversarial, and non-restorative justice system. Our system does not help these individuals acknowledge the harm one has caused and address the reasons behind their actions. Michael believed in a better way.

He will be remembered for many great things, and I ask you to be a part of his legacy. I ask you to use the power of the bench to do something different and unusual but truly just. We ask you to deliver the least-incarcerative sentence and include a restorative justice circle for those of us in Michael’s life who may want to participate. 

Let Michael live on in the ways that are courageous, loving, and ambitious, especially for those who need it the most. I urge this Court to honor Michael’s life — not by imposing a lifetime of incarceration on Irvin Cartagena, but by extending the minimum, least incarcerative, and most restorative possible sentence for him and the other men involved in this case.

In Gratitude & With Love,
Dana Rachlin
Executive Director, We Build the Block