Welcome to the conversation!

Welcome to the conversation!

Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811-1896) best-selling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), made her the most famous American woman of the 19th century and galvanized the abolition movement before the Civil War.

The Stowe Center is a 21st-century museum and program center using Stowe's story to inspire social justice and positive change.

The Salons at Stowe programs are a forum to connect the challenging issues (race, gender and class) that impelled Stowe to write and act with the contemporary face of those same issues. The Salon format is based on a robust level of audience participation, with the explicit goal of promoting civic engagement. Recent topics included: Teaching Acceptance; Is Prison the New Slavery; Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North; Creativity and Change; Race, Gender and Politics Today; How to be an Advocate

This blog will expand the reach of these community conversations to the online audience. Add your posts and comments to keep the conversation going! Commit to action by clicking HERE to stay up to date on Salon and social justice news.

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Friday, April 27, 2012

Event Recap: Is Prison the New Jim Crow?

Is mass incarceration a new form of Jim Crow? Why does the clock seem to be turning back, keeping some Americans subordinate? How are we all affected, and what can we do about it?

Did you miss our discussion? Catch up and comment here!

Opening Statements by Featured Guests:

Kaaryn Gustafson:

  • There is nothing that reflects our nation's shortcomings more than the prison system. We say that we value liberty, equality, family, and transparency. But this is lacking, especially in the prison system.
  • Coming from California, the conditions of California prisons are cruel and unusual punishment. The United States Supreme Court even made this ruling, that California prisoners face cruel and unusual punshiment.
  • There are a lot of ways to break down why prisoners face cruel and unusual punishment: lose of reproductive rights, lack of access to family, lack of access to medical care, neglect, disability discrimination. The list goes on.
  • How do people end up incarcerated?
  • Personal story: A client came in at 10am. She had been cut off from welfare, had five children and needed representation at a 1pm hearing. At the hearing there were two prosecutors and two welfare fraud administrators. She was being charged with welfare fraud after getting into an investment scheme. The client was approached to begin "flipping" houses to get off welfare. The housing market dropped, the investors lost money, and they turned her in for fraud. She had nothing. She went to prison and her children went to the schizophrenic father.
  • Often with welfare fraud, if there is any "under the table" earning that was done and then someone gets into a fight with a neighbor or ex-lover, they are turned in.
  • There is an increasing number of women incarcerated. We tend to think it is men that are "in the system" but a lot of women are serving time for economic crimes (prostitution, welfare fraud, embezzlement, and drugs.) Many of these crimes at the root are crimes of need, not greed; they are trying to provide for their families.

Bilal Sekou:
  • Grew up in Detroit in a welfare dependent household in an impoverished community. Many other blacks, related or aquaintences, have been touched by the criminal justice system.
  • Experienced family members in jail, childhood friends, many of them cycling in and out of the system.
  • Bilal seemed to "defy the odds" by never being arrested, never spending time in jail, moving on to have the future that he has. But the criminal justice system is very close to his life.
  • The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. One in every 137 Americans was in prison or jail in 2011. This is 2.3 million individuals.
  • Jails and prisons are only one dimension of the system.
  • Is the criminal justice system the New Jim Crow? We have to see if a racial disparity exists? And the answer to that question about disparity is "yes"-more than 60% of those in the system are racial minorities. One in every 10 black males between the ages 30-34 were in jail in 2010.
  • An issue in the juvenile system takes place during the hearing process. If a juvenile male enters the hearing with two parents or at least a male figure he is more likely to not be swept up into the system. If a single mother is the only one with him, it is often looked at like she cannot handle him and he will need the "guidance" of the system.
  • Also have to look at the War on Drugs. 1 in every 4 incarcerations are drug related. People of all races sell drugs at similar rates, yet there are racial disparities. Whites sell drugs to people they know indoors, while blacks tend to sell more openly to strangers, often times when they are outside. They can be frisked without warrant and are often in close proximity to schools due to dense population in urban areas.
  • 1 in 4 adults will also lost their voting rights as a result of a felony. More black men are disenfranchised now then the men who were before they had the right to vote. 40% of black men may permanently lose the right to vote due to crime.
  • When you are labelled as a criminal for life you risk losing voting rights, access to housing, access to education and more.

Group Discussion:

Graduation rates improved last year. Do we anticipate a change in the incarceration rate?
  • A vast majority of people in prison are poorly educated. Schools typically have a Zero Tolerance policy now, so fights in schools are not dealt with the same way anymore. It used to be time out and now it can result in arrest. Over time kids who are expelled are those who typically drop out and end up in criminal justice
  • Putting students on a path to college is a move in the right direction
  • A lot of public schools look like prisons. Metal detectors, bars on windows, drug sniffing dogs, poor bathroom conditions, they are not welcoming. This has actually led to dropouts

We built more prisons a few years ago, did this lead to a need to fill them up?  
  • Heard that contracts were given stating that they had to be 90% full to build them.
  • This week there was a vote in a town about building a prison. It needed to be filled at a certain capacity before they would build it.
  • It is a money maker too
  • Heard that the fastest growing industry in the country is prisons
  • Mike Lawlor, Criminal Justice for the Governor, was on a panel about racial profiling on 4/25/12. He said that 72% of adults in prison are people of color and in the juvenile system it is 80%. He was concerned about ability to accurately identify the cases under the law that requires police to document racial characteristics. Interested in obtaining more accurate stats.

It was mentioned that if a mother brings a child into a court alone, it is more likely that the child would be sentenced. Judges don’t look at the back story?
  • There is so much discretion at every level. A lot of decisions are made based on what they see.
  • If a mother is on welfare, with 3 kids, it is decided by the court that there is no way that she can control this male child.
  • We predict what someone will do. Are they attached to the labor force? Are they attached to a family? Have they been arrested before? These are all considered and decisions are made from this, before a case is argued.

When we look at education, predictability and the criminal justice system, we need to start early
  • If you don’t know how to read at grade level by 3rd grade, they can predict how many will end up in prison.
  • Society is spending the money on incarceration, not education.
  • It is early childhood education, literacy volunteers, and remedial education that we need to focus on.
  • Why wait to decide when they enter the system, start before.
  • CT is one of five states that spend more money on incarcerated youths than we do on educating them. This is according the PBS program Education vs. Incarceration.
  • More programs need to provide youth with life skills, like resume writing and interview skills. This could help them on a career minded path.
  • There are homeless children who are forced to change schools frequently, which can be very traumatic. There needs to be a way to ensure that they can stay in one school.
  • Too many roadblocks for people who cannot pass certain tests in school, whether it be high school tests or college placement tests. Tests are telling people they are not good enough. What we are saying to those who cannot pass the test is that they need to go “Be hairdressers or mechanics, or truck drivers”. This is not progressing them forward.
  • It is not necessarily road blocks, it is locking people out.
  • It is difficult for anyone to find a job right now. When you can’t get a job, there are issues you have to deal with mentally, coping with being “locked out”.
  • What is happening to those in prison who are locked out from their families? People need support from their family.

Thinking about the women who needed a lawyer 3 hours before her hearing, how does access to representation make a difference?
  • There are many public defenders that are being defunded. More and more cases where people are coming to hearings without representation
  • People have a right to council, but a lot of people still have to pay. There are restrictions about who gets representation at no cost and most people don’t meet the requirements.
  • Access to lawyers is a major issue.
  • People go in unrepresented and don’t know their rights. They don’t necessarily know to plead the 5th. They can’t afford lawyers and make mistakes in the process.
  • Movement to fund representation for people in critical, non-criminal proceedings (like losing your children).

Are there still programs that intervene before children get caught up in the criminal justice system?
  • This is a good idea.
  • Finding community service and other avenues rather than prison or juvenile prisons makes a difference.
  • Have to wonder about the motivation of a lot of programs.
  • Prison overcrowding is one of the reasons these programs are designed.
  • The juvenile system is more likely to provide assistance. In CT you can be up to 17 years old and be tried as a juvenile, working up to 18.

The prison system can be viewed as the prison INDUSTRY. How does this impact the situation? 

  • At the local level jobs are created. This creates a lot of economic opportunities.
  • Private, global corporations lobby legislators to build prisons and encourage tougher laws (which put more people in prison).
  • You can also look at the labor people do in prison. This is cheap labor.
  • The collect calls that people make from prison are major moneymakers for the phone companies.
  • There is no denying that this is a profitable industry.

How is prison viewed as the New Jim Crow? 

  • Jim Crow was intentional, planning, executed.
  • The prison system is intentional in 2 ways: criminalization serves economic purposes. Costs $50,000 a year to house a prisoner in CT.  You also have self-interested bureaucrats.

What do we do? 

  • In educational system you need to speak up.
  • Visit www.SentencingProject.org
  • More efforts need to be put into early literacy
  • Watch the film Education vs. Incarceration (on CPTV, Netflix)
  • Legislation needs to be made for quality legal representation
  • Mentor or be a positive role model
  • Advocate for people who have been in the system to have opportunities to use their voice.
  • Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform: individuals and non-profits. Need people to write op-ed, call legislators, work on pre-entry and post-entry issues. https://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/cjr.ct/
  • Volunteer in CT prisons. They are open to volunteers for life skills, reading, writing, etc. Nothing more rewarding than volunteering with people who want to turn their lives around.
  • Job education
  • Read the book: Tattoos on the Heart.
  • Peacebuilders here in Hartford. http://compassyc.org/PeacebuildersPartners
  • Gather information
  • Make a personal commitment
  • You need to be willing to be ostracized from family and friends
  • Have to be willing to step up
  • Sit with a 3rd grader and tell them there is “room for everyone on the team”
  • Sign petitions to encourage that organizations don’t interfere with people’s progress. Nothing is more discouraging than being told you can’t go further.
  • Pre-conceived notions about who other people are set us back. We need to eliminate these ideas.
  • Need to help open the doors in schools, the private sector, the pubic sector

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Is Prison the New Jim Crow?: Featured Guest Bios

Is mass incarceration a new form of Jim Crow? Why does the clock seem to be turning back, keeping some Americans subordinate? How are we all affected, and what can we do about it?

Explore these issues and more at the opening of the spring season for Salons at Stowe on Thursday, April 26, from 5-7 p.m. Join the discussion with our guests, Dr. Bilal Sekou, University of Hartford and Dr. Kaaryn Gustafson, UConn School of Law, as we look at these questions.

Kaaryn Gustafson, Professor of Law. University of Connecticut School of Law

Kaaryn Gustafson, who joined the law faculty in 2004, has extensive knowledge of the nation's welfare system, and how rules and regulations actually function in practice. Her research focuses on law and inequality and draws heavily upon both empirical research and critical theory. She has authored a book, Cheating Welfare , that challenges readers to question their assumptions about welfare policies, about welfare recipients, and about crime control policies in the United States. In addition to her academic writing, Gustafson has co-authored (with Linda Burnham) a report to the United Nations on U.S. government policy toward poor women and children and a number of Op-Eds.

Dr. Bilal Sekou, Professor of Political Science. University of Hartford

Bilal Dabir Sekou's research interests are race and politics, urban politics, and campaigns, elections, and voting behavior. He has published articles on social and political participation by African Americans and public attitudes toward quality and integrated education in Connecticut. Professor Sekou was born in Detroit, Michigan, receiving his high school diploma in 1984 from Murray Wright High School. He received a BS in public administration and governmental economics in 1988 from Eastern Michigan University, and earned his Ph.D. in political science in 1995 from The Ohio State University. He has been teaching at the University of Hartford since the summer of 2002. A social and racial justice scholar-activist, Sekou sits on the Board of Directors of several organizations working to promote social and political change, including Connecticut Citizen Action Group, Connecticut Center For A New Economy, and Common Cause Connecticut.