Salons at Stowe
March 28, 2013
March 28, 2013
Is mass incarceration a new form of segregation for African Americans? Get a local perspective on Michelle Alexander's Stowe Prize winning book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
Maureen Price-Boreland, Esq. is the Executive Director of Community Partners in Action, Inc., one of the nation's oldest non-profit agencies (est. 1875). The agency's mission is to build community by providing services that promote accountability, dignity and restoration for people affected by the criminal justice system.
Aileen Keays, M.S. is a Research and Policy Specialist at the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at Central Connecticut State University and is project manager for the Children of Incarcerated Parents project. In addition, she serves as a consultant to the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparity in the Criminal Justice system.
Maureen Price-Boreland, Esq
Maureen’s agency, Community Partners in Action, Inc. (CPA), is a 137 year-old agency with a history of providing services to criminal justice population. As a non-profit that relies on alternative sources of funding, they often felt the need to stay “under the radar” to avoid political debates over funding. However, a renewed social consciousness is developing, and awareness of the cost of incarcerating someone ($40,000-$50,000 per year) is growing. Maureen thanked the Stowe Center for taking on the topic of mass incarceration which many choose not to discuss.
A friend had been telling Maureen to read The New Jim Crow for a while, and finally had the time to read it – last night she distributed copies to her fellow board members at CPA and plans to host a discussion around the book. The issue of mass incarceration “is complicated because societally we have a sentiment that it is ok that if someone does something wrong we should do something to punish them.” According to Maureen, there are two Americas: one community looks at punishment as “what they deserve,” and another community that is seeing their family, friends, etc. going into the system in significant numbers and wondering if they deserve to be punished.
Maureen shared some statistics: 67% of incarcerated people are minorities; the minority population within correctional facilities has gone down 14% (starting to go in the right direction of reducing incarceration numbers); in 1980, 220 people out of every 100,000 were incarcerated, but today: 730+ people out of every 100,000 are incarcerated; the US has the highest percentages of incarceration (above Russia, Cuba, and other countries that we associate with large incarceration rates; the war on drugs has contributed significantly to number of individuals in system. We are a society that believes punishment rather than correction is the goal – to that end, people are receiving long sentences in mass numbers for crimes that are nonviolent; we believe the longer we put someone away the safer we are.
Once incarcerated people are released, they have a difficult time assimilating into society, losing many of their rights including the right to vote. Maureen commented that “There are those of us that think this mentality is creating a stain on America – it is permeating the culture of how we approach things…including criminal justice. Open conversations like this bring a commonality to issues that often do not get discussed or make us feel that we stand alone on the issue. For her, mass incarceration brings to mind Senator Rob Portman who decided he supported gay marriage after his son came out – we often only care if we are directly affected by something.
Aileen Keays, M.S.
Aileen’s primary focus for past 4 years has been children of incarcerated parents and hoped the Salon discussion would instigate further thought and investigation.
Aileen shared some statistics: in some states, 80-90% of those incarcerated for drugs are black; states with highest black-white incarceration rates are in New England, Connecticut being one of the highest: 6-1, and double for the Hispanic to white ratio; it is estimated that 1 in 349 children have a parent deployed, 1 in 191 children are in foster care and removed from a parent, and 1 in 38 have an incarcerated parent. She asked attendees to consider the focus that goes into children whose parents are deployed, or are in foster care, versus the attention to those who have incarcerated parents – rather than helped, they are shunned and shamed into silence along with their families.
In CT, prison population has increased 240% since 1986, caused by policy choices by those in power. She believes laws are used by a means of social control, and based on the values of those in power; created to render an entire population powerless. There are decision making opportunities throughout the system, but when decisions which further the problem (ie. extending incarceration) are made with personal biases, they lead only to increased safety for law abiding community.
Aileen distributed printed resources about the injustices of mass incarceration (these resources will be available on this blog in the coming weeks).
It’s not just the incarcerated that suffer, but their families. Nearly 10 million children have a family under some form of monitor by the “system”, nearly half are those are under the age of 10. We need to recognize and truly believe that there is no “us” and “them”, it is “we” – we are all criminals, have broken the law in some form but are thankful we “didn’t get caught”. The inequity we bestow on people who have been sucked into the criminal justice system has been allowed to continue because of fear of victims (too afraid to speak out, too afraid to be attached with the stigma of having been in the criminal justice system – this fear and stigma lead to silence, and a lack of communication and sharing of knowledge), complicity of outsiders, and power of the system. If people who were involved in the system demanded justice and spoke out, it would be difficult for policy makers to turn their backs.
GROUP DISCUSSION (AUDIENCE QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS):
Audience comment: In Connecticut, if you’re convicted of a felony and sentenced to probation, you no longer lose the right to vote; if sentenced to prison, you can regain their right to vote after serving your sentence.
- Aileen: Laws/rights have improved in the past 4 years.
- Maureen: We are beginning to shift the discussion on how we deal with drugs (decriminalization); is encouraged that despite political challenges, President Obama was re-elected and started to indicate that despite the rhetoric and political tendency to demonizes certain groups of people (minorities, criminal justice issues, gay rights) there is a shift in thinking.
What power do we really have when the system needs people to go into the system? (by its nature)
- Aileen: Because so many jobs are tied to the incarceration rate(the number of staff at prisons, bringing resources to cities prisons are in (often isolated communities), commissary (items prisoners can purchase while serving their sentence), the only way to make change is a massive social movement.
- Maureen: A list of bills in the General Assembly from the Sentencing Commission (on which Maureen serves) was distributed. Consider the difficulty for a movement and reform after Newtown – but it is the little movements, action, participation, that create change.
- Current legislative discussions include: changing the distance from a school that the sales of drugs is punishable by imprisonment (ie. in Hartford, with current laws, you can be incarcerated no matter where you sell because of the number of schools and radius/distance); changing incarceration laws for people who are caught selling drugs as teenagers, etc. – need to reconsider our punishments; we follow the “eye for an eye” philosophy and lose all sense of logic.
- Need to allow incarcerated people to demonstrate that they have changed and grown while imprisoned.
- We need to tell legislators that the proposed laws are meaningful change
- Aileen: There is currently a bill to establish a nursery at prisons for children whose mothers are imprisoned with a sentence less than 2 years, which would allow children to be reared by and bond with their mothers.
What can we do to bring change forward?
- An audience member from American Civil Liberties Union: Watch the film The House I Live In – there was recently a screening at Real Art Ways and will be others, including a pending viewing at Central Connecticut State University. People don’t react until they feel they are impacted – tell your neighbors it DOES impact them: in CT, we are one of 5 states that spend more money on prisons than education.
Michelle Alexander presents modern day incarceration as a caste system similar to Jim Crow and slavery, etc. – what if you don’t agree? What if you think it is a class issue, not a race issue? (if you’re black and have never felt motivated to commit criminal acts)
- Audience member: Read Cradle to Prison Pipeline study by Children’s Defense Fund – it talks about family environment, school systems, etc., and that not everyone is able to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and have a support system that helps them overcome pressures of their environment.
- Maureen: If Steven Spielberg’s son was born and went through life trying drugs, he would have a different life from the child who goes through the same processes in Hartford’s north end where such activities are criminalized; privileged lives vs. a non-privileged lives is a reality (not just wealth, but support system).
- Strains upon our society, in certain environments, compounded with the sense of hopelessness, lack of feeling that you can have what everyone else has if you try, infiltrates your sense of thinking and puts you on a path to be labeled
- Audience member: Shrinking the distance from a school that drugs can be sold in will not change the problem; it’s not an issue of race.
- Audience member: Grew up in Hartford and is proud to be an African American male who has not been arrested, has no kids, and has been successful. He told a story about being pulled over by a police officer for no reason and told to hurry up and get home – if a scent of marijuiana had been smelled, any little thing wrong, he would have been arrested and put in the system – “staying out of trouble as a black man is not enough to keep you out of prison.”
- Audience member: In the south you can be pulled over because you are black, have dreds, etc. How do you prove it is racial discrimination?
- Aileen: Michelle Alexander said it is not considered racial discrimination unless an officer blatantly says they pulled you over because of your race (which will never happen). The rate of offending is nearly equal between whites and blacks, but the rates of incarceration are quite varied (ie. “stop and frisk” law in NY where you can be stopped because you look suspicious). There is a hyper attention on the black community, but a leniency and sense of privilege in the white community.
- Maureen: Are activities in the white and black communities that can be labeled as “criminal behavior,” but if you search enough in the black community and not the white community, that’s the place you are going to find it. Our system is being filled with individuals who are involved with drugs in one way or another – are we going to deal with it as a medical issue, or as a criminal issue?
Audience member: Reading Michelle Alexander’s book was eye-opening – not only a new lens, but a new mirror for looking at the problem. He sees the issue of mass incarceration being discussed across the spectrum of politics – both conservative and liberal press – it is being recognized as an emerging problem. Things start to change when it is seen racial intolerance.
Audience member: Identified self as having been incarcerated in two states. We have so many scholars, politicians, etc., talking about issues of incarceration, but there are not enough people who have been incarcerated at the table. Being incarcerated is a “bad gene” that he has passed on to his sons, one of whom has been incarcerated for having taken someone’s life. The audience member now leads a family reentry program that works with families of the incarcerated. Need people who have been part of the system to develop a solution – “it’s solution time!” Is going to be considered “hood and street” for the rest of his life because he sees he still has work to do (in Bridgeport, Hartford, and other such cities) – we need to mobilize former offenders across the country to develop a solution.
Audience comment: The US, which is considered “civilized,” is on a completely different track from other countries. In countries like Canada where “restorative justice” is used rather than “retribution”, they assume that everyone will always be a citizen and have their rights. We function on the idea that those who have committed an injustice once will never be fully part of the community again.
Audience comment: One of the realities of the system is that stigmas are placed not only on the person convicted but on their families. In some cases, a sixteen year old with a great-grandparent who was in the system but has a dream of success, still has the stigma of the generations before. Do we need prisons? Yes, some people need to be in prison. But there are some people who have just made mistakes and may not have the resources for success and deserve to be brought back into society.
Audience comment: Is a member of the Connecticut Anti-Racist Alliance; grew up in Mississippi where reintegration did not happen until 15 years after Brown vs. Board of Education.
Audience comment: You do not have to believe that prison is the new Jim Crow to believe Michelle Alexander’s claim that there is a racial issue at the core of mass incarceration – is a natural reaction of white communities to say “it’s poor people.”
Audience comment: In CT, things don’t happen unless it makes money or saves money. It’s good that we’re talking about the issue, but will the government do anything about it? The audience member was not from the area, but was shocked to hear how many “shout outs” are on the radio to family members in correctional institutes – money is made off of incarceration, it’s in your face and made light of.
Audience comment: It’s economic; we are creating a permanent under class. There is no way to enter back into society – once incarcerated, one becomes trapped.
Inspiration to Action:
- 1 in 38 children have a parent that is incarcerated, but are not enough services provided for these children ADVOCATE AND BUILD AWARENESS
- The only way to make real change in the prison system is thru a massive social movement – ORGANIZE AND EDUCATE
- Tell legislators that the proposed laws are meaningful change (ie. nurseries in prisons)
- Watch The House I Live In
- Read the Cradle to Prison Pipeline study by Children’s Defense Fund
- Mobilize ex-offenders. The solution isn’t just with the people with the degrees but with the people that lived the life. Be a voice at the table
- Family re-entry – mentor children of incarcerated parents
- Reassess the war on drugs and how we are applying the rules
- Deal with the issue of mandatory minimums and the impact it is having on the system – need to support meaningful re-entry programs; you should begin a reentry program on day one of entering the system
- Retrain judges and police officers, have more female judges
Explore the links featured on our Takeaway Sheet for more information and ways you can take action!