People attending SCSJ's End Mass Incarceration Week event

What did we learn during End Mass Incarceration Week?

From April 5-13, 2014, SCSJ joined other groups across the nation in observing End Mass Incarceration Week (EMI Week). SCSJ produced daily blog posts on various issues relating to mass incarceration in America (the complete blog series is available at the bottom of this post). Blog posts were submitted by SCSJ interns including Meredith McMonigle, Oprah Keyes, Adé Oni, and Nadiah Porter, as well as SCSJ staff members Daryl Atkinson and Shoshannah Sayers. The week culminated in a community event designed to discuss existing problems with mass incarceration and get community feedback about possible solutions.

Held at the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Durham, the EMI Week event was coordinated by SCSJ Troan Intern Nadiah Porter, a paralegal student and poet. Nadiah designed an event that combined poetry on the issue of mass incarceration, a panel discussion with experts in the criminal justice system – from both outside and inside the system – and a community dialogue. In addition to the poetry read at the EMI Week event, currently incarcerated individuals were also asked to submit poetry, which SCSJ will post in the coming days. While currently incarcerated individuals were not able to attend the event, we wanted them to know that they are not alone and we need their perspective to help fix our broken system.

One poet spoke of his experience as a substitute teacher in a North Carolina middle school, and his first-hand observations of the school-to-prision pipeline in action. Watch Kai Christopher’s spoken word performance below.

Another poet spoke of his personal experience in jail, and how it motivated him to become a better person. Now over 20 years after his conviction, he is still haunted by the collateral consequences of incarceration. He spoke about the importance of programs like SCSJ’s Clean Slate clinics, which provide people with tools to overcome their criminal records and find stable employment and housing. Watch Tim Jackson perform one of his poems below.

The panel discussion was led by Dr. Jason Moldoff of Durham Technical Community College, who was joined by panelists Larry Bumgardner, George O’Briant, Oprah Keyes, and James Price. Bringing perspectives as diverse as a prison volunteer, a formerly incarcerated person, and a social work student studying juvenile justice issues, the panelists had an open and frank discussion of how people become justice involved, and how that involvement creates new challenges to living a productive life. Several themes ran through both the poetry and panel discussion, and were further brought out during the community dialogue.

  • From a very young age, our children are labeled. If they are labeled as “good,” the system treats them as such. If they are labeled as “bad,” the system finds every opportunity to document their shortcomings and steer them into increasingly high levels of supervision, often culminating in a jail or prison sentence.
  • There is a huge racial bias in all of our systems, from schools to law enforcement to public housing. In each of these systems, people of color are assumed to be suspicious, and thus more likely to be targeted for extra scrutiny.
  • Today’s system of mass incarceration in the U.S. bears some striking similarities to slavery and Jim Crow policies. For example, as one community member brought up, slaves were not allowed to read and in today’s prisons, law libraries have been removed – in essence denying incarcerated people access to reading the very information that they might need to exonerate themselves. Another similarity is the second-class citizenship status of people with a criminal record, which is reminiscent of Jim Crow-era policies toward African Americans.

The event concluded with a commitment that this is the beginning of the conversation, not the end. SCSJ will host future community events and listening sessions in the future to continue the dialogue on concrete ways to end the U.S. system of mass incarceration.

End Mas Incarceration Week Blog Posts

What is End Mass Incarceration Week?

Immigrant Detention and Mass Incarceration

Roundup of Recent Development in Mass Incarcertion

Solitary Confinement

Mass Incarceration of Juveniles

Mass Incarceration & People of Color

Collateral Consequences of Mass Incarceration

Women and Mass Incarceration

From the Daughter of a Prisoner

Want to help SCSJ’s work providing second chances for people with crimianl convictions? Please participate in our Second Chances Fundraiser!

picture of African American men in prison

Mass Incarceration & People of Color

Mass Incarceration & People of Color

 One in every 31 Americans is on probation, on parole, in jail or in prison. Distressingly, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three African-American men can expect to be incarcerated at some point. These statistics reflect systemic problems in the U.S. justice system and the punitive nature of our society. Every day, boys, girls, men and women are funneled into the criminal justice system due to systemic racial bias, the school-to-prison pipeline, lack of access to mental health treatment, co-occurring disorders, domestic violence and poverty, among others. And for communities of color, this is occurring at an exceptionally high rate. This over-incarceration of people of color is sometimes referred to as the New Jim Crow, harkening back to one of the most racist periods in U.S. history.

Data snapshot:

  • While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned[1].
  • As the number of women incarcerated has increased by 800 percent over the last three decades, women of color have been disproportionately represented. African American women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated, while Hispanic women are 69 percent more likely than white women to be incarcerated[2].
  • The “war on drugs” has been waged primarily in communities of color. According to Human Rights Watch, people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, but they have higher rate of arrests. African Americans comprise 14 percent of regular drug users but are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses. From 1980 to 2007 about one in three of the 25.4 million adults arrested for drugs was African American[3].
  • Once convicted, black offenders receive longer sentences compared to white offenders. The U.S. Sentencing Commission stated that in the federal system black offenders receive sentences that are 10 percent longer than white offenders for the same crimes. The Sentencing Project reports that African Americans are 21 percent more likely to receive mandatory-minimum sentences than white defendants and are 20 percent more like to be sentenced to prison[4].
  • Before the recent sentencing reform for crack-cocaine, the racial disparity in crack-cocaine sentencing was 100:1; disproportionately affecting people of color charged with crack-related offenses[5].
  • 80% of defendants sentenced to death in federal courts are people of color.[6]

This is known as Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC). While you look at the data, remember that this represents people: parents, siblings, children, neighbors, students, professionals, and community members. Due to the collateral consequences that justice-involved people experience, which impacts minorities more severely, we as a society, are essentially systematically disenfranchising racial minorities in the United States by taking away their right to vote, by denying them access to public benefits, by dramatically increasing their barriers to obtaining employment, and by separating parents, from their children at exceptionally high rates with all intended consequences of such actions.

  • Among Black children, 1 in 9 have a parent in jail (2012 data)[7]
  • Among Hispanic children, 1 in 28 have a parent in jail (2012 data)
  • Among White children, 1 in 57 have a parent in jail (2012 data)

These are the effects of mass incarceration. It is because of these people that we need to not only dismantle the current system of criminal justice, penalization and mass incarceration, but also seek best practices to improve the status quo. If one in three African-American men born after 2000 can expect to go to prison at some point in their lifetime, the system is broken, but besides acknowledging the system’s deficiencies, we need to initiate viable alternatives.

black men shackled and led by a white prison guard

This affects everyone. Minorities currently represent one-third of the US population. Almost everyone knows someone who has been impacted by the American criminal justice system and can share an anecdote of how mass incarceration has compromised futures, devastated lives and annihilated entire ethnic communities. Please feel free to share yours with us!

I have over 2.3 million reasons to dedicate my time and energy into this human rights issue. And by the time I have children, I hope that my African-American son will no longer face a 1 in 3 likelihood of going to prison.

Post by SCSJ Macro Social Work Intern Oprah Keyes