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Mass Incarceration In America Starts At A Young Age

5 Nov

I wrote a post in March about my experience volunteering with Free Minds Bookclub & Writing Workshop, a DC-based nonprofit organization, that organizes book clubs and writing workshops at the DC Jail, where 16 and 17 year-olds, many of whom have been incarcerated as adults, discuss literature and express themselves through creative writing.

The post discusses the devastating impact of prison on the black community, mentioning a recent New Yorker article on mass incarceration in America, which states that blacks are now incarcerated seven times as often as whites, and that there are more black men under the control of the criminal justice system that were in slavery in 1850. 

A recent New York Times analysis references research which shows that more young black dropouts from high school are in prison than have paying jobs, and that black men are more likely to go to prison than to graduate with a four-year degree or complete military service.  Blacks account for nearly half of the 2.3 million Americans in prison or jail, and because these people are not counted in census figures or data, Dr. Pettit, of the University of Washington, says, “Decades of penal expansion coupled with the concentration of incarceration among men, blacks, and those with low levels of education have generated a statistical portrait that overstates the educational and economic progress and political engagement of African-Americans.”

A month ago, I started volunteering with The Beat Within, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, which holds weekly writing workshops in 13 California county juvenile halls with volunteer facilitators, providing incarcerated youth with the opportunity to share their ideas and life experiences, and printing their words in a biweekly magazine that is then distributed to the young inmates in juvenile hall, and beyond.   

Writing is powerful tool for expression, and it can especially powerful for those who lack physical freedom and are plagued by trauma, violence, and the past.  Perhaps what’s most powerful is someone taking the time to read your words, to validate your voice and your story, and then to see your words printed in ink in a publication.  Organizations like The Beat and Free Minds provide an avenue — sometimes the only avenue — for creative expression, in a system built to kill any feeling of empowerment or hope. 

At each Beat session, volunteers help young inmates respond to specific writing prompts — a recent one was entitled “Voting For President” — and asked the kids who they thought who would be the best president for the United States, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?   It’s sad that many of these individuals may never have the opportunity to vote, and perhaps even sadder still, that even if President Obama is re-elected, there will still be more than six million people under correctional supervision in the United States.

While the Obama Administration has worked to reduce (but not eliminate) sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine, a clear racial bias that disproportionally locks up more people of color compared to whites, reforming our for-profit prison system does not appear to be on the agenda for 2012-2016. 

Listening to some of the inmates’ stories, and what they’ve already been through at such a young age, makes it easy to recognize the freedom and privilege I take for granted in my everyday life in San Francisco, which is often consumed by discussing who serves the best cup of $3 pour-over coffee or the best burrito.    

An enlightening photo book project called Juvenile-in-Justice, by Richard Ross, presents some alarming statistics:  There are 70,000 young people in juvenile detention or correctional facilities every day in the U.S.  The average cost to incarcerate a juvenile for a 9-12 month period is between $66,000 and $88,000 – in California, this cost is almost $225,000.  Nearly 3 out of 4 youth confined for delinquency, are not in for a serious violent felony crime, and youth confined for longer periods of time are no less likely make repeat offenses than those confined for shorter periods of time.

Some of the young men at the juvenile hall, which houses kids as young as thirteen years-old, are in for repeat offenses or parole violations (including minor offenses like marijuana use), and may end up back in jail after they leave.  It’s a vicious cycle, but as the statistics above and this infographic shows, not uncommon for people of color, especially black men, growing up in low-income communities around the country. 

Clearly, the current prison system is broken and unjust, or rather, it’s working exceptionally well, if the goal is to lock up millions of people of color and give millions of dollars to private corporations like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections Corporation), who combined earned $2.9 billion in 2010.  These corporations have worked closely with PACs and local government officials in states like Arizona to support harsh anti-immigrant legislation including SB 1070, all with the motive of filling prison beds with people of color for profit.

Voters in California have a chance to make a small difference on Election Day, Tuesday, November 6, by voting YES on Proposition 36, revising the three strikes rule, so that criminal offenders with two prior serious or violent felony convictions who commit nonserious, non-violent felonies, would be sentenced to shorter terms in state prison.  A YES vote on 36 would also allow some offenders with two prior serious or violent felony convictions who are currently serving life sentences for nonserious, non-violent felony convictions to be resentenced to shorter prison terms.

California voters should also vote YES on Proposition 34, which repeals the death penalty, replacing it with life imprisonment without possibility of parole.  This law applies retroactively to existing death sentences, so offenders who are already serving a death sentence would be resentenced to life without the possibility of parole — and while life imprisonment is still a death sentence in many ways (especially if opportunities and state funding to challenge convictions are taken away) — this reform would ensure that an innocent person is never executed.

These are important changes, but they do little to change the shameful state of mass incarceration in America.  We need to end the systematic and cyclic structures that lock up so many people, especially young people, in the first place — end racist stop-and-frisk policing as well as sentencing disparities, which are filling prison beds for corporate profit — and curb poverty and violence in at-risk communities by funding and empowering robust youth (and adult) education, employment, entrepreneurial, health, and after-school programs. 

To get involved with The Beat Within’s writing workshops with incarcerated youth, or to volunteer to type up young inmates’ words, click here.  To support juvenile justice reform, check out Juvenile-in-Justice’s Take Action page, or the Equal Justice Initiative.

 

Education vs. Incarceration

Using Philadelphia as an example, this graphic compares the cost, both financial and societal, of education and incarceration.  Designed by Jason Killinger for Maskar Design.  Source: Visual.ly.

Free Minds: Empowering Young Writers in Prison

25 Mar

Recently, I volunteered with the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, a DC-based nonprofit organization that introduces teenage boys at the DC Jail and in federal prison to the life-changing power of books and creative writing.  Free Minds inspires these young people to see their potential by organizing book clubs at the DC Jail where 16 and 17 year-olds discuss literature and express themselves through creative writing, pairing youth with a volunteer writing mentor from the community.  Free Minds mentors these 16 and 17 year-olds (who have been tried and incarcerated as adults) throughout their incarceration and beyond release, providing reentry support, life skills workshops, and education referrals for life after prison.

At the Free Minds “Write Night” we provided comments and positive feedback on poems that these youth had written.  Free Minds then takes the volunteers’ comments and gives them to the authors behind bars– the positive feedback is meant to help the authors find their voices as writers and to continue writing.  We all know it’s gratifying to have someone commend your writing (or like your Facebook status), but can you imagine the transformative power in having someone comment on your words when you are in prison?  Knowing that someone out there is actually listening, that someone is listening to you, must be truly validating and empowering.

One talented young poet had written this line in his poem, which particularly grabbed me:  “In what adult mind frame is it justified to send juveniles to an adult prison? That’s what I’m trying to see.”  We should all ask ourselves the same question.  Lawyer and equal justice advocate Bryan Stevenson, in an inspiring TED talk about injustice in America, notes that the United States is the only country in the world where we sentence 13 year-olds to die in prison, and have life imprisonment without parole for kids.  How can we even begin to talk about justice when over 2200 juveniles have been sentenced to life without parole?

Many of the poems I read at Write Night featured poignant reflections on the history of racial injustice in America, and the devastating impact of prison on the black community.  In a recent New Yorker article on mass incarceration in AmericaAdam Gopnik notes that blacks are now incarcerated seven times as often as whites, and that there are more black men under the control of the criminal justice system that were in slavery in 1850. “The system of mass incarceration works to trap African Americans in a virtual (and literal) cage,” the legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes. “Young black men pass quickly from a period of police harassment into a period of “formal control” (i.e., actual imprisonment) and then are doomed for life to a system of “invisible control.”

As their readers on the outside, we need to not only listen to the voices of incarcerated youth, but take action so that young people are not tried and incarcerated as adults.   Our for-profit prison system, supported by racially biased stop-and-frisk policing and sentencing disparities, locks up too many young people of color (often for minor offenses like marijuana possession), inhibiting their ability to get a job or education or vote or receive social services upon release, thus perpetuating a system of racial control that Alexander likens to slavery.  I’ll close with one of the poems published in the Free Minds anthology; to read inspiring poems by incarcerated youth, post comments that will be given to the authors in jail, or learn more about volunteer opportunities, check out the Free Minds blog.

Confined as a Youth

by Antwon

When you think about childhood

You ‘posed to be able to smile

But never in my life was I taught how

I was always around anger that led to pain

I was always confined

At least that’s how it felt to my brain

The streets not only took me,  but they took my mother too

Confined as a youth, so tell me what I ‘posed to do?

Some people say they love the streets because the game is all they know

I will never label myself until I give myself time to grow

And sometimes I wonder why do it always have to be me?

Then I hear my great grandma’s voice saying

“You wasn’t the only one that wasn’t free”

It’s crazy how people put lies in our heads

Trying to get to believe this is who we are

When, for real, every living thing was meant to be a star

I hope one day we will see there’s no limit to what we all can do

But until that day comes, I’m here on earth, “confined as a youth”

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