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
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