By Amanda Krupman At Ingersoll Community Center in downtown Brooklyn, an intergenerational audience filled folding chairs lining a gymnasium. The crowd had come for a screening and discussion of the award-winning film, Middle of Nowhere, which examines the impact that incarceration has on relationships between prisoners and the women living “on the other side of the fence.” The film, along with a panel from Center for Nu Leadership, a nonprofit policy and advocacy organization founded and staffed by formerly incarcerated men and women, was presented by the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art, or MoCADA, as part of their Public Exchange series.
Middle of Nowhere is a fictional story, but the struggles of its main protagonist, who waits five years for her boyfriend’s release, are shared by an overwhelming number of Americans. For over a decade, the U.S. incarceration rate has ranked as the world’s highest. Black communities are disproportionately affected by mass incarceration; nearly forty percent of the prison population is made up by black men in their twenties and thirties. The NAACP reports that in 2001, one in six black men had been incarcerated, and if current trends progress, one in three born today can expect to spend time in prison.
Coalitions Protest Mass Incarceration The flaws and unjust policies threaded throughout America’s criminal justice system are numerous and wide-ranging. So it follows that there’s no shortage of advocates pushing for reform. The Innocence Project, for instance, is a longstanding organization committed to clearing the wrongly convicted with DNA evidence, while the Fortune Society focuses on successful reentry and lowering rates of recidivism. Local mentorship programs like Arches are rooted in rehabilitation and prevention and target teens and young adults.
But while direct-service organizations and other groups diligently lobbying for piecemeal policy changes have existed for decades, a growing movement of coalitions and think-tanks is taking a more aggressive rhetorical tack. Chino Hardin, field coordinator at the Center for Nu Leadership and a self-described prison abolitionist, outlined his views in the post-film discussion. “Prisons exist for three reasons,” he said, “[for] social control, capital gain, and to break spirits.” Dr. Divine Pryor, executive director, delivered an indictment of his own: “The slave plantation of yesterday lives on as the criminal justice system today.”
These viewpoints—although perhaps not new or unpopular within Brooklyn’s community centers—reflect the sort of critique that has often been ignored or dismissed by social commentators and politicians as radical polemic. But that’s changing.
Foothold for Broad Change In 2010, Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which argues that “[w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” Timely, on point, and received with nearly universal acclaim, The New Jim Crow resonates with many community groups and organizers. Its critique has also provided a foothold for new partnerships among activists and invigorated discussion in university classrooms.
City College graduate Felix Navarro, Jr., a former fellow with the Colin Powell Center, formed Leaders Against Systemic Injustice, a campus organization that addresses the crisis of mass incarceration, in 2011. “My goals were to raise awareness as well as to work the [issues that Alexander raises] into the curriculum,” Navarro said. “I eventually succeeded in getting a faculty member to make The New Jim Crow required reading for one of her classes.”
Alexander's book was also widely cited by Nu Leadership panelists at the community event at Ingersoll. When it came time for audience Q&A, plenty of people took the mic, but few posed questions. This was an expert audience—some made so by their professional capacity as health and social welfare providers, and many more by virtue of being incarcerated for a time or witnessing their family members, neighbors, and others go through the system. So what followed was a bit of impromptu grassroots networking, along with some old-fashioned truth-telling. The room’s collective energy was charged with purpose, but attendees' comments showed a veteran brand of strain. “The $500 million cuts in state agencies will affect us all, and that means cutting support systems for people coming out of prisons.” “I work in the mental health field, and I worry about my clients receiving proper therapy and medication during and after their sentence.” “Sometimes you wonder if you can even step back from this madness.”
With Alexander's sociological critique, high-profile pieces like the New York Times' "Prison and the Poverty Trap," published in February, and events like the upcoming “People before Prisons” benefit staged at Lincoln Center and hosted by a celebrity emcee, it seems likely that a formerly ghettoized movement of social workers, community leaders, and public interest lawyers is gaining traction with a broader audience. Whether that attention brings about the momentum to implement effective and humane policies in our correctional system still remains to be seen.
NOTES: To find out about opportunities to get involved in Leaders Against Systemic Injustice, contact faculty adviser Jack Levinson in the Sociology Department at CCNY: firstname.lastname@example.org
The People before Prisons benefit for the Correctional Association of New York will be held Thursday, April 18 at Lincoln Center and honors Melissa Harris-Perry. You can find out more information and buy tickets here.