Speakers look at incarceration
Last Tuesday, the 2015 Tillie K. Lubin Symposium hosted a lecture on incarceration in the United States in the International lounge.
The lecture—“Criminal Justice?: Race, Gender and Incarceration”—featured three speakers: Bruce Western of the JFK School of Government at Harvard University, Elizabeth Hinton of Harvard University and the Rev. Vivian Nixon of the College and Community Fellowship, an organization that works to remove barriers of access to college educations for women with criminal records.
Western was the first speaker and began with a brief overview of his topic which he called “Mass Incarceration and Inequality.” He presented demographic data on mass incarceration in the United States, noting that “demography is everything when it comes to this topic because of the racial disparity.”
Western explained that incarceration rates are determined by a method called the “measured scale of the penal system,” which compares the incarcerated population of a country per 100,000 of its total population. He first displayed demographics from Western Europe and explained that Spain has the highest incarceration rate of any Western European country at 156 imprisoned persons per 100,000 of the population According to Western, the rate of incarceration in the United States is much larger, at 716 imprisoned persons per 100,000 of the population. “The United States is extremely unusual,” said Western. “It accounts for five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.”
Beginning in the 1970s, the national incarceration rate grew every year for the next 30 years at about five times the historical average, according to Western. He also said that between 1980 and 2008, the number of incarcerated Americans increased by 1.5 million people, adding that African Americans made up the largest contribution by any racial group.
According to Western, African-American men are six to eight times more likely to go to prison than any other racial groups, with the rate of incarceration increasing by 343 percent over 30 years. Women’s rate of incarceration increased by 632 percent over the same amount of time. He added that high rates of imprisonment meant that there are large numbers of children with incarcerated parents. “The promotion of social and economic disadvantage is enduring and has produced a new social group that is chronically poor and faces new obstacles,” Western concluded.
Hinton was the next speaker and spoke about both the war on crime and the roots of mass incarceration. She began by saying that the symposium’s title highlights the racial, gendered and socioeconomic characteristics of federal policy making.
Hinton noted that this March marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, as well as President Lyndon Johnson’s call for a war on crime. Hinton focused on the implications of the war on drugs, which she said greatly shaped the lives of African-American women. According to Hinton, the resulting policy strategies led to increases in law enforcement and the number of American citizens living below the poverty line. Hinton explained that as a result of the declining economic status of many American families, the numbers of those who received social welfare increased. Many of those citizens were single African-American mothers, who faced incarceration if they failed to meet the strict requirements imposed upon them.
“African-American families became the main casualty of mass incarceration,” said Hinton. “Within the context of the absence of change, the cycle of imprisonment is bound to repeat itself.”
Nixon discussed her personal experiences establishing herself as an African-American woman in black liberal theology and feminist theology. She also touched on what she referred to as the psychological damage of slavery, in which patterns of oppression overtake themselves in all forms of society, which she said is pertinent to African-American family life.
“Each generation so intensely fears destruction of their children that they instill dangerous ideas in their children’s heads,” said Nixon.
Nixon described some of the time she spent in Albion Correctional Facility, where she said she . was able to find freedom within the system. She volunteered for a basic education program teaching other women to read.
“The people invested in change have to be substantially involved in change,” she said. “We need to figure out our role, and do our part but never become part of the system that keeps someone else from doing theirs.”