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The Civil Rights Crisis of the Century

On Monday, February 24th, Dr. Heather Thompson of Temple University presented a lecture on mass incarceration in America. The workshop was hosted by CCSRE, the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity of Connecticut College. Thompson was the first of many speakers in a series of workshop lectures at Conn focused on the topic of incarceration in America.

“The Civil Rights Crisis of the 21st Century”

To begin her lecture, Thompson addressed the societal notion that incarceration in America is the “civil rights crisis of the 21st century.” This label is a result of the explosive nature of incarceration in today’s culture. More U.S. citizens were imprisoned at the start of the century compared to any other country and compared to any other time period in the U.S. Today, there are about 62 million Americans with a criminal record. By 2008, in Connecticut alone, 19,413 people were behind bars (distributed amongst 18 facilities), and 1 out of every 33 residents was under some form of correctional control. In other words, incarceration is more massive than ever.

Racial Tension in the System

The incarcerated population is overwhelmingly African American. In Connecticut, for every 1 Caucasian prisoner, there are 12 African American prisoners. Similar statistics hold true in other states. This is not to say that African Americans commit more crimes than those of other races. The unsettling truth that Thompson explained is that African Americans are arrested more often for crimes that people of all races commit. For example, drug users and distributors come from all racial backgrounds. Nevertheless, African Americans dominate the population of prisoners incarcerated for drug-related offenses.

Urban Explosion of Incarceration

In 1965, the Law Enforcement Assistance Act increased policing in America. Activities once considered legal were redefined as criminal, prison sentences grew longer, and life-long sentences without the possibility of parole (which is currently at the highest rate in history) multiplied. Moreover, the criminalization of schools (implementing metal detectors, for example) led to increased arrests of minors. While the growth of the incarceration rate sparked by the Law Enforcement Assistance Act continues to rise in America, the crime rate independently fluctuates. In fact, the increase in crime occurred after the war on crime/the Law Enforcement Assistance Act. Therefore, the heightened incarceration rate does not indicate a rise in criminal activity.

“Million Dollar Blocks”

When inner-city neighborhoods high in crime (not necessarily violent crime) are rigorously policed, these areas are ultimately funneled into the prison system. These neighborhoods are called “million dollar blocks” because it costs millions of dollars to incarcerate the people who used to occupy these homes. Interestingly, raising the level of regulation to mass incarceration on these blocks is financially destructive, because it vacates entire areas. It transforms many children into orphans; about 10 million children currently have at least one parent involved in the incarceration system (1 in 14 for African American children). This impacts the foster-care system, the education system, and the labor force, among other institutional and community dynamics. Of course, there must be consequences for crime, and Thompson does not suggest omitting society’s entire system of incarceration. However, Thompson offers a new, enlightening perspective on the negative impacts of mass incarceration.

Other Issues in the System

Naturally, one would think that the opportunity for parole for those incarcerated would be positive. Unfortunately, as Thompson explained, this is not always the case. Despite the newfound freedom, reality hits hard following one’s release from prison. Getting a job is nearly impossible, and little to no welfare is provided for former convicts. There are also negative effects on health, both during and after one’s sentence. Prisons are extremely crowded, and this is a catalyst for disease. Some prisoners lose their healthcare that they received in prison. Lastly, in this age of mass incarceration, there is a new business of privatization of prisons; people are building prisons for profit. This means that someone’s profit actually depends on the imprisonment of citizens, which depends on the victimization of other citizens (for every crime has a victim, even if it is not violent).

The Myth of Incarceration

Society seems to believe that it is “safer” to be separated from the system of incarceration, both physically and mentally. If mass incarceration makes the general population feel “safe,” then it is natural to believe that incarceration is always positive. According to Thompson, this conventional belief is, on some level, a myth. With parents away in prison and resources stripped from the younger generation, people in areas such as the “million dollar blocks” are not safer at all. Therefore, in certain circumstances, mass incarceration can create crime.

Why is Nothing Being Done?

We are aware that the U.S. system of incarceration is out of control, so why has nothing changed? According to Thompson, mass incarceration has distorted our system of democracy. The people most impacted by the system, with all of its negativity, are structurally prevented from fixing it. This is because change comes down to the ballot box and those whose interests lie in making the changes are prevented from voting. Furthermore, the U.S. Census accounts for prisoners under their current, imprisoned locations (not their hometowns). While jails are often built in inner cities, prisons are typically located in isolated areas of suburbs. Since the prisoners, who cannot vote, are considered residents of the suburbs, those who can vote in these suburbs are provided with more political power.

Certainly, it is necessary to have societal consequences for criminal activity, and Thompson expresses that concern. However, Thompson’s presentation challenges the traditional belief that incarceration is always beneficial, specifically referring to mass incarceration. It opens up a conversation about a topic worth discussing, and provides a new evaluation on the system that is so engrained in American society.

Want to learn more? Here are the upcoming events in the Incarcerated America series, all located in the Charles Chu Room in Shain Library at 4:30 pm:

-Unauthorized Immigration, Arrests, Detention & Deportation (Friday, April 11th, Robert LeRoux Hernandez, JD, College of Holy Cross, Latin American & Latino Studies Program)

-Race/Ethnicity in Incarcerated America (Friday, April 18th, Ana Campos-Holland, PhD, Department of Sociology)

-Cellblock Visions: Prison Art in America (Wednesday, April 23rd,Phyllis Kornfeld, MA, Artist, Teacher, and Prison Advocate)

-Drugs, Rehabilitation, and Incarceration (Tuesday, April 29th,Taleb Khairallah, PhD, Department of Psychology)

Danielle Kaplan is a senior from from Westwood, MA, studying economics and dance at Connecticut College. She is the in-house designer and Instagram contributor for Her Campus Conn Coll. In addition to Her Campus, Danielle spends most of her time rehearsing for several on-campus dance performances. Following graduation, she hopes to work for a non-profit organization related to incarceration and/or at-risk youth. But most of all, Danielle's true passions lie in avocados, dark chocolate, and cereal.
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