Krista Tippet’s interview on NPR’s OnBeing with Michelle Alexander, who wrote The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, is full of insight and wisdom for us all. Alexander has an ability to transform our thinking with new perceptions and knowledge that is harder to see from a white perspective. These two women have taught me so much, and I continue to look to them for understanding and guidance about the country I live in. Among the many good points made about our criminal justice system and who we want to become were these:
- When jobs disappeared 30 and 40 years ago, the people in inner cities were experiencing grief and trauma. Instead of going to them with care and concern, we waged a war on them.
- Civil rights are meaningless unless people have basic human rights: enough food and adequate housing, a safe and secure place to live, a decent education and sustainable employment.
- Given the way we lock up so many people and then make it so difficult for people to put their lives together after they leave prison, we have become a “nation of stone-throwers,” unwilling to forgive people even after they’ve served their sentences.
- We need to be in touch with the “criminality in each of us.” We have all broken laws, but those of us who experience privilege rarely do time in prison. We also need to be in touch with our culpability and complicity about mass incarceration, because we’ve let this purely punitive system develop and flourish.
- Alexander makes the point that white people have also been swept up by the War of Drugs, and they and their families and communities are suffering too.
- Asked by Krista Tippett where she found hope, Alexander pointed to the work being done by formerly-incarcerated people as they find and add their voices and experience to the hard work of criminal justice reform.
- Democracy is about our own humanity, and unless we understand that all people matter and need to be cared for, our democracy may not succeed.
Both an unedited and edited version for broadcast are available as podcasts.
I had the privilege of proximity as I taught my students in prison, learning from them and about their backgrounds and experience. I never would have known them otherwise. The majority of my students came from the inner cities in the Midwest, from schools that were not adequately funded, from neighborhoods that weren’t safe and from families who were struggling to make ends meet. Many of the men I knew had relatives in prison, and many had grown up without their fathers. I saw men shut down, put their heads in the crook of their arms and zone out. I saw that some of them were dealing with traumas in their backgrounds, and some were simply overwhelmed by being in school. Dropping out does not lead to confidence, and people needed time to find their strengths as students. Many reported experiences of homelessness as children. The majority of them had been sentenced for drug crimes, occasionally for as many as thirty-three years. More than one person reported, “No one cares about us.”
Going out the door of a prison is a risky experience. The world has grown and changed. Technology feels overwhelming. It is tricky, often painful and confusing, to re-connect to families, especially to children who have grown up without their dads around. In addition, we make it really difficult to find housing, and many barriers to re-integrating are legal. President Clinton made sure that formerly-incarcerated people would be denied Section 8 housing. Public assistance and help for food are difficult to secure. Professional licenses are denied. It broke my heart to hear men talk about wanting to be teachers and nurses or return to being barbers and know it would be difficult if not impossible to get or renew a license. Many states deny people the right to vote. The recent backlash against Virginia’s governor for giving formerly-incarcerated people the right to vote is an example of how difficult it is for some people to forgive returning citizens who have already served their sentences.
I am intrigued with Alexander’s language that we all need to be in touch with “our own criminality.” She says in The New Jim Crow:
“The notion that a vast gulf exists between “criminals” and those of us who have never served time in prison is a fiction created by the racial ideology that birthed mass incarceration, namely that there is something fundamentally wrong and morally inferior about “them.” The reality though, is that all of us have done wrong. As noted earlier, studies suggest that most Americans violate drug laws in their lifetime. Indeed, most of us break the law not once but repeatedly throughout our lives.” 1
We all need hope to address the tragedies inherent in mass incarceration. I am familiar with the work of JustLeadershipUSA from my friend Ron Simpson-Bey, who works in this organization as an alumni associate. He joins a group of people who have all served time and now believe that “the people closest to the problem are closest to the solution.” He has recently written,
“Adjusting language in no way means condoning criminal or delinquent behavior. Those who commit crimes must be held accountable. But accountability requires making amends, an objective that is much harder to achieve when a person is denied the chance to move forward. The people who leave our correctional facilities every year have paid their debts to society and they all deserve a chance to rebuild their lives.”
JustLeadershipUSA builds leadership skills for community building, advocacy and policy-making, organizational management and communication. They are committed to reducing the prison population by half by 2030. Michelle Alexander serves on their board and says this:
“I believe that the launching of JustLeadershipUSA will be viewed, one day, by historians and advocates alike as a true game changer: the moment in the emerging movement when formerly-incarcerated people finally had a chance to be heard, to organize, and to influence policy in many ways—even though many of them still lack the right to vote.”
Informed and active citizens can help change the perceptions about who lives in our prisons and what can be done for them—and for us. It is about who we want to become. Our very democracy is at stake.
1. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (The New Press, New York, 2010, 2012), 216.