Mass Incarceration: Organizing for a Change

by Matt Pillischer

mass incarcerationJust four decades ago, criminal justice experts hypothesized about a future in America where prisons would no longer be necessary or practical. We had a U.S. prison population of about 300,000, non-militarized police departments and decent-paying jobs in our cities. But in the 1970s and 1980s, the “War on Drugs” was launched, the “Tough on Crime” movement emerged and politicians on both sides of the aisle were racing to lock up more people for longer sentences for more reasons.

Although an increase in crime was part of the impetus, there are insidious reasons, as well. The increase in our prison population happened in reaction to the Civil Rights Movement, a time when African Americans were demanding equal rights and during a time when America’s corporations were moving jobs from inner cities to non-union rural areas or overseas. There needed to be a place in this country for a population of Black citizens that were demanding their rights and also losing their jobs. Out of this, mass incarceration was born.

It is important to know the history of how and why it happened, because we can understand that it can be reversed. Policy choices got us here, and policy choices (demanded by social justice movements) will get us out. Change will occur when an uncompromising social movement pushes the country to look at itself in the mirror. This is why the #BlackLivesMatter movement is so inspiring to many—because it feels like the seed.

“Mass incarceration” is a term that’s been coined to describe the 2.3 million men, women, and children behind bars in the U.S. We have the largest prison population in the history of humankind, right here in the “land of the free”. It also encompasses the five million people on probation and parole. According to the Pew Research Center, one in 31 adults are under government correctional control of some kind. The National Employment Law Project calculates that 65 million Americans have a criminal conviction of some kind, which follows them long after they’ve left prison or probation. Mass incarceration impacts millions of people through a series of local, state and federal laws that often prevent people convicted of crimes from holding all kinds of licenses, collecting public benefits, voting, sitting on juries, working, and accessing education and housing. This is commonly referred to as collateral consequences of a conviction, since it isn’t a part of the actual sentence for the crime. The American Bar Association has begun a project, AbaCollateralConsequences.org, to catalogue all of the laws across the country that affect our citizens coming home from prison.

Do we want people coming home to have access to education, a job, a home or benefits if they need them? If our laws deny them these basic human rights, then what do we expect them to do? Crime is a real thing that nobody wants to occur. High crime areas seem to be concentrated with higher and higher intensities and instances of crimes, even though national crime has gone down over the last decades, with only a fraction of that attributable to detention of “criminals”. Many criminal justice experts now believe that our criminal justice system causes more crime than it prevents. Usually the areas with the most crime are the areas targeted by the police, and areas out from which our prison populations come. People return home after a prison sentence worse off and traumatized, unable to get a job or home to sustain themselves, and are living in areas with fewer and fewer jobs.

Our economy has changed drastically since the 1960s. Although people lived in highly segregated cities, people of color had jobs (often well-paying factory jobs). Sociologists and historians have well documented the evaporation of factory jobs in cities that occurred from the 1960s to 1980s. The jobs left, but the people remained in poor, segregated inner cities without a source of legal income.

The big word that is often left out of the discussion is race. It was Black people that rebelled in the 1960s and 1970s—it was the same Black population that lost jobs in the 1970s and 1980s due to a shift in the global economy, and it is Black people that overwhelmingly fill our prisons today. Organizations and individuals like SentencingProject.org and Michelle Alexander, Esq., have presented extensive research that Black Americans have been targeted at hugely disproportionate rates for stops, arrests, charges, prosecution, convictions and harsh sentences. This is done even when Black people and White people commit crimes at the same rate (particularly drug offenses). Other populations, such as immigrants, transpeople, Latinos and Native Americans are also disproportionately impacted, but none moreso than Black men. African Americans now constitute nearly one million of the total 2.3 million imprisoned, and half of all seven million under correctional control. A Black boy born today has a one-in-three chance he will go to prison. How could this have happened but for racial indifference? Thankfully, America is opening its eyes to this problem at the urging of activists across the country, especially people of color and people who were formerly incarcerated.

Philadelphia is fortunate to be home to some of these passionate and fierce men and women working on the front lines. Jondhi Harrell came out of federal prison, began working with Philadelphia-based Decarcerate PA (DecarceratePa.info) and then founded The Center for Returning Citizens (TcrcPhilly.org). TCRC is dedicated to restorative approaches in battling the effects of mass incarceration upon individuals, families and the community, and they are part of the national coalition Incarcerated Nation Corporation (IncarceratedNation.org). They are led by people that were incarcerated (returning citizens) and work with people coming out of prison in an attempt to break down the barriers set up against them.

Decarcerate PA and TCRC are full of activists and inspiring leaders like Jondhi, but they need more people to get involved with volunteering, fundraising, organizing and building leadership capacity in others. Some local, noteworthy organizations are: Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project (YasProject.com), which works with youth that are incarcerated in adult facilities; Human Rights Coalition (HrCoalition.org), which is comprised of prisoners, former prisoners and family members fighting against abuse of people in PA prisons; Philly Coalition for REAL Justice; Reconstruction Inc.; End Crime Project; PA Prison Society; and PA Institutional Law Project; among many other ways for people to get involved and help the cause.

Matt Pillischer, Esq., has worked as a lawyer, an activist, and an artist against mass incarceration. He is the producer and director of the award-winning documentary, Broken On All Sides: Race, Mass Incarceration & New Visions for Criminal Justice in the U.S., available at BrokenOnAllSides.com. October 2015.


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