Acitivists, scholars criticize American prison system

By Trevor Croxson

The long-standing issue of racism in prisons took center stage Friday and Saturday at the International House, with distinguished speakers analyzing and exploring possible remedies to the problem.

Sponsored by the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, the Human Rights Program at the University of Chicago, and the Office of the Provost, the forum was “a way to create a space for groups and advocates to get together,” according to Suzanne Gzesh, Human Rights Program director. She stressed the importance of providing an opportunity for “discussion and exchange” for what one panelist called “the most pressing domestic issue in the United States today.”

Longtime activist and scholar Angela Y. Davis gave the keynote address, strongly criticizing the American prison system and the “contemporary security state” that has arisen since 9/11. Speaking before an overflowing crowd Friday night, Davis introduced several of the critical issues that would be further developed in Saturday’s panel discussions.

At the heart of the problem, Davis says, is the undeniably widespread racial imbalance of prison populations. Most American inmates are black or Latino. She said, “This pattern of criminalization demonstrates a failure of the law.” Davis also criticized the quality of medical care that inmates receive, calling it substandard and saying that prison staff habitually neglects the needs of inmates.

Saturday’s two-panel discussions continued in the progressive vein of Davis’s opening address. The morning discussion was an overview of the most critical issues surrounding race and incarceration, while the afternoon discussion featured remarks from practitioners and organizers. The two panels were separated by a luncheon speech delivered by R. Eugene Pincham, former Cook County judge.

Saturday’s events were uncapped by an opening address by Illinois Congressman Danny K. Davis. He set the tone for the day—one of urgency and discontent in the face of a rapidly growing social problem—by reminding the audience that America is “the most imprisoned nation on the face of the Earth.”

The morning panelists attacked the modern prison system from several angles. Beth Richie, head of the Department of African-American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said, “Imprisonment leads to more imprisonment.”

Richie argued that burgeoning prison populations are due to “increasingly aggressive policing strategies” and not to increases in criminal activity. Richie also focused on social problems, like homelessness, unemployment, and domestic abuse, which lead to increases in the prison population. “We need to do our work based on the people who have done the hardest time,” she said.

Ahmad Sanders, director of the ex-offender program the Green Light Project and a former inmate himself, spoke about the challenges former inmates face while returning to society. He insisted on the importance of constructive programs, like job-search and job-training classes, for inmates. While such programs are in place in several prisons, Sanders said that more prison directors need to make more options available.

Helena Olea, a Colombian attorney and consultant, addressed the problem of race and incarceration on an international scale. Olea was “outraged” by the United States’ history of lack of participation in international prisoners’ rights treaties, among them the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. “Under no conditions,” she said, “can [prisoners’] dignity be ignored. We should not accept that prisons and jails are the only options.”