Activists Discuss Mass Incarceration Crisis at Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture

Both speakers pointed to the need to “contextualize, humanize, and render legible,” the complex network of forces, interacting in compounding ways, that serves to maintain oppression.

By Adrian Rucker, Deputy Arts Editor

CW: Sexual and reproductive violence, physical abuse, incarceration

What is the role of artists and writers in contemporary social justice? The question was central to “Literature for Justice,” a conversation hosted by the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, in collaboration with the Human Rights Lab at the Pozen Center, the School of Social Service Administration, and the National Book Foundation. With such a dizzying array of sponsors, it would have been easy for the talk to be unfocused, delivering platitudes and buzzwords like “criminal justice reform,” while ultimately saying little of substance. Instead, author-activists James Kilgore and Robin Levi, expertly moderated by Sergio De La Pava, engaged in meaningful and productive discourse regarding the nature of our mass incarceration crisis, its underlying intentionality, and how it can be disrupted. 

Kilgore’s book, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time, emphasizes the historical circumstances and ideological justifications for increasing the prison population seven times over since the 1970s, even in the face of significant decreases in violent crime during the same period. In a passionate speech, Kilgore defined mass incarceration not solely by the number of people in prison, but also by an ideology that solves social problems through punishment. He points to the rise of extreme individualist mindsets and the precipitation of global capitalism’s influence in detaching us from the problems we create. The University of Chicago did not escape his sights either, as his criticism of the University’s relationship with its surrounding community was met with raucous applause from the audience. His current activism revolves around instituting parole in Illinois, a system which currently does not exist, and the issue of electronic monitoring of inmates after sentences have been served, which makes reacclimating back into mainstream society all the more difficult. 

Levi (and fellow activist Ayelet Waldman)’s anthology project, Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons, takes a different approach. Compiling the tales of 13 individuals in women’s prisons, Levi’s work acts not only to make injustice visible, but to tell the full stories of those who are incarcerated, along with those of their families. Throughout the book, one finds instances of childhood sexual assault, unconscious and non-consensual medical operations carried out on women’s bodies by sinister prison doctors, and physical abuse. But, the collection is underpinned by the sense of strength and support those in prison have for one another. These stories do not serve merely as disaster porn, designed to make the upper class feel like they have a finger on the pulse of America’s injustices. Rather, the book has the remarkable ability to grant an authentic voice to our society’s most disenfranchised, to exhibit the intense interpersonal bonds they create with each other, and to connect their issues to a broader struggle for justice. 

Both speakers pointed to the need to “contextualize, humanize, and render legible” the complex network of forces that serves to maintain oppression. The lived experiences of those who have gone through the carceral system exist, whether or not they are placed in the public eye, and making those experiences widely known is essential. But sharing stories is only the first part of the speakers’ project: The second part is making available the analytical tools needed to unpack the systems that perpetuate injustice. In order to resist those who benefit from incarceration, they say we need a broad abolitionist social movement.  

Both speakers spoke favorably of prison abolition, the idea that punitive incarceration is morally wrong and fails to serve the needs of both incarcerated individuals’ relational spheres and of society at large. The goal of their conception of the movement is not to unleash all prisoners into society with no regard for the consequences. Rather, their immediate goal is to assert the fundamental humanity of “low-hanging fruit”: victims of the war on drugs and criminalized poverty, the mentally ill, and those who commit crimes of survival. And, once we affirm their freedom, we can evaluate how we treat more serious offenses. They argue that this cannot happen without transforming how we think about justice and creating a functioning system of social support that decreases the desperation and alienation that leads to criminal activity. 

Towards the end of the conversation, one audience member asked about how alternatives to incarceration would deal with those conceivably beyond criminal maliciousness, citing the senseless violence carried out by Dylann Roof, Charles Manson, and John Wayne Gacy. In an answer that concisely encapsulated the goals of many involved in abolitionist movements, Levi replied, “I’d throw a party the size of a wedding if we were at the point where I had to worry about what to do with John Wayne Gacy.” 

Circling back to the intersection between literature and justice, seemingly disparate discussions about the creation of a more equitable society coalesced into a poignant central theme: literature is crucial because it allows us to rethink false narratives about the past and gives us a means by which we can imagine the future. This future is one in which we craft our social institutions out of empathy and solidarity, where oppressive systems are dismantled, and where freedom is more than just an abstract ideal.