Reforming the Bars

By Diana Tao

On the corner of 114th and Broadway, an auditorium filled with hundreds of people—old and young, black and white, dressed in blazers and Nikes—remain silent as a young woman walks onto the stage to stand behind a podium. She begins her speech with a quiet, “Hi guys”, eliciting some laughter from the audience. Her soft-spoken demeanor is a change from the loud and efficacious voice of the previous speaker.

The young woman is 20-year-old Asha Rosa, a self-described “pessimist poet” and a person who knows what to remember and what to keep.

“I haven’t lived a long time, and I haven’t been part of many movements, but now, when I see the Ferguson protests and the hashtag “Black Lives Matter” trending on Twitter… I have no hesitation that there are enough people committed to this movement. That we are in a movement,” she says in her opening speech.

In the United States today, more than 2.3 million people are incarcerated and more than 7 million on probation and correctional control. Of the 2.3 million incarcerated, nearly 1 million are African-American, a rate of incarceration six times that of Caucasians. Often times, blame is laid on poverty, schooling, parenting or a combination of these factors. Some, like Rosa, have looked to the institution itself as the linchpin of mass incarceration.

“It’s important to recognize that the same way dominant notions of who is criminal are defined by Blackness, notions of who is victim or who is successful are determined by anti-Blackness,” Rosa says.

Rosa is a founding member of the “Black Youth Project 100”, an activist organization of Black 18-35 year olds, aimed at targeting injustice towards Black Americans. She has been involved in the “Columbia Prison Divest” campaign, “Students Against Mass Incarceration” and acted as part of a delegation that presented a report on police violence to the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva this past year.

Raised in a family of activists, Rosa was first exposed to political organizing at a young age. For her, there was no sudden epiphany which resulted in her becoming the activist she is today.  “I think being ‘active’ isn’t necessarily something special. It’s just looking at the world around you and seeing that you have a political place…deciding that you should engage,” she says.

Rosa is one of the many young people who have dedicated their efforts to creating a change within the prison institution. Since its founding at Howard University in 2011, “Students Against Mass Incarceration” has spread to six university campuses and attracted hundreds of members. Conferences like “Beyond the Bars” grow in the hundreds each year. Bryan Stevenson, Christian Parenti, Paul Butler, and Bryan Stevenson are only a handful of authors who are making a name for themselves through their writings on mass incarceration. Even United States Attorney General, Eric Holder, has addressed the issue of incarceration in a 2013 speech given to the American Bar Association.

“Even though this country comprises just 5 percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners,” Holder said then.

Despite the increasing number of American prisoners, most Americans are unfamiliar with the prison system on a day-to-day basis. Mass incarceration affects particular communities, communities of color and of specific social class, and is an act that has become normalized for people living in these areas.

In a report titled, “Decades of Disparity: Drug Arrests and Race in the United States,” conducted by Jamie Fellner, a senior counsel with the Human Rights Watch Program, it was found that blacks are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, but the former have higher rates of incarceration. Black Americans comprise 14 percent of drug users and are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses.

“Jim Crow may be dead, but the drug war has never been color-blind,” writes Fellner in the report. “Although whites and blacks use and sell drugs, the heavy hand of the law is more likely to fall on black shoulders.”

Mass incarceration has left a large-scale impact on communities across America, resulting in the dissolution of families by economic and psychological means. The release of a person from prison comes with the branding of the names “criminal” and “felon”, regardless of the crime committed and the amount of years that have passed. On employment applications in the United States, the formerly incarcerated must state their past criminal records, checking a box asking if you have ever been convicted of a felony. Once the box is checked, employers have the legal right to refuse to hire.

Employment is not the only area which permits legal discrimination, as both housing and public funds can be refused solely on the grounds of one’s criminal record. Under the Fair Housing Act, a bill passed into law during the civil rights campaign of the 1960s, discrimination is prohibited against protected classes. Among the protected classes are race, ethnicity, religion and disability. The incarcerated and formerly incarcerated are not included in the protected classes.

Furthermore, in nearly thirty states, people who have been convicted of drug felonies are unable to qualify for federal assistance programs such as food stamps.

“I don’t have to argue that equal opportunity and equality are values, we’ve already accepted that. It has to be a priority and a commitment that we all make to align our practice with our politics,” Asha says. “That commitment is not one out of benevolence or of empathy… it’s asking a society to be a society of its worth.”

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