Lessons from the Challenging Punishment Conference

Photo Courtesy of Claudie Mabry

Photo Courtesy of Claudie Mabry

On October 5th, Progressive Pupil had the opportunity to attend the Challenging Punishment: Race, the People’s Health and the War on Drugs conference, sponsored by the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University and held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Scholars and advocates from around the country were invited to participate in the discussion. Topics ranged from public health, to the anatomy of the War on Drugs, to building and fortifying communities and families, to the arts and cultural production confronting mass incarceration. The conference also gathered individuals from a wide array of disciplines, including non-profit management, sociology, anthropology and the humanities. Progressive Pupil left the conference with some strong takeaways and crucial background information:

  • In the past half-century, the U.S. went from approximately 300,000 incarcerated individuals to 2.3 million
  • Blacks and Latinos make up the majority of those incarcerated, mostly serving time for non-violent offenses
  • 36% of incarcerated women in the U.S. are African American
  • The biggest emotional and financial burdens are on the families of those incarcerated
  • Whites with a criminal record are 40% more likely to get a job than Blacks with no criminal record
  • All local, state and federal prisons are financed by the U.S. tax base

Mass incarceration contributes to overall social disintegration. It’s especially damaging for low-income Black communities where drug use maybe prevalent. Sadly, Black Americans have a unique relationship with punishment in the United States. Scholars like Khalil Gibran Muhammad, head of the Schomburg, have traced this legacy to slavery and changes to the penal code in the late 19th century. Speakers at the conference emphasized that mass incarceration is not a racist system but, rather, a system run by race.

Progressive Pupil also learned that the people closest to the problem are, indeed, closest to the solution. With the help of active non-profits and community groups, slowly yet surely, we can alleviate the prison epidemic. There needs to be less punishment and more education, opportunities and discipline in our communities to change the terrible status quo. It’s time to stop using criminalization as a solution to entrenched social problems. Everyone has potential, even those labeled as possible offenders. There also needs to be a reallocation of resources and funds, which is clearly achievable if we make justice a priority.

In the mean time, we must balance advocating for prison abolition, while also supporting welfare programs offered in prisons. For example, it’s key to create safe spaces for the children of incarcerated parents to visit. As important are program to promote education, mental and physical health and creative expression through the arts.

Those in attendance could sense how impacting the conference was, almost therapeutic. It was a space of unity and solidarity, where we could learn from one another about proposed solutions and new avenues for change. It was an honor to hear everyone speak, and we look forward to the growing advocacy around prison abolition in the future.

by Claudie Mabry

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  2. Andres Villalon

     /  November 19, 2013

    The most interesting thing for me is that the US overall US population has just about doubled in the past 50 years (according to the Census bureau) while the prison population has gone up more than seven times in the same period! Considering that the majority of the incarcerated are black and latino, it doesn’t seem like coincidence that this disparate increase began after the civil rights movement and the passing of civil rights legislation. As though the power structure was threatened by equality & freedom and the response from law enforcement was to take away that quality and freedom under the pre tense of upholding the law.



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