Dr. Jennifer Collins, Director of the School of Education, kicked off this event by introducing the speakers for a conversation on the legacy of mass incarceration on communities of color. This event was the second part of the continuing forum series “WTF is Going On: Race and the Criminal Justice System.”
These speakers included Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and Executive Director of the Division of Diversity and Inclusion Dr. Frank King, UW-Platteville Baraboo Sauk County branch campus sociology professor Dr. Annette Kuhlmann and assistant professor in the UW-Platteville School of Education Dr. Edina Haslauer.
Dr. Collins urged participants to “listen with curiosity and a willingness to learn, and please take the time to reflect and engage on the different viewpoints, especially those with which you disagree.”
Dr. King began his presentation discussing mass incarceration in the United States. He shared that the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world with over 2 million people imprisoned.
The U.S. is home to 5% of the world’s population, while claiming 25% of the world’s prison population. According to Dr. King, the majority of those imprisoned are incarcerated by state prisons, and the incarcerated population of federal prisons is mostly compromised of people involved in drug cases.
The U.S. prison population has been growing since 1980 as a result of the War on Drug.
Before this time, the prison population was less than 200,000 people.
Dr. King shared that poor people are more likely to be incarcerated, as are people of color, specifically black and Latino people. Boys in the bottom socioeconomic 10% are 20 times more likely to be imprisoned, and one in three black men are likely to be imprisoned during their lifetime.
Black people only make up around 12% of the U.S. population. However, black people make up roughly 33% of the prison population. Subsequently, Hispanic people make up 16% of the U.S. population while accounting for 23% of the prison population, and white people make up 63% of the general population while accounting for only 30% of the prison population.
This disparity is often attributed to the racist ideology that criminality is an aspect of genetics, an aspect of culture, or that black people simply lack work ethic. Harmful stereotypes only feed into this biological and cultural racism.
In reality, Dr. King pointed out that poverty, lack of jobs, lack of education and the targeting of people of color are largely responsible for this disparity.
Dr. King explained that, before slavery, prison populations were relatively small. After slavery, however, these populations boomed as the North built penitentiaries to police black people and immigrants and the South turned to convict leasing.
Convict leasing was a way to replace slaves by working with the state to ensure a steady labor supply. States invented absurd laws, such as laws against vagrancy, which could see a black person imprisoned for upwards of 10 years for simply hanging around; laws requiring black people to be employed or face incarceration, and unwritten rules such as those banning a black person from ever looking a white person in the eye or compete economically with a white business.
While the 13th Amendment had outlawed slavery, Dr. King explained that there was a loophole in which slavery as punishment for a crime remained legal.
Even though the 8th Amendment forbids cruel and unusual punishment, this stipulation was conveniently ignored by those who participated in convict leasing, which led to the incarceration of children.
If anything, Dr. King said, with slavery there was some reason to keep the slaves alive. After slavery, former slaves weren’t considered to be a person’s property, and an “owner” was not responsible for replacing them.
Dr. King shared that, today, black people are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use than white people. So too, black people, Native Americans and Latinos are more likely to be arrested and to receive harsher punishments for the same crime.
A 2003 study found that a white person with a criminal record was more likely to get a callback for a job than a black person without a criminal record.
Today, Dr. King explained, many of the products that say “made in the U.S.A.” are made in the prison system.
Companies such as Walmart, Victoria’s Secret and Starbucks all rely on prison labor. Military uniforms are often made by prisoners and many universities are required to use furniture made by prisoners.
More prison labor comes from federal institutions than private ones. In California, 30% of firefighters are prisoners. With industrialization, there came a boom of prisons being built; prisons are a new form of industry.
Next, Dr. Kuhlmann set up to begin her conversation on the impact of mass incarceration on individuals, families and children.
Dr. Kuhlmann shared that one in four prisoners in the world are in a U.S. prison, and one in three female prisoners are in a U.S. prison. Black people have six times the incarceration rate of white people in America, and the rate of incarceration for black women is twice as high as for white women.
Over half of Americans (64%) have had an immediate family member imprisoned, and for black people this number has doubled. The U.S. has five times the incarceration rate of the United Kingdom, six times that of Canada and nine times that of Germany.
Dr. Kuhlmann explained the effect that these statistics have on poor minority communities, specifically black communities.
A majority of the men in these communities cannot find employment because of their felony records, and many of the young men are not present as they are imprisoned. Because of this, women have limited choices and there are single parents, many of whom lose their benefits.
The heightened rate of incarceration for black women leaves many children in the care of someone other than their mother. Mothers make up 75% of all incarcerated women in this country, and 52% of incarcerated men have children.
The poverty that black communities face causes a lower education rate, higher drug use, violence and mental health issues.
These issues are “not associated with minority communities, but with the poverty,” Dr. Kuhlmann said.
Children growing up in these stressed environments are more likely to experience physical, emotional, and mental health issues in the future. The prevalency of adverse childhood experiences in the U.S. population is high in general but staggering in minority communities.
“We have to acknowledge here a vicious circle…This incarceration rate cannot be assigned to individuals alone,” Dr. Kuhlmann concluded.
Dr. Haslauer concluded this forum with a presentation on the school-to-prison pipeline.
She explained that disproportionately high numbers of children of color are incarcerated compared to white children.
Students who enter the juvenile justice system are generally poor academic achievers who have not graduated high school and have a history of suspension or expulsion.
From this, Dr. Haslauer determined that children not in school are more likely to end up in prison.
Low academic achievement and higher suspension rates disproportionately affect children of color, with 28% of black children not completing a high school education.
Dr. Haslauer explained that disparity begins in preschool. Black children make up 18% of all preschool children but make up almost half of the out of school suspension rate.
Similarly, 41% of expelled students were part of the 9% of black students attending school in the US. Dr. Haslauer shared that the biggest issue here is stereotypes and implicit bias.
The teacher population is mostly white in the US, and most of these teachers have only stereotypes to rely on when working with minority students.
She offers as a solution to this problem the use of culturally responsive teaching.
In this practice, the teacher must realize their implicit bias and turn their own misunderstanding around.
It helps once a white teacher can understand that many black children act out in schools as a reaction to the school environment to which they feel they do not belong.
They begin to perceive education as inherently white and refuse to be involved because white is all they see.
However, if a teacher employs culturally responsive teaching, black children can identify education as a mode of empowerment.
Dr. Haslauer also expressed how absurd it is to be surprised when majorly underfunded schools serving mostly minority students do not produce high academic opportunity.
As an example, she explained how Teach for America is a nice thought in theory, but in reality, it puts students without degrees in underfunded classrooms to teach for a few years before moving on with all of the knowledge they learned while there.
This does not help the underfunded schools and students, but rather, serves as a steppingstone for the student teacher.
Another big problem is the school resource officers. Dr. Haslauer shared that, more often than not, police in schools arrest children.
When police are present in schools, children are five times more likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct.
This presence does not improve behavioral outcomes however, but actually serves to criminalize children and push students out of the school system.
In the US, there are 14 million students in school with a police presence but no counselor, psychologist, or nurse.
While police presence has not been helpful to students, counselors have been found to improve academic achievement.
Dr. Haslauer addressed the Zero-Tolerance policy of many schools, which is highly up to interpretation. She posited that restorative justice policies work better as they help children understand and improve their behavior.
She concluded that what children really need is help dealing with the traumas they already have, not more traumatizing action.