The Carceral State Project hosted a symposium Wednesday night in the Hatcher Graduate Library to discuss the flaws of the prison experience and the justice system. The symposium, which drew a crowd of over 100 attendees, is the third installation out of six events that will take place this academic year.
The Carceral State Project is a University of Michigan program that encourages collaboration between faculty, students and the community in order to learn about and advocate for criminal justice reform.
Michigan Mellon Fellow Nora Krinitsky, a host of the event, said the goal of the symposium was to allow students and community members to listen to people who have been incarcerated themselves or have a direct tie to the justice system.
“We very consciously decided to decenter faculty voices and to decenter campus voices in order to really hear from the folks who are most directly impacted by incarceration,” Krinitsky said.
LSA junior Sydney McKinstry, who has attended both previous panels, said she keeps coming back because the speakers give her ideas on how to take her passion for the criminal justice system and turn it into tangible goals.
“I think overall, every time I come, I have this sense of knowing there are things I can do to make it better,” McKinstry said. “I think it’s easy here in Ann Arbor, as a white student, to feel like I have ideas of wanting to make the system better but I don’t know how to put those into actual work. So it’s really incredible to see these people have careers all over the world, and to see that there are career paths you can take to make actual change.”
Heather Ann Thompson, professor of Afroamerican and African studies and history, is chair of the Carceral State Project and was another host of the event. She began the event by asking the panelists whether they think the imprisoned have a fair experience in the U.S. justice system.
Cozine Welch, managing editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, has served 20 years in prison and said the justice system is not equitable. He said it criminalizes people of color, those with mental illnesses and other minorities.
“So, we all assume that every human being is born the same,” Welch said. “Assume you don’t have any mental disability that allows you not to compute like an average human being. Assume that everyone is equal. Yet we look at our criminal justice system and we see a large overwhelming majority of a particular type of person that is being incarcerated. That right there shows you it’s not a fair shake at all.”
Asia Johnson, a formerly incarcerated person and bail disruptor at the Bail Project and Detroit Justice Center, agreed with Welch and said the mentally ill are often criminalized. She added many imprisoned people are less privileged than others, which puts them at a disadvantage to begin with.
“When you go into prison, you come in broken,” Johnson said. “Not just because of your crime, but because of your life. Because of what society has given you.”
Gift Chowchuvech, former therapist at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, said most people she met were traumatized as children by the people they grew up with. She discussed how many prisoners never learned how to make good choices and how it affects their odds of ending up in prison.
“Every man that I interviewed had a history of trauma,” Chowchuvech said. “Trauma that happened early in their lives … what you have is a lot of intergenerational trauma because people don’t have those family groups to teach them how to make good decisions.”
The discussion then moved on to mental health and its role in the criminal justice system.
Welch, who has attempted suicide three times, claimed the justice system does not want to pay to help convicts with their mental health and that results in many people never receiving the aid they need.
“Because that requires extra work on the side of all of those involved, right,” Welch said. “And so we (the criminal justice system) have to now classify you differently and put more resources into you or find some way just to scoot you along and hope you’ll be alright.”
Welch said he still feels scared to walk around Ann Arbor alone for fear of being arrested again. He also discussed how fear is used as a weapon in both prison and outside. He said prisoners are afraid of their correction officers, so they act tough. To give some insight on the perspective of law enforcement, he also claimed the correction officers, who are often very outnumbered, are also scared and often feel the need to prove they are in control.
Welch went on to say prison is not fulfilling its main goal: rehabilitation. She argued oftentimes correction officers will punish the prisoners too harshly, and prison itself is punishment enough for one’s crimes. She said, as someone who worked in a correctional facility, prisoners become sub-human.
“Prison is supposed to be about is rehabilitation,” Chowchuvech said. “What we often fail to understand is being incarcerated. There should not be other punishments for you while you’re there. What you’re ingrained with when you come to work in a prison is that ‘a prisoner is a prisoner,’ that’s it. They’re dehumanized.”