The Carceral State Project hosted its last event of the academic school year on Wednesday night to discuss the future of the carceral state and concrete actions people can take to change the system. The event was part of its symposium series and was cosponsored by Afro-American Studies, History and the Residential College, drawing in a crowd of approximately 100 community members and students and featured a panel of five speakers.

Amanda Alexander, executive director at the Detroit Justice Center and a senior research scholar at the University of Michigan Law School, moderated the event. Alexander began the roundtable by asking the panelists what true community safety looks like and how their definitions relate to the current carceral state.

Panelist PG Watkins, an organizer at No New Jails, said they feel most safe when the people around them are safe and have all their necessities, such as food and shelter, taken care of. Watkins noted many people resort to crime in order to provide for their families.

“So to me, when I think about the times I felt most safe, or what could make me feel safer when I don’t feel safe, is really a lot about like knowing who’s around me,” Watkins said. “Feeling a sense of connectivity and community. Something that I talk about is like, I can feel safe when I know all my basic needs are met and the people around me have their needs met. You know, everything’s taken care of, there’s no reason to, ideally, there’s no reason to cause harm or hurt each other because everything that we need is there for us.”

Watkins continued by saying their idea of safety is completely separate from the carceral state. Watkins discussed how, if everybody supports their communities, the effort to make sure everyone has their basic necessities covered will expand to larger society.

“In my ideal world in the world that I try to practice and be in community with every day is disconnected from the carceral state,” Watkins said. “But I do think it starts with us. Focusing really hyper local, like on our blocks, in our neighborhood, is how can we make sure that we are good with each other, and that will echo out.”

Panelist Korbin Felder, program associate at America Friends Service Committee, discussed how different people have varying relationships on safety and the carceral state. He said regardless of his own opinion, many people feel the criminal justice system reduces crime and are not in favor of getting rid of it completely.

“I went to U of M, I took these similar classes as an undergraduate… we had to talk about race, we had to talk about white supremacy, but just because someone is Black or just because someone’s formerly incarcerated it actually doesn’t mean that they’re going to support abolition, per se,” Felder said.

Alexander then asked the panelists about strategies to go beyond the carceral state and what current projects give them the greatest sense of hope moving forward.

Felder discussed the progress Michigan has already made in terms of criminal justice reform. He referenced his work in other states, such as Alabama and Mississippi, and emphasized how the high attendance at the event is inspiring.

“You don’t see people showing up in other places after hours like you all did today,” Felder said. “Michigan has made progress, I could talk all day about the progress. Sure, we have problems. We spend more on corrections than higher education. It is a huge bureaucracy, but we have made progress and it would be irresponsible for us not to talk about the progress we have made.”

Panelist Michael Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, also discussed his current hope for the future of the carceral state. He addressed how mass incarceration has become a bipartisan issue, which allows for more productive policy making.  

“I am hopeful — I have never been more hopeful on this issue than I am right now,” Steinberg said. “The reason I am hopeful to the point that it is not a partisan issue. …(Conservatives) don’t support mass incarceration either, it’s not for the reasons we oppose it, for humanitarian reasons, it’s for money, they think it is a waste of money. But the fact that we have the same goals makes me hopeful and I think in the next five years we are going to see a huge difference.”

Watkins then said people are too reliant on the carceral state and should shy away from calling the police for every minor inconvenience.

“I think part of what we have to know is we can’t get past the carceral state if we can’t see past the carceral state,” Watkins said. “All that we see in response to conflict is ‘I need to call the police.’ What do you call the police for?”

The event concluded with the panelists suggesting concrete ways for attendees to get involved.

Steinberg told the audience to actively question people who make comments which sustain the flaws in the criminal justice system.

“I would encourage everybody to challenge your family, your friends if they are saying things that help perpetuate mass incarceration,” Steinberg said. “Whether it is calling the police over something that you don’t need to call the police, whether it’s wanting to lock people up forever, or calling people in prison animals. I think it is incumbent upon all of us to challenge that.”

LSA freshman Sarah Sukal said she attended the event to learn more about what she can do as a student to help create change in the carceral state.

“I want to understand how our prison system actually works,” Sukal said. “I hadn’t really heard of the concept of the carceral state before. You think about people being locked up, but you don’t think about what’s actually going on inside the prisons, you don’t really know what you can actually do to help.”

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