At the first panel of the Carceral State Project Symposium Wednesday night, panelist Justin Gordon, an activist and University of Michigan alum, asked the crowd of University faculty and students to listen and care about young Black people affected by inequality and mass incarceration.

“Why don’t you all listen to us?” Gordon said. “Why don’t you all listen to young Black and Brown people until it happens? You all don’t listen to nobody, until they make you listen. Until they break into your house because they ain’t got no food. Or because they sell your kids drugs. That’s why I’m up here, because you all don’t listen, you all don’t care unless somebody do something and make you all care.”

This roundtable, the first in a yearly series presented by the Carceral State Project with support from other University departments, centered around the challenge of defining the carceral state. Panelists with expertise on criminal justice and defense, mass incarceration, and conditions in prisons engaged in a dialogue on how to attempt to solve these issues.

Before introducing all the panelists, moderator Ruby Tapia, an associate professor in English and Women’s Studies and one of the Carceral State Project’s founders, explained the term carceral state for the audience.

“The carceral state encompasses the formal institutions and operations and economies of the criminal justice system proper, but it also encompasses logics, ideologies, practices and structures that invest in tangible and sometimes intangible ways, in punitive orientations to difference, to poverty, to struggles for social justice, and to the crossers of constructed borders of all kinds,” Tapia said.

The Carceral State Project is a new cross-disciplinary initiative by various professors to open a new center dedicated to research of America’s prisons and criminal justice system, as well as granting degrees to incarcerated individuals in Michigan correctional facilities. 

After the panelists introduced themselves, Tapia asked them to recall an experience illustrating the importance of the work they do. Ronald Simpson-Bey, the director of Outreach and Alumni Engagement at JustLeadershipUSA, talked about his time in prison and how his experience led him to show mercy for the teenager who killed his son. Simpson-Bey also spoke of how his experiences led him to JustLeadershipUSA, an organization dedicated to decreasing the incarcerated population.

“Being someone that had been in the system and experienced what I experienced, I did not want to see that child being treated the way I’d seen people treated in prison,” Bey-Simpson said. “So I advocated for him to be tried as a juvenile, instead of as an adult … Fast forward, the work that I do now for JustLeadershipUSA, we are committed to cutting the national prison population in half by 2030.”

Mary Heinen McPherson, co-founder and program coordinator of the Prison Creative Arts Project, also talked about her time in prison. She talked about the sexual assault women in prison experienced, and the extreme overcrowding creating unlivable conditions. The most dangerous aspect of the carceral state, McPherson said, is the invisibility of the issues.

“The malignant carceral state is by and large invisible,” McPherson said. “You can’t see it, you don’t know what’s going on back there because they block access to mail, to the phones, to visits, to your money. You have no way of being able to communicate with the world what is happening to you.”

According to Victoria Burton-Harris, a criminal defense attorney, the unlivable conditions McPherson described change the mentalities of incarcerated individuals. When released, the individuals may find it difficult to adjust to the outside world. When prisons treat people like animals, Burton-Harris said, these people return to the civilian world with animalistic survival instincts. For this reason, among others, Burton-Harris said she aims to humanize her clients.

“They’re traumatized, they can’t find jobs and they are on survival mode,” Burton-Harris said. “They oftentimes commit more crimes simply in an attempt to survive. And we don’t understand that, and we as a society tend to judge that … My job is to try and humanize my clients. I don’t call my client defendant in the courtroom. That’s not who they are. They’re Mr. Jones. Mrs. Smith. They’re a mother, father, a husband. And I need the judge and the jury to see them as who they really are.”

When Tapia asked about how the University can use its resources to find solutions to these social justice problems, panelists had a variety of responses. Burton-Harris emphasized the need for people to visit prisons and interact with those communities.

“I don’t think that sitting in a building doing research is going to solve it,” Burton-Harris said. “Get out on the streets. Go to the prisons. See what I’m saying, see what all of us are saying. See what they’ve lived. Smell the air. That’s the research you need to do.”

Simpson-Bey built on Burton-Harris’ point, stressing the necessity of research that needed to encompass the perspectives of people who have lived in prison.

“Research is necessary, and I think research needs to be updated because there is a lot of research out there, but it doesn’t include the voices of those directly impacted,” Simpson-Bey said. “The majority of the research out there is done by people basing their papers on theories and suggestions instead of talking to people who have actually lived these experiences.”

Monica Lewis-Patrick, an activist from Detroit at We The People, also discussed how crucial it is to speak with these communities and learn about their experiences. She urged the University to take greater concern with education and housing crises in Detroit as well as the Flint water crisis.

“You tell me on God’s green earth, why is Flint still not fixed when I’m sitting at one of the greatest engineering schools in the world?” Lewis-Patrick asked.

Gordon spoke about the Ann Arbor-Detroit divide and the privileged bubble of the University, which recently received an F in representation of Black students on campus. Gordon pointed out the audience was majority white, and expressed how people in his Detroit community don’t have the same luxury to attend these types of talks.

“Why is it all white people in the audience when we talking about jail?” Gordon said. “I mean, like what? That’s cool, I’m glad you’re all here to listen … but we don’t have these conversations in my neighborhood, because we don’t have time. You all have the privilege to be up here and take notes and absorb. We want that privilege.”

LSA senior Hoai An Pham said Gordon’s point resonated with her, as she feels students often speak about liberal topics but often don’t go the extra mile in taking actual action.

“I think what Justin was saying about the disconnection between Detroit and Ann Arbor was really important, because I think oftentimes students forget what a privileged place this is,” Pham said. “People often think that learning about things is enough, we oftentimes have the privilege to do more than that.”

To help inspire the audience to action, Lewis-Patrick recalled her grandmother’s advice to fight forces of inequality and discrimination like the carceral state.

“My grandmother — she died in ’98 — and I said, ‘Oh it would have been amazing to be a part of the greatest generation,’” Lewis-Patrick said. “And she said, ‘Baby, listen. The greatest generation is whoever’s left. Whosever left. And then you decide, how do you proceed forward. But every generation must face the tyranny of their day. You’re facing it, now the question is what will you do about it?’”

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