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On Wednesday night, the Carceral State Project hosted a roundtable discussion in Hatcher Graduate Library to discuss how incarceration affects various communities and how to repair the resulting damage. Established in 2016 by Professor Heather Ann Thompson and the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, the Carceral State Project brings together members of the community to research and discuss mass incarceration in the United States. The event drew about 100 attendees and is the fifth event in their symposium series.
Ashley Lucas, member of the CSP Steering Committee and associate professor of Theatre & Drama at the Residential College, hosted the event. She explained why she believes the work of her organization, and that of the featured panelists, is so important in today’s political climate.
“We are living in a moment of extraordinary crisis,” Lucas said. “With the highest incarceration rates in the world’s history, this is a time that I believe we will look back on with the sorrow and shame with which we now view slavery.”
The first question presented to the panel was about their personal experiences with the carceral state and how those experiences affected their lives.
Natalie Holbrook, program director of the Michigan Criminal Justice Program, was the first panelist to talk. She explained how the carceral state affects everyone — both people who have relationships with inmates and those who have no direct connection to the criminal justice system.
Holbrook specifically discussed the connection a prison can have with the place it is located.
“I think that we don’t realize how much prisons become parts of whole communities where everybody knows somebody who works at the prison,” Holbrook said. “It goes unrecognized, but it is totally part of the landscape.”
Kathie Gourlay, whose son has previously been incarcerated, explained the effect his incarceration had on her and her family. Gourlay also discussed her belief families should be taken into account by the justice system. While her son was being tried, her family wrote letters to explain how his absence could affect them, but the judge said they couldn’t be considered in the case.
Gourlay also explained the challenges of communicating with her son while he was in prison because of the barriers the carceral state had imposed.
“Once you’re in prison they don’t care about the family,” she said. “The only time they’ll tell you anything is if your family member is almost dead.”
Melnee McPherson, who received a PhD in sociology from the University, spoke about her experience taking care of her brother’s children while he was incarcerated and the struggles she encountered.
“Every three or four weeks the social workers flipped over,” McPherson said. “The system is really screwed up. The system that is supposed to be helping young people especially — it doesn’t work.”
The last panelist to speak was Aaron Suganuma, who served four and a half years in prison and now works as a substance abuse counselor and the executive director of A Brighter Way, a non-profit organization that provides assistance to individuals transition back into society.
Suganuma explained the obstacles he faced as a felon, especially when trying to secure housing. Suganuma said McKinley, one of the largest landlords in the area, will not rent to felons, and other landlords use McKinley’s standards.
Suganuma also discussed how his previous incarceration affected his choices when applying to colleges.
“I ended up not going to school here and not going to school at Wayne State University, even though I was accepted, because of the admissions process,” Saginuma said. “I felt like I was discriminated against, I felt like I was unwelcome.”
When asked about the effect incarceration had on familial relationships, both Suganuma and McPherson felt they could persist through incarceration. Suganuma used the example of his mother, while McPherson discussed her brother and his kids.
“My mom was engaged in my life, at least, she tried to be,” Suganuma said. “The funny thing is, at least because of the carceral state, she always knew where to find me.”
McPherson explained her brother was mentally ill and a substance abuser, but this didn’t keep his children from seeing him.
“Even though he was mentally ill and a substance abuser, they still loved their father,” she said. “Children love their parents.”
Gourlay believed prisons were a huge detriment to the formation of community, something she personally experienced while her son was incarcerated. She explained the carceral state prevented formation of communities between prisoners, as well as with those on the outside.
“I think prisons are the opposite of community,” Gourlay said. “Their purpose is to destroy community and communication.”
The symposium concluded with audience questions, one of which asked about the importance of discussing racism when talking about the criminal justice system.
Holbrook answered the question first and explained she believed that race is extremely important to the discussion about mass incarceration and the carceral state. She also expressed her frustration at the lack of diversity among those attempting to solve the problem.
“We have to think about who’s at leadership tables for organizations,” Holbrook said. “I walk into rooms in policy groups, and they’re all effing white and I’m sick and tired of it.”
Heather Martin, founder and director of the Youth Arts Alliance, an organization that provides young adults in detention facilities with creative experiences, agreed. She then began discussing the University’s connection to the carceral state situation and described a personal example of an issue she encountered when working with the University.
“I’ve had deeply problematic partnerships with socially engaged learning programs,” she explained. “They aren’t structured and don’t have robust training, or any expectations other than that to plant a U of M student in the room is valuable.”
LSA freshman Chloe Carlson, who attended the event at the recommendation of a professor, explained to The Daily that the event helped her understand more about the carceral state.
“People have just hoped that the prison system, they’ll end up there one day and hopefully that will fix them,” she said. “Prison is supposed to be a last resort — not a solution.”