“Nobody cares about prisoners, that’s how it is,” Jalal Haidar, a sophomore in the School of Nursing, said Tuesday night to a packed room in the Hatcher Gallery.
Haidar was one of dozens of students who participated in a dialogue titled #WhoWillBeNext: A Dialogue on “The New Jim Crow Laws: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Hosted by Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, the dialogue focused on the treatment of incarcerated individuals and the effect it has on society.
Participants sat around six tables, which were filled with University of Michigan students, community organizers, lawyers and clergy members, who each debated issues regarding race and criminal justice.
The Michigan Daily was asked not to include any remarks made during table discussions at the event, but did record speakers and presenters.
During the event, Diane Smalley, a local community activist for female inmates, shared stories of young Black men and women being handed half-life sentences for crimes that she said they had clearly atoned for before the end of their sentences.
Smalley asked participants to think about benefits from mass incarceration.
“High incarceration means high economic activity,” she said.
She noted that contracts given out by prisons to private companies for prisoner necessities like food and clothes can be huge sources of income and employment for those who benefit from the process.
Iglesia Martell, an Ann Arbor attorney, echoed Smalley’s remarks and said individuals who are incarcerated tend to be from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
“Judges who have a different life experience don’t really understand poverty or what really drives someone to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Martell said. “People who are incarcerated tend to be people who are more disenfranchised, especially if they can’t afford an attorney and this tends to be people of color.”
During table discussions at the dialogue, participants came to the consensus that economic incentives to perpetuate the system of mass incarceration, along with judges who do not empathize with people of color, create a system in which individuals of color are assigned longer prison terms.
Another participant raised the point that some people believe the U.S. is currently a post-racial society, which in turn contributes to racism in the judicial system.
Maya Finoh, a professor at Brown University, said though that view of the U.S. was inaccurate, several recent historical events — namely, the election of President Barack Obama as the first Black president — could explain why it exists.
“Just because Barack Obama was elected does not mean we are living in a post-racialized society,” she said. “…I think you could make the argument that in 2015, we are living in a more racist America than in 1955.”
After discussing the perceived issues, the conversation turned toward potential solutions. Participants cited education for the young and investment in poorer areas in particular as ways to reduce crime.
Smalley pointed to restorative justice as a way to improve the judicial system, which is a method by which prisoners contact the families who were afflicted by their crimes and apologize, showing genuine remorse.
“It forces rehabilitating criminals to reach out to the family in such a way that the family recognizes it,” she said.
After the event, Nursing junior John Shaver said despite the United States having the highest incarceration rate in the world, he hopes the University will take a stronger stand in helping to create a judicial system that is not critical of people of color.
“The incarceration system in the U.S. has been unnecessarily racialized and has seeked to limit the opportunities of Black and brown people,” he said. “And I hope that the University responds by making some sort of an official stance against the ways that the judicial system has been prejudiced against people of color.”