While the eras of slavery and legal segregation are long gone, advocates for African-American men say their disproportionate incarceration rates represent a contemporary version of “Jim Crow.”
Over 90 congregants and community members attended a Dec. 8 panel discussion at The Jewish Center in Princeton titled “Race, Justice, and Mass Incarceration in America.”
The program was organized by the synagogue’s social action committee. The Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, which has chapters in Princeton and Trenton, was inspired by Michelle Alexander’s 2012 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
“This is the unsung civil rights issue of our era,” said panelist Lily Brent, a student at the Columbia University School of Social Work who grew up at the Princeton Jewish Center. “One out of three black men between ages 18 and 25 are in prison, on probation, or on parole.”
“Our system is very broken,” she continued. “We are losing a whole generation to prison by not providing the services they need.”
The moderator was Princeton attorney and Jewish Center member Bruce Afran. “Though we have abandoned the era of slavery and the era of lawful discrimination based on race, we still practice in another guise those same habits,” he said. “Though we no longer have a plantation society and laws that allow African-American citizens to be treated on a lower economic and educational plane due to race, we have created that through our criminal justice system.”
The panelists all pointed to conditions in the inner cities as the driver of the broken penal system: Teens joining gangs to acquire a sense of family and stability; white drug buyers from the suburbs keeping the drug trade thriving; inadequate education and rampant gun ownership.
They also agreed that the prison does too little to rehabilitate offenders and give them the tools they need to thrive on the “outside.”
Hernan Carvente, a research assistant at the Center on Youth Justice at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York, told of his estrangement from his hardworking immigrant parents as he skipped school and got caught up in gangs. He ended up serving four years for attempted murder. What launched him in a new direction, he said, was a staff member at the Vera institute. “He challenged my pride that I was smart enough to get a GED,” said Carvente.
Eventually moving on to college-level courses, Carvente left prison with the conviction that young people who go through the system deserve a chance to change their lives. “Education is the most powerful weapon I can use to change the world; it changed my life and I am using that to change policy and the way the world operates around criminal justice,” he said.
Perry Shaw III, executive director and cofounder of A Better Way, which helps at-risk youth and convicts reentering society, grew up in middle-class, suburban Ewing. But, he said, being African-American, he learned early on how to respond to the inevitable police searches when he borrowed his father’s sports car or walked in a mixed group of friends at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “We knew the routine,” he said. “Spread eagle, don’t move too fast, or something may happen to you. Don’t give them any reason to try to beat you up or shoot you.”
During the 10 years Shaw worked in a prison, he saw educational programs diminish to almost nothing.
An audience member, who said he had served time in prison, echoed Shaw’s indictment of the system. “If you take programs out of prisons so people can’t be rehabilitated, they go out and go back in because they don’t have any skills and education,” he said. “If you provide education, there is a better chance they won’t return.”
Panelist Ryan Shanahan, senior program associate with the Vera Institute’s Family Justice Program, said the United States has chosen prisons “to solve a vast array of problems that other countries have used public health or social services to respond to.”
Calling prisons a “clunky, inefficient, and damaging tool for dealing with social problems,” panelist Lisa Miller, associate professor of political science at Rutgers University, said, “It is one thing to say people are accountable, but you haven’t grappled with how little is offered in social policy to the less well off.
“Public policy has generated inequities, and it is crucial that we recognize that a lot of urban violence comes of the utter failure of public policy.”
Moved by what he heard at what one attendee described as an “emotionally raw” event, David Newton of Princeton signed up to tutor prisoners. “If Jews have given the world anything, it’s the strength of the community in helping each other and how the broader community should look after each other as well,” he said.