By Karen Stokes
The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. That includes Russia, China and Cuba.
More African Americans are incarcerated in Wisconsin than any other state in the nation.
Since 1976, there has been a dramatic increase from fewer than 500,000 prisoners to over two million today.
These facts and many more were discussed on Thursday, April 21 at Alverno College, 3400 N 43rd St., at a forum entitled “Mass Incarceration in America: Who’s Locked Up and Why?” at 6:30 p.m. The point of the forum was to examine the effects of mass incarceration on America’s criminal justice system and in society.
Moderated by Russell Brooker, Ph.D, director of the Alverno College Political Science program, the panel featured four experts: Emilio De Torre, director of youth and programs at ACLU, Margaret Rauschenberger, MSN, RN, CCHP, professor and interim dean of nursing at Alverno College, Ron Johnson, Community Court Coordinator for Dane County and criminal defense attorney Valeria Taylor.
“Every time you take someone out of the family, you leave a void,” Rauschenberger said. “The longer a person is gone, it changes the family dynamic. When they come home, everything changes. People get institutionalized. They become part of the structure so long that they become dependent on that structure, causing them to become hyper-vigilant and to trust no one.”
“When a crime is committed, it’s just not a crime against the state. Relationships are affected,” said Ron Johnson.
Emilio De Torres explored two theories concerning the increase of prisoners in the United States.
“U.S. state and federal prison populations have increased due to change in laws. Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs increased the prison population as well as Bill Clinton’s crime bill.”
According to drug policy. com, Reagan expanded the drug war that President Nixon started. A political hysteria about drugs led to the passage of draconian penalties in Congress and state legislatures. These penalties rapidly increased the prison population.
In 1994, Bill Clinton passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act which offered states billions in funding for new prisons, but only if they adopted the “Truth in Sentencing Laws” that reduced a prisoner’s eligibility for parole. By the end of the Clinton presidency, the prison population rose nearly 60 percent, according to MSNBC.com.
Another explanation for mass incarceration is the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), a group of people or organizations with a combined interest to make money by using incarceration to solve economic and social issues. The PIC is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States.
“These organizations have a financial incentive to lock more people up and they have quite a bit of power because there are so many of them,” Brooker said.
Members of the Prison Industrial Complex are not just the prisons, but a team of private prison companies, prison staff, small towns with prisons, companies that use prison labor, suppliers to prisons, telephone companies, uniform manufacturers, treatment suppliers, drug testing and the legal system.
After an hour long presentation, the panel answered anonymous questions from the audience. One attendee asked, “Explain why these issues are important to white people, especially people in this room?”
The panelists had looks of disbelief after hearing the question. But Rauschenberger, who is white, answered, “Any issues that are important to human beings in this society affects every one of us. I’m a little surprised someone asked that.
Crime affects us all; mass incarceration affects every one of us. We are a multicultural society, and thinking it only affects one segment without touching everyone else is delusional.”
He went on to say, “White women are the fastest growing population to be incarcerated due to drugs and socioeconomic factors. The total prison population is becoming younger and more violent. They can’t visualize another life. Whole families have become part of the system.”
The topic of how incarceration impacts children was then discussed. “We have a tragedy every day…the minute a child is born, if they don’t have proper care,” Attorney Taylor said.
Johnson, who has vast experience working with youth, explained that parents need to teach children how to act when approached by police.
“It’s a skill. If you want to survive you need to learn these skills. Be honest, the more honest you are, the more you disarm the police,” he said.
“When someone is incarcerated it diminishes the tax rate, the workforce, the power of family, and everyone suffers. If you think you can incarcerate blacks, and it doesn’t affect white people, you’re deluding yourself.”
But many still believe that the criminal justice system is inherently racist.
De Torre believes the criminal justice system is racist and has been since its inception and that America has a long history of suppressing the vote for minorities. In 1902, Virginia and other southern states made plans to prevent blacks from voting through poll taxes and incarceration.
“Suppressing brown and black people from engaging in our democracy is inherently tied to the criminal justice system,” De Torre explained. “There are 43,488 people in Wisconsin who cannot vote because they are on parole.”
“Wisconsin needs to give back the right to vote after you complete your sentence,” Taylor added. “The time to discuss is over; it is time to act.”
De Torre encourages all citizens who can vote to be involved in the process by voting in local elections. “Vote because people generally do the right thing when someone is looking.”