Incarceration Nation: Events spotlight movement to end mass incarceration

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By Lissa Weinmann, Special to the Reformer



BRATTLEBORO — The United States has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of its prisoners.

How the "land of the free" has become the "land of the jailed" is the subject of two upcoming events in Brattleboro. Both aim at raising awareness about the human and socio-economic impact of mass incarceration and inform a broad-based national push to overhaul the broken criminal justice system of the United States.

The events are part of Marlboro's College's Speech Matters' semester-long examination of incarceration. The innovative learning program partners with area arts and other groups to foster deep inquiry on vexing social problems out into the community, and few are as vexing or fundamental to our national identity as criminal justice reform.

Speech Matters partners with Guilford-based Vermont Performance Lab to present an Everett Company ``Freedom Cafe," on Wednesday, Feb. 15, at 7 p.m. at 118 Elliot Street, which takes a docu-theater approach to launching community discussion about mass incarceration in America. The Providence, R.I.-based Everett Company has spent years traveling nationally, researching, interviewing police, corrections officers, prisoners and families, combining their stories with the personal experience of the cast, to create a multimedia collage of facts, visual metaphors, poetic stage images, spoken word, and movement to illicit and enliven community discussions. The Brattleboro Freedom Cafe will include representatives from the Greater Bellows Falls Community Justice Center, The Just Schools Project and Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform.

The Everett Company will be in town for a week before Freedom Cafe for a VPL residency at 118 Elliot. Company director Aaron Jungels says it will work out new material and get a better sense of the challenges faced by rural communities, since most of the company's work has been in urban settings. Thus informed, the Everett Company will return to Brattleboro in September to perform a full-scale "Freedom Project" performance at the New England Youth Theatre to combine all the research into a multimedia physical theater piece.

"The Freedom Project calls upon our common humanity to challenge the conditions that have transformed the 'land of the free' into the most incarcerating country in the world," Jungels said.

From 1920 to 1970 the rate of U.S. incarceration remained roughly level at about 110 per 100,000 citizens despite massive social upheaval around prohibition, the great depression and the civil rights movement. In 1970 a steep increase began that now translates to one in every 100 Americans being in prison. What changed?

The 2016 film "Incarcerating US," provides some of the answers. Speech Matters will screen it on Wednesday, Feb. 22, at 7 p.m. at 118 Elliot. A discussion that includes Richard Van Wickler, Superintendent of Cheshire County New Hampshire Department of Corrections and Chairman of Law Enforcement Action Partnership, who is featured in the film, will follow.

The film links the remarkable rise of prisoners back to the war on drugs that began under President Nixon, mandatory sentencing and ill-conceived laws that criminalize drug use. Wickler said LEAP, founded in 2002, comprises more than 250 vetted jailers, judges, prosecutors, narcotics officers and the like to use facts to support an overdue overhaul of a broken criminal justice system. "Violent crime has been going down for 50 years, but we've been putting more and more people in prison ... spent trillions of dollars on trying to create a drug-free society, but you begin to realize it is a mission imporssible to achieve."

Eric Sterling, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, regrets helping write many of the laws that led to mass incarceration. He says when basketball star Kevin "Len" Bias died from cocaine in 1986, drug laws became an election issue. "There were no hearings, no research — we made mistakes, rushed through laws with no thought of the impact ... it's horrifying ... Since 1989 I've been trying to end these laws," but misplaced financial incentives have tended to lock-in the dysfunction.

Tim Lynch, Director of the Cato Institute Criminal Justice Project, said that too many laws have led to the government declaring millions of people criminals. "The system is broadly unjust, so wasteful, so inefficient, that one has to be outraged. Why do we waste so much treasure and inflict so much harm in a society where our credos are liberty and justice for all?"

The rise of private prisons is part of the problem. The industry spends millions lobbying Congress for tough laws that translate to more prisoners. The Justice Department under Obama found that private federal prisons (which hold 10 percent of the nation's prisoners) were less safe and less secure than government-run ones and said it would phase out their use, triggering a swift fall of such companies stock. Candidate Trump spoke out in favor of private prisons; stocks for private prison companies soared after he was elected.

But a growing bipartisan movement of groups like LEAP and many others work where the action is, at the state and local level, and will continue fighting for reform. They are spurred on by statistics showing that crime and incarceration have fallen together since 2008, challenging notions that putting people in prison leads to better public safety.

A 2016 Washington Post article revealed that the U.S. imprisonment rate has been declining for the past six years while crime rates have remained at low rates. African-Americans are benefiting from the recent de-incarceration trend while whites are being jailed at increasingly higher rates because methamphetamine, prescription opioid and heroin arrests affect whites as the crack cocaine epidemic, which more blacks in the 1980s and 1990s has fallen.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that since 2000, the imprisonment rate among African-American women has dropped 47 percent, while the rate among white women has risen by 56 percent. The trend may be linked to a 15-year decline of health and well-being indicators for whites, including rising rates of suicide, drug overdose, poor mental health and inability to work.

A December 2016 Brennan Center for Justice study said 39 percent of people in U.S. prisons were "unnecessarily incarcerated," and that 576,000 inmates could be swiftly released without endangering their fellow Americans. The study advocates redirecting an estimated $18.1 billion in annual savings from reduced prison costs into reentry programs and community policing.

Private philanthropy is playing a major role to build on reform trends, channeling ideas generated from the Obama administration's Data-Driven Justice Initiative to fund evidence-based, alternative programs at the local level that require no action or approval from Washington. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge is a five-year, $100 million project that provides "expert technical assistance in designing and implementing local reforms." The Laura and John Arnold Foundation recently announced it hired the women who were running the Data-Driven Justice Initiative and will continue its work with the help of Amazon and other private tech experts. The Open Philanthropy Project also announced $25 million program this year focused on state and local work.

All this encourages local activists like Mel Motel who will participate in "Freedom Cafe." Motel heads the Just Schools Project in Brattleboro, which provides restorative practices training in schools and other organizations to end the "school-to-prison pipeline." She thinks trends toward reform are positive, but that much work remains and that storytelling and conversations are an important part of that. "The Everett Company's work is powerful because it prompts a real dialogue about the effects of prisons on our own communities. I'm hoping that Freedom Cafe will help us make connections between mass incarceration and our local experiences and will encourage people to act."

Lissa Weinmann can be contacted at lrweinmann@gmail.com.


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