Did you know that one in three US citizens have had some kind of interaction with the justice system? And that the US incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world?

Did you also know that the carceral state of the justice system can shape the climate, culture, and environment of a city or community? By surveilling and criminalizing a person or a group of people – just waiting for some form of criminal activity to happen – the system can force it into existence.

“Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.”
-Coretta Scott King

Learning from Research

In last week’s newsletter, we shared that our team was touring the States of Incarceration exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South on Wednesday. Our ongoing work with The Center for Community Transitions (CCT) – a Charlotte-based nonprofit that helps individuals and families who are or have been affected by incarceration rebuild their lives through advocacy and skill-building programs – continues to unveil issues with the justice system. As a team, we felt that this exhibit would be an opportunity to learn more about the history of incarceration and delve further into the data and stories of justice-involved individuals and their families.

The exhibit was well-researched and covered 30 local communities (including Charlotte). It documented a centuries-long timeline, starting when the US Civil War was over and emancipation was proclaimed. This stood out because the law was put in place to grant freedom from bondage and the control of slavery. Yet in some cases, freed slaves remained a target, criminalizing them and subjecting some to forced manual labor for profit. The exhibit also examined how the criminal justice system operates by exploring power dynamics, capitalistic structures and the injustices that invariably play a role in incarceration today.

Learning from a Credible Messenger

In a recent stakeholder interview with a gentleman who served 31 years in federal prison, I discussed this exhibit. We especially explored the methods in which people were targeted to become part of the justice system. Targeted populations include youth who age out of foster care, poor families, women, individuals experiencing mental illness or homelessness, immigrants, Native Americans and Black Americans. The stats were spellbinding. For instance, 90% of youth with five or more placements in foster care will enter the criminal justice system. And Black youth are overly represented in the foster care system, putting them at greater risk.

Likewise, the rate of incarceration of people based on race was staggering. Per 100,000 residents, over 2,900 identify as Black/African American, over 1,100 as Hispanic/Latino, approximately 940 as Other and 540 as White. Our stakeholder was not surprised by the numbers. He shared that in his youth, he participated in a summer program called CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act). It was designed to provide summer jobs in public service. He had fond memories of accomplishments in this work – for himself, his friends, and his community. Then when a new administration began, the program ceased, and he and others were left with idle time. When a cheap version of cocaine called crack was introduced, it took away opportunities. This destroyed many African-American families – the results were jail or death.

I referenced an article about the most expensive prison system being built today in Alabama, estimated at $1 billion. I shared the obvious concern about the effects of something so massive as a reactive measure rather than a proactive one that could advance education, affordable housing, transportation, and other services or resources. His response was, “The environment is being set up and cultivated to fill that prison even though it’s not even built yet.” This is the business of incarceration and why Americans are 1-2 degrees away from knowing someone in the criminal justice system.

Learning from Reflection

After consuming this information to better understand the history of incarceration, our team took a few days to process. We eventually discussed several topics noted below:

How and why was the justice system formed.
The learning and unlearning of what we’ve experienced or been exposed to.
How should punishment evolve? How should rehabilitation work?
The profits and scalability of mass incarceration.

But the weight of it all remained because we’re programmed to solve for systemic issues right away. We all agreed that this work is not new to us but still would take time and continued effort.

Looking Forward

To be completely transparent, I left the exhibit angry and couldn’t really utter words or articulate my emotions for hours. This feeling stayed with me for several days. Why, you may ask? Because this is a pervasive problem that can be solved, yet the choice is not to. There’s comfort in keeping things just the way they are. Thankfully, I was able to counter what was stirring inside with glimmers of hope.

Charlotte is now recognized as a Second Chance City, aiming to provide justice-involved individuals with a fresh start as it pertains to reentry programs, job opportunities, education and training, supportive community resources, and housing assistance. While attending Freedom Fighting Missionaries’ (FFM) gala this past Friday, this message was amplified, lessening the sting of the deep effects of incarceration toward action by making certain that justice-involved individuals have what they need. FFM, with nonprofits like Project BOLT, are embracing individuals in prison with a network of support to prepare them before being released. Additionally, FFM has partnered with Mecklenburg County, County Commissioners and additional organizations like Hearts For the Invisible Coalition, Another Chance House of Refuge, For The Struggle, Heal Charlotte, and companies that are deemed as second chance employers.

This kind of dedication shows an atmosphere of resolution toward integrating justice-involved individuals into society upon release. However, the question remains of what can strategically be done on the front end to recognize that systems are interrelated. Everyone suffers because of it. Some, of course, more than others!

Note: The States of Incarceration exhibit ends on January 31. It is a collective effort of over 800 university students, faculty, justice involved, and others affected by incarceration.