13th and The Central Park Five

The MIT Prison Education Initiative recently hosted showings of two documentaries, both of which I thought were very well-made and eye-opening.

I thought I’d jot down some of the notes I took, though be warned that my notes might not be super cohesive. Think of them more as interesting ideas that were brought forth by the documentaries.

13th

13th is a documentary directed by Ava DuVernay that discusses racial inequality in relation to the US prison system. In 1865, the 13th amendment abolished slavery, except as punishment for a crime.

When the 13th amendment was passed, the economy relied heavily on free slave labor. Once slavery itself was abolished, mass incarceration became the way in which cheap labor could still be acquired through convict leasing.

The 1915 film Birth of a Nation confirmed a story that many white people wanted to hear—the story that black people were a threat and were animalistic. This attitude toward black people was used to justify acts of physical terror that groups like the KKK carried out against blacks.

Eventually, physical terror was replaced by Jim Crow laws, which essentially used laws to justify criminalizing blacks. There was a transformation of criminality within the black community as something noble.

The 1970s marked the mass incarceration era. This was when the number of incarcerated people in the US began to skyrocket. Nixon used the term “law and order” to indicate the importance of cracking down on crime.

The War on Drugs was seen as a crime issue rather than a health issue. It was a way of criminalizing hippies and blacks legally. People who were found using crack cocaine—largely used by blacks and latinos—were given much harsher sentences than people using powder cocaine—largely used by whites.

The arrests of black and brown people were overrepresented through the media. The term “superpredator” became popular in reference to juvenile violent crime and contributed to the fear that made people accept prisons.

After the Willie Horton incident in 1987, there was a shift in the Democratic stand against crime. Instead of the liberal stance that supported weekend furlough programs, both Republicans and Democrats pushed to do more against crime. Policies like mandatory minimums and the Federal Crime Bill (1994) may have been introduced with good intentions but in actuality, prevented judges from making decisions and provided perverse incentives for law enforcement.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a political lobbying group that advocates various policies. Because of their relationship with companies like CoreCivic, previously known as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), many of the policies they put forward incentivize maintaining a high prison occupancy. The new movement of housing detained immigrants has been given a new term: crimmigration.

One of the people that was interviewed on behalf of ALEC mentioned a new policy of sending juveniles home with GPS trackers so that they can be perpetually surveilled instead of having to stay at juvenile hall. To him, these GPS trackers allowed kids more “freedom” when in fact, it seemed very much a ploy to earn more money for the companies that produce the GPS trackers. My number one issue with this person’s stance was his assumption that sending kids home with GPS trackers would solve behavioral problems. It didn’t seem to occur to him that perhaps the problem stems from a lack of family support because either the family is poor or one or more parents is incarcerated.

The prison industrial complex results from the government relying on private prison companies and businesses to run prisons. Because of the incentive structure that prioritizes making a profit, prisons are faced with issues like inflated prices to make phone calls and poor food quality. Long contracts with private corporations disincentivizes them from providing better service.

In my opinion, the most powerful scene in the documentary was a side-by-side comparison of a black person being harassed by a large group of whites in the early 1900s and just a few years ago at a Trump rally. It’s clear that there is a lot of work to be done moving forward to achieve fairness and equality in the US, especially in the context of the criminal justice system.

The Central Park Five

The Central Park Five is a Ken Burns documentary covering the Central Park jogger case from 1989. It highlights the stories of the five teenage boys who were incorrectly convicted of assaulting a raping Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old female who was jogging in Central Park one evening. I don’t feel the need to recount the entire documentary here, so I’ll just say that it was very disturbing to see how many things went wrong during the wrongful convictions of the five teenagers. They each served at least seven years in prison, and even though they were ultimately rewarded with money after suing New York City for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress, no amount of money can ever make up for the years they lost in prison.

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Impromptu criminal justice discussion

The other day, the Prison Education Initiative held an event to show the documentary The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, but unfortunately, some technical difficulties kept us from actually being able to watch it. Instead, about ten of us moved to a nearby classroom and had an impromptu discussion about the criminal justice system. I’ve grown to really enjoy and appreciate happenstance discussions like this one, especially when they are with people I don’t know and on topics that I care about.

Here are some of the things we talked about that I thought were especially interesting:

  • Someone observed that the United States seems to try harder to keep prisons hidden and isolated from the rest of the population in comparison to other countries. This might not be the best comparison, but she also observed that even Auschwitz Concentration Camp was located in the midst of the hustle and bustle of everyday town life.
  • We discussed the ethical concerns raised when architecture and design firms elect to design and build prisons. For example, how do they determine how many solitary confinement cells to build? What should the target occupancy be? What is the motivation for building more prisons in the first place?
  • It is actually cheaper to imprison inmates for life than it is to put them on death row. Two reasons why executing criminals is so costly are (1) lethal injection drugs are very expensive—not many companies are willing to sell these drugs to the US government, which means there is essentially a monopoly on the drugs—and (2) every person sentenced to death row automatically has their case appealed.
  • The Norfolk Prison Debating Society, which Malcolm X was part of back when he was incarcerated at MCI Norfolk has been revived and is very much thriving. In recent years, the prison’s debate team has competed against schools like MIT and Harvard.
  • Back in 2016, some folks at the MCI Norfolk prison held a mock election. To be quite honest, the inmates seemed way more knowledgeable and opinionated about ballot issues than I was. The results of the mock election were actually quite close to the real results in Massachusetts.
  • It was interesting to discuss how different states handle voting rights for inmates and formerly incarcerated individuals, especially because those living in states where felons lose their right to vote permanently may also lose their incentive to contribute meaningfully to society. They might feel like what they do—even outside the context of voting—does not matter because their voice will not be heard anyway.
  • When inmates are released from prison, they are not supposed to have any interactions with people they met while in prison. This includes volunteers they may have met, professors they had while in prison, and fellow inmates who have also been released. Basically, they are supposed to sever all ties with people connected to their time in prison. Even if an inmate built a support network while in prison, they have to give it all up when they leave, which is unfortunate, especially because many of them don’t have people they can turn to post-release.

Even though it was kind of sad that we weren’t able to watch the prison documentary, I’m very grateful that we were able to use that time to talk more in person about various aspects of the criminal justice system. Lots of book recommendations were thrown around, so I have some new additions to my reading list that I’m looking forward to reading!

What I learned from taking a class in prison

This past semester, I spent more than 30 hours in prison as part of my non-violence as a way of life philosophy class. I was one of 9 MIT students who made the hour-long drive from Cambridge to Norfolk every Thursday to attend class alongside prison inmates. I’m still trying to make sense of my prison experiences, and though I can’t say that I’m necessarily a changed person because of the class, I can certainly say that this class has made me think more about issues I hadn’t thought about before, and it has helped me learn more about myself and my own beliefs.

Each week, we covered a different non-violence-related topic (e.g. anger, forgiveness, honesty, and punishment). During our breakout sessions, we would split up into groups of 3 MIT students and 3 inmates and discuss the week’s topic. As the semester went on, many of the inmates started opening up more about themselves, and something I really appreciated was their honesty. The forgiveness discussion was a particularly riveting one, and I think it was primarily because seeking forgiveness from others requires demonstrating vulnerability and opening oneself up to the judgment of other human beings. I think it was at this point when I started developing a soft spot for my inmate classmates.

For my final class assignment, I wrote a paper on how the criminal justice system should prioritize educational programming for the prisoners because it helps rehabilitate offenders and sets them up for success upon their return to society. My initial thesis also mentioned releasing prisoners early if they could convince a panel of judges that they were ready to contribute positively to society. Looking back, I realize that I wanted so badly to believe that all my classmates were wonderful people and that they all deserved a second chance. After all, I listened to them tell their stories, and many of them seem hungry for the chance to help make the world a better place.

To be honest, I’m struggling a lot with writing this blog post because I’m not entirely sure what I think anymore. Transitioning into “stream of consciousness” mode…

My cousin’s three-year-old daughter has nightmares whenever she watches movies or TV shows with bad guys in them, so her parents simply stopped showing her movies and TV shows with antagonists. It occurred to me that I was doing the same thing to myself by convincing myself that there are no truly bad people out there in the world. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt and believe that there is good in everyone. I guess it makes me feel safer, and because I’ve been living in a bubble all my life, that way of thinking has been completely fine for me. But maybe that’s not the smartest way to think.

Many of the prisoners are serving life sentences. I know what some of them are in for, and I still struggle to comprehend how anyone could commit such atrocities to other human beings. Like I said earlier, I have a lot of respect for all my classmates, so it makes it difficult for me to understand why or how they could have committed those acts. I’m experiencing cognitive dissonance for sure, and quite frankly, I don’t think it will ever go away.

I guess if anything, this class has reminded me just how complex the world is and how much I don’t know about it. I’m sorry this post doesn’t have a “punchline” or anything. I just wanted to get something out there before I forgot all my thoughts.