“Prison is a second-by-second assault on the soul, a day-to-day degradation on the self, an oppressive steel and brick umbrella that transforms seconds into hours and hours into days.”
-Mumia Abu Jamal
A horrifying statistic that always sits in the back of my mind is the fact that there are currently 2.3 million Americans in prisons as of 2020, and this doesn’t include the number of people who are being held in ICE detention centers. To put this in perspective, 2.3 million people would fill up Madison Square Garden ninety five times, the Barclays Center one hundred times, and Metlife Stadium twenty four times, numbers that seem almost impossible to visualize.
In our CUNY Peer Leaders session on mass incarceration, presented by Laguardia College’s Professor John Chaney and co-founder of Black Crown Media and activist Steven “Flow” Pachecho, we discussed its devastating effects on BIPOC, most especially Black and Latine communities.
Mass incarceration is a result of a cornucopia of laws and institutions that find their foundations in white supremacy and exploitation of the poor and working classes. When discussing incarceration, it’s important to recognize that policing and incarceration are so deeply entwined together, as their existences are contingent upon the other. With the loophole in the 13th Amendment that justifies slavery so long as it is a punishment for an individual who is duly convicted of a crime, the genesis of American police forces that sought (and still seek) to serveil and brutalize Black people, and the United States’ insidious affinity for carceral language and punitive logic to create a sense of “criminal inclination” and “otherness” against BIPOC communities, we have entered into the age of a new type of enslavement: mass incarceration.
Professor Chaney explained that a significant number of currently incarcerated individuals are suffering from mental health issues, which is devastating information when you realize that mental health programs in NYC receive an 816 million dollar budget while the NYPD receives a staggering 6 billion dollar budget, which is almost 7 times more than the funding for mental health resources. A lot of the discussions around prison abolition and reform and the necessary steps needed to halt the epidemic of mass incarceration are centered around reallocation of funds, so it makes you question why the city spends so much money on riot gear rather than services meant for the betterment of people living with mental health issues.
Steven “Flow” Pacheco also presented on the cyclical nature that stems from parole and probation and is fed back into prison. He mentioned that most of the people who are in prison are there for violation of parole, a system that disregards the way it’s meant to be carried out and consistently gives power to the people in charge. Parole is not freedom, as it creates this concept of an open-air prison. Individuals on parole are subjected to just as much surveillance, brutalization, and manipulation at the hands of parole officers as they would if they were confined in a facility. And breaking parole, which can be something as minor as failing to inform the parole officer that you’re buying groceries, automatically sends the individual back to prison, leaving them victim to the never-ending cycle of the carceral continuum. The prison and policing system is interconnected, and it’s a difficult system to break away from, especially if you are poor and/or are a BIPOC.
It goes without saying that mass incarceration in the United States is an epidemic that needs to be stopped. It’s a new type of slavery, one that so many Black, Latine, poor, and working class people face devastating effects from (and it’s not their faults either). Professor Chaney and Flow Pacheco’s presentation was super thought-provoking and called attention to so many of the corrupt systems behind mass incarceration. What stuck with me the most was the line typed by Mr. Pacheco:
“We are Kalief Browder.”
Kalief Browder was a Bronx man who, at the age of 16, was convicted of stealing a backpack and held at Rikers’ for 33 months, much of which he spent in solitary confinement, starved and brutalized by his correctional officers. It took the justice system three years to decide that there wasn’t enough evidence and drop the charges made against Browder before he was allowed to come home. In his process of reentry and return to the community, he ended up going to Bronx Community College, a part of the CUNY system, just like all of us. This made the story a lot more personal, because he could’ve been sitting next to us in class. He received exceptional grades in the classes he took, wrote papers about his experience and the need for justice, and is often remembered by those close to him as being surrounded by books and papers at his kitchen table. Unfortunately, Kalief Browder took his own life at the age of 22, the devastating aftereffects of solitary confinement and abuse at the hands of the state playing a significant role in the deterioration of his mental health. The justice system did nothing to seek justice for him, and ended up taking his life.
So where do we go from here? What are the solutions? The answers to these questions can seem so difficult, but I think a good place to start is being educated on the hows and whys of mass incarceration and the carceral continuum. It can help us understand how to combat these institutions that directly target specific groups of people, and prevent further harm to these individuals, because we are worthy and deserving of doing more than just existing.
We are Kalief Browder.