Sheila Janeo

Blog Posts by CUNY Peer Leaders

2.3 Million Americans, Adrift on the Carceral Archipelago

Posted by Sheila Janeo on

“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. 

Blog Posts by CUNY Peer Leaders

Land of the Unfree, Home of 25% of the World’s Prisoners

Posted by Sheila Janeo on
Land of the Unfree,  Home of 25% of the World’s Prisoners

Trigger Warning // Death Penalty 

Before continuing with my post, I write with a heavy heart and soul about the story of Brandon Bernard, a Black man who was killed at the hands of the state. He was sentenced to death row at the age of 18 in 1999, and was murdered on December 11th, 2020 around 9:30 PM. I urge you all to read about his story, given that you have the capacity to do so.

With this in mind, it’s important for everyone to know that COVID-19 has now hit federal death row. Dustin Higgs, a man scheduled to be killed on January 15th, has been infected with the virus. This needs to be put to an end. The following link is a website into Dustin Higgs’s story, and petitions that you can sign to help him, and other incarcerated individuals sitting on death row, to stay alive:

I’ve also provided a link to a twitter thread on people who are currently sitting on death row who need our help:

There is no justification for the death penalty, and although the state has failed Brandon, we have the ability to help others who are in his same situation. I hope you’re all continuing to stay safe and healthy in a world where we’re surrounded by sickness, whether that’d be COVID, racism, mass incarceration, hunger, or poverty. I have no doubt that this group is serving as a beacon of light and taking those first steps into a better and brighter future.


“While the United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has nearly 25% of its prisoners– about 2.2 million people” – American Psychological Association

“There are 3 million people in jail and prison today, far outpacing population growth and crime.” 

“African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.”


“1 in 3 Black men born in 2001 can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.”

-The Sentencing Project

Read those statistics over again and allow them to marinate. At this very moment, the United States has over 2 million people in prison and jails, most of which are African American men, and is spending around $80 billion dollars a year to keep them in there. And the reality outside of prisons isn’t so reassuring either, as the threat of police brutality looms around every corner for Black Americans. This is the other pandemic that is currently, and has been for years, plaguing the United States: mass incarceration. 

And this begs the question: Are prisons obsolete? 

When we talk about the obsolescence of prisons, we have to understand how the prison system came to be. Within the institution of slavery came the advent of a policing force that served as a “slave patrol”, meaning that a patrol force was sent out to capture, terrorize, and brutalize people who were enslaved, and Black people who were deemed as free. Soon after, slavery was abolished through the integration of the 13th amendment. However, there was a specific loophole in that amendment that actually allows slavery to exist, legally, which still bleeds into our society today. The 13th amendment justifies slavery only as a punishment if they are convicted of a crime. This gave an incentive for white supremacists to put Black people in jail. As time went on, and as more and more prisons became privatized, those labeled criminals eventually became commodities, because the people who were suddenly imprisoned were no longer considered as people. They were now property of the state. The brutalization of Black peoples’ bodies was a fundamental aspect of America’s police and prison systems. 

When considering the way the United States government tries to exemplify the ways in which it’s democratic, we primarily look at the act of voting. American “democracy” is contingent on the fact that citizens are able to vote on our leaders and representatives. However, the prison system makes it impossible for incarcerated individuals to be fully initiated as citizens. Those who have been branded as criminals are stripped of their right to vote, and aren’t allowed to have a say in who represents them within the United States government. And since the voice of incarcerated individuals has been taken away, politicians don’t have an incentive to fight for the implementation of policies that include rights for inmates (because let’s face it, American politicians operate on an incentive basis). And not only are their voting rights taken away, but so are job opportunities and compensation for labor they’ve done while imprisoned. According to the 13th amendment, slavery is considered unconstitutional unless it exists as punishment for a crime of which the person has been convicted of. So, it’s legal for incarcerated individuals to work intensive labor jobs that can potentially cause serious harm (like the incarcerated men who were forced to fight the California wildfires and weren’t paid or allowed to pursue jobs as firefighters when they were released) and not pay them, which unfortunately, for a society in the late stages of capitalism, is the only way to survive. 

When slavery was abolished, white supremacists were committed to perpetuating this institution that deemed Black-Americans as second class citizens, even if it didn’t outwardly present itself as slavery. Instead, they found loopholes and passed legislation that furthered the disenfranchisement of Black people. Eventually, this led to mass incarceration, the new and rebranded form of enslavement, an institution where almost 40% of inmates are Black. A line has to be drawn here, because democracy should not come at the expense of the displacement and disenfranchisement of a whole entire group of people. For a country that markets itself on the world stage as a free democracy that offers liberty and justice for all, rates of incarceration say otherwise. For a country that prides itself on being the land of the free and the home of the brave, we have an entirely long way to go. 

“No one of us can be free until everybody is free” -Maya Angelou 

Blog Posts by CUNY Peer Leaders

The Institution of Higher Education as a Place of Public Interest

Posted by Sheila Janeo on

This past month, we were fortunate enough to witness the incredibly brilliant Dr. Carla Shedd and Dr. Tressie Mcmillan Cottom discuss the problems of inaccessibility within our education system, particularly that of higher ed, in “Change Series: Making Education More Equitable”, hosted by Dr. Cathy Davidson. 

When discussing higher education, there is this notion ingrained into our society that defines college as the only way to achieve this idea of “social mobility”. We are constantly being told to work hard in college so that we can make more money and have a “good” and stable job in the future. However, as Dr. Shedd and Dr. Cottom highlight, this mindset is both faulty and problematic when we take into consideration inequality, inaccessibility, and lack of resources and funding, mainly for students of color and students belonging to the lower and working classes. Schools across the country cannot be funded equally, simply because each institution has different needs. Dr. Cottom talked about how we constantly use higher ed as an individual savings account and an individual social mobility account. However, she argues that “this only works if it works for everybody”. There needs to be more of a push for funding based on the specific needs of a university because it’s difficult to take care of the students when funding is scarce. 

Also, we’re in dire need of abolishing this idea that higher education is an institution designed to guarantee social mobility. This becomes extremely harmful when we acknowledge inequalities in our education system. Students who are part of lower and working classes, students of color, and students with disabilities are often discouraged from applying to universities. And even if students who fall under these categories are able to attend these institutions, they are often slammed with student debt after graduation, not guaranteed stable income, and still have to fight for a seat at the table. We put elite colleges on a pedestal so high that they seem to forget they exist because the public decided to take an interest in them. This is why they favor people who come from wealthy backgrounds, because that money serves in their best interest, and makes the campus more exclusive to those who can afford it, therefore creating an environment that’s inaccessible to many. Without students insisting on attending school, there would be no universities to attend. It’s time we rethink this institution of higher education as one that is accessible and seeks to serve the public, not just the wealthy and elite. In the words of Dr. Davidson, it’s time to turn that question of “who am I missing?” to “who am I leaving out?”

(Also, I’ll link an article I read the other day about how colleges are reinforcing inequality for disenfranchised minorities. Definitely check it out if you have the time.)
Blog Posts by CUNY Peer Leaders

The Great Big Story Youtube Account Stopped Making Videos and I Don’t Know How to Fill this Empty Void (Alternatively: How do I stop being terrified and sad in a world that’s changing way too quickly??)

Posted by Sheila Janeo on

*scroll* *click on* 


*click out* *scroll* *pull to refresh* 


For the 459th time since I’ve opened my eyes today, and possibly the millionth time since quarantine began, I open up the Youtube app to see if there are any new videos that I can watch mindlessly and end up:

a) pondering the meaning of life 

b) searching DIY bracelet-making kits on Etsy 


c) falling asleep

As usual, I sigh in defeat because once again, it seems like I’ve gone through every music video, asmr, The Ultimate Dodo, best soccer goals of 2012, and Pero Like video ten times over. I’ve pulled to refresh so many times that my thumb has found a way to evade the evils of carpal tunnel. Regardless though, I do it again, just in case something else pops up (much like the way I’ve been opening and closing my refrigerator within 10 minute intervals). This time though, something does catch my eye. It’s an upload from one of my favorite Youtube channels: Great Big Story. This channel explores a variety of traditions, foods, rituals, and landscapes that, when woven together, create a culture. As corny as it sounds, I’ve had the ability to travel to multiple countries and immerse myself in cultures that I would’ve never known about before if it hadn’t been for this channel. And I was able to do all of this sitting on my bed in the comfort of my own home. Anyways, I was hyped up to see a new video, until I read the title: 

We’ll miss you

I raised an eyebrow and clicked on it anxiously, waiting to hear the devastating news that I was able to guess from the foreshadowing title. The various narrators began the video as images of Japanese architects, Mexican dirt-bikers, and Iranian rose water farmers flashed across the screen…

“This is Great Big Story, a place to meet the most fascinating people on Earth. And after five years, it’s time for us to close our doors…”

There it was. There’s that news again. Another thing that seemed so stable in my life, gone. I know it shouldn’t be that serious, because it’s just the internet, but I couldn’t help but continuously mumble prolonged “noooooo’s” and feel sad. And I couldn’t help but think, damn, this is the fleeting world we live in now. Things are changing so quickly and we have no way of stopping whatever is thrown our way. I was pushed into a state of existentialism and devastation. 

With the outbreak of COVID-19, the fight for racial, gender, and sexulity equality, the call to abolish police and confront police brutality, and so many more issues that are seeking to be acknowledged, it can be difficult to continue living without fear. We’re constantly told to be strong, to get through this together, and to get used to the new normal. But I can’t help but be terrified, and I often dwell on the past, and how things “used to be”. At the beginning of the year, I was so excited that I had finally changed my major after four years of pretending to like something that was not suited for me at all, I planned on visiting family and friends that I hadn’t seen in a long time, and I saved up and bought tickets to see my favorite group multiple times across the country. Each and every one of those plans were shut down completely, with no signs of them coming to fruition in sight. And that 180 degree turn was absolutely terrifying. 

The question that I, and possibly other people around the world, am living with right now is: How do I stop being so terrified? When things, and people, are being taken away from us at such a horrifyingly fast pace, how do we prepare ourselves? When underrepresented groups are literally fighting for their lives in a country that masks the suffering of its people with its “greatness”, where do we turn? It’s complicated to even begin finding an answer for it, and honestly I feel like I won’t have one for some time. It feels like I’m harboring an empty void, waiting to fill it with answers that are light years away. 

I guess the Great Big Story served as a stand-in for that answer I was, and still am searching for. It’s like a huge allegorical mess alluding to life B.C. (before Corona) and after. It was something that kept me grounded and let me escape from reality for five minutes to venture off into another country that’s so far from home. With its close, I realized that this ability to look away from things is a privilege in itself. Maybe I will get answers, maybe I won’t, and maybe I’m meant to just keep pushing through and survive, because that’s what’s most important right now. For now though, I think it’s okay being terrified of what lies ahead. Maybe this will be the perfect time to create, and listen to others’, Great Big Stories. Until then, Great Big Story Youtube Channel, 

I’ll miss you too. 

(Here’s a link to the video and their fabulous content.)
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