By Rebecca Edwards ’21 | Illustration by Sam Fleming ’19

Macalester’s annual International Roundtable event has long been an opportunity for students and scholars to come together and take a deep dive into critical global issues du jour through conversations, workshops, and forums.

For the first time, this year’s event—Incarceration (Un)Interrupted: Reclaiming Bodies, Lands, and Communities—is a collaboration between the Institute for Global Citizenship (IGC) and the Department of Multicultural Life (DML).  Sedric McClure (assistant dean for College Access, Retention and Success in the DML) and Olga González (anthropology professor and associate dean for the IGC) sat down to debunk common misconceptions about incarceration in preparation for the Roundtable’s Oct. 10 kickoff.

10 common misconceptions about incarceration

1. Prisons keep society safe. 

The concept that incarceration increases public safety has been highly popularized—but that idea is directly tied to false perceptions about which people make a society dangerous. 

“For law enforcement to be able to keep society safe, there’s got to be some kind of mapping of where the dangerous people are,” González says. “Those are most likely inner-city neighborhoods and marginalized communities across the globe.”

Those neighborhoods are often a product of the displacement of people of color and are frequently stripped of economic and educational resources, McClure says, facing deindustrialization, gentrification, and further political marginalization. Consequently, some people resort to the underground drug industry. And that leads to overpolicing those communities.

“We have to step back from scapegoating people of color and locking them up to make us feel like we’ve done something,” he says. “We know that drug use is consistent across demographics. But those who are incarcerated for it—disproportionately people of color—is a predictable, racialized outcome.”

2. Most people in jail have been convicted of a crime.

In 2018, about 75 percent of those in our nation’s local jails have not been convicted of a crime—approximately 450,000 people in total. What was happening? They were awaiting trial. “Our judicial system presumes you are innocent until you’re convicted of a crime,” McClure says. “But if you’re arrested and couldn’t afford the bail, you have to remain incarcerated until your trial. You could be sitting there a year before you even get your court case heard.”

3. You must be behind bars to experience incarceration.

“You do not need to be in jail to feel imprisoned,” González says. “There are different ways in which communities are subjected to this kind of imprisonment without needing the bars. You create the bars on the outside by limiting the growth of that community, the reproduction of that community—by destroying that community.” 

Land displacement is a prime example of that phenomenon in action. Indigenous and minority groups, stripped of their land, are often carted off to less economically desirable real estate and depleted of resources that would allow their communities to flourish. 

And formerly incarcerated people face new challenges as they rejoin society beyond prison walls: “People out on probation are stripped of their legal rights,” McClure says. “Across the nation, we have 7.5 million people under the control and jurisdiction of the criminal legal system: locked out of employment, locked out of housing opportunities, and locked out of educational opportunities.”

4. Land displacement is an American phenomenon. 

Incarceration and especially land displacement happen worldwide, González says:“Like in the United States, minorities around the world are most affected by these issues. In the case of the United States, Native Americans are most severely impacted. This also happens in places like Peru, Guatemala, Ecuador—anywhere where you have land that becomes an important commodity, there’s land grabbing.”

5. Mass incarceration is a partisan issue.

Presidents on both sides of the aisle, including Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, have perpetuated “tough on crime” policies that led to dramatic increases in American incarceration rates. “Nobody wants to appear soft,” González says. “It doesn’t matter what the ideology is. They all want to appear determined to fight crime.”

6. Mass incarceration is a modern issue.

“In the founding of this country, the idea was to move away from the divine rights of kings and towards a more democratic distribution,” McClure says. “We know there were some contradictions in that. Women didn’t have the right to vote, black people were three-fifths of a human being in terms of proper representation, Native Americans were robbed of land, and those without land were also disenfranchised. Right away, people began to struggle to bring the blessings of this false democracy to the lived experience.” The criminal legal system has, over time, perpetuated a system of incarceration that reinforces mass marginalization of people of color and indigenous people instead of democracy.

7. Mass incarceration is a purely legal issue.

Incarceration is as much about economics as it is about the criminal legal system, says McClure: 

“Relying on incarceration to deal with society’s challenges is also one of capitalism’s consequences. You need so many people out of work during bad times, to release them in good times when you can hire them.”

Despite crime decreasing nationwide during the late 1980s and 1990s, he says, the prison boom has continued. This boom has been called the prison industrial complex. Consequently, while comprising close to 5 percent of the world’s population, the US has nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

8. Incarceration only affects the incarcerated. 

The families and communities of incarcerated people are often overlooked in discussions about mass incarceration, González says: “The children of incarcerated people are seriously affected. We don’t tend to think about that invisible problem. There’s even a perception that the children are better off because they were separated from the problem. It creates this intra-generational contact with the legal system.”

9. I play no part in systems of mass incarceration. 

Public support—specifically through taxes—holds systems of long-term incarceration in place: “We’re complicit just by paying our taxes, but we don’t think about it,” González says.

The taxpayer expense to incarcerate at our current levels is astronomical and unsustainable, McClure says. Most people sent to jail will return to their community, often times no better off in terms of education or attendant skills than when they entered confinement. “At this pace, US citizens will continue to bear the expense of warehousing people in prisons for long periods of time and the cost of providing social services upon their release,” McClure says.  “It’s a waste of human potential.”

10. There’s nothing I can do to fight mass incarceration. 

“Whether supporting the efforts of the prison abolition or prison reform movements, young people have a leadership role to play,” González says. “We all have the social and moral responsibility to end mass incarceration, address systemic racism, and spur economic growth in low-income communities.”

October 8 2019

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