By Lawrence Lan
Political prisoner and former Black Panther Marshall “Eddie” Conway spoke via telephone to an attentive crowd of students, staff, and faculty to spark Sunday evening’s Ujamaa Unity Hour discussion on prisons and their impact on the African-American community.
Conway, who is currently serving the 40th year of his life sentence at Jessup Correctional Insitution in Maryland, touched on the prison-industrial complex as it manifests in Maryland, where the majority of prisons are located in rural areas characterized by predominantly white populations. He also discussed his work in creating a mentoring program that emphasizes the need for positive role models in the Maryland prison system’s youth population.
Prof. Margaret Washington, history, contributed scholarly analysis to Conway’s lived experience, citing large increases in the incarceration rates of African American males in the United States since 1980. She also stressed the fact that the notion of economic labor cannot be divorced from that of incarceration.
“With the current [economic] situation being what it is, African Americans are no longer needed as laborers. When a huge population that has always served as labor no longer serves that function, what do you do with the surplus labor?” Washington said. “From an economic perspective, prison is a form of slavery, or you can say it’s a form of concentration camp.”
The historical context provided the framework for Prof. Mary Katzenstein, government, to contest the notion that prisons offer local benefits to their surrounding communities in the form of employment opportunities. She cited the example of Five Points Correctional Facility, saying that high-paying prison jobs discourage the predominantly white local population from pursuing higher education.
Speaking to the perception that prison successfully rehabilitates inmates, Katzenstein pointed out that people who spend long periods of time in prison exhibit the lowest rates of recidivism, while those who spend brief periods of time in prison most commonly become repeat offenders.
Jim Schechter, executive director of the Cornell Prison Education Program, added to the discussion, noting the strides that the program has made at Auburn Correctional Facility and Cayuga Correction Facility since its inception, especially for the prisoners. The program provides a pathway to an Associate of Arts degree for men incarcerated at the Auburn and Cayuga Correctional Facilities.
“[The Cornell Prison Education Program] contributes to people’s self-esteem in what we all recognize is an otherwise dehumanizing environment,” he said, adding that the classroom functions as a “sanctuary” from the rest of the prison experience.Cornell faculty who participate in the program report a higher level of engagement from the inmates than from Cornell students, according to Schechter.
“There’s no sense of entitlement, no Blackberries, no laptops,” Schechter said. “The students at Auburn come to class having done the readings two, maybe three, times.”
Janet Nwaukoni ’12, president of Project Lansing, and Adam Baratz ’11, president of Art Beyond Cornell, explained the work their organizations do on campus to immediately address the needs of prisons near Ithaca.
Members of Project Lansing interact weekly with young females at Lansing Residential Center to build mentorships and friendships that foster intellectual and personal growth. Members of Art Beyond Cornell bring weekly art lessons to Lansing Residential Center and MacCormick Secure Center to offer a means of expression and growth for the institutionalized youth.
“We want these young women [at Lansing Residential Center] to know that there are African American females who come from similar backgrounds and that it’s possible to succeed,” Nwaukoni said.
“These facilities are extraordinarily understaffed, and Cornell has such a vast array of resources to help fill that void,” Baratz said. “The work we do is really important because the youth there really look forward to it each week.”
Ken Glover, residence hall director of Schuyler House and former residence hall director of Ujamaa, identified flaws with the prison system.
“If you wanted to change the rates of recidivism, you’d require [inmates] to get a GED,” Glover said, referring to a statistic mentioned by Schechter that approximately 250 out of 1,800 inmates at Auburn Correctional Facility have GEDs or high school diplomas. “How can you support your kids [when you get out of prison] if you can’t get a GED and you can’t get a job?”
He also brought the discussion back to Conway and the issue of political prisoners.
“The question of political prisoners goes beyond the context of the United States,” Glover said, citing notable political prisoners including Nelson Mandela, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Patrice Lumumba. “Whenever there’s been a movement for social change, people who speak out [for change] are imprisoned.”
“The discussion revealed how prevalent the incarceration system is just in upstate New York,” Khamila Alebiosu ’13 said. “While we like to stay within the Cornell bubble, there’s so much we can do to reach out and change this system that has dehumanized and degraded people that have come largely from the African American community.”
Theoria Cason, the residence hall director of Ujamaa, found the discussion informative and saw hope in the various Cornell programs that try to address needs of institutionalized people in local facilities.
“This discussion helped me recognize the dissonance that exists between Ithaca and the facilities that lie just 20 minutes down the road,” she said. “I really appreciate the work that is being done in the immediate areas around Ithaca.”
The discussion, entitled “Prisons and Race: The Impact On Our Community,” was organized by Black Students United.
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