Pondering questions of prison populations

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Students gathered in the Wool Ballroom on the afternoon of Wednesday, Nov. 12, to discuss the controversial issue of race within the U.S. prison system. Hosted by the Cross Cultural Center, the week-long exhibit ended with a panel discussion to promote Saint Louis University’s annual Diversity Awareness Month.

The dialogue specifically addressed the racially unequal incarceration rates, the criminalization of young African American males and the effects it has on society, especially within the black community.

“When the laws changed, hearts did not,” said Christi Griffin, a panel member and author of book “Incarceration in Black and White.” Though the African-American Civil Rights Movement led to many law changes, the reactions from the white public were often negative.

“1 in 3 black men can expect to go to jail,” said Joshua Jones, Master of Social Work candidate and Cross Cultural Center graduate assistant for the African American Male Scholars Initiative. Jones, moderator of the discussion, presented the panel with a variety of questions to tackle, and he also provided facts and statistics for the audience in order to help the people better understand the gravity of the situation.

The panel consisted of scholars from various backgrounds in the SLU and St. Louis communities, including Stefan Bradley, Ph.D., Director of African American Studies; Justin Hansford, J.D., professor of law; Stephen Hanlon, J.D., professor of law; and Anders Walker, J.D., professor of law; Trevin Jones doctoral candidate in American Studies and Christi Griffin.

The group repeatedly pointed out that a huge problem consists of whom Americans perceive as criminals. For example, consider a SLU student caught with drugs on campus, versus the same person getting caught with drugs four blocks away from campus. If caught at SLU, the student will face suspension and counselling sessions. However, the same person caught four blocks away would be treated as a criminal and go to jail. The panel showed that in one situation, we perceive the person as a student in need of education, and in the other, he or she is a criminal who needs to go to jail.

Brenda Suhan, a sophomore attendee, added, “I never thought about how we perceive criminals and how race plays such a huge role. Sometimes it is easy to think that all criminals are bad, and that is not the case.”

Another flaw is within the public school system. Nearly 70 percent of those in prison did not graduate from high school. Most high schools have a zero-tolerance policy, which means that if you get into a fight, you are kicked out automatically. There is no second chance, which leads to many being kicked out of high school, and as a result, having a higher chance of ending up in prison.

However, the panel remained optimistic at the end. When asked how the SLU community can challenge mass incarceration, the panel agreed that the first thing to do is to believe the problem exists. The members said students need to have an awareness of these topics and do their research to be well informed. Another important component, according to the panel, is to combat mass incarceration is to figure out ways to reinsert past criminals into society. Past offenders, the panel asserted, are still citizens and instead of blocking their way back into society, which could lead to more violence; America needs to help them adjust.

SLU has also adopted a prison program, which aims to provide education to prison staff and people incarcerated in Missouri.