Thursday, June 27, 2013

Incarceration Generation: The Book by Justice Policy Institute

By Victoria Ravenel        

Contrary to popular belief, crime has not risen over the past decade. It has, in fact, decreased substantially. And yet, at the same time, a mass incarceration pandemic has swept the nation, and the U.S. now locks up more of its citizens than any other country. This crisis spills over into the lives of everyone: the incarcerated person’s family, the victims, the courts, the government, youth, tax-paying citizens, you, me, us.  Whether you know someone who has been incarcerated or not, you are undoubtedly affected in some way.

The “whys” and “hows” of this crisis, its rise over the past 40 years, and the weight it bears on the shoulders of our generation is detailed statistically, anecdotally, and graphically in the Justice Policy Institute’s new book, IncarcerationGeneration (ISBN 978-0-9892928-0-1), released hot off the presses this week. The book of essays is a collaboration between JPI and the leading thinkers and activists in the criminal justice field, covering the people most affected by the criminal justice system such as youth, women, and the mentally ill, and aspects of the broken system including specialty courts, policing, and drug policy.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is found in the foreword, written by New York Times Bestseller Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarcerationin the Age of Colorblindess.” She describes her visit to a school where she could almost taste the rage and pain of so many kids, all of whom knew someone who had been incarcerated.  She goes on to say, “In that silence and in those cries lies a truth that we, as a nation, have been unwilling to face.”

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Summit of Help, but Not Change

By Victoria Ravenel

Criminal justice can get very technical, as I witnessed firsthand earlier this month at the Community Reentry and Expungement Summit’s Ask the Chiefs panel discussion. There are so many different stages in the process of trial and incarceration, and it can be hard to follow.  It didn’t help that what was supposed to be a “discussion” was more like a lecture.
The agencies represented at the panel certainly do a lot to help the victims of the criminal justice system’s shortcomings, but the central message of change was lost in the heat of competition.  With every new question came a carefully chosen answer describing the agency’s achievements and credentials.

The fundamental problem was in the composure of the panelists, who were all so distant from the audience and completely focused on advertising their agencies and less on answering tough questions. I’m here at JPI because I want to ask those tough questions to break the mold and make a difference. The panelists were there to explain the way things are, but were unable to detail how real change was to occur. Question after question was dismissed and referred to an agent of one of the agencies instead of providing a solution.

This frustrated me to say the least. But I’m learning that there is much frustration in the work of criminal justice and reforming a broken system.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Sesame Street Goes to Prison

By Zerline Hughes

“Who are the people in your neighborhood?” and “Lady Bug Picnic” are songs that I know from only one place: Sesame Street.  They are songs my children, 8 and 10, know as well – more than 30 years later.

To most of us 40-somethings and below, Sesame Street is synonymous with childhood memories, friendships, sweet dreams and excitement. The show and its creators have been great at delving into issues that help kids fit in, feel comfortable and understand differences like physical challenges, differences in family structure.
This week, Sesame Street unveils yet another project to help us understand life through our varied lenses: a 30-minute documentary on incarcerated parents highlighted on CBS’ “Sunday Morning.” Wow! Using puppets, youth, and personal stories, Sesame Workshop understood the lacking resources for children of incarcerated parents and developed a film to help children cope and families maintain a healthy environment.
“We were really struck by the lack of resources,” said Sesame Workshop spokesperson on the need to create  such a project. 

Mixing fiction with real life, the show will be distributed to therapists, schools, prisons and service providers. It will not air on the actual show.

Friday, June 7, 2013

New Heights for Voting Rights

By Victoria Ravenel

Last Friday was the end of my first week interning for the Justice Policy Institute, but I didn’t spend it at my computer.  I spent the day outside the office helping to manage a press conference hosted by the
Virginia Alliance Against Mass Incarceration, which then led to a rally. 

The topic of concern: giving voting rights back to formerly incarcerated people.  That’s right: after doing time and serving their debt to society, some people in Virginia and three other states, including Kentucky, Iowa, and Florida, still do not automatically regain their voting rights or other civil rights, such as the right to hold public office, the right to purchase firearms, and the right to travel abroad.

An overwhelming 350,000 Virginians have had their voting rights taken away as a result of committing a violent or nonviolent offense. Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell took a step in the right direction last Wednesday by announcing a new policy allowing automatic rights restoration – but only to those who committed non-violent offenses As a result, there will still be thousands of Virginia residents who paid their dues, but still cannot automatically have voting rights simply because the offense committed was categorized as violent.  Instead, they must wait five years after their release to apply to have their civil rights restored.

Faith-based communities streamed into the Virginia State House Courtyard Bell Tower in central Richmond a week ago to support the cause and hear faith leaders Reverends Mark A. Croston Sr., Darrell Keith White, Edward Hailes Jr., and Emory Berry, Jr. speak on behalf of the disenfranchised. They spoke powerfully, praising the governor for his step in the right direction, but also urging him to go all the way by allowing all formerly incarcerated people to regain their voting rights instead of some. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

People in Prison: They’re Just Like Me

By Walter Fortson
Hannah Gu, a chemical engineering student at Princeton University, is looking forward to attending medical school in the fall of 2014.But she has another passion that isn’t typical of your average doctor-in-training: Lu is a volunteer tutor in New Jersey youth state prisons. Under the
Petey Greene Prisoner Assistance Program at Princeton, Lu and other students travel to prisons weekly to assist students in prison trying to earn a GED or college credits.  

“They’re kids who were just kids, forced into this lifestyle, but they’re really great people. They’re just like me!” said Lu, as she recounted her experience to Princeton alumni interested in supporting a national expansion of the Petey Greene program.

Lu is also one of five founding members of the student organization,
SPEAR, which is an acronym for Students for Prison Education and Reform. Through SPEAR, Princeton students and alumni are looking for ways to start a Petey Greene chapter in as many colleges and universities as possible across the United States.