October 15, 2007

Number of Black Inmates on the Rise

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Late last month, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report revealing that more than three times the number of black Americans live in prison as in college dorms.
The news is not shocking to black student leaders at Cornell, who along with the rest of the country have seen the number of black prisoners increase dramatically since the 1980s.
“The study seems like a complete oversimplification of the issue — in light of all the current cases of discrimination we have seen in our local community, this shouldn’t be a surprise,” said Kalisa Martin ’08, senior advisor of the prison activist coalition at Cornell.
Martin emphasized that while education and opportunity are important factors that have contributed to the rise in the number of black prisoners in the United States, the system itself is racist. She said that police surveillance is typically much higher in predominantly black communities, and often, teachers have different expectations of their black students.
“The Ithaca city school district is a prime example; some students are able to succeed, but others are treated differently because of their race,” said Martin, who two years ago began the Prison Activist Coalition with a group of other women of color to visit McCormick, a local maximum security detention center for juvenile males.
While the census study focused on prisoners of age 25 and older, Amanda Colon ’08, a member of the Coalition, emphasized the importance of reaching out to young offenders.
“A lot of people need rehab and support. A lot of juvenile offenders need support and better guidance so that the do not fall into the patterns of recidivism which put them on a path to more serious time as their lives progress. If necessary, I think every person at Cornell should go visit a local facility and talk to the kids there or the men and women there. The way we think of criminals in this society is completely dehumanized and maybe we need a little more humanity in the picture so that we can start to care for real,” Colon said.
Although she saw the census results as a way to highlight the infamous “school to prison pipeline,” Colon was also critical of the study.
“Comparing the number of people in prison to people in college I feel can add more fuel to a conservative fire, like black people and Latino people are too criminal to get their lives together and go to college like decent people. How about looking at the numbers who are nonviolent drug offenders? I bet that will change the way you look at this population,” Colon said.
The study also examined gender populations in prisons and found that 90 percent of U.S. prisoners are male. Meanwhile, the majority of black students at Cornell are females, and Martin admitted that it has been difficult to get males involved in the Prison Activist Coalition.
Funmi Ojetayo ’08, a member of the board of directors of pan-African scholars at Cornell, said he sees an equal balance of male and female black student leaders at Cornell. Still, Ojetayo recognized the pressures placed on black people of both genders due to the historical break-down of the black family unit.
“People may say, ‘get over it,’ but the past 400 years in America — of slavery, of oppression— affect us today. If we define freedom as the ability to vote, we can look at prisons as a new form of slavery: Prisoners are free labor, and they lose their voting rights,” he said.
He spoke of the judgment he faces as a young black man, and the connection and hope he has for his race.
“Out of any people, black people epitomize America through their success despite adversity — to use the expression, ‘their ability to make lemonade out of lemons.’ We don’t have the chance to just blend in,” Ojetayo said.
In light of the census study, Amma Aboagye ’08 cited the importance of education to help break the cycle of disproportionate black imprisonment. Growing up in Capital Heights, Md., Aboagye tested into a magnet school, but her younger brothers did not. The school system in Capital Heights was so troubled that her parents sent the boys back to boarding schools in their native Ghana to avoid the public schools in the area.
“My brother scored high on standardized tests but got low grades, and his teachers developed an attitude towards him, so he felt, ‘I don’t care; no matter what I do I’m guilty.’ In kindergarten to second grade, children form their identity, and urban public schools give kids low standards,” Abaogye said.
Abaogye reflected on her identity as a member of the black community at Cornell, where black students compose 5.6 percent of the population in Cornell’s class of 2011.
“In classes, sometimes I hear people saying about the black population in America, ‘well they just need to, or they should …’ When I enter somewhere I’m always darker than someone else, and other people are removed from that experience. I understand that I’m connected with other black people because of the things I experience and the way that I’m identified … It’s important for us as black people to create a network for ourselves,” Abaogye said.