April 18, 2017

Speakers Face Criticism at All-White Panel on Incarceration

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A panel on the American prison system inspired passionate discourse between the panelists, the audience and the event organizers on Tuesday.

Panelists included the director of the Cornell Prison Education System, two Cornell professors, a prison activist and a formerly incarcerated Cornell graduate, all of whom were white. This sparked significant controversy from attendees.

Rob Scott, Director of the Cornell Prison Education Program, said that there exists a grave disconnect between the expectations and reality of prison as a correctional, rather than punitive, institution.

“The word ‘correction’ became a nationwide term to describe what we do with prisons back in the 70s,” Scott said. “That’s a euphemism today, though. The dominant paradigm today is punishment, not correction.”

Scott provided further evidence of this paradigm shift, adding that prison systems used to implicitly involve education whereas today, that is not the case.

“If you look at the prisons built in the 80s and early 90s, there were college classrooms built into them with the presumption that people incarcerated there will be going to college,” Scott said. “[Nevertheless,] no one works in the department of correction in New York that I’ve met have it in their job description to help colleges and universities do things inside because the statute changed.”

While the CPEP has expanded over the years, with waived total tuition growing from “a five digit figure to a seven digit figure,” Scott said the expansion of the program should not be the final goal.

“We are at a perplexing moment where we don’t know if [the national prison population] is plateauing or growing,” Scott said. “But the goal is not having more college students in prison. The goal is to have proportionately more people enrolled in the college prison programs by decreasing the total. We can have a bigger correctional program by decreasing the total rather than increasing the college participating.”

Scott said the punitive rather than correctional nature of prisons is at least partly a product of political trends favoring punishments.

“There was an attitude of punitiveness [most common in the 90s] that had penetrated into politics and was a prerequisite for getting to office to such an extent that there are people out there who say ‘we want to harm these people [in prison],’” he said.

Prof. Joe Margulies, law and government, said that after years of holding such punitive attitudes, the public is gradually starting to demand prison reform.

“We are beginning to see the development of a nascent narrative about the problems of having roughly two million people in prison,” Margulies said. “But why?”

This change in public attitude is driven by changes in the racial profile of drug abusers, one of the most commonly incarcerated populations, according to Margulies.

“Since the white opioid crisis, [shifts in] literally the complexion of the drug user has changed the public discourse about drugs to a public health crisis from a crime,” he said. “And what is happening left and right, east and west, is the amelioration of drug possession statute that is changing how we treat and interact with drug addicts, or take them into the criminal justice system.”

Margulies said that these racial double standards are nothing new.

“As was always the case in history, when the user of a drug is part of a dominant class, the drug is characterized benevolently and addiction is characterized as a tragic mistake, a public health crisis, to be treated with sympathy and therapy,” he said. “When the drug user is considered a member of a minority group — Mexicans and marijuana, Chinese and opioids, young blacks and crack — than the user is characterized by an ominous threat and punished severely.”

The new prison reform attitude benefits white opioid addicts, and at the cost of African Americans, according to Margulies.

“Group that benefits the most from the changed character of the debate is the white addict,” Margulies said. “We have purchased space to talk about criminal justice reform by saying we will shift our focus from people who ought not to be punished, white drug users, to those who should, violent criminals. And in the popular conception, that is amongst white policy makers, violence is a black male phenomenon.”

At the end of the panel discussion, many members of the audience criticized the lack of an African American voice in the panel.

“Thanking you all for thinking about us,” audience member  Phoebe Brown said. “But I am concerned you are talking about black bodies, when the entire panel is white. You are missing a critical component of the incarceration experience — the black experience.”

Other audience members perceived an excessive intellectualism in the panel, which some felt made the discussion less credible.

“In your next panel, you need black voices like mine, or you will intellectualize the shit out of this,” said audience member Khalil Bey. “All the economics is fine, but we need concrete changes.”

The panel organizers found the lack of racial diversity to be a “huge mistake,” but defended the allegedly intellectual nature of the panel discussion.

“We truly apologize for the lack of racial diversity,” Gillian Lawrence grad told The Sun in an email.

“While our event was open to the public and we’re grateful that many non-Vet students attended, as a club of the Vet School our intended audience was vet students,” she wrote.

Scott also defended activism against alleged charges by the audience about the inadequacy of activism.

“I really hated when people say activism is all talks and not action,” he said. “There is action. We actually go into the prison and teach.”