On Monday morning, students made their way across the Agriculture, Engineering and Arts quads that were flooded with signs sharing messages about incarceration and drug epidemics in the United States.
The signs were produced by Art Beyond Cornell as part of the first annual Criminal Justice Awareness Days on campus. In addition to signs on the quads, the week will feature educational events on mass incarceration.
Art Beyond Cornell is an organization that brings together Cornell students and incarcerated youth at MacCormick Secure Center to provide “a new means of self-expression, communication and growth through art,” according to their mission statement.
Each of the three major quads on campus shared on a different message relating to the criminal justice system.
The signs on the Arts Quad focused on the crack versus opioid epidemics, including messages about differing responses to the crack epidemic in the 1980s and the present opioid epidemic. The campaign also addressed the differing demographics of the two epidemics, noting 84 percent of cocaine offenders were black while 80 percent of opioid deaths were of white people.
One poster utilized a quote by Georgetown Prof. Michael Eric Dyson, sociology, to explain the effects of the differing responses to drug epidemics.
“White brothers and sisters have been medicalized for trauma and addiction. Black and brown people have been criminalized for it,” Dyson told USA Today.
The signs on the Engineering Quad addressed mass incarceration in the U.S. According to the NAACP, although the US makes up 5 percent of the world population, it contains 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned population, one of the signs read.
One of the signs contextualized the size of the prison population, stating that if it were a U.S. city, it would be one of the largest according to CNN.
On the Ag Quad, visitors were treated to signs about racialized incarceration that focused on the different sentencing patterns between African American males and White males.
One sign explained how African Americans consist of 13 percent of the population, but 38 percent of the federal prison population. Another sign highlighted the fact that the imprisonment rate for African Americans is “6 times greater for similar rates of drug usage” than for white people according to the NAACP.
Mass incarceration is an important topic and it was important to highlight the effects to the Cornell community, Tireniolu Onabajo ’19, president of Art Beyond Cornell, said.
The project was an attempt to counteract incarcerated individuals being stripped of their identity once they are incarcerated.
“People in enrolled in the system, they become faceless. They become confined,” Onabajo said.
The three highlighted themes were mass incarceration, racialized incarceration and the opiate epidemic — were chosen because of their relevance and importance to American society. Additionally, Onabajo thought it was important to address race due to her identity as a black woman.
Onabajo highlighted the special position Cornell is in both geographically and demographically.
“I believe the people on this campus are walking leaders. The people can do amazing things and be movers and shakers,” Onabajo said.
“For long term purposes, it is really important to sensitize this population in particular to these issues,” she continued.
Additionally, since Cornell is located in close proximity to incarceration facilities such as Auburn Correctional Facility and Cayuga Correctional Facility, it is easier for the university to be a resource to incarcerated individuals.
“One of the aims of this was to highlight those voices that would otherwise go unheard,” Onabajo said. “Especially since Cornell is in close proximity to so many of the facilities. Cornell is in a strategic position to be a resource.”
Cornell currently provides support for incarcerated adults and youth through the Cornell Prison Education Program and the Cornell Mentors for Incarcerated Youth.
Throughout the rest of the week, Art Beyond Cornell will hosting other events to highlight mass incarceration in addition to the quad signs. The group will screen the movie Slam at 5 p.m. in Warren Hall on Wednesday, and Prof. Joseph Margulies will deliver a lecture on mass incarceration at 5 p.m. in Warren Hall on Thursday. On Friday, the club will table in Willard Straight Hall.