I recently attended the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) NYC Chapter Annual Conference.  Glenn E. Martin, Founder and President of Just Leadership USA, gave the keynote address on Mass Incarceration and the Broad Impact on Communities of Color.  The three statements that stayed with me were “use your privilege,” “change hearts and minds,” and “our democracy got us here.”  (By privilege, he means advantage, or anything that put us in a positon to advocate on behalf of people whom very few others either care about or hear from.)  He challenged me to use my privilege to inform people about mass incarceration, and to end mass incarceration.

I heard of mass incarceration when I read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.  To sum it up for people who have never heard the term before, mass incarceration resulted from a series of laws and policies deliberately crafted to replace Jim Crow, while maintaining Jim Crow’s purposes and benefits.

Martin survived the mass incarceration system, having been imprisoned on Rikers Island in his early 20s.  He described some of the his fellow inmates as intelligent, skilled and ambitious human beings who, upon release, are forever relegated to second class citizenship and in many instances are rendered unable to vote because of their record. Martin encouraged us to use our privilege to give survivors a platform where they can tell their stories so that our hearts and minds can be changed.

Both Martin and Alexander agree that changing laws will only replace mass incarceration with another equally oppressive system.  Martin speculated that privatized prisons see the handwriting on the wall and are thinking about how to keep their prisons full once the current system is dismantled. Martin and Alexander argue that only a change in hearts and minds fosters a real desire to work towards a truly just nation.  Once that inner change occurs, we can take a deeper look at the policies and laws, the results of our democracy, which got us here.  Fortunately, the same democratic system can lead us out of here.  Use your privilege.  Remember to vote on April 19th.  Think about voting in people who have the willingness to end the mass incarceration system.

Rhonda Harrison has just completed her studies at CUNY SPS to earn her post-graduate certificate in Adult Learning & Program Design. She is a social worker with a background in workforce development and currently works as an Advisor at a community college.

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