Soapbox

America’s focus on punishment means injustice, inequality

An inmate performs during an Actors’ Gang Prison Project workshop last September at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco. The president of the Ford Foundation calls for more education and other programs to ease prisoners’ transition when they’re released.
An inmate performs during an Actors’ Gang Prison Project workshop last September at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco. The president of the Ford Foundation calls for more education and other programs to ease prisoners’ transition when they’re released. Associated Press file

From Oscar speeches to op-ed pages, our national conversation has finally focused on one of America’s most glaring affronts to democracy: our shameful record on mass incarceration.

We imprison some 2 million people, more than any other country. In the name of justice, we have witnessed – and, with our complicity, perpetuated – countless, unconscionable violations of it.

Why? Because our criminal justice system emphasizes criminalization over justice.

For years, punitive policies – the so-called war on drugs, “stop-and-frisk,” the “broken windows” theory and the “three strikes” theology – have conspired to reinforce injustice and inequality. Together, they have produced an overrepresentation of people of color in our prisons and jails. Today, more African Americans are part of the criminal justice system than were enslaved on the eve of the Civil War.

To me, this is personal. Many of my childhood friends were cousins – boys with passion and potential no different from my own. These cousins, however, found themselves ensnared in the same cycle that has trapped so many young black men. Five of them have spent time in prison; one succumbed to the depressing prospects that lay ahead of him and took his own life.

I learned very early on that the distance between justice and injustice is frighteningly short. For those who do make it out alive, this retributive and prejudicial system continues to punish individuals long after they leave their cells behind. Nearly 1 in 3 Americans has a criminal record, and 1 in 3 disenfranchised Americans is African American. They are denied the most basic elements of citizenship, such as education, jobs, housing and the right to vote.

Here in California, the crisis – and our opportunity to address it – looms especially large. More than 50,000 people will be released from the state’s prisons during the next two years. It is incumbent upon all of us to help them break the vicious cycle in which rights are revoked and families are trapped in poverty.

In “Degrees of Freedom,” a report released this week, researchers at UC Berkeley and Stanford law schools show how providing incarcerated Californians with affordable, high-quality gateways to higher education could effectively reintegrate them into society.

The reason for this is both simple and powerful: With learning opportunities, former inmates are more likely to find gainful employment. Overall recidivism rates decline in half.

Already, we are seeing a number of efforts deliver on the promise of education in prison. Back on Track, a program championed by Attorney General Kamala Harris and developed in partnership with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, is having measurable impact by connecting former inmates with supportive services.

Others are leading by example. This week, I visited with an inspiring group of young people earning their college degrees through the groundbreaking Bard Prison Initiative. A partnership with the New York state prison system, the program is helping 275 men and women from six prisons remake their lives. We see similar efforts taking hold in Michigan, North Carolina and New Jersey.

For our part, the Ford Foundation remains committed to combating inequality of every kind. Recently we announced a partnership with the Coalition for Public Safety, organizations across the political spectrum working to curb mass incarceration once and for all. We know that in order to ensure justice, we must accept the costs of transforming a system to strengthen communities and improve outcomes for individuals.

Last spring, my colleagues and I were proud to sponsor the first TEDx gathering ever held inside the walls of a California prison. This event gave students at Ironwood State Prison the opportunity to share their stories. “It was while serving a life sentence in a maximum security prison … when I realized I needed to change,” said Rocky Thomas, one of these extraordinary individuals. “I wanted to change. I just didn’t know how.”

The fact is, we do know how. We know what works. And now is the time to rally behind these proven solutions and bring them to scale. In this way, we might begin to restore balance to the criminal justice system, and dignity and equality for all those whose lives it touches.

Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation.

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