Activists, Educators Converge for Princeton Prison Conference

PRINCETON, N.J. – A group of high-profile academics gathered at Princeton University recently to address one of the nation’s most vexing problems: the mass incarceration of Blacks and other minorities. Sponsored by Princeton’s Center for African American Studies, the day-long conference, titled “Imprisonment of a Race,” trained a spotlight on the prison system through the lens of race.

The conference’s keynote speakers were Dr. Cornel West, the Class of 1943 Professor at Princeton University, and Ohio State University Associate Professor of Law Michelle Alexander, author of the recently published book “A New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

They were joined by scholars from a variety of academic disciplines, including Drs. Khalil Gibran Muhammad of Indiana University, Khalilah Brown-Dean of Yale University, and Carla Shedd of Columbia University, who all support a major overhaul of the nation’s current prison system.

The conference, the first of its kind at Princeton, was conceived by Brandon Bell, a Princeton senior who found himself the victim of racial profiling in his hometown of Englewood, Calif.

Bell, an aspiring doctor, says he was alarmed by the number of young Black men who found themselves in prison. Of the 2.3 million people currently housed in America’s prisons, almost 1 million are Black. The numbers have caught the attention of civil rights leaders, community activists and political leaders.

“If this was happening to upper middle-class White kids, we’d be having a conference like this every day,” said West, specifically pointing out the racially disparate ramifications of mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug convictions.

“This is not a good use of public funds to deal with problems of substance abuse,” added Marc Mauer, the executive director of The Sentencing Project, a national organization that advocates for reforms in sentencing law and alternatives to incarceration.

Brown-Dean, a political science professor at Yale, said Black women and Latinas are the fastest-growing prison population due to drug-related offenses.

“Over 250,000 children have been placed in foster care over the last 10 years because mothers have been incarcerated,” she said.

Due to the mass incarceration of Black men, “a Black child born today has less chance of being raised by a Black family than during slavery,” said Alexander, whose best-selling book has brought renewed attention to the need for prison reform.

“We haven’t ended the racial caste system in this country; we’ve just redesigned it,” she said. “I believe it will take nothing more than a social justice movement to end the new Jim Crow.”

Alexander also said she would like to get rid of the word “felon.”

“The labeling has got to end. We have to stop boxing people in. ‘Felon’ has become the new ‘N’ word,” she said.

Several panelists outlined the post-release ramifications of incarceration: voter disenfranchisement, difficulty securing employment and, in some cases, an inability to qualify for public housing. As Alexander pointed out, convicted felons cannot receive student loans, making it more difficult for them to escape the cycle of crime.

“We have to ensure that those in prison are not forgotten,” said West, who regularly speaks at prisons across the country. “We hate the crime but we love the human being that committed the crime. And that’s if they committed the crime.”

The conference was webcast, and organizers say that follow-up sessions, which will likely include prison reform activists, will take place over the next few years.

Death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal telephoned into the conference from his cell at the Greene State Correctional Institution in Waynesburg, Pa. Abu-Jamal was convicted of murdering Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner on December 9, 1981. He has, however, proclaimed his innocence and his case has attracted international attention.