‘Critical Conversations’ examines the role race plays in incarceration

The Daily Reveille photo by Mariel Gates -- Michelle Alexander speaks at LSU on March 14, encouraging students to mobilize to stop the mass incarceration of African Americans.
The Daily Reveille photo by Mariel Gates -- Michelle Alexander speaks at LSU on March 14, encouraging students to mobilize to stop the mass incarceration of African Americans.

America’s high incarceration rate among African Americans is the greatest issue of the 21st century, civil rights author and lawyer Michelle Alexander insists.

Alexander, a professor at Ohio State University, calls this phenomena “The New Jim Crow,” a phrase she used in the title of her 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

LSU students have been discussing the book as part of the university’s “Critical Conversations: The Cradle to Prison Pipeline” program, which brought Alexander to campus recently. She spoke to an audience of about 300 this month at the Student Union.

“Critical Conversations: The Cradle to Prison Pipeline” is designed to teach students, faculty, staff, and public about mass incarceration in the U.S. and Louisiana and prompt efforts to pursue social justice in the federal and state criminal justice systems, said Kourtney Gray, a Campus Life graduate assistant who helps head the program.

Campus Life began planning “Critical Conversations” in August, picking the focus of “The Cradle to Prison Pipeline,” for the 2013 year, Gray said. The 2014 program focus has not been discussed yet, he said.

In addition to speakers and book discussions, “Critical Conversations” offers service projects and a film series, where participants screen such films as “Serving Life,” “The Interrupters” and “The Experiment.”

“Critical Conversations” will continue with a panel discussion of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 on April 17 and again on April 23 with the screening of “Slavery by Another Name,” a film by Sam Pollard, which documents forced labor in Southern prisons.

African Americans are “warehoused” in prison systems as “second-class citizens, stripped of their rights like their grandparents before them” during the Jim Crow era, named after laws at the time, which abridged the basic rights of blacks, Alexander said.

“The mass incarceration of colored poor people is the most pressing social issue of our time,” she said. “Today, we have a new regime of racial and social control.”

Alexander challenged her listeners and readers to rise to the challenge of dismantling mass incarceration.

She emphasized that many of those convicted lose their right to vote and are discriminated against when trying to find jobs once they leave prison.

“By labeling it the ‘New Jim Crow,’ I wanted people to confront a new reality,” Alexander said. “There is no denying we’ve created a vast new system of racial and social control.”

Alexander advocated for a change in laws and social policy to cut prison sentences for nonviolent crimes and decriminalize drugs, keeping users from overcrowding prisons. Drivers who speed on the interstate put more lives in danger than a person using marijuana, she added.

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world, trumping such oppressive regimes as Iran, and making the conversation in Louisiana especially important, Alexander said.

“Louisiana prisons and jails are overflowing with people serving long sentences for minor nonviolent crimes,” she said, noting that the majority of those behind bars are African Americans.

Middle class people find themselves in drug treatment while the poor find themselves in jail, she said, additionally criticizing Louisiana’s repeat offender laws that allow juries to sentence third-time offenders to life in prison, regardless of the nature of their crimes.

Alexander urged students to get involved by banding together to form such coalitions as Students Against Mass Incarceration.

LSU sophomore Stephen Waida, of Katy, Texas, said he agreed with much of what Alexander says about incarceration, but thought the author puts too much emphasis on race.

“Race should be important, but it’s the wrong way to go about it,” he said.

Junior Melanie Derefinko of Erie, Pa., said she had read Alexander’s book and believes her speech was better.

“Sometimes she goes overboard in the book,” she said, emphasizing the speech was more uplifting.

Alexander left the audience with a plea to treat convicts with humanity, rather than seeing them only for their legally established label of criminal.

“I want people to care about those who have been labeled criminals. They’re the one group we have permission to hate. The truth is, we are all criminals,” she said. “Virtually everyone who becomes an adult has violated the law. … We have all made mistakes in our lives.”