The United States boasts the largest number of incarcerated minorities of any nation, according to statistics presented by the Cornell student organization Prison Reform and Education Project during a panel discussion Dec. 4.
The expansion of the prison industrial complex has been driven less by profit motives and more by the disadvantaging of a tremendous sector of society, said panelist Rob Scott, executive director of the Cornell Prison Education Program.
“We have 65 million people in the U.S. with criminal records who are discriminated against legally when seeking employment. … There’s no millionaires created through direct prison employment, but there are a lot of people that are rendered a sort of permanent underclass,” Scott said.
Paula Ioanide, associate professor at Ithaca College’s Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity, argued that the prison industrial complex exists because of the cultural paradigms, or set of ideas, upon which our justice system is built.
“We are the ones who fear and have been taught to fear whatever our notions of crime and criminality are, and those embodied feelings manifest in a state of complicity or a state of silence around what the state has pushed to do,” she said.
Joe Margulies, visiting professor of government and law at Cornell, agreed that the mass incarceration system is supported by current societal beliefs and ideas about the role of the justice system.
“Rather than conceptualizing society as [comprising] people who are all presumptively equal and free to be left unmolested by the state, we envision society as comprised of ‘us’ who need to be protected from ‘them,’” he said. “Who ‘them’ is always changes, but if that’s the way you conceive society, you will need to empower one group to be the protectors, and that is the state – that is the coercive arm of the state, the apparatus of police and the prosecutors.”
A practicing criminal defense and civil rights lawyer for decades, Margulies admitted his astonishment at the grand jury’s decision not to indict the officers involved in the recent Eric Garner case.
“People who have lived in the terror state under mass surveillance saw this as what happens every day, as what’s been happening for generations,” said Travis Gosa, assistant professor of Africana studies. “One of the surprising things for me is perhaps how surprised people were that there are militarized police departments.”
Gosa said he was more disturbed by the escalation of surveillance in American society: “We have to deal with what is becoming a police state in which everything we do is being recorded, put on record and at any point can be recalled as a way to criminalize, not just black and brown Americans, but all Americans,” he said.
Ioanide, reflecting on the type of paradigm shift the anti-prison movement aims to create, asked: “What other forms of accountability might there be in the world besides locking people up and permanently disenfranchising them as a class of people?”
Each of the panelists agreed that young people, including Cornell students, will have to play a large role in stopping prison expansion. Gosa suggested pressuring important institutions like Cornell to divest from corporations who benefit from mass incarceration, while Scott challenged everyone to include discussions about race and inequality in their daily lives.
The event was co-sponsored by the Africana Studies and Research Center, Black Students United, the Cornell Roosevelt Institute and the Cornell Public Service Center.
Robert Johnson ’17 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.