The Challenge of Mass Incarceration Explored

Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, TN. Photo by fteleaders on Flickr.

Cameron Deal, Contributor

On Tuesday evening, the Vanderbilt College Democrats (VCD) and Vanderbilt Prison Project (VPP) co-hosted a panel about mass incarceration, featuring Dr. Rosevelt Noble, Ashley Adams, Bettie Kirkland, and Rahim Buford. With more than 50 attendees, the virtual event dove into topics such as convict labor, the concept of felonism, and systemic racism. Bella Randle of VCD and Jordan Baines of VPP moderated the conversation, trading questions that focused on the expertise of specific panelists before opening up the forum for questions from the audience.

One of the major topics in the first half of the program was that of systemic racism, summarized adeptly by Dr. Noble. Noble, who studies the intersection of race and criminal justice as a sociology professor and leads the Black Cultural Center on campus, described systemic racism as that racial discrimination that is “…deeply embedded in the structures…” of society. He explained that in many ways, systemic racism is inseparable from the foundations of American society. Additionally, Noble used specific examples to highlight the vast nature of the problems that plague America’s criminal justice system, pointing to bail and return to the public as two opposite ends of the criminal justice system that both need substantive reform.

Another topic addressed in the program was that of convict labor. Adams, who is a staff attorney for the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that works to end mass incarceration, pointed to the aftermath of the Civil War as the historical cause of modern convict labor. The 13th Amendment, she explained, ended slavery with an exception for those who are imprisoned. The actual text reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States…” This “loophole” was exploited as local governments criminalized benign actions to arrest formerly enslaved people and then lease them out to companies for work. These local governments were controlled by white supremacists, who constantly searched for ways to control Black people, and their white supremacy evolved to accommodate the times, manifesting in convict leasing, Jim Crow laws, and now mass incarceration. Bringing the issue back to the present day, Adams explained that in many prisons, convicts are paid little to nothing for the work that they do. Buford, who was incarcerated and now serves as the founder of Unheard Voices Outreach, added that in Tennessee prisons, incarcerated people must work or face steep disciplinary action.

The third major topic covered in the program was the post-incarceration experience. Kirkland, who leads Project Return, a Nashville nonprofit that annually assists hundreds of formerly incarcerated people achieve success, pointed to the barriers in dozens of domains–loans, employment, homeownership, etc.–that formerly incarcerated people face on a daily basis. Buford outlined the concept of felonism, “…the social, political, and economic disadvantaging of those who are convicted of a felony…”. He even pointed to the distrust of the formerly incarcerated that even extends to family members. Finally, Buford outlined the democratic limitations of formerly incarcerated people. In some states (including Tennessee), formerly incarcerated people are unable to vote.

The final question of the evening asked each panelist to propose their vision of the ideal justice system. Noble recommended the decriminalization of drugs, proposing that drug offenses be treated as medical conditions that need treatment rather than as crimes. Kirkland proposed expungement of the criminal record after the sentence has been served and the abolishment of parole. Adams proposed support of the formerly incarcerated to ensure that they do not encounter the criminal justice system again. Buford advocated for defunding the police and decarceration more broadly. Finally, he challenged the audience to consider their role in dismantling the system of mass incarceration.

This panel, against the backdrop of an election that centers around criminal justice reform and racial issues like no other, offered a concise and impassioned window into the world of mass incarceration and challenged the audience to acknowledge their room to learn more about this subject and take action.