The New Jim Crow

Conspire alum Lauren Johnson continues her guest blogging series on incarceration, the F word and life in general. 

On September 19th, at Wesley United Methodist Church, the author and activist Michelle Alexander spoke to a full and diverse crowd about her recently published book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She made many good points that I haven’t considered, and I realized again the weight of the stigma I carry around with me. She stated that there was no one in the room that was not a criminal. That even if there were a few people who had never tried drugs at some point in their life, they were likely to be guilty of speeding up to 10 mph over the speed limit, which could cause more harm in the event of a wreck than someone smoking a joint in the privacy of their own home.

I believe that I am responsible for my life and actions and have a tendency of shutting out people who tell me otherwise. Balance is a theme that seems to be coming up for me frequently in my life these days and so maybe I need to find the balance in this area as well.

The story Ms. Alexander told us about her awakening grabbed me inside. She was working on the profiling issue before it had really been brought into national awareness. A special hotline put up a billboard asking people who believed that they had been targeted by profiling to call. One of the potential clients that responded looked to be the perfect poster child. He was well dressed, well educated, articulate, and looked to be the perfect young man to put on the stand, until she found out that he had a felony drug conviction. She was crestfallen and told him that she wouldn’t be able to help him. He became agitated and began to yell at her. He told her that she was just like everyone else – as soon as she heard the F (felony) word, she stopped hearing him. He tried to tell her that he had been set up and framed, but still she couldn’t use him. It just simply wasn’t how the system worked. His words rang in her mind for a while. He found her later and apologized for his outburst , but one morning, she opened the paper to find that the same police officer that the young man had named had been indicted for many instances of planting evidence and similar crimes.

Another topic that Ms. Alexander mentioned was that felons are not afforded the right to vote. I immediately started thinking that the statement was false since I am now a registered voter. As I listened further though, she made it clear that she was speaking of felons who were still incarcerated.

I have never considered that before. Apparently our society is one of the few that strips its criminals of that basic right. I wonder if the politicians would change their tune if the people who are incarcerated had a say.

Which brings us to another topic: the war on drugs was waged at a time when use was at an all time low. That politicians essentially caused what they were publicly denouncing. Both parties became engaged in a tough on crime policy that became a pissing contest with no thought for the consequences.

Our society as a whole has a tendency towards not viewing prisoners as people. The media sensationalizes things and creates a mindless bias in areas such as these. A quote from Malcolm X rings true and loud in my mind. The quote is ; “ If you are not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people that are doing the oppressing.” The media covers crimes on local and national levels and gets the community in an uproar. That becomes the popular viewpoint and there are few that want to go against the grain. I am not saying that some heinous acts are not committed. I am not saying that people shouldn’t be upset when they do. I am saying that we all need to find the balance. Anger and hate are very powerful emotions and need to be tempered with love and kindness.

I am still looking for the balance in my own life. I don’t often think of myself as oppressed since I feel that I am fully responsible for the circumstances that I have brought onto myself.

I went to this meeting to find out how I can do something to bring changes to our legal system. My first goal is to petition the government to stop discriminating against drug felons when it comes to much needed resources that other criminals are afforded. The issue of government assistance came up in the mention of the law that was written to end food benefits for those who had a felony drug conviction on or after 1996. At this meeting, I learned that many states opted out of this law, I’m contacting our state lawmakers to see how Texas can become one of those states. Ideally, I would like to have the law rescinded completely but I am willing to start here and branch out. This is the first battle that I am engaging myself in. My hopes are that this will give me a better idea of how to navigate the system and prepare me for the next one. I am beginning to come to the conclusion that our politicians aren’t inherently bad, sadly they are just playing the game the way it is set up. The game is definitely set up badly and we need to change the rules!

At the conclusion of the meeting we were encouraged to raise awareness about unacceptable practices occurring throughout the criminal justice system. To let our voices be heard, and let it be known that the people we are hurting are our friends, children, and parents. More than that, they are human beings.

I think it is important to give people coming out of prison a real chance to turn their lives around. The label of felon already cripples attempts for employment, so if someone returns to society with no support system, how can they build a new life for themselves? The food stamp law is just one way that we perpetuate the cycle. Once the debt is paid to society for the crimes committed why do we continue to charge interest on that debt?

-Lauren Johnson



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