Liberty & Justice for All?: The Politic$ of Prison


By Don Reed, '17

On Feb. 23, 2015, Skidmore College hosted a panel titled “Liberty & Justice for All?: The Politic$ of Prison” in Emerson Auditorium. The event was presented by Democracy Matters and Co-Sponsored by SUPE, Raices, and Ujima. The student turnout was impressive given that it was hosted on a Monday and just a week away from the beginning of midterms for many classes. The panel consisted of two Skidmore staffers Carolyn Chernoff, Professor of Sociology, and David Karp, Associate Dean of Student Affairs. The event also featured Joan Mandle, a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Colgate University and Executive Director of Democracy Matters. Each of the presenters was given about ten to fifteen minutes to speak before the floor was opened to students’ questions and comments.

Professor Chernoff, who among other roles teaches a sociology class that is focused on identifying racial biases in the American justice system, opened the lecture portion of the event. Chernoff gave a brief recount of John Legend’s comparison of the current state of the criminal justice system and slavery during his acceptance speech for best original song “Glory” from the film Selma. Chernoff posed a rhetorical question to the audience “don’t raise your hand…who likes to get high? Who likes to j-walk? Who likes to get drunk and start fights?” The reminder of one Skidmore’s more publicized stereotypes illustrated the point that drug use among the other crimes mentioned on average is not characteristic of a single group or race. Still people of color are arrested and prosecuted exponentially more than their white counterparts for what are often seemingly minor crimes. Visibility of crimes plays a large role in who gets arrested. People with more privilege are given more privacy and less fortunate people are more exposed for a number of reasons. Prison is not the only problem identified, many people are in correctional control, parole, probation, etc. which also is problematic. Chernoff also mentioned that many members of the LGBQ+ community are disproportionally present in prison.


Much of Chernoff’s argument was driven by insight from Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. Alexander was a guest speaker at Skidmore last year and her work is greatly influential in today’s civil rights community. The book focuses on the “racial caste system” that continues to exist in this country despite colorblind laws. Alexander focuses her analysis on the disenfranchisement of black men in the Untied States. This is done through politically structured forces that use police and prisons to keep many black men on a lower class level while elevating other, mostly white, people. The “War on Drugs,” which was started in the 1970s, is one of the main policies that targets black men unfairly. Although not always overtly racist, police rely on training and techniques that, because of vague criminal profiles, often give way to bias and stereotypes. Alexander illustrates her concept as a “bird cage” with many different bars that through psychological, historical, and political forces perpetuate an archaic system of control. Most of the general public is not privy to this unfortunate series of forces because racially colorblind language often prevents political figures and social commentators from bringing it to the public’s attention.


Dean Karp made a few different points that focused mostly on reform in discipline itself. Karp discussed how mass incarceration is not an effective way to solve issues relating to crime. He noted, “77 percent of inmates are rearrested within five years of their release from prison." This suggests that prison as a form of rehabilitation or crime prevention is fundamentally ineffective. Despite these findings state and federal governments spend inordinate amounts of money to keep them in what has now become the prison business. Many believe that prisons provide retribution and are appropriate for unacceptable, heinous acts. It can be comforting for some knowing that criminals are kept away from the general public and behind bars. It provides a sense of safety.

The philosophical appeal of prison often distracts from the fact that it does not accomplish actual rehabilitation because it does not respond to the issues that lead to the marginalization of people. Karp warns that suspensions and expulsions, especially in public secondary schools, have very dangerous effects. Karp stated that, “68 percent of prisoners do not have a high school diploma." This “school to prison pipeline” is a system of exclusion from education that often puts disadvantaged people at risk for incarceration. Parents more than schools should be responsible for child discipline in order to keep children on the right track for a productive life.


Karp places the system’s solution to most crimes on two extremes of the corrective spectrum. On one end there is mass incarceration that often over punishes people for their offenses, while the alternative occurs when people get punishments like probation for serious crimes and are thus under punished. Karp’s solution is a punishment alternative called “restorative justice." This justice reform concept has been used in different places around the world and functions in many different ways. Karp introduced restorative justice with an interesting analogy. "It’s a bummer when your laptop is stolen by a heroin addict," he begins. The first response of a victim in this situation is anger and a need to ensure that there is retribution of some kind. The other feeling is sympathy because the perpetrator is the victim of an addition and needs treatment. In restorative justice the idea is to find a middle ground between these responses. How to restore what was lost to the victim and rehabilitate the perpetrator to keep him or her from repeating an action. Restorative justice is one of many possible responses. This technique has been implemented in a wide range of crimes, ages of perpetrators, and is significantly less costly then our current system. Karp also oversees the use of restorative justice as a response to student misconduct at Skidmore.


Professor Mandle’s points were significantly broader that the previous two speakers but equally valid. Mandle’s appeal was for more voter involvement. Mandle suggested that college age people should be more involved with understanding the plans and opinions of the people they elect to be our representatives and leaders. Mandle’s opinions are that the government’s military spending is too high and there are too many people with guns. As a result, the police are becoming more militarized (through overflow of military capital) and are targeting more distinct groups. Elected officials that citizens of the United States choose directed these policies. Mandle points out, “seventy billion of our tax dollars each year are going toward mass incarceration." This diversion of tax money should not be an acceptable use of the government budget. There is a great deal of disagreement on this matter. Many of these elections are decided by the amount of money a candidate has in campaign funds. That means through donations many powerful lobby groups can put their monetary interests ahead of the wishes of the public. Mandle notes that these capital providers are only “one quarter of one percent of the entire population." Her solution is a social movement that not only focuses on civil rights but on how we elect our leaders. Mandle’s hope is that with policies aimed at creating election equality the American Government will hear voices that have been oppressed in the past.


The issue of mass incarceration and police brutality is one of the most serious internal social problems facing the United States today. The inequality of the situation has been brought more into public focus recently with controversial shootings and abuses by police, and inequality of felony convictions across racial lines. There are a number of public protest organizations dedicated to eradicating bias from the American criminal justice system like #BlackLivesMatter on the national front. The victims of racial injustice are receiving more support and sympathy throughout the country but the best thing we can do here at Skidmore is to bring inequalities that are often not discussed into the open in-order to prevent this generation from perpetuating the mistakes of the last. The heartbreaking images of Ferguson and New York are a reminder of our country's judicial system—and its much needed reform.


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