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ASHEVILLE – Sharing facts and figures, art and emotions and calls to action, the nearly 100 people crowded into a small room at the Burton Street Community Center last Thursday discussed the effect incarceration has on families and communities.
The event, sponsored by UNC Asheville and Asheville Writers in the Schools, featured a diverse group of panelists: Clarence Robinson, who said he spent more than two years in prison; Patrice Roshun, the clinical director of Homeward Bound’s Women at Risk program; Stephen Smith, who works to keep at-risk youths and adults out of prison by offering job training and more through his organization Green Opportunities; and Elizabeth Forbes, founder of NC Cure, a national organization that advocates for prisoners.
The evening began with spoken-word artist Shanita Jackson reciting a poem about her father’s incarceration. When he wrote to her from prison, Jackson recited from her poem, “he had the nerve to spell my name wrong.”
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. According to the latest numbers, released by the Prison Policy Initiative earlier this month, the number of incarcerated people is even higher than previously thought, with 2.4 million people behind bars.
“It’s not a white thing, it’s not a black thing, it’s a human race thing,” Smith said. “Everyone is affected by it.”
The high incarceration rate in the United States is everyone’s problem, said Smith, but people of color in particular make up a disproportionate amount of the prison population. According to the Sentencing Project, African-American men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.
“One in three African-American males will face incarceration in their lifetime,” Smith said. “Even before a child is born, they are cut off. Prison is an extension of slavery with a different name and a different face. What we see today is a tree that started as a root in the 1960s and even before that, with the destruction of the leadership of the black male.”
Being African American, one audience member said, is like “already having a strike against you.” Racial disparities can also be seen in the prisons of North Carolina. African Americans make up 22 percent of the state’s population, but 61 percent of its prison population, according to Prison Policy Initiative. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, nearly 1 million of the country’s 2.4 million prisoners are black.
But today, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, women are the fastest growing group of people incarcerated in U.S. prisons. One woman in the audience received a misdemeanor years ago, and, she said, her record still inhibits her in her day-to-day life.
“It takes one time for you to catch a charge and your life is over,” she said. She participated in the Women at Risk program, which helped her transition from her life in prison. Without the program, she said, “I don’t know where I would be.”
Many others, however, are struggling to stay out of prison and recidivism is common. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, almost three-quarters of ex-convicts are rearrested within three years after they are released from prison.
“The judicial system is very much like a fast food system,” Forbes said. “People go in and out and come back.”
Long prison sentences, harsh restrictions and parole requirements make reentry difficult for many newly released prisoners, Forbes said. In North Carolina, voting rights are restricted for incarcerated people until they have completed their probation, which, in some cases, could take years. In some cases, people who have been convicted of crimes are also restricted from receiving food stamps and are unable to attain licensing for certain jobs. In addition, Forbes said, people with a criminal record can have difficulty finding work. “If you check the box ‘Yes,’ that you’ve been convicted of a crime, do you think you’ll get hired? Probably not,” she said.
And with the onset of the country’s War on Drugs, Rushon said, “only more problems have been created than solved.” Since 1980, America’s prison population has more than quadrupled, with more than half of prisoners incarcerated for drug convictions.
After the panel discussion, Dewayne Barton, who began Burton Street Peace Garden and is co-founder of Green Opportunities, was the first to stand and break out in verse.
“I’ve seen crack cocaine fall from the sky like rain,” he sang as he pointed to the ceiling, “then flood my street corner.”