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San Diego students and advocates to discuss alternatives to prison at 'Care not Cages' talk at USD
San Diego Union-Tribune - 5/28/2023
It's been 50 years since the prison population in the United States began ballooning to among the largest in the world. Today, nearly 1 out of every 100 adults in the U.S. is in prison or jail, giving us almost a quarter of the world's prisoners, according to the National Institute of Corrections.
Despite the continued reports, research, and academic and advocacy work, our numbers keep growing with a disproportionate representation of Black and Latino communities, low-income populations, and an increase in women behind bars. In an effort to pick up the conversation locally, the nonprofit Lived Experiences is hosting its first "Care not Cages: Alternatives to Incarceration" event on Tuesday at the University of San Diego. Organizers have convened a panel of formerly incarcerated college students, as well as formerly incarcerated professors and community organizers to discuss things like biases, discrimination, re-entry and resources.
Maria Elena Greeman-Lynde is the founder and CEO of Homegirlz del Corazon Inc., providing support and opportunities for women of color dealing with violence, poverty, addiction or incarceration. She's also the co-founder of the Urban Scholars Union at San Diego City College and the former justice-impacted community liaison for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. Alberto "Beto" Vasquez is the director of the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment and Teaching Excellence's (CREATE) STEM Success Initiative outreach and community engagement, promoting STEM among underrepresented groups. Greeman-Lynde and Vasquez are keynote speakers for "Care not Cages" (along with Martin Leyva, program coordinator for Project Rebound at California State University San Marcos) and took some time to talk about the event, the cycle of incarceration, and potential alternatives to imprisonment. (These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. )
Q:What does "Care not Cages" mean to you, and what does this look like in practice?
Greeman-Lynde:I think it has multiple dimensions because when we talk about cages, we imagine these animals put inside these cages, correct? But what we see is this dehumanization of people who have been incarcerated and not really looking at the core of the issue: there's trauma, there's severe PTSD, and this is even before incarceration becomes part of our stories. This conversation is looking at who the audience is, and we want to understand and talk about incarceration, not just looking at it just in jails or in prisons, but also looking at the blurred line of being a border city and seeing those impacted by incarceration and being deported. We want to say, 'OK, it's not just about incarceration of people in systems as we know it, but it's a lot broader.' That's where the space is leading into.
Vasquez:My interpretation of "Care not Cages," and I think it's important because everybody comes with their own interpretations of what that means, is that we learn how to humanize people and take a different approach to how we respond as a society to incarceration and the impacts that it has on our society.
Q:The event description talks about the cycle of incarceration, and in "Culture of Health in Practice: Innovations in Research, Community Engagement, and Action," author Alonzo L. Plough explores the causes of the high incarceration rate in the U.S. and responses to breaking the cycle of incarceration, including addressing the cash bail system and increasing mental health and social service programs. What is your understanding of how the cycle of incarceration starts?
Greeman-Lynde:I think there's a huge disconnect as a human, a person. I've been in this work nationwide and I've seen a lot of people come in with agendas — they want to get this law passed, but it's not really thought through for the people it's impacting although they have they best intentions. Who are the policymakers and who are the ones who are actually making the laws change and making voices heard? I think if you take it all into consideration, all of the topics we're going to hitting on in conversation at this event, we sometimes forget that we have to acknowledge every single human being, and not everybody is in one box. All of our stories are similar in the sense of the emotions and feelings behind them, so there has to be a healing concept to this. Self-care is a huge part of rehabilitation. If we come from a place of understanding, compassion, empathy, and love, we can teach those inside how to heal, how to unwind the knots that we fill with addiction, life choices, or abuse. If we're not acknowledging those things in communities that have violence and a lack of resources, we're never going to change our generational cycles. I think a lot of it has to do with core healing, which isn't provided in our jails and our prisons. Actually getting to the core of each human being, I think, will make the change. There's so much that people are looking at on the outside, we're not looking at the inside.
Vasquez:Depending on who you ask, you'll probably get different answers, but I would say that it stems from the core of people growing up. As a formerly incarcerated person myself, I'd say that it was growing up in an environment that wasn't conducive to my well-being, in many respects. I call a "normal" neighborhood — there was a lot of gang violence and drugs growing up. For a lot of people, that is "normal." I think that, itself, is noteworthy. We need to stop and think about what that normality looks like for folks. It's partially environment, it's partially your upbringing, the expectations, family, the goals, the aspirations. Some of us don't have good role models, per se, who might have gone the college route, or what have you, but we have older homies that we grew up with. So, there are these very deep cultural and sub-cultural components to that for a large part of the population that's incarcerated. Let's not forget that folks get incarcerated from all different areas of life, so there's also got to be these other components that we think about where there's maybe a need that wasn't met as an adolescent. Maybe the parents weren't in the household [consistently], so those needs were met through hanging out with, maybe, not the best company. There's roughly 2 million people incarcerated in the U.S. [according to the National Institute of Corrections] and a large percentage of them are from Black and Brown communities [according to the NAACP's "Criminal Justice Fact Sheet," Black and Hispanic folks make up 32 percent of the U.S. population, but represent 56 percent of this country's incarcerated population]. It's mostly men who are currently locked up, but there is a growing trend with more women being incarcerated [The Sentencing Project's "Mass Incarceration Trends" report notes this increase in women being incarcerated since the 1970s]. It has to do with resources, it has to do with support, it has to do with alternatives for adolescents to get involved with, it has to do with something to look forward to or someone to look up to as far as what we want to emulate growing up. It has to do with how supported we feel and if I am made to believe that I can actually be something more than the limitations that I have around me.
Q:Can you talk about some of the examples of alternatives to incarceration that you see as beneficial?
Greeman-Lynde:More mental health spaces in a more community-based way. More access to mental health, but getting rid of the stigma has to be a priority because I know many people inside — my husband is currently incarcerated and I know what goes on in jails because of my own experience [in the juvenile system] — don't want to get the help because it's stigmatized. Another part in connection to the mental health is addressing the needs of those working inside the jails and in our prison systems. In doing some of this work on my husband's side, we want to be defensive because we hear about all of these deaths occurring inside of the jail and there's no accountability. There's fear for our loved ones inside, constantly, if we don't get a call. Then, if we talk to those who work there, they're dealing with their own mental health issues, as well. They're around constant violence that's going on there, dealing with people who don't know how to understand themselves and are dealing with their own traumas. We've talked to a few of them and they'll be like, "We don't get mental health days. We're overworked and underpaid." If we take that into consideration, how is that going to impact those inside? They're not being heard, they're being disregarded, they're being hidden away when people are trying to speak about these issues.
Vasquez:In an ideal world—I'm drawing from my personal experience and also from working with folks who are incarcerated — we all want to have hope, right? We want to have hope and what does that look like? For a lot of us that looks like, 'I just want to have a job when I get out that pays me well. I want to regain my humanity and I want to have some dignity.' When folks are returning home, we have to reconnect with families that we've disappointed and let down. We have to make amends with ourselves and with other people. We have to get a job, we have to keep the [parole officer] happy. There's a lot of different layers, so my response is starting off with a good job. Any job is good. There's nothing wrong with any type of job that is giving folks a sense of purpose when they get out, or working closely with educational partners to create these deliberate pathways. This is kind of where I try to merge together STEM and this line of work that I do because STEM is the fastest growing workforce, so jobs would be number one. I think that any time that we can infuse a lot of programming and challenge the culture within the carceral system is helpful. Maybe the correctional officers, rather than thinking, 'Oh, you'll be back. We're going to see you again. You're an inmate, not a person,' instead providing them with the opportunity to prepare for getting out. Like going through a schooling program; maybe they're going to learn coding, maybe they're going to do some more vocational trades and programs. After that, how do we connect them with partners out here so that, rather than letting them linger about, they go directly into some type of internship? Into some type of job that could potentially lead to something else later on? Ideally, that would work. Ideally, we would have a one-stop place where when folks get out, they go to one building. How are we making it easier for folks to check off the boxes and meet the requirements that we have for them when they return home? How are we, as a society, seeing that this is all of our business? They're going to be our neighbors when they get out, so it's in all of our best interests to support these individuals to become taxpayers, rather than just cost those tax dollars as they continue to recidivate.
Q:A recent report from the Prison Policy Institute ("Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023") addresses a number of myths in the public consciousness regarding mass incarceration, including the ideas that reforming criminal legal system would lead to more crime, or that individuals incarcerated for violent or sexual crimes are too dangerous to be released. What's your response to these understandings from people who would argue in favor of continuing incarceration in its current form?
Greeman-Lynde:It's funny you said that because being in different spaces that I've been in before, I've had to face those kinds of biases. It's really easy when people in power have these biases. People believe that those are the truth, right? A lot of times, our decision making is based on our own trauma experience, or what we think our decisions need to be for people to like us, so we're going to go along with what they think. I don't think we have a community that speaks for itself, that understands themselves or why they might be reactive, or have these thoughts of negativity toward people who are just as human as they are. I think this is where the biases come in and this is why it's really important to leverage the voices of those who are formerly incarcerated. When I've gone to places to speak and I share my story, no matter how painful it is, I never walk away feeling less than; I always feel empowered because people connect with me on a personal level. That happens every time we create these kinds of events where people learn who you are as an individual.
Vasquez:I think a couple of different things. One, there are varying degrees of bias and severity, so we have to be very transparent and be very honest. I have this conversation with folks and within educational institutions sometimes where, let's say, even within a jail, there are things that are acceptable and not acceptable. You touched on sexual crimes and another one is violent offenders, and you have drug offenders. Some folks might raise their eyebrows to one of those groups more than the others. Even within folks who have been impacted by the system, we have the tendency to raise our eyebrows at some groups and not others, so that's one layer of this. What's the lens we're looking through for that? I think there's truth on both sides. There is some need to have some kind of accountability for folks, but I think we also equally need to be very responsible in making sure we are providing alternatives of substance for folks if we're expecting things to be different. With drug offenses, we can talk about treatment, we can talk about cognitive behavioral therapy, we can talk about those types of things and we can even count it because we can track the number of days that you've been clean. Some of those things aren't necessarily so easy if we're talking about things like sexual offenses. People cringe a little bit more because, chances are, you probably know somebody who has done some kind of drugs, or you've personally done drugs, but you might not necessarily know somebody who has done other types of more violent crimes, so we have a bias that develops because of that. I don't have the answer for that. I think that's the value of having these types of convenings is that we learn to exchange ideas. We learn how to be comfortable voicing our biases without feeling like we're going to be judged for it because it's only when all of that is on the table that we're going to be able to have these more robust conversations that are going to be solution minded.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.
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