Think Outside The Cell


At a New York church last weekend, city leaders and advocates from across the country launched a movement to change how society views the formerly incarcerated.

Jason Davis was 14 when he joined the Bloods. He was a “scared kid,” trying to survive in the five-square block area in New York City that represented his gang turf—even though his mother, a university graduate, tried to keep him off the streets.

That was 16 years ago—and after hard time in prison, which included several suicide attempts, Davis now counsels at-risk kids like the troubled, fearful youngster he used to be. He still counts himself lucky to have survived not just gang life—but his years behind bars.

“I was like an animal in a cage,” he told a hushed audience of more than 400 people at Riverside Church in New York City last weekend. “I needed someone to show me how to be a human being again.”

The psychological damage inflicted on hundreds of young men like Davis by a prison system that offers little in the way of rehabilitation was one of the key themes of the weekend symposium, titled “Think Outside the Cell.”

Formerly incarcerated men and women and their families were joined by a VIP list of some of the leading politicians, journalists, academics, and community activists in the Metro New York region, headed by Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.

Call to Action

“This is a call to action—it's time to change,” said symposium organizer Sheila Rule, a former New York Times reporter, noting that although most prisoners eventually were released they were “branded and stigmatized for the rest of their lives,” no matter how well they were able to pull their lives together.

Primary support for the project, which aims to change the image of prisoners as incapable of change, and assist them and their families with education and employment, comes from the Ford Foundation, with additional help from the Fortune Society, the College and Community Fellowship and the Riverside Church Prison Ministry.

The biggest burden of imprisonment falls on Americans of color. More than half of the 2.2 million Americans living in prisons and jails are black or Latino.

Even as crime rates are declining, the prison population is increasing. Many African-Americans find themselves caught up in the system because of minor offenses—changing their lives forever—while white manage to avoid it, many of the speakers charged.

“It's not a system of crime control—it's a system of racial and social control,” argued noted civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander, author of a new book called “The New Jim Crow.”

The Newark Example

Newark Mayor Cory Booker announced that he was expanding the number of initiatives aimed at helping returning prisoners find jobs and educational services in Newark, but he said fixing the nation's broken justice system ought to be a bipartisan endeavor.

“If you are against big government waste, the biggest waste in government there is, is the criminal justice system,” he said to thunderous applause.

Booker said one important key to changing the system was finding ways to stop filling up the prison system without endangering public safety.

He said Newark was launching a new strategy aimed at focusing police efforts on the relatively small number of violent criminals—drug dealers and gangbangers—who were responsible for most of the homicides in the city.

They would be told that if they continued their activities, they would face a sweeping police crackdown and maximum jail terms. But if they were willing to put away their guns and stop shooting, the city and community would help them finds jobs and counseling.

The strategy, pioneered by Prof. David Kennedy of John Jay College, has been adapted in dozens of cities around the country—and has resulted in sharp declines in the level of violence in many of the targeted neighborhoods.

Following Booker, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer called for a similar approach in all five boroughs of New York.

Stop and Frisk

A change in police strategy should also include revisions to the current “Stop and Frisk” approach, which has disproportionately affected young black males in New York, Stringer said.

“We remain separate and unequal in the streets of New York, more than 45 years after Martin Luther King stood in this same pulpit,” Stringer said.

He said that of the more than 600,000 stops last year in New york, less than seven per cent produced arrests or evidence of criminal behavior, and “black and Latinos are nine times more likely to be stopped” than whites.

“Treating a whole generation of young people like criminals is a moral and constitutional outrage,” said Stringer. “We can be tougher on crime by being smarter on crime.”

John Jay College President Jeremy Travis cautioned that there was no single easy fix to the problems facing the justice system.

“We didn't get here by accident,” he said. “It's a political process, and undoing it is a political process.”

Stephen Handelman is Executive Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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