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article imageThe Humanities Action Lab seeks to end mass incarceration in USA Special

By Kindra Cooper     Jan 26, 2015 in Politics
With 2.2 million Americans behind bars — the world's highest prison population per capita — 17 universities nationwide have committed to debunking mass incarceration.
In the spring of 2009, Jeffrey Smith was a rising star in the Missouri Senate. During his campaign Smith noticed that layoffs at St. Louis’ financially troubled automotive plants spurred a vicious cycle whereby jobless divorcés could no longer pay child support.
“They would often be prosecuted and convicted of criminal non-support and would end up locked up,” Smith said at the launch of the Humanities Action Lab at The New School in New York City. “And then, of course, once they got out of prison, then they had a felony on their record and weren’t going to be able to get a job and couldn’t pay child support when they got out.” Smith attempted to pass a bill so that defaulting on three consecutive payments would be charged as a misdemeanor rather than a felony offense. The bill flopped when Smith was arrested in August 2009 for two federal election law violations during his 2004 campaign for Congress.
Former Missouri politician Jeffrey Smith in 2008.
Former Missouri politician Jeffrey Smith in 2008.
Sam Guzik
Now Assistant Professor of Politics and Advocacy at The New School in New York City, Smith is backing a public project called ‘The Humanities Action Lab: Global Dialogues’ (HAL). Its focus for the next three years is to generate dialogue among universities and industry stakeholders about the history of mass incarceration in order to understand why the US continues to incarcerate at five to 10 times the rate of other countries.
Described by Executive Dean Mary Watson as “an international hub where the humanities and design join to generate innovative curricula,” HAL delves into the history of prison policy. The dialogues and public installations will flag the socioeconomic vicious cycles created by racial profiling and sentencing policies such as "three strikes and you're out", with a focus on the social ripple effect of families torn apart because a parent or child is jailed for non-violent crime.
The New School is also introducing theme-related courses such as ‘Incarceration in New York City: History, Politics, and Policy’ to make such issues common knowledge. As Watson put it: “Not every child is going to a Quaker school and learning about this kind of history.”
16 foot-tall sculpture at Eastern State Penitentiary  The Big Graph  compares US prison population a...
16 foot-tall sculpture at Eastern State Penitentiary, The Big Graph, compares US prison population against other countries.
Eastern State Penitentiary
A key talking point for the project is the “prison economy,” in which specialist businesses cash in on demand for security equipment such as handcuffs, CCTV systems and drug detectors. Not to mention exorbitant mark-ups for everyday items like soap, cigarettes, and calling cards sold at the prison commissary. So lucrative is the industry that prison stocks are even floated on the public stock exchange.
Liza Jessie Peterson is a performer who has taught creative writing, poetry and theatre to incarcerated youth for 15 years. At the HAL launch she performed an excerpt from her acclaimed play, A Peculiar Patriot, a dialogue between the spitfire Betsy LaQuanda Ross and her imprisoned friend, whom she visits regularly. Using theatre to educate, Peterson doesn’t shy from teaching inmates that a network of stakeholders is financially vested in keeping them locked up. Speaking in the role of Ross, she said: “I just found out that government money for districts is based upon the number of people living in these districts. So these underpopulated rural white towns, girl, they get to count the number of inmates in their cells. So on paper, it looks like they have more residents than they actually do.”
Performer and playwright Liza Jessie Peterson performs an excerpt from her play  A Peculiar Patriot
Performer and playwright Liza Jessie Peterson performs an excerpt from her play 'A Peculiar Patriot'
Between 1973 and 2009, America’s state and federal prison population shot up from 200,000 to 1.5 million. In 2012, close to 25 percent of the world’s prisoners were held in American prisons despite the U.S. population constituting just 5 percent of global population. Of these numbers, 50 percent of state prisoners are doing time for nonviolent crime. “[Mass incarceration] has reshaped our labor and economic systems, our racial power structures, our landscapes, our communities, our neighborhoods and our democratic practices,” said Liz Sevcenko, founding director of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a network of historic sites that fosters public dialogue on pressing social issues.
One of them is the Guantanamo Public Memory Project commemorating the US naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, infamous for its torture of prisoners. Sevcenko hopes to achieve the same success with HAL, which she directs. Shaping collective “public memory”, as Sevcenko underscored, is the goal. HAL invites universities, students, museums and public spaces to participate by creating affiliated projects, hosting the traveling exhibit, submitting designs and implementing related syllabi.
Last year, the federal prison population declined for the first time in 34 years by approximately 4,800 inmates. Speaking at a criminal justice conference hosted by New York University’s Center for Justice, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the Federal Bureau of Prisons (which employs more people than the FBI) had projected the trend would continue, with decreases of 2,000 inmates during 2015 and 10,000 the following year. In his January 20 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced the same - but as The Washington Post pointed out, these decreases could be statistically compounded by growing total population.
“If you look at the bottom line - and I think the bottom line has to be the number of people behind bars - we’re still not in a place we can get very excited about,” said Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project and author of Race to Incarcerate. “Yes, it’s encouraging that New York, New Jersey and California have reduced their prison populations substantially. But if you look around the country we’re talking about 1 or 2 percent differences from one year to the next [...] So I think it just suggests the scale of the job ahead of us.”
Visit to see how you can get involved.
More about mass incarceration, Humanities Action Lab, The New School, The Sentencing Project, Marc Mauer
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