Mass incarceration of minorities is a public health concern, Touro event organizers say

Vallejo Times-Herald
by Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Broken On All Sides, a documentary on “race, mass incarceration and new visions for criminal justice in the U.S.,” was screened at Touro University on Monday as the last in a series of Health Equity and Criminal Justice-related events for 2017.

The series sets the school’s public health program up for the 2018 launch of a new push for health equity in public health, Touro’s Gayle Cummings said.

Though it focuses on the Philadelphia penal system, event organizers said they think the film holds lessons for the entire United States and locally.

The man behind the documentary, filmmaker, activist and lawyer, Matthew Pillischer, was at the Monday’s screening.

“I did this film because I’d been a lawyer and found over many years that people in prison are the most hated people in society,” he said, adding that spending some time with incarcerated people, one finds, mostly, that such people are just that — people — “just like you, who have made mistakes.”

The film suggests that what the experts interviewed therein say is the mass incarceration of primarily minority members can be traced directly to the “war on drugs,” launched under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. They say this is proven by the fact that crime has not increased nearly to the degree that prison populations have. The black incarceration rate, for instance, is out of all proportion to their numbers in the general population, they say.

The film touches on the conundrum its makers say the country’s inner city ghettos find themselves in — needing police protection, but, too often, getting police brutality with it. They say most people living in the inner cities are assumed to be criminals, and that the origins of this can be traced to the Civil Rights Movement in this country.

“More African Americans are incarcerated today than were enslaved in 1850,” the filmmaker said.

The mass incarceration of “black and brown” people in the U.S., has resulted in prison overcrowding and terrible conditions on the inside and a twist in the inner city culture, whereby being in jail or having a relative in jail is at once normal and embarrassing, the filmmaker says.

Being labeled a felon also creates and perpetuates a permanent lower caste in society, they said.

“Desperate conditions lead to desperate behavior,” the filmmaker says.

The attempts at rehabilitation in prisons in the 1970s and 80s fell away as the prison population exploded, to the point where most jails and prisons are little more than warehouses, the filmmaker says. Most of the inmates are eventually released, but in an even worse frame of mind than when they went in, the film suggests.

The film shows large demonstrations in the Philadelphia streets, with protesters chanting “Fund education, not incarceration,” and other similar slogans, and calling for people to organize a movement for change. 

After the film, Pillischer introduced Mianta McKnight and Nate Williams, both with Bay Area ties who were tried as adults in their teens and sentenced to life in prison.

They have each since been released and overcame major obstacles to earn college degrees and involve themselves in helping others in similar circumstances as they found themselves in as youths.

McKnight, now a mother herself, was 17 when she was arrested, and she served 18 years. With a childhood that included molestation and other abuse, she is now a massage therapist, a professional dancer, a counselor and public speaker, among other things, studying for her PhD.

She said that as bad as the crowded men’s prison featured in the film was, with up to three men in a single cell, the women’s prison had eight per room. This likely helps explain why most prisons don’t allow media inside, she said.

Williams, who also came from a troubled home, joined a gang as a youth and wound up in trouble. He, too, was sentenced to life as a juvenile, but caught a break and has tried to make the best of it.

In both cases, it took a concerted effort at self-reflection and help from the outside, to turn their lives around.

The upshot is that the filmmakers and speakers say that if American society wants to improve the level of violent crime it needs to rethink its criminal justice system.

“After centuries of oppression, we’re giving scarlet letters to a whole generation of civil rights leaders by labeling them felons,” Cummings said.

“We still have slaves,” Williams said. “They’re in the prisons. All the flags are made there. All the license plates.”

“We want our public health students to become part of the solution,” Cummings said. “We hope to help them understand how the issue came to be what it is, and to rethink re-entry, to be able to reintegrate former inmates into society; to recognize their human-ness and their circumstances. This is a public health issue.”

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