Freeing our families from the criminal justice chokehold

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Calling all families: Come out for ‘A Fair Chance to Advance’ on Saturday, Aug. 1, 11-2, at At Thy Word Church, 8915 International Blvd, Oakland, to see how Prop 47, reducing many felonies to misdemeanors, can free your family – presented by Bay Area Black Workers Center, Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, East Bay Community Law Center, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Assemblyman Rob Bonta

by Mohammed Elnaiem

On July 16, President Obama became the first president to ever visit a federal prison. Speaking on the failures of the current criminal justice system, the president urged the United States to keep “families intact” and break the cycle that makes young people of color prone to ending up in the criminal justice system.

President Obama’s motorcade, when he visited prisoners and toured the El Reno federal medium security prison in Oklahoma, was met with demonstrators waving Confederate flags as “Confederate Lives Matter” protests were held in Oklahoma City. His discussion with the prisoners will air this fall on the HBO series, Vice. – Photo: Vice Media
President Obama’s motorcade, when he visited prisoners and toured the El Reno federal medium security prison in Oklahoma, was met with demonstrators waving Confederate flags as “Confederate Lives Matter” protests were held in Oklahoma City. His discussion with the prisoners will air this fall on the HBO series, Vice. – Photo: Vice Media

He directly addressed both the failures of the system to provide institutional support for our families and our failure as a nation to divert young people from getting into the criminal justice system in the first place. It begs the question, how has the criminal justice system wrought enough damage to compel the president of the United States to address it with such urgency?

An article in the New York Times reported a startling statistic: “For every 100 Black women not in jail, there are only 83 Black men. The remaining men – 1.5 million of them – are, in a sense, missing.” They are missing, either due to early deaths or incarceration.

And if this isn’t shocking enough, the authors drive the point home by pointing out the frightening fact that “there are more missing African-American men nationwide than there are African-Americans residing in all of New York City – or more than in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, Houston, Washington and Boston combined.” In 2015 we are confronted, in many ways, with the eerie similarities of the twin infamies that Frederick Douglass declared were flourishing in 1892: the convict lease system and lynching.

Herron Keyon Gaston of the Huffington Post reports that more than 1 million women are under the supervision of the criminal justice system, 200,000 of whom are confined in state and federal prisons. According to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the chances of a Black woman being incarcerated in prison or jail is three times more likely than her white counterpart, and Hispanic women are 69 percent more likely to be confined.

In a word, the criminal justice system is destroying our families. Its present state is a moral travesty, a disgrace before the world. As the president mentioned in both his address to the NAACP on July 14 and in his visit to El Reno, the United States currently has 5 percent of the world’s population while housing 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people in its state and federal prisons.

In 2015 we are confronted, in many ways, with the eerie similarities of the twin infamies that Frederick Douglass declared were flourishing in 1892: the convict lease system and lynching.

To put this into perspective, the United States has incarcerated 23 times more of its population than India, the world’s most populous country. When one in every 14 Black children in the U.S. has at least one parent in prison and when one sees that 8.3 million children have at least one or both parents under some form of correctional control, then we must begin to reevaluate the direction we are going.

It must be emphasized that these are not just numbers. Here in Oakland, knock on any door of our communities and chances are that you will probably be talking to someone who has a loved one suffering from the criminal justice system. Be they in prison or out, we as a nation have cruelly told our brothers and sisters that they deserve neither salvation nor redemption.

Incarceration doesn’t just end in the prison either, for those lucky enough to have had shorter sentences, or their sentences reduced, a life of despair awaits them when they get out, as their criminal records ensure that they never get the fair chance they always deserved.

From criminal background checks for employment to devious investigations that get in the way of basic tenant rights, the formerly incarcerated find a world that believes they have no right to integration. At El Reno, the president urged us to look at the “kinds of work we can do in the community to keep kids out of the criminal justice system in the first place.”

Be they in prison or out, we as a nation have cruelly told our brothers and sisters that they deserve neither salvation nor redemption.

We cannot end the conversation here. Local community organizations have worked tirelessly to put the civil rights of the incarcerated and the formerly incarcerated on the map.

Take for instance Proposition 47, a product of a statewide effort to reduce non-violent and non-sexual felonies to misdemeanors. Since it was passed last November, thousands have been eligible for reclassification and many have been eligible for resentencing.

Local community organizations are also trying to ensure that the savings from this law get reinvested into the local community, especially in the hands of local organizations. In many ways, the success of Proposition 47 is a step forward for a burgeoning civil rights movement.

Influenced by their predecessors, young civil rights workers have flocked from all over the country to get people signed up for Proposition 47. And while Proposition 47 has its contradictions, it is also a small step in a larger movement to dismantle the elements of the criminal justice system that have perpetuated the New Jim Crow. It has opened up the opportunity to begin the quest for freeing our families and giving our communities a fairer chance to advance.

On Saturday, Aug. 1, Oakland community organizations – the Bay Area Black Workers Center, Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, East Bay Community Law Center and Ella Baker Center for Human Rights – are calling all families in the Bay Area to advance our freedom. We are hosting an event called “A Fair Chance to Advance” on Saturday, Aug. 1, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., at At Thy Word Church, 8915 International Blvd, Oakland.

While Proposition 47 has its contradictions, it is also a small step in a larger movement to dismantle the elements of the criminal justice system that have perpetuated the New Jim Crow. It has opened up the opportunity to begin the quest for freeing our families and giving our communities a fairer chance to advance.

With the organizational efforts and the sponsorship of Assemblyman Rob Bonta’s office: RAP sheets, livescan vendors, DMV vouchers and legal advice on the eligibility of the formerly incarcerated under the new law will all be available. In addition, employers who consider applications of the formerly incarcerated will be there. We invite you to bring your friends and family and join us in our small step towards the struggle for freeing our families from the chokehold of the criminal justice system.

Bay Area writer Mohammed Elnaiem can be reached at me016@bucknell.edu.

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