Locking up our own

On October 11, Professor James Forman Jr. of Yale Law School presented a talk on his new book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. The book won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction and deals with the persistence of mass incarceration despite rising representation of African Americans in government.

Forman comes from a lineage of civil rights activists. His parents are an interracial couple who met in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the earliest and most significant civil rights organizations. Forman said, “Their generation went up against Bull Connor’s dogs, marched to D.C. 250,000 strong and led the government to actually do something that changed the status quo.” What succeeded this generation, however, is what Forman calls the civil rights challenge of our time: mass incarceration. “That term wasn’t around when I was in law school in the early 90s,” Forman said. “But we knew the statistics.” Here he is referring to the U.S. passing Russia and South Africa as the world’s biggest jailer, with one in three young black men under criminal supervision.

Some of the transformations that led to this situation were apparent to Forman during his upbringing. He grew up in a mostly black, working class neighborhood in Atlanta, and recounted receiving different treatment from police when alone than with friends due to his being mixed race and able to pass as white. He noted an unsettling change to his childhood home later on in his life. “There were two buildings a few miles outside of town,” he said. “Decades later, one was shut down and locked up, while the other had an extra wing built on it. The former was a factory whose jobs had been shipped overseas. I don’t think I need to say what the latter was.”

While witnessing such harsh realities helped inspire Forman’s passion for civil rights, his main motivation for writing Locking Up Our Own grew out of his extensive experience working in the justice system, or, as he prefers to call it, the legal system. “I prefer to call it the legal system due to the abundance of cases where people feel justice doesn’t attach itself,” he said. A pivotal moment for him was working as an attorney in D.C. for a client under the pseudonym Brandon. He had a note from Brandon’s teacher and counselor and was attempting to convince the judge to issue probation.  The judge, who was African American and had been active in civil rights, told Brandon he deserved a second chance and invoked his own experiences with Jim Crow. He finished by saying, “Dr. King didn’t die for you to be going around running and thugging. I hope you turn yourself around one day, but in this courtroom, actions have consequences.” Brandon was sent to juvenile hall, an institution Forman calls a hotbed for drugs and violence that releases detainees worse off than when they went in. “How could this judge invoke the same heroes who inspired me to be a public defender and still lock Brandon up?” Forman asked. “What was so compelling that even this black majority district could make the same choices as the rest of the country’s criminal justice system?”

One example Forman used to model these patterns is drug epidemics and their effects on crime rates, namely heroin in the ‘60s and crack in the ‘80s. He said, “People would write letters to the city council voicing concerns like their children’s safety on the school grounds and heroin addicts loitering in public spaces.” The issues that arose came with the actions of those with the power to respond to the letters. Forman named one example: a D.C. city council member under the pseudonym David Clarke, who at the time was one of only two white members. Clarke had been elected for a strong track record of black activism. Despite this, he forwarded the letters to the police chief.  “Like many Americans, he reflexively understood addiction not as a public health problem but as a criminal problem,” Forman said. “In order to understand mass incarceration, it is just as important to look at small, often well-intentioned decisions hidden from the public as it is to look at what the President and Congress are saying.”

Even though local legislatures such as Clarke’s have come a long way in terms of black representation, an issue that remains is said representation remaining concentrated at the local level. “Local black politicians employ an ‘all of the above’ strategy,” Forman said. “They want money for schools, money for police, national gun control, etc. They want America to do for their communities what it did for Europe after World War II. But higher levels of government only give them money for one of the above: police and prosecutors.” As such, elected officials representing communities with limited resources become unduly dependent on the state.

At the micro level, there is the aforementioned minutiae in decision making as with Clarke. The case where politicians are given money for “one of the above” is part of a larger net of problems at the macro level. “Starting with slavery and then segregation, our history has struggled with unequal application of government benefits,” Forman said. “Talking about specific instances is important, but we need to acknowledge the larger structures, accumulations of government decisions that limit the options of black politicians.” These decisions, just like David Clarke’s, can be unexpected and well-intentioned. An example Forman gave was where federal highways ended up being built over important sites for African American and civil rights heritage in Atlanta.

Forman discussed directly working with incarcerated individuals. He is involved with a program called Inside-Out, where professors teach a class at a prison that is half inmates, half college students. “Inside-Out inmates have told me that it’s the only time of the week they feel they are treated as if they have something meaningful to contribute,” Forman said. Education plays a crucial role in reducing recidivism, as does support for inmates reintegrating into society. When an audience member brought up the volunteer organization Circles of Support, Forman added, “When you’re released from prison, you need help with even the most basic things, and support and solidarity can make the difference between reclaiming life and falling back into addiction, depression and incarceration.”

What else can concerned citizens do to engage with their community and fight present day civil rights challenges? Voting is probably one of the first things that comes to mind. “You’d be surprised at how many people you’d assume vote don’t,” Forman said. “Peer-to-peer influence is extremely effective; use it to get the vote out.” Forman remarked that there is a certain level of agreement nationwide that mass incarceration needs to end, and it doesn’t need to be a partisan issue. He noted groups of Republicans in Texas and Louisiana working successfully to reduce prison population, but urged people to still be mindful of the clear choice between candidates who will do this or build more prisons. He also stressed jury duty, saying, “This used to be seen as a core political right but has fallen out of favor. We need more citizens who are willing to not put off their summons and go question the police.”

Forman concluded the talk with a note of urgency. “When you are facing deep injustice, people are going to tell you change won’t happen,” he said. “After all, we still live in a time where local prosecutors get laughed out of elections unless they promise to lock more people up.” To add insult to injury, he continued, “When your perseverance pays off and justice is delivered, the same people who told you it wouldn’t happen will tell you that it was inevitable.” They may even turn it into an ego trip; for example, despite the March on Washington being attended by 250,000 people, an estimated 10 million people claimed to have been there a decade after the fact. Despite adversity, Forman assured the audience activism will be worth it, encouraging them to make the justice system deserve that name. “They might even make a movie about you,” he dryly added before bowing out.