Introducing the Swarthmore Incarceration Project

“It’s not that prisons are in crisis, prisons are the crisis” –Injustice documentary (Brian Kelly, 2011)

 Figure 1. Prison Industrial Complex. 

Figure 1. Prison Industrial Complex. 

America has the highest incarceration rate globally, the largest number of inmates globally, and one of the highest recidivism rates as well (the rate at which inmates return to prison within a few years after release).  Furthermore, prisons discriminately target minority groups. According to the Census Bureau, Black people represent 40% of our prison population despite being just 13% of the total US population, and are 5 times as likely to incarcerated than whites. Latinx people are 16% percent of the US population, make up 19% of our prisons, and are twice as likely to be incarcerated as whites. Figures on the LGBT percentage of the population are hotly debated, but according to The Williams Institute of Law at UCLA, the LGBT+ community as a whole is 3 times more likely to be incarcerated than straight people. Prisons target Black, Latinx, and LGBT+ people. When class is involved, the inequalities within the prison system become even clearer.

I (Paul) grew up in the small town of Tyrone, Georgia. Seven of the people I grew up with are currently incarcerated or have been at some point, and 3 of those people are family. The other four attended high school with me. Five of them who were convicted for nonviolent drug offenses are serving disproportionately long sentences due to mandatory minimum policies. One of those people, my cousin Daryl, was pulled over while riding in a friend’s car. Marijuana was found inside the car, and he is expected to serve 7 years of his 15 year sentence. At Swarthmore, it’s easy to engage intellectually on these issues and think of them as disconnected from our lives. It’s easy to forget that this system is affecting real people, like Daryl’s 8 year old son, right now. It will continue to affect him long after his father is freed, potentially for the rest of his life.

One of the continuing problems with our prison system is reentry. We do not provide the resources for those who have been incarcerated to reintegrate back into society. It’s hard to get a job, to stay out of crime, and to abide by parole. That’s even harder when you’re already criminalized, lacking resources, or need additional support like mental health services or family support. A measure of how poorly we engage in this practice is recidivism: in the US it is about 77%.

Two weeks ago, STAR released an article articulating many of these issues. Figure 1 above further explains the context for the prison industrial complex. Failure in education is one of the results of inequality. This is one area where we, as Swarthmore students with access to material resources and an incredible education, can break this cycle. Education is one of the most important factors in reentry and reducing recidivism as well as preventing incarceration. One out of every 100 college grads is sent to prison. The lower your education, the higher your odds: one out of every 35 high school grads and one out of every 10 high school dropouts is sent to prison.

One thing that has been proven to assist in the reentry process is access to education while incarcerated. The Vera Institute of Justice published an article outlining how crucial and essential educational prospects while incarcerated are. Education allows for increased job prospects, for example, and unemployment is one of the main drivers behind a return to crime. Education is, as Fred Patrick from the Vera Institute of Justice’s Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project explains, “an investment in a safer community.” The RAND corporation released a meta-study quantifying that inmates who participated in correctional education were 43 percent less likely to become repeat offenders than inmates who didn't.

For most of my (Olivia’s) life, prisons had been out of sight and out of mind. My sophomore year of high school, I was given a debate topic about the private prison industry. I spent hours reading articles and regurgitating the information that I learned into a four-minute debate speech. Later that year, when my sister started volunteering at a prison near her college, she told me about the poems her students wrote. I decided to watch a documentary about life in prisons and to read The New Jim Crow. The book was eye-opening. As a mentally ill Latina woman, I’m more likely to go to prison than most women. But because of my education, class, and the privileges I’ve been afforded, I haven’t had any interactions with the incarceral system. Once I came to that realization, I also understood that it’s my responsibility to use my privilege to help others.

That’s why we, the Swarthmore Incarceration Project (SIP), are forming. With the support of Professor Keith Reeves’s Urban Inequality and Incarceration Program at the Lang Center and partnering with the Petey Greene Program, we will be tutoring at SCI Chester and Glen Mills School, two local facilities. We’ll also be holding regular movie screenings (approximately monthly) and will host speakers to educate our community on the dangers of mass incarceration and how education is the first step in a solution.

We are writing this article because we are black, Latinx, queer, and mentally ill. Our communities are targeted by the prison industrial complex. We want to help. We want you to help. If you’re interested in committing to tutoring every week, please fill out this application. Be sure to select Philadelphia when prompted for an area and choose that you are affiliated with a university.