Reaching Beyond the Bars

"America is a nation obsessed with incarceration." This was the ongoing mantra of the electrifying event I attended last Friday entitled ‘Beyond the Bars’. The event was held at Columbia University and is part of a yearly series of events aimed at raising awareness of issues relating to incarceration and reentry from prison. The entire night was a thought-provoking call to action that touched upon everything from reentry efforts in America, to the problems that arise when particular towns and cities have economic livelihoods that are dependent upon the prison system or on the imprisonment of others.

The ‘kick-off event’ featured very powerful speeches by known performers, such as the notable Angela Davis and the show stealer Marc Lamont Hill. The most powerful point was the parallel drawn between present-day laws which target young men of color, such as ‘stop and frisk’ and curfews, and post-slavery vagrancy laws that were put into place in the 19th century. These vagrancy laws made it illegal for slaves who had just been freed to be ‘out and about’ with no real purpose or objective. This was the disposition that hundreds faced once freed, who were in no position to decipher what their next steps would be. The sole purpose was to exert power over freed black slaves.  Are we repeating history? Is the mass imprisonment of young men of color indeed the new Jim Crow?

It was mentioned that most of those who were in attendance were already very knowledgeable about most of the issues “unveiled.” For those who are well-informed, the event could be described as ‘preaching to the choir.’ But it is not enough to just be well-informed. What are we doing with the knowledge that we possess?  If all we’re doing is talking about the issues with other well-informed individuals, we need to task ourselves with a new and more ground-breaking purpose.  How do we get the word out to those who don’t know? How do we begin and sustain the conversation with people who can effectively bring about change, such as law makers? How do we make a real impact and begin to ‘unpack’ issues so entrenched in our society? 

Bronx Community Solutions definitely makes an impact with our youth groups, as they provide many of these young men of color with a forum to discuss the issues that they face. They are able to voice their concerns, in the physical and clerical context of the criminal court system, and are able to connect to other individuals who are willing to listen. This can be a start to the dialogue, providing a small step towards change.

As for me, I begin with this blog.

- Lovis Nelson-Williams, BCS Compliance Coordinator