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Panel Discusses Mass Incarceration and Discrimination in Democracy

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On nearly every application form, there’s a simple question: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony? If yes, give details.”

If you’ve checked that box, you have a 79 percent chance of being denied housing, according to a Who Pays? report. You have a 67 percent chance of being unemployed or under-employed. For every five applicants who check that box, three will be unable to afford an education in Florida.

All who check it will lose their right to vote.

Gainesville community members discussed these statistics Wednesday evening at the Bob Graham Center during “What You Can’t Get Back: The Human Cost of Mass Incarceration,” a panel hosted by Students Taking Action Against Racism.

“It is your responsibility to know where you stand in the world and how you’ve been affected by these systems,” said Nailah Summers, a panelist and Civic Media Center Coordinator who works with University of Florida Dream Defenders to organize non-violent resistance in the community.

Summers shared personal anecdotes and presented studies on the incarceration rates in the United States and the disproportionate presence of black Americans in the system.

“Prison is not rehabilitative,” Summers said. “It’s harmful.”

Others such as doctoral candidate and anthropologist Justin Hosbey; doctoral candidate and literary scholar Randi Gill-Sadler; and Kevin Arneus, a member of Progressive Black Men Inc., also spoke.

In the 1930s, vagrancy was considered a crime, Summers said. Today, it’s jaywalking or possession of marijuana. Summers believes these are benign crimes and are often used as a way to target minority populations.

Other panelists lamented the lack of true due process in American society and questioned the legitimacy of a democracy that continually denies many blacks the right to vote through stringent voter ID laws.

Gill-Sadler voiced her concerns about programs — albeit designed with good intentions — like President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper campaign, that often leave out black women in their activism.

When the topic shifted to the current state of mass incarceration, Summers cited the Sandra Bland incident.

“ [Today] It looks like Sandra Bland being arrested for talking back to a cop. It looks like not being able to afford your bail and staying in jail for months,” said Summers. “People are dying out here.”

346 inmates died in Florida prisons in 2014 – more than any year prior – according to the state’s new inmate mortality database. Most were from natural causes, but Gov. Rick Scott appointed Corrections Secretary Julie Jones in January in part to handle allegations that the violent deaths were brought on by understaffing and a lack of security cameras in Florida prisons.

“We don’t even have the language,” Hosbey said at the event Wednesday evening. “The depth of violence is such that we can’t even communicate what we’re experiencing.”

About Erin Meisenzahl-Peace

Erin is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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