Panel Discusses 'Moral Outrage' of Mass Incarceration
Experts in criminal justice policy discussed the phenomenon of mass incarceration in the United States at the Divinity School Tuesday night, focusing on its racial, moral, and ethical implications on the lives of prisoners.
The four panelists at the event—each of whom had either professional or academic experience with the criminal justice system—discussed the conditions prisoners often face as well as the skewed demographics of the incarcerated population.
Paul Shoaf-Kozak, the chaplain of Essex Correctional Facility, opened the conversation. He said euphemisms, such as “solitary confinement” and “mass incarceration,” obscure the severity of punishments and life in prison. Kozak said adverse prison conditions can “trigger psychopathologies” that lead to abnormal behavior.
Shoaf-Kozak said families in particular suffer from mass incarceration.
“A person is excised from society, from their family,” Shoaf-Kozak said. “Very infrequently is it a drawn-out arrest. Someone usually walks down the street, gets stopped, and all of a sudden, they’re not home.”
Though the majority of prisoners in the United States are male, Shoaf-Kozak said women are “disproportionately affected” by mass incarceration.
“They end up carrying the burden for having to care for people who end up in jail,” he said. “Roughly 95 percent of the visitors to prisoners are women—mothers, aunts, grandmothers, sisters.”
Vincent Schiraldi, a senior fellow for the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at the Kennedy School and the former director of juvenile corrections in Washington, D.C., spoke about solitary confinement for juveniles, drawing attention to the potential for abuse of minors in the system.
Schiraldi said gross neglect across correctional facilities are the norm, even in prisons in the nation’s capital.
Dehlia I. Umunna, professor at the Law School and Deputy Director of the Criminal Justice Institute, said racial bias lies behind many arrests. Umunna said her experience as a mother of two black children made the issue especially personal.
“When I see my thirteen-year old… and I see him spewing out facts, I wonder whether police officers see what I see—a boy with so much potential and who is so smart,” she said. “Or do police just see a tall black kid, who in their mind, is up to no good?”
Schiraldi said he had also observed racial bias in the criminal justice system during his time at the juvenile facilities in D.C.
“This is a moral outrage. [The facilities were] full of kids of color,” he said.
Shoaf-Kozak added that the U.S. and Massachusetts continue to incarcerate poor people of color at disproportionately high rates.
Kaia Stern, director of the Prison Studies Project at Harvard and lecturer at the Graduate School of Education, spoke about importance of the issue.
“There is no more glaring threat to human rights or testing of democracy than our current punishment crisis,” she said.