Advocates explore link between mass incarceration, intergenerational poverty

| Melenie Soucheray | February 3, 2017 | 1 Comment

Civil rights attorney Artika Tyner, associate vice president of diversity and inclusion at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, was among speakers to address mass incarceration and intergenerational poverty Jan. 31 at St. Olaf in Minneapolis. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Artika Tyner said life, not books, introduced her to mass incarceration. “I kept hearing about this tangled web of mass incarceration with far too many entry points and far fewer exit points,” said Tyner, associate vice president of diversity and inclusion at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and a civil rights attorney. She started collecting data and found that 2.3 million Americans are in the criminal justice system.

Armed with anecdotes and data, Tyner painted a picture of the impact mass incarceration has on communities and families for an audience of about 100 people Jan. 31 at St. Olaf in Minneapolis. The event was hosted by Catholic Charities Office for Social Justice and its network of grassroots activists, the Sowers of Justice.

“America has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population,” she said. “Our prison population is 370 percent higher than the prison population in the U.K., and 800 percent higher than the prison population in Germany. In the words of Cornell West, ‘race matters’ when I think about criminal justice. There are more black men under the control of the correctional system than were enslaved in the 1800s. That’s a sobering statistic.”

Gender matters, too, she said. The fasted growing population in jail is women, with more than 1 million incarcerated, she said. Of them, 62 percent are mothers.

“Between 1970 and 2014, we see the prison population of women increase 14-fold,” she said. “African-American women are three times more likely to enter into the criminal justice system” than women of other races, she added.

Also speaking at the panel event were Brandt Williams, senior reporter at Minnesota Public Radio, and Butch Blauert, a 25-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department.

Experts suggest diversion, not prison

In analyzing the current situation, Tyner drew from a 2,000-year-old source. “Aristotle said something that was very profound: ‘Poverty is the parent to revolution and crime,’” she said.

Through the Prison Phone Justice Campaign, Tyner has worked to lower the cost of prison phone calls, a burden that families often bear. She has worked to promote the cost-effectiveness and fiscal advantages of community-based solutions versus imprisonment. Census data dictate how and where government monies are spent. If a Minneapolis resident is imprisoned in Lino Lakes, resources that could be used to help that person who returns home are, instead, going to the city where the prison is located.

Tyner is also concerned about the “cradle to prison pipeline,” she said.

“A black child born in 2001 has a one in three chance of going to prison in his lifetime. A Latino boy has a one in six chance,” she said. “At what point could we say a black boy has a three in three chance of being successful in pursuing his dreams of getting a college education, and a Latino boy a six in six chance to succeed?”

Williams noted that recent data show there are more black men in college than in prison.

“That’s the good news,” he said.

However, he continued, “While crime rates are dropping, the incarceration rates are going up. It’s been suggested that we could put more emphasis on diversion programs instead of locking people up.”

Blauert and his team of procedural justice trainers are working with Minneapolis police officers and the community through the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, a project of the U.S. Department of Justice.

“It’s basically treating people the way you’d like to be treated, which is a simple enough concept,” Blauert said.

The program helps officers and community members change perceptions and behaviors based on history that has led to mass incarceration. It’s based on the idea that if a person is treated fairly by an officer, the outcome will be positive, and trust will grow.

Tyner offered eight specific strategies for responding to mass incarceration: Create jobs and end poverty, promote educational opportunities, disrupt the “cradle to prison pipeline,” become aware of implicit biases, explore how a variety of social justice issues play a part in the solution, build restorative communities, and engage in policy reform by becoming a Sower of Justice.

Above all, Tyner encourages people to heed the call to lead and embrace the opportunities to address poverty and mass incarceration, she said.

Broadly resonating principles

The Catholic Charities Office for Social Justice relies on the Sowers of Justice to help it reach its public policy goals. There are more than 3,000 Sowers in the Twin Cities alone, said Acooa Ellis, director of social justice advocacy.

Most Sowers are members of Catholic parishes, she said, but non-Catholics are welcome.

“We certainly honor the legacy of [Catholic Charities’ social justice] office, but realize to do the work that we want to do, and to get further upstream, we really need a broad base of people doing that,” she said.

To be effective change-makers at the city and neighborhood levels, as well as at the State Legislature, Ellis and fellow advocates focus on working inside systems.

“That’s a newer approach for the team,” she said. “We’re looking to engage folks still grounded in Catholic social teaching principles, but who are not necessarily Catholic, because we know some of these principles resonate broadly.”

Joan Miltenberger, director of St. Olaf’s Charity and Justice Ministry, said the Catholic bishops have been clear in their faithful citizenship documents that charity and justice go hand-in-hand.

“We see people through our outreach ministries or who have been imprisoned, and we see how difficult it is for them to reconnect with their families,” she said. “Part of our role as a person in the pew is to share the stories of those who are directly affected by mass incarceration and to show that our baptismal commitment calls us to do more, not only to visit the imprisoned, but to try to help change the structures that are contributing to mass incarceration.”


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