PENDLETON Speaker talks about a world ‘beyond bars’
Posted: Wednesday, April 6, 2011 12:47 pm
Those who do the crime should do the time.
Walidah Imarisha, speaking at Blue Mountain Community College’s Arts & Culture Festival, says not so quick. The Portland State University professor asked audience members to open their minds and envision a corrections system beyond bars.
First, Imarisha flung out statistics intended to bust myths and smash common perceptions.
On one hand, Imarisha said, incarceration has shot up by 370 percent since 1970 — Oregon’s prison population rose 130 percent. On the other hand, violent crime dipped by 25 percent during the past 20 years. Despite the dip, a head-spinning number of people — 2.5 million — languish in U.S. prisons.
“That makes us the No. 1 incarcerator in the world,” Imarisha said. “We have more prisons than Walmarts.”
Many of the inmates inside prison walls are women.
“The population of women prisoners is the size of Seattle and growing,” she said.
Imarisha, who is writing a book on crime, blamed the rise on a spike in drug convictions.
“The vast majority of prison growth happened post-1978, the start of the War on Drugs,” she said. “Before the War on Drugs, 70 percent of prisoners wouldn’t have gone to prison.”
States mandated harsher sentences with legislation such as Oregon’s Measure 11. Now, Imarisha said, 80 percent of inmates are jailed for non-violent crimes.
“The vast majority of people in prison are there for doing drugs,” she said.
Imarisha admitted she has been touched personally by crime, both as a victim and as someone with a loved one in prison. Her “adopted brother” Kakamia is in a state prison in California serving 15 years to life for second-degree murder. The two kindred spirits adopted each other at age 13 and a recent denial of probation for Kakamia saddened Imarisha immeasurably.
This day, however, she concentrated on non-violent crimes and the wisdom of imprisoning people who struggle with addiction and mental illness. She believes other methods could be more effective and less expensive.
“There are no easy answers, but there are new ideas out there,” Imarisha said.
She ticked off the names of several countries (England, Denmark and Switzerland) that decriminalized drugs and view drug addiction as a health crisis rather than a criminal justice issue.
Imarisha compared programs and costs.
“It costs a minimum of $22,500 to incarcerate for one year,” she said. “Residential treatment is $15,000.” In addition, Imarisha said, intensive probation costs $6,500, drug treatment $5,000, and outpatient drug treatment $3,500. Nationally, however, most dollars flow to traditional prisons.
“Prisons are a booming business,” she said. “We, as a society, have made a choice about how to spend our money.”
Imarisha touched on the issue of race, too. As an a professor in PSU’s Black Studies Department, she teaches classes on everything from race relations to hip hop literature. Racial inequity often comes up. Imarisha also performs with the poetry duo Good Sista/Bad Sista, addressing race issues with prose and verse.
Prison, she said, is a place where racial inequity is hard to miss.
“Drug use is consistent with population,” she said. “Thirteen percent of drug users are black and 65 percent are white.”
So, it bothers Imarisha that blacks make up 35 percent of arrests and 70 percent of those incarcerated for drugs are non-whites. Length of prison time, she said, also seems influenced by race.
“For the exact same crime at the exact same time, blacks serve sentences that are 20 percent longer than whites,” she said.
But, whatever the racial implications, the conversation about dealing with non-violent offenders has wandered way outside the box. Alternatives to prison include decriminalization, halfway houses, drug and alcohol treatment, mental health treatment, restitution, probation, counseling and others.
Imarisha reminded the audience that traditional prisons are costly, in the neighborhood of $52 billion nationally.
“Is this how we want to spend our money,” she said, “when there really are more effective ways to deal with offenders?”