Fairfield Hosted Forum on Mass Incarceration in America
The United States accounts for 5% of the world’s population, but is responsible for nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population; it has more people incarcerated than any other country, according to Amnesty International.
Knowing that, The Fairfield University community came together on October 28 for a one-day conference to ask the questions: How did we get here? Why should we care? And what should we do?
The conference, “From the Color Line to the Carceral State: Prisons, Policing, and Surveillance in the 20th and 21st Centuries,” was sponsored by many departments and programs in the College of Arts and Sciences, including the Black Studies Program.
Dr. Johanna Garvey, associate professor of English and director of the Black Studies Program, said, "We were very fortunate in being able to work with Professor Robert Chase at SUNY Stony Brook, coordinating the conference on the carceral state with his institution, which allowed us to bring nationally recognized scholars to Fairfield University. This conference also offered an opportunity to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Program in Black Studies: Africa and the Diaspora with an event that combined intellectual engagement with activism for social justice."
Six of the nation’s leading scholars on the topic examined the historical roots, dispersed locations, and present-day consequences of “mass incarceration” and the carceral state. They also presented a broad range of topics connecting the historical origins of the carceral state with the United States’ current struggles over mass incarceration and policing.
Dr. Heather Thompson, from the University of Michigan, was the morning keynote speaker and discussed the history of civil rights, the criminalization of specific cities and how that connects to mass incarceration today. “We’re at an interesting moment where we can see that we’ve created one of the worst criminal justice systems in the world,” she said to attendants. Ending on a positive note, she concluded, “We’re hearing more and more about these issues today and people want to undo the damage. There’s been an amazing amount of energy for change, especially in places like Baltimore and Ferguson.”
Dr. Donna Murch, from Rutgers University, delivered the afternoon keynote lecture, “Transcending Punishment: Black Liberation, Resistance, and the Criminalization of America’s Most Vulnerable.” Using the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri as an example, Dr. Murch noted that it was “a profound moment” and that people’s access to the digital world made it possible for a wider range of people to hear about it. She also spoke on the history and legacy of the Black Panther Party, noting their national reach and how that could help civil right struggles today. “I think that the one thing that ‘Black Lives Matter’ is missing is that global and local outlook,” she said.
Panelists for the day included Dr. Pippa Holloway, professor of history at Middle Tennessee University, Dr. Kelly Hernandez, professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, Dr. Elizabeth Hinton, from the Department of African Studies at Harvard University, and Dr. Robert T. Chase, from the Department of History at Stony Brook University.
The conference concluded with an intimate conversation between all those in attendance, expressing further questions and explorative thoughts. The discussion began with an analysis on the power of language to frame structural issues such as the “war on drugs,” or the “war on poverty,” legitimizing the dehumanization of a body of oppressed individuals, and evolved into a thoughtful consideration of how the internalization of future crime can instead be a positive, self-fulfilling prophecy.
Following the conference, Dr. Garvey said, "Mass incarceration matters, as Professor Heather Thompson reminded us in her keynote, indeed is at the core of numerous social crises today. And as Professor Kelly Lyttle Hernandez explained, the carceral state today is the result of centuries of injustice directed at indigenous peoples, immigrants, and those of African descent. At a time when surveillance, policing, and violence are at the center of national conversations, Fairfield University’s sponsorship of this conference provided a major opportunity for students and faculty to discuss these issues and pursue the Jesuit ideals of social justice that inform our mission statement."
This conference was sponsored by the following Academic Departments and Programs: American Studies, Applied Ethics, Black Studies, the College of Arts & Sciences, Communication, English, History, the Honors Program, the Office of Student Engagement, Peace & Justice Studies, Politics, Sociology & Anthropology, Visiting Black Scholars, and Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies.
Reporting by Olivia Pentell '16 and Lindsay Stephen '16