The Fisher Center for the Study of Women and Men closed its yearlong examination of gender, isolation and imprisonment last week with a lecture by Khalilah Brown-Dean, the Peter Strauss Family Assistant Professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Yale University. Her talk, “Once Convicted, Forever Doomed: The Politics of Punishment in the U.S.” also served as this year’s Leo Srole Lecture.
With the United States leading the rest of the world in incarceration – with a rate of 723 per 100,000 residents in prison when the world average is just 166 – it should come as no surprise that for every 99 people, one U.S. citizen is directly involved with the criminal justice system. “What is the impact of the social justice system on the foundations of democracy?” asked Brown-Dean in light of this information. “What are the consequences of our failure to protect democracy?”
For one, this high rate of imprisonment creates what Brown-Dean called “fractured citizenship,” the idea that even after having achieved former standing as a U.S. citizenship, those who were incarcerated are unable to live as full citizens due to policy restrictions. Another major consequence, argued Brown-Dean, is that incarceration in the U.S. threatens to undermine gains made in Civil Rights Movement. In a country where racial tensions often run high, it presents a further cleavage in communities across the U.S.
Brown-Dean pointed to the Nixon presidency in particular as having a large impact on today’s justice system. In order to help him win the election, he took a hard approach to law and order, making African Americans “play by the rules.” “Nixon’s stance significantly influenced the country’s thoughts and philosophy regarding imprisonment and the black community. “It was no longer about rehabilitation, but incapacitation,” said Brown-Dean, who also stressed how little the political view of incarceration has changed. “Crime is an issue that Republicans and Democrats agree upon. It has truly become a bipartisan focus.”
Ultimately, Brown-Dean addressed the issue’s significance to those not directly affected by incarceration, asking the question, “What difference does it make?” Quite a bit, said Brown-Dean; those in prison still affect the political process – they are counted as residents of the city in which they are incarcerated. This means that prison towns gain state money, federal grants and receive representatives based on population numbers. However, prisoners in many states do not have the ability to elect their representatives.
The solution to a more just incarceration system in the U.S. lies in change in thought more than practice. “We have to consider alternatives; we cannot keep locking people up without knowing what happens on the back-end,” said Brown-Dean. She also highlighted the importance of empowering community members to become their own advocates, suggesting that former felony offenders can contribute to better communities; it is this continued action that must be promoted. “Instead of being tough on crime, we have to be smart on crime.”
Prior to Brown-Dean’s lecture, Ira Srole, son of the late Leo Srole, said a few words on behalf of his father, who passed away in 1993, and his mother who was unable to attend the talk. “I owe a debt of gratitude to all who made this lecture series possible, and to those responsible for shepherding all of my father’s paper works,” remarked Srole. “It means so much to my mother, sister and me that all of his hard work has found a home here at the Colleges.”
Brown-Dean is a resident fellow of the Institute for Social and Policy Studies and a research fellow at the Macmillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale. Brown-Dean received her Ph.D. in political science from The Ohio State University in 2003 and a B.A. in government from The University of Virginia in 1998. Brown-Dean has served as a political analyst, adviser, and commentator for CNN, PBS, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Crisis Magazine, the Comcast Network, and several governmental agencies, community organizations and international media outlets.
Srole (1908-1993), professor of sociology at HWS, graduated from Harvard in 1933 and received his Ph.D. from University of Chicago in 1940. An internationally known urban sociologist who taught in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology before World War II, Srole is remembered as one of the Colleges’ most distinguished faculty of the last century. The lecture series established in his honor is charged with bringing ground-breaking urban thinkers to the HWS campus to explore the issues and concerns to which Srole dedicated his life.