​Kean University hosts human rights conference

UNION COUNTY, NJ — The Human Rights Institute at Kean University held a conference on prison reform, “Locked Up in America: The Business of Mass Incarceration,” which explored three major aspects of the United States prison system: the school-to-prison pipeline — the term referring to the policies and practices that pushes our nation’s schoolchildren out of the classroom and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems — prison profiteering, and the overuse of solitary confinement.

The conference, which was held April 8 and attended by both high school and college students, educators and activists from across New Jersey, focused on the need for more humane practices within the U.S. criminal justice system. The program was the institute’s ninth annual human rights conference.

Criminal justice reform activists urged those in attendance to learn more about the issues, educate others, and be agents of change –– goals aligned with the mission of the institute, which was created to raise awareness of human rights issues and violations, as well as to develop initiatives to combat these abuses.

Terrell Blount, program associate for the Vera Institute of Justice in Newark, gave a personal account of the prison system. Blount was sentenced to six years in prison at the age of 18 and spent three months in solitary confinement at the age of 20. Calling the practice “inhumane and counterproductive,” Blount said his time in solitary changed him, making him less sociable and wary of others. “We have become so punitive that we have replaced compassion with corrections and dignity with dehumanizing,” he said.

Senator Raymond Lesniak, who received the Human Rights Activist of the Year award for his efforts in working toward criminal justice reform in the state legislature, said that the culture of the criminal justice system must change. “We need to help prisoners come out better than when they came in,” said Lesniak. “Often, however, they come out broken.”

Lesniak believes that rehabilitation instead of incarceration can often work as a more productive response. “We need treatment instead of incarceration,” said Lesniak, citing drug-related offenses in particular. “It’s a lot better to give them an opportunity to get better and sober.”

Thena Robinson Mock, project director for Advancement Project’s “Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track” campaign, discussed the criminalization of school infractions, in which disruptive school behaviors such as pushing, shoving or talking back are elevated to criminal charges such as battery or disorderly conduct. “The presence of officers policing school activity is fueling the school to prison pipeline,” said Mock.

American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey senior staff attorney Alexander Shalom led the audience through the corporations and industries that profit from incarceration, including companies that own and operate prisons, telephone companies that have exclusive contracts with prisons, and insurance companies involved with bail bonds. “Instead of a few people making off like bandits — phone scammers, bail bribers and sleazy politicians — and leaving millions of people devastated, we need to flip the script,” Shalom said.

Christopher McNabb, of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, spoke out against the overuse of solitary confinement. He encouraged students in the audience to join with others across the country who host events on the 23rd of each month to raise awareness about the 23 hours a day that inmates are locked away in isolation.

In an effort to drive home the harsh realities of solitary confinement, Kean University erected a solitary confinement cell replica on loan from the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which was placed on campus from March 31 to April 8. Individuals were invited to sit in the cell — which also included audio recordings from a maximum security prison in Maine — for up to one hour.

The United States currently has the largest prison population in the world, with approximately 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons or jails — a 500 percent increase over the past thirty years. The use of solitary confinement is believed by many prison reform advocacy groups to be emotionally and psychologically damaging, resulting in emotional breakdowns, increased aggression, altered brain activity and suicide.

Each year, the Human Rights Institute at Kean University hosts a human rights conference that focuses on human rights issues on local, national and global levels. Previous topics have included genocide in Darfur, slavery in the 21st century, immigration, and education and combating hatred. The conferences are free of charge and open to the public.

For more information on the Human Rights Institute at Kean University visit www.kean.edu/academics/human-rights-institute.