UC Merced’s Center for the Humanities held a symposium on “30 Years of Mass Incarceration” Wednesday, during which professors and authors addressed California’s struggle with overcrowded prisons.
The event was part of the university’s seminar series called “Race and Justice in Transnational Perspective,” a project that has been in the works there since the beginning of this school year.
According Tanya Golash-Boza, an associate professor and organizer of the symposium, the topic of mass incarceration is an issue that must be touched upon when race and injustice are being discussed.
“When we talk about race disparities and injustice, incarceration is big issue,” she said.
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“Many times Highway 99 is referred to as prison alley,” she said, “so when we talk about what’s going on in the Central Valley, we have to talk about our prisons.”
According to activist and author Ruth Wilson Gilmore, California needs true realignment of the prison system, one that would create a shift from mass incarceration toward more effective alternatives such as funding education and social services.
Wilson Gilmore maintained that building prisons does not help the economy, , while building community colleges tends to offer a financial boost.
“Things do not have to be the way they became. There were alternatives away from mass incarceration, but they weren’t taken,” she said.
Wilson Gilmore said more of the state budget should go toward supporting education, rather than the prison system.
“We don’t want to save money, we want to spend it on education and the bettering of the community,” Wilson Gilmore said.
The event also included a roundtable session in which UC Merced professors Nigel Hatton and Zulema Valdez from the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, shared their experiences in volunteering their services with the Prison University Project.
Both professors volunteer at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.
Hatton and Valdez – who teach literature and sociology, respectively – give lectures in the prison similar to the ones they give in the classroom.
According to the professors, the prisoners do not get any type of college credit, but the inmates they’ve worked with tend to appreciate the access to education.
Robin Levi, a human rights consultant and co-editor of “Inside this Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons” spoke about her research on women’s correctional facilities.
Levi explained that today there are eight times more women in prison than there were in the 1980s, a situation she identifies in her book, a collection of stories from women who have lived within the U.S criminal justice system.
Golash-Boza said the goal in bringing the speakers to campus was to educate the community about an ongoing issue.
“We were really pleased that people from the community came out – students, organizing projects, public defenders, we had all types of people show up,” said Golash-Boza.
“Our priority is to collaborate with different groups,” she said, “to bring important and beneficial information to the community.”