Matt Driscoll

‘Brick by brick.’ Ending mass incarceration will take concrete steps at the local level

James Forman Jr. will speak about mass incarceration in Tacoma this week.
James Forman Jr. will speak about mass incarceration in Tacoma this week. Yale Law School Office of Public Affairs

James Forman Jr. was driving when I reached him by phone last week.

The Yale Law professor, former Washington D.C. public defender and son of a civil rights leader bearing the same name was about half an hour away from Danbury, Connecticut. There’s a federal prison there, and every week Forman makes the trip, teaching a course on the criminal justice system.

The class has 24 students. Half are from Yale. The other half are incarcerated women at the facility.

Forman’s destination was fitting, as the author of the 2018 Pulitzer winner in general nonfiction, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” was deep into his explanation of what ordinary people can do to end mass incarceration and the disproportionate affect it has on communities of color. The class is one way Forman is striving to do that work.

On Thursday, April 18 it’s the same message Forman says he’ll bring to Tacoma’s Rialto Theater, as part of Philanthropy Northwest’s Racial Equity series.

That also is fitting. Across the country, African Americans are incarcerated at a significantly higher rate than other racial and ethnic groups. That has remained consistent for decades.

The same is true in Pierce County. In 2015, according to the most-recent incarceration trends assembled by the Vera Institute of Justice, there were 659 African Americans incarcerated per 100,000 residents age 15 to 64. For whites, the number was 151 per 100,000 residents age 15 to 64.

Decreasing the sheer number of Americans behind bar, as well as erasing the racial disparity in our prison population, will require a societal mindset shift.

Even more, it will require individual players taking individual actions, Forman said.

Teaching in prison — and creating human interactions between the “incredibly privileged” students he teaches at Yale and those behind bars — is one way to help get students “beyond abstraction,” he explained.

“As long as we talk about it as people who are incarcerated, then they’re always going to be an abstraction. And not any kind of abstraction but an enemy abstraction, an alien abstraction, a dangerous abstraction,” Forman said.

“Now there’s an urgency,” he said of the reaction of his Yale students. “Because now (they) understand some of the real lives and real struggles and real background and real humanity of the people who are incarcerated.”

Offering the course, Forman said, is just one small thing he can do to make a bad situation better.

There’s a lesson in that, he believes.

It can provide some inspiration and motivation to the rest of us, sure. It’s also a reminder that while mass incarceration can feel like an overwhelming problem, it was built by a “series of tiny decisions, by individual actors around every county, every state and every city of this country.”

“That means that we now have the similar opportunity and obligation to dismantle this system, piece by piece, brick by brick,” he said.

Breaking the problem of mass incarceration down to the local level doesn’t minimize the problem. Rather, it provides concrete steps that people can take toward progress — especially since nearly 90-percent of incarcerated individuals are locked up in state, county or local prisons, and 85 percent of all law enforcement is similarly local.

“The most important, and most powerful actor in the criminal justice system is the county prosecutor,” Forman points out.

What might individuals leading this change look like?

As an example, Forman looked at the realities facing the roughly 900,000 individuals every year exiting prisons and jails across the country.

That sounds like a massive number, and it is, but Forman juxtaposed this number with the 300,000 churches, synagogues, mosques and religious organizations in the United States.

“When I tell you that 900,000 people are coming out of jail every year, that sounds like an insurmountable problem, but when you understand that lots of people are active in their houses of worship, and we have 300,000 of those, that means that in any house of worship you only have to commit to taking on three,” Forman said.

“If every group, if every church, if every synagogue, if every mosque said we’re going to take three people, and we are going to commit in our community to welcoming those people back, to helping them find housing, to helping them find shelter, helping them find child care, helping them find a job, then we would have gone a long way toward solving the process of returning citizens coming back, because right now they come back to nothing.”

Forman also highlighted the workplace and the misguided policies that often keep anyone with a criminal record from getting a foot in the door.

When local jurisdictions, including Tacoma, take steps like this, it’s usually looks something like “banning the box” — or removing the question on city job applications that asks applicants whether they’ve been convicted of a felony. Even taking a small step like this can dramatically increase the odds of the formerly incarcerated getting a job.

Broadly speaking, it falls under the growing fair-chance employment movement.

Forman noted that it doesn’t take a city council or statehouse to mandate such a change at your workplace.

All it takes is a few people in positions of power being willing to stand up and do what’s right.

When Forman talks about ending mass incarceration, that’s precisely the kind of individual courage and conviction he always comes back to.

“This is a state, county and local issue,” he explained, echoing the message he hopes to impart on Tacoma this week.

“That’s where it was built, and that’s where it’s going to need to be dismantled,” Forman said.