SOMERVILLE, NJ - The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Somerset Hills and the Central Jersey Community Coalition hosted a dialogue recently which addressed the issues facing those involved with the modern American criminal justice system.
The event was organized by Caroline Hann, who is a part of the advocate performance group META theatre company.
The evening opened with words from Michelle Edgar, who is a member of CJCC, the sponsor, as well as the Unitarian Universalist Congregation itself.
“Prisons do not disappear social problems. They disappear human beings,” she said to the audience. The line was a quote from Angela Davis, and was included on a segment of the advertisement for the event.
One of the first guest speakers in the lineup was George Helmy, who is state director for U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ. Helmy provided the audience with plenty of statistics regarding incarceration - for example, the population of those in prison has increased by 800 percent since 1980. However, in 2013 alone, only three percent of federal charges were actually taken to trial.
Additionally, over 6 million Americans are prohibited from voting due to a felony conviction.
Helmy also discussed the treatment many receive inside prisons; for example, many incarcerated females are forced to change and use the bathroom with male prison officers waiting outside. Solitary confinement of juvenile inmates is not prohibited, despite being classified as “torture” by the United Nations. Many former convicts do not get paid minimum wage; Helmy said some women in prison are paid $14 per month.
“Change never comes from Washington, it comes to Washington,” said Helmy.
Another presenter was James Williams IV, a juvenile justice field organizer at the NJ Institute for Social Justice. He briefly explored the racial aspect of the issue, informing the audience that in New Jersey, blacks are 30 times more likely to be incarcerated; he also said that 1 in every 13 black Americans cannot vote.
Williams detailed that one time, he heard a woman say the criminal justice system was perfect, and initially didn’t agree. However, he went on to add the conclusion he eventually came to.
"The system is doing perfectly...we’re great at locking up people of color," he said.
A statistics sheet that was given to audience members at the beginning disclosed even more - one in every six black men have been imprisoned since 2001, or that five times as many whites are using drugs compared to African-Americans, yet African-Americans are incarcerated for drug-related crimes at a rate ten times higher than that of whites.
John G. Kuofos, executive director for the New Jersey Reentry Corporation and a former inmate himself, stated how he had started working on the company as a first-hand witness to the difficulties inmates faced being reintroduced into society. His organization opened in Jersey City, and has restored over 200 drivers' licenses; many people are released from prison without having a license or even an I.D.
"I don’t know how they expect you to do something if you have no way to prove who you are,” said Kuofos.
The fourth speaker, Jason Bost, an author and advocate as well as a former convict, described his struggle despite being able to prove who he was. Following his incarceration, Bost had gone to school for teaching.
“If you check that box, they’re not gonna hire you,” said Bost, recalling a situation in which he was asked to confirm whether or not he had committed a felony for a job application. Bost told the audience how despite high ranks and good recommendations, he was not allowed to receive his New York teaching certificate - all because of a mistake in his youth. He says that to this day, he still has difficulties finding jobs despite going on to receive a Phd in Law as well as working with Grammy-winning artists.
Jennifer Narr-Rodrigues, a formerly incarcerated advocate, opened up with the audience about how her treatment during that period of her life was different than what she expected. She shared how she originally believed the police were safe people to talk to, but then said “They didn’t care about anything I had to say. They only cared about a conviction.” She explained how she wasn’t allowed to see her children until being released, and how earning a 4.0 while obtaining her Master’s still led to no job offers.
“There’s just so much to a person,” said Narr-Rodrigues. “And to be able to just lump them into one category based off what the media tells us is not fair.”
The evening also included performances by the META theatre company, an organization that seeks to combine the art of theatre with social activism. Caroline Hann, a participant in META as well as the event’s key organizer, said of the group, “We believe that theatre is a pathway to justice.”
Members performed various pieces written by inmates. One such spoken word was called “Stop Killing Us,” written by Lakesha Jones in response to the Ferguson and Baltimore incidents, and being raised in Newark.
“This is not your land, this is ours as well,” wrote Jones. “Black is beautiful, and powerful.”
The night concluded with “Dear New Jersey,” a spoken word combining the lines of various incarcerated individuals. The members of META performed the piece with the names of the authors inscribed on their arms.
Prospective solutions to the many problems presented included the conspiracy of love as presented by Helmy - which involved choosing to care for others, even if we do not know them. Others included placing juvenile convicts within their communities rather than locking them away. A bill mentioned by Helmy was the Dignity Act, meant to enforce programs designed to assist women in prison along with their families. Williams suggested an effective way people within the community can contribute is to talk about the problems, even when others don’t want to hear.
“We have to find a way to have that uncomfortable conversation,” Williams said. “This isn’t about black Democrat or white Democrat. This isn’t about black Republican or white Republican. This is about people.”