Hamilton Professor Doran Larson, Nation of Islam representative Courtney Muhammad, and re-entry educator Lee Carr spoke in a webinar moderated by Mohawk Valley Community College Trustee Tony Colón on Oct. 28. This was the sixth of eight webinars in the series “Racial Justice and Criminal Justice Reform in Oneida & Herkimer Counties.”  This was the latest in the collaboration with Colleges and Community for Unity and Change Lecture Series sponsored by Hamilton’s Levitt Center Law and Justice Lab.

Larson, who has taught inside New York state prisons since 2006, opened the discussion by advocating for penal reform policies that start “at the front, rather than the back door of mass incarceration.” Such policies would address the idle time that people may spend awaiting their trials in jails, which Larson said could be put to productive use.              

Larson noted that offerings such as law libraries, commissaries, and work programs are not widely available throughout the local penal system, a shortcoming he called a missed opportunity to “jam the revolving door” of long-term incarceration. In considering further reforms, he described a new vision for what jails could be, grounded in a concept he called “community jailing.” Just as “community policing” philosophies seek to assume more holistic, qualitative approaches to law enforcement, community jailing models would “not measure the performance of jails by the number of people admitted, but by the success of those who leave the facility.” 

Larson also emphasized the need to expand educational programs in jails and prisons. The current GED program needs to be both “expanded and supplemented,” he said, and offer higher education courses to those serving a sentence of three months or more. 

Building off these ideas, Carr reiterated the importance of education for incarcerated individuals. Having been released from a 10-year federal prison sentence only a few months ago, Carr recalled the ways in which he was able to make productive use of his time in a system where the focus is not on rehabilitation, he said, but rather where “it’s all about punishment.” These included predominantly a focus on his own learning. 

Carr touched on the issues that former inmates may encounter after being released, such as the potential lack of resources to help them rebuild their lives. He pointed to a law prohibiting contact between felons, which Carr said precludes the formation of support networks that would allow people like him to assist fellow former prisoners in their endeavors to start anew. “We want to do better — we just need resources to do better,” he said. 

All three panelists pointed toward systemic racism as a significant factor in the penal system, Carr and Muhammad in particular. Muhammad encouraged the need for a “fix on both sides,” or measures that would address not only the problems faced by prisoners in prison, but also those that plague the communities to which they will return. In many of these areas, Muhammad said, economies once based around farming and industry are now reliant largely on prisons and the jobs they provide. 

Hamilton Professor Doc Woods also featured in Wednesday’s webinar, focusing on another example of Black musical expression. This time, he highlighted saxophonist Joshua Redman’s cover of “Let it Be.”

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