Mariame Kaba was talking to a group of young black men who were visiting an exhibit last year commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Attica Prison riot in New York when she first began envisioning “Black/Inside: A History of Captivity & Confinement in the U.S.”
Kaba, the founder of Project NIA whose mission is to decrease youth incarceration, asked the 15 teens to raise their hand if they knew anyone currently incarcerated. A few hands went up. When she asked the boys if they knew someone who had been incarcerated at any time, everyone raised a hand.
The revelation immediately struck a chord with her.
“I was concerned because growing up I bought into the propaganda that blacks were inherently more criminal than other groups,” said Kaba, a 40-year-old New York native.
“I took it for granted that so many black and brown people were in the criminal justice system because the system was fair and that’s where they belonged. But that was wrong, and I wanted to show how we got here and ask, ‘How can we reverse course?’ ”
The incident inspired Kaba to create the exhibit on the history of black criminalization and incarceration that opens Oct. 23 at the University of Illinois Chicago’s African American Cultural Center Gallery.
Further motivation came from attending a Washington, D.C., conference where she heard David Simon, the writer and producer of the former HBO television series “The Wire,” describe the war on drugs as a “slow moving holocaust.”
The subject of mass incarceration has been gaining national attention and momentum in recent years.
Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” has been required reading for those wanting to know more about the racial disparity in the country’s prison system. In the book, Alexander argues: “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
On Friday, Eugene Jarecki’s “The House I Live In” opened at the Gene Siskel Film Center. It’s a documentary about how the war on drugs has been far more successful at filling the prison system with people for nonviolent drug offenses than ending drug use.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, of the 242,900 inmates in state prisons around the country in 2009 for drug-related offenses, 73,900 were white, 41,400 were Hispanic and 122,600 were black. The rest were of different races.
“Are black people more likely to do drugs and sell drugs? No,” said Kaba. “Are they more likely to be incarcerated? Yes.”
She said blacks were also more likely to be given stiffer sentences. She referenced the two-decades-old sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses, which Congress finally brought closer in line in 2010.
Kaba’s interest in the prison issue began in the early 1990s when she was just out of college and teaching in New York. A teenager who was a student of hers killed another of her students.
“What I noticed about the situation beyond the devastation it wrought was that (prosecutors) wanted the young man to be tried as an adult,” said Kaba. “He was 16. He was never a monster. It made me start to question and think about what we’re doing around punishment and how inhumane it can be.”
In the end, her former student was tried as a juvenile and sentenced to five years in juvenile detention.
Although the story stuck with her, she said she didn’t begin to ponder mass incarceration until about 5 years later.
“The young people I was working with were getting ensnared in the legal system in ways I hadn’t noticed before I started teaching,” she said. “Many lived in communities that were poor and they were selling drugs to survive. These were crimes of survival and not crimes of violence.”
She said telling these kids to just find legal employment would have been fruitless because they lived in communities where the only jobs were in the underground economy.
About 15 years ago, as a hobby, Kaba began collecting photographs, newspaper articles and other prison artifacts. She said she hadn’t planned on creating an exhibit until last year.
“[President Richard] Nixon said illegal drugs were a scourge and his plan was to provide treatment,” said Kaba. “But then President Ronald Reagan made it a prison and incarceration issue. (President) George H.W. Bush put it on steroids, and (President) Clinton further solidified the approach.
“It’s hard to believe now that in the 1970s criminologists were talking about the end of prisons.”