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Education as the Rx for a soaring prison population

James B. Peterson (left), director of Africana studies, moderated the discussion with writer/activist Angela Davis (center) and rap musician Nas.

As Angela Davis and Nas walked out arm and arm onto the stage of a mostly full Baker Hall last night, the audience erupted in a standing applause.

Davis, a well-known political activist since the 1960s, and Nas, a successful rap musician, spoke about the increasing problem of mass incarceration. Their discussion was moderated by James B. Peterson, director of Africana studies and associate professor of English.

Seeking to engage the Lehigh community in discussions of social justice, the event was a part of the “Incarcerated Justice Series: Civil Rights in the 21st Century,” presented by the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee. One of the major recurring questions was the high rate of prison recidivism, or why so many prisoners convicted criminals end up returning to the system.

Davis, a former member of the Black Panthers who was incarcerated for roughly 18 months in the early 1970s, focuses much of her activism on the state of prisons in the United States. The felony conviction check box that still exists on college and job applications, she said, is proof that the outside world alienates former prisoners.

“We need to be critical of the way we internalize ideas of people in prison,” said Davis, who is the author of eight books and a Distinguished Professor Emerita of the history of consciousness and of feminist studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

“We should question the way we imagine prisoners. Institutions like [Lehigh] may even encourage you to be elitists—to think you’re better than everyone else. But we need to be doing the opposite by breaking down those hierarchies.”

Avoiding “the trap”

Nas, who has sold more than 25 million records and received 11 Grammy nominations in the last 20 years, discussed the difficulties in assimilating back into the real world after being incarcerated. Growing up in Queens, N.Y., he said, his environment forced him to feel as though he could not avoid getting into what he called “the trap.”

“I remember when I was young I had to accept hustling as an occupation for some of my friends’ fathers. As I got older, I saw some of their older brothers get locked up, and most of my neighbors were in, too. We grew up in a war—the war on drugs—and we had to decide whether we were going to sink or swim.”

Adapting to the real world remains a problem for those who are released from prison, he said.

“When prisoners get out, they need to know that there is something else waiting for them. Otherwise, they feel as though they have no other choice.”

Davis challenged the audience to consider the possibility of healing justice, referring to other institutions which could replace the prison system. When asked what one U.S. policy she would change to propel social justice, Davis replied that she would make education free.

“The solution to the incarceration issue is the creation of schools. We must look to knowledge for happiness. Why is it now that education is treated like a task?”

Davis and Nas also spoke of music’s influence on the criminal justice system. Davis, commending Nas’ work as musician, said that it is “through culture that people and ideas develop.” However, Peterson and members from the audience said that rap music culture can sometimes elevate the wrong types of lifestyles.

“Rap is a product of what the criminal justice system has created,” Nas said. “It’s not about glorifying [incarceration]. It’s about reality—and it’s hard. It’s almost as though rappers are saying: ‘If jail’s all you got for me, it’s not going to break me.’ But sometimes the message is misunderstood, and sometimes artists get too caught up in the image of it all.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the U.S. As an activist for nearly half a century, Davis expressed her astonishment at the rapid growth of the nation’s prison population.

“I can remember at one point saying ‘Wow, there are 200,000 people in prison.’”

Before the discussion with Davis and Nas, Karen Sims, director of information processing in the office of advancement services, sang a song and Darius Williams, assistant professor of theatre, read a poem he had written and dedicated to Davis. Davis and Nas also met with about 30 students in separate hour-long discussions in the Zoellner Arts Center.

Also before the discussion, the MLK planning committee gave out the 2014 Lehigh University MLK Awards to the following:

•    Jennifer Swann, professor of biological sciences, received the Faculty Award “for her passion in promoting students of color and for expanding their opportunities for growth at Lehigh.”

•    Angela Scott, director for academic diversity and outreach, received the Staff Award “for her work in fostering a more welcoming and inclusive campus climate.”

•    Jocelyn Providence ’14 received a Student Award “for campaigning for change at Lehigh and beyond.”

•    Brenda Martinez ’15 received a Student Award “for being a leading voice of marginalized students and for being an agent of change.”

•    Ralph Jean-Noel ’14 received the Percy Hughes Award for Scholarship, Humanity and Social Change “for his energy, enthusiasm and unwavering dedication to social justice.” This award is given by the College of Education.

•    The LEPOCO Peace Center of Bethlehem received the Community Organization Award “for its work in building a just society and a peaceful world through nonviolent action.”

•    The Community Health Department of St. Luke’s Hospital received the Corporation Award “for its dedication to making health care accessible to all members of the community.”

Photos by Christa Neu

Story by Jaime DellaPelle '14

Posted on Tuesday, March 11, 2014

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