Monday, October 29, 2012

A National Tragedy

When Geoffrey Canada spoke on our Utica Campus earlier this month, I expected to hear about the success of the Harlem Children's Zone. He eventually got there, but Canada spent the first fifteen minutes talking about the impact that the mass incarceration of inner-city poor populations has had on families and children. I had planned this week to write about our local economy and the gap between students wanting jobs and employers decrying the dearth of trained workers to fill the open positions they have currently. But, simply, Canada's comments, along with information recently gleaned from several other sources on the subject of today's U.S. prison population shocked, saddened, and motivated me to place my focus here this week.

I first heard about the "mass incarceration of America" on National Public Radio last spring as Michelle Alexander talked about her book, "The New Jim Crow." A short time later, I read columnist Leonard Pitts' call for people to read Alexander's book and subsequently help create a national movement to make positive changes to our criminal justice system.

I checked Alexander's book out of the MVCC Library and was blown away by the facts published therein. Ms. Alexander has a number of speeches available on YouTube that provide insight and texture to the topic. (Here is a 12 minute piece.)

Since Canada's appearance at MVCC, I've seen several television interviews regarding newly released documentaries – some intense and moving, others ironic and shocking.

“The House I Live In” is a film that just opened and provides insight to the mass incarceration of young black males in this country, with the additional perspectives of law enforcement. The war on drugs has had an all-encompassing effect on prisoners as well as a broad range of emotional and other effects on the law enforcement professionals who have the challenging job of enforcing our drug laws. (Here is the powerful two-minute trailer.)

Additionally, D.L. Hughley has a short film on Comedy Central, titled the “Endangered List,” wherein the comedian proposes the not-so-tongue-in-cheek notion that black people would have more rights if they were on the endangered list. The film explores the impact the war on drugs has had on blacks in America. After speaking with private, for-profit prison owners, Hughley learns that they are able to select their prisoners based on age and health (longer sentences are more profitable!). He puts a fine point on the issue by talking L.A. gang members into buying stock in some of those particular prisons. Hughley notes that not only might some of those gang members wind up being prisoners one day, they may also be shareholders in the very prisons likely to hold them.

Irony and marginal humor aside, the facts remain – the United States truly is the largest jailor in the world. 
  • The United States incarcerates its citizens at a rate seven times greater than any other developed nation in the world. We jail a higher percentage of our citizens than any other country, including China, North Korea and that of South Africa during Apartheid.
  • The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners.
  • More African-American adults are under correctional control in the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1850.
  • Black children have less chance today of being raised by both parents than they did during slavery.
  • The drug war was declared when drug use was actually declining.
  • Crack cocaine use has been sentenced at a severity of 100 to 1 compared to powder cocaine – Congress recently addressed this incredible imbalance … now that ratio is only 18 to 1. Unbelievable.
  • Federal drug laws prohibit convicted felons post-release (including simple drug possession) from receiving financial aid for education, food stamps, welfare and publicly funded housing. These prohibitions do not apply to violent bank robbers, white-collar criminals (think Wall Street and high finance) and, in some cases, even murderers do not face such harsh post-release sanctions.
  • The U.S. prison population has risen from 300,000 in 1980 to more than 2 million today.
  • By the year 2000 more people were returning to prison on drug convictions than ALL people going to prison in 1980.
  • In some urban areas, more than 50% of working age African-American men have criminal records.
The list of startling statistics goes on and on. Generally, I consider myself to be socially aware, so to learn of all this – at this magnitude – was shocking to me. 

The quote at the end of the movie trailer above says mass incarceration in this country is a “holocaust in slow motion.” I am reminded of the great novel “Stones from the River” by Ursela Hegi that tells the tale of the Holocaust in similar form. That human tragedy gained traction over so many years that, by the time people recognized it, the scourge had progressed far beyond the collective imagination. I only hope it’s not too late for us and can only imagine how our worker shortage might be different if even half of those prisoners could find a path through college and to careers rather than "riding" the tractor beam of our current system of criminal justice.

If you have any comments or questions, please email me at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Educational Technologies

If you have comments or questions on this post, please e-mail me at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Completing College

Wednesday, October 3rd is College Completion Day, and our Phi Theta Kappa chapter is hosting a number of activities on both the Utica and Rome campuses.  From 9am-4pm there will be a tent on the Utica quad and a display in the Rome PC atrium including a signing wall along with other activities, both fun and informative.   Our chapter is also asking all faculty and staff to wear a shirt from their alma mater that day as a conversation starter with students about your own college completion story.

My completion story is one of good fortune with guides and mentors along the way. The journey began with my parents who set college graduation as an expectation and supported me the entire way. My high school golf coach encouraged me to go to the local community college and helped me secure a scholarship to play golf. The faculty at Mott community college encouraged me to believe in myself and my academic potential and the golf coach there pointed me to Oakland University where I was able to “walk-on” the golf team and secure a scholarship. My resident assistant  encouraged me to become a resident assistant my senior year, which led to an internship in the Dean of Students office. The Dean (who is now the VP for Student Affairs at Fredonia) spoke so highly of the rewards of educational administration as a career, I applied to graduate school at the University of Michigan where I met a professor who has guided me in my career for more than twenty years and counting.

We so often think completing college is about the individual student – of course internal motivation and ability are essential.  However, my completion story is a series of guides and mentors who played very important roles in helping me get there – it’s parents, family, friends, faculty, staff that help light the way.  Finding good mentors requires one to be a good mentee by asking questions, listening to others, and synthesizing all the advice you get along the way while never veering from the goal of completion.  I always say my Ph.D. stands for Persistence humility and Determination.

I didn’t sign a pledge to complete board when I was a student like hundreds of MVCC students will on October 3rd,  but pledging to yourself and letting others know you are committed to complete will help others know you are serious.  If you’d like to learn more about why completing college is an important issue for individuals as well our entire country, I’ve included a short video from the head of Phi Theta Kappa International, Rod Risley - http://www.cccompletioncorps.org/

If you have any comments or questions on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.