During my first year in medical school, I picked up The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander in an effort to get a better understanding about the prison system in the United States. While I had heard about the astronomically high rates of incarceration, I wanted to understand why things were the way they were. In the first chapter ‘The Rebirth of Caste,’ Alexander introduces the idea that the prison system is used as a legal and ‘politically correct’ means of slavery after emancipation of slaves. Under this system, law enforcement agencies are almost universally protected, regardless of their actions, and seemingly arbitrary (and often racist) mandatory minimum sentences exist for petty crimes. Throughout the text, Alexander also discussed the high recidivism rates within the prison system. She details many barriers that prevent inmates from reintegrating into society after returning to the free world including restricted access to employment and housing and severe parole policies.
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“The idea that some lives matter more than others is the root of all that is wrong with this world.”
– Dr. Paul Farmer
This past Sunday, I attended a training for the Prison Education Program at Cal Poly Pomona. The program is led by the amazing Dr. Renford Reese. After reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and learning about the realities of the prison system in this country, I knew I needed to find a way to help. PEP aims to reduce recidivism rates in prisons by providing inmates with guidance and resources to pursue their goals after leaving prison.
At the training we, of course, discussed the logistics of the program, safety precautions, etc. But my favorite part of the training was when Dr. Reese brought up this idea of umbuntu. Umbuntu is the South African philosophy of ‘humanness’ and is ‘the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.’ Many of the struggles people face daily are structural and money needs to be used to create infrastructure to combat these injustices, but as Dr. Reese said during our training ‘Words are free. And if we believe that words have the power to hurt people, we must also believe that words can heal.’ And that’s what PEP is all about – creating a sense of umbuntu and recognizing that if anyone in our community is hurting, we are all hurting and we must actually do something to help.
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