Civil rights activists and community members made it clear Saturday that mass incarceration and economic poverty, especially in African-American communities, cannot continue in Delaware.
The Delaware Coalition to Dismantle the New Jim Crow‘s forum drew hundreds of people, including Gov. Jack Markell, Mayor Dennis P. Williams and U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, who were looking for solutions to the poverty and prison connection that has led to a disproportionate number of African-Americans being incarcerated in the state’s prisons.
Currently, about 56 percent of Delaware’s prison population is is African-American. Yet only 22 percent of the state’s population is black.
Keith James, a 20-year-old Wilmington University student and founder of the community organization Voices for Voiceless, asked those in the packed hall at the Chase Center on the Riverfront in Wilmington to stand if they were under age 25. As about two dozen young adults stood, James said ending the troubling relationship between poverty and prison starts with empowering youth and helping them overcome adversity.
That means the state shouldn’t spend about $12,000 annually to educate a student and $30,000 annually to house an inmate, he said.
James told the hushed crowd he grew up in north Wilmington and dropped out of high school in 10th grade. He started abusing drugs and found himself on the wrong path.
However, he got a second chance at the United Way of Delaware, where he was given the tools to change his life.
“I’m told that at my age I should have dropped out of college, had a child, been in prison or died,” he said. “Do what United Way of Delaware did and empower these people. Take a chance.”
Other speakers at the daylong conference offered solutions in criminal justice, bail reform, political mobilization and employment opportunities. During the afternoon, the audience broke up into groups to brainstorm solutions.
Markell said at the forum that 1 out of every 6 African-American men have “disappeared from life” because of incarceration or death, leading to significant challenges for many communities in the state. He said the state needs to focus on improving education and workforce training and modernizing the criminal justice system.
“We are spending more precious resources every year locking people up, rather than lifting people up,” Markell said.
Yasser Payne, a professor at the University of Delaware who released the People’s Report in 2013 after researching violence in Wilmington, agreed the current system is broken. The poverty rate for blacks in Wilmington is 30 percent, while the poverty rate for whites is 13 percent, he said.
Likewise, unemployment impacts blacks at a rate of five times that of whites in the city, he said.
“Much of the anger and rage is a function of people not having their basic needs met,” Payne said. “In this land of the free, in this land of milk and honey, I ask the question, ‘Opportunity for whom? And, disopportunity for whom?’ ”
He said blacks are disproportionately locked into structural violence in the form of poverty.
“If you can comfortably go to sleep tonight with all this structural violence going on in our backyards … then, I promise you, you are also part of the problem,” he said.
The Coalition to Dismantle the New Jim Crow has been working to increase awareness of these problems and advocating for several changes, including repeal of Delaware’s death penalty and expungements and pardons on criminal records, since 2013.
The New Jim Crow is a term that stems from a book by Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer and activist, that sparked a national conversation on incarceration and race and how it mirrors the Jim Crow system of segregation from decades ago.
Coons said dismantling the New Jim Crow will require changes, such as a pending bill that would reduce mandatory minimums and reverse the harm of three-strikes and tough sentencing laws on nonviolent offenders in federal prisons.
“If we can show that we can improve public safety, reduce costs and begin to address this huge humanitarian problem … then we have a chance,” he said. “If we want peace, if we want this city to not be known as Murder Town, we must repent, and then act, and then change.”