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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

Workshop examines prison system, community empowerment

Over 2.3 million people are in prison in the United States, but as the Chapel Hill Prison Books Collective explained in a workshop last week, prisons are out of sight to most people in the country. “(Prison)’s either totally dominating the reality of your life or it’s really difficult to tangibly grasp it,” said Neil Ritchie of the Prison Books Collective during the Nov. 9 presentation at the Greenleaf.

The interactive workshop was hosted by the Greenleaf Events Committee. The Prison Books Collective is a prison abolitionist organization that works to support prisoners by sending hundreds of books and zines to prisoners, and organizing reading groups and educational workshops.

“The term prison abolition was consciously chosen (to represent the organization) to draw parallels to the abolition of slavery,” said Ritchie.

Roxanne Baker, first-year CCE student, explained why she organized the event. “Prison abolition work is really important to me because my dad went to prison when I was two,” she said. “Learning about how slavery essentially still exists today is very necessary.”

In 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution outlawed slavery except as punishment for a crime, allowing slave-like conditions to continue in the prison system. Critics of the prison system argue that this loophole in the 13th Amendment means legalized slavery never officially ended in the United States.

“I think that it’s also important . to understand the way that laws changed around drug offenses and mandatory sentencing guidelines,” Katie Yow ’06 told The Guilfordian. “Disproportionately, drugs like crack that are epidemic in communities of color carry harsher sentences than drugs like cocaine.”

The workshop began by classifying the prison-industrial complex as “a system situated in the intersection of public and private interests that is used to solve social, economic, and political problems.” Participants defined what fuels the prison system, mentioning racism, penal codes, class inequalities, the media, and more.

Sophomore Eloise True, who attended the event, said she grew more interested in learning about prisons after Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Aaron Fetrow’s presentation on white privilege in the criminal justice system last month. She said the Prison Books Collective gave an interesting and informative presentation.

“A lot of the statistics were really effective,” True said. “The statistics about racial divides in prisons were pretty astounding.”

According to the workshop, 82 percent of U.S. prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, and racial disparities in U.S. prisons are statistically worse than they were under apartheid in South Africa.

Yow mentioned that research in 2005 showed a number of products on campus were made in prisons, including mattresses. The research was a part of awareness-raising efforts around prisons. Yow later told The Guilfordian about the need as well for understanding sentencing regulations in order to comprehend the prison system.

Eli Albiston and Neil Ritchie from the Prison Books Collective led the workshop, which included small-group discussions about how to address different problems while empowering affected communities.

Albiston and Ritchie explained the importance of “power activism,” which they argued has a redistributive power from those fueling the prison-industrial complex to the most effected and oppressed communities.

During the workshop, they split people into three groups to try and solve different issues with a power activism approach. One of the situations described a mixed income neighborhood facing gentrification.

Bryan Cahall ’07 suggested building a renters’ organization that could go on strike against rent hikes. He added that prisons should be abolished as part of a larger struggle against capitalism, the state, and patriarchy. Many attendees agreed.

The Prison Books Collective is interested using power activism to partner with other prison abolitionist organizations like Critical Resistance to create “harm-free zones” where communities are more self-reliant. The Prison Books Collective can be contacted at [email protected].

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