Institutionalized racial prejudice remains 55 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That was the conclusion of a panel of criminal justice experts last week.
Anna Hollis of Amachi Pittsburgh, Rabbi Moshe Mayir Vogel of the Aleph Institute and Roy Waterman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs cited statistics and anecdotes when describing a foul and ineffective system during a Jan. 28 event at the Alloy Studios, located at 5530 Penn Ave.
The criminal justice system resembles “a giant onion,” said Waterman. “As you peel each layer and get closer to the middle, it starts bothering your eyes. The more you know, the more it’s going to bother you.”
Vogel, who oversees the Aleph Institute’s northeast regional headquarters and provides “preventive-education and faith-based rehabilitation programs,” pointed to a “76 percent recidivism rate in the United States.”
Now square that number with “the ripple effect” in communities of color, where “children are grappling with how to see themselves,” echoed Hollis, Amachi’s executive director. They may observe their parents arrested and wonder, “Will that happen to me?”
Young adults may turn to the media and see black people portrayed negatively, added Hollis. “It’s unbelievable what children have to contend with.”
For much of the 90-minute program, panelists substantiated their displeasure with the criminal justice system by recounting incidents from their organizational dealings or corroborating data.
“After 11 years of visiting prisons I realized I had to change this,” said Vogel. “Everyone wants to be a productive member of society, but they don’t have the tools. We have to give them the tools.”
Finding those opportunities is difficult, replied Waterman, project manager for the JCPA’s Criminal Justice Initiative.
“When you do the crime and do the time, it’s the beginning of a life sentence,” as imprisonment forever remains a “black eye. It’s like a modern day scarlet letter.”
Waterman was incarcerated when he was 19. He spent 13 years behind bars. Since then, he has been touted for his activism. In 2016, cable channel NY1, named him “NYer of the Week” after co-founding Drive Change, a nonprofit providing paid workplace learning opportunities to New Yorkers aged 18-25 and recently released from jail or prison.
“I know what it’s like to be in a place where I lacked purpose, direction and focus, but I also know what it’s like to find myself while I was incarcerated,” Waterman told NY1. “Some of the best untapped potential are people who are incarcerated. Unfortunately, people aren’t getting opportunities once they’re being released back into society.”
A 2014 study from Arizona State University researchers buttresses such claims, as the report details not only a difficulty in obtaining employment post-release, but racial biases among prospective employers.
Key findings indicate “both black and Hispanic men were less likely to receive a positive response from employers — including a call back or email for an interview or a job offer — compared with white men; men with criminal records were more likely than women with criminal records to receive a negative response from employers and white men with a criminal record had more positive responses than black men with no criminal record.”
Panelists at the Jan. 28 event, which was co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council and Repair the World, said racial inequality exists in all aspects of imprisonment.
“We have to start talking about these hard subjects, and if we don’t nothing’s going to change,” said Zack Block, Repair the World’s executive director.
After moderating the event, the East Liberty-based organization’s leader encouraged future action. A conversation about the criminal justice system encompasses issues regarding “hunger, education, housing, transportation,” he said. “They’re all related, and we need to make changes to all of those systems to create equity in the larger community across all people.”
“The Jewish community does a lot of work on social discrimination, but generally speaking is not as educated around mass incarceration as we are in other areas,” added Josh Sayles, the CRC’s director. “I think the takeaway … is that the Jewish community and the black community have a lot in common. And there’s a number of issues that we can and should be working together on more closely than we are, including but certainly not limited to criminal justice reform.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org