Community Scholars Lecture: Voices From Inside America’s Mass System of Punishment

Written by

Reverend Vivian Nixon

The Community Scholars Lectures are the product of a partnership between the Columbia School of Professional Studies and the Office of Government and Community Affairs. In their second lecture of the year, which took place on March 7th at Low Rotunda, Reverend Vivian Nixon, Executive Director of the College and Community Fellowship, Columbia University Community Scholar and formerly incarcerated woman, delivered her talk “ Voices From Inside America’s Mass System of Punishment: The Freeing Power of Higher Education.” Staff Writer Gloriana Lopez surrounded herself with real adults and decided to not write about basketball for once in her life.

“The United States makes up less than 5% of the world population and yet comprises 25% of the prison population. Incarceration rates are higher even though crime rates are down, and a study by the NAACP states that black people are 6 times more likely to end up in prison than their white counterparts. If the trend continues 1 out of 3 Black children born now will end up in prison.” Dean Jason Wingard of the School of Professional Studies preceded Vivian Nixon by stating these facts. There is no justifiable reason for these numbers, according to Wingard, and he explained that Carter, Reagan, and Clinton’s “War on Drugs” might have contributed to such a phenomenon. Education, Wingard continued, plays a crucial role in stopping these patterns; as Victor Hugo said, “he who opens a school closes a prison.” Mass incarceration has been proved to not have any benefits, so why keep it? These are the issues that Reverend Nixon would tackle in her lecture.

Education is a freeing activity that can lead to the decarceration movement. People talk about the relationship between the system of punishment and race, class, gender, political suppression, and religion, yet they only do so by talking about each of these factors separately. Doing so, Reverend Nixon said, does not give a full understanding of the complexity. She explored these ideas through the unconventional research of experience, in which her story and those of the people she encountered in prison as well as in her work were the basis of her argument.

She began her explanation with the story of her life. Vivian Nixon grew up in a wealthy community in North Shore Long Island and was from a working class family, whose jobs consisted of being laborers for the wealthier people. Her grandmother was a midwife for the Rockefeller and the Guggenheim families and her parents were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. For them the Civil Rights Movement meant finally achieving equality whereby they had the “bootstrap mentality,” and they thought that success meant having a good job that provided benefits. Nonetheless, Nixon mentions, the rhetoric of bootstrapping is based on privilege: the privilege of having boots and that those boots have straps.

The Black Church also preached that bootstrapping was a way to deal with issues of race, class and other factors. Quoting Reverend Floyd Flake (fitting name I must add), in the book The Way of the Bootstrapper–a Nixon read in prison–she said, “Bootstrappers do not see themselves as victims but have confidence in their ability to rise beyond the limited expectations that others have imposed on them. They develop inner strength from their experiences and sufferings, which allows them to preserve even in the face of challenging odds” (3). As she was reading this book she asked herself, “Is this man aware of his own privilege?” Reverend Floyd Flake was a member of the United States congress Reverend Nixon’s real education, she comments, began in 1997, when she was “bootless, strapless and in prison.”

After this anecdote she addressed the problem of race in mass incarceration by talking about Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. Mass incarceration is an echo of previous racist policies as more black people have been incarcerated recently than there were slaves 10 years before the Civil War. People of color make up 30% of the United States population and 60% of that in prison. However, it is not the numbers that matter, but who is damaged by it and why. Fortunately Alexander’s book has allowed more people to understand the implications of the criminalization of people of color.

Reverend Nixon addressed the issue of poverty and mass incarceration by saying that poverty is both a cause and a result of incarceration. Citing a study from Harvard University, she said that without mass incarceration, the official poverty rate in the United States would have decreased. A steady job is what provides the opportunity of upward mobility, but although the minimum wage has increased it does nothing if jobs are not available for those who need them the most. More opportunities should be available for those in prison. Part of the increased risk of poverty lies on the fact that children of incarcerated people have an increased risk of being in foster care or being homeless.

Regarding gender, the number of women in prison is increasing at a greater rate than the number of men. Although women make up a small percentage of the incarcerated population, there is a number of consequences. Women are the only population who have to give birth in shackles and then have their baby ripped from them only months after giving birth. And they have no control over it. Nixon shared the story of a friend of hers who had to be in that situation for the sale of a controlled substance that was less than $10.

The women in prison that Nixon worked with only had access to poor or no education. In her words, they were “bootless.” They had never been challenged or encouraged to learn, or had learning disabilities that had not been properly recognized. As a result, they were unable to navigate the public school bureaucracy for their children and the constant policing of their communities lead to communal trauma.

Political participation is also affected by mass incarceration. Nixon shared what her mother told her when she was going to prison. The first question that her mother asked was whether she would be able to ever vote again. Disenfranchisement is a problem for those who have been incarcerated. Most states have legislation that prevents people on parole or probation, people who have been incarcerated, and even people who have had a felony conviction, from voting. Each state has developed a restoration process but it is cumbersome. Nixon described it as the literacy test of today.

“It is unnerving to walk into prison not because of the people dressed in orange or green jumpsuits or the officers in grey or blue uniforms but because of the ‘spirit of punishment’,” Reverend Nixon continued. She went to a prison where the inmates did a presentation on what they called “the theory of the culture of street crime.” One of the men performed a spoken word piece in which he spoke of every mistake he had made in his life, and the refrain said “It’s all my fault.” As everyone clapped and praised him, Nixon could only think about telling him that it was actually not his fault. This is not to say that personal accountability is not important; in fact, Nixon added, it promotes healing. Nonetheless, punishment from the point of view of accountability presupposes that people who commit a crime are evil and intentionally damages society. If people are not guaranteed basic human rights, how can they be expected to conform to a system that does not value their lives?

The College and Community Foundation (CCF) provided Reverend Nixon with the support she needed to return to college and complete her degree. Yet she still grappled with the question of how to create an environment where education lead to a better understanding of people’s place in the world and leadership opportunities. After all, not enough people have networks and there are undeniable links between education and social capital. “There is a reason why there is a Harvard Club and a Yale Club. When you have a community around you, you are less likely to find hope outside the social contract. Education is power and freedom.” As post-secondary education has become crucial for employment, incarcerated people have been denied an opportunity for empowerment. The spirit of punishment permeates as people are asked about their criminal record when applying to colleges. A new divide is created when criminal record discrimination replaces racial discrimination, or at least masquerades it. “Those who bear the scarlet letter do not want to be described by their failures. No one is more aware of their weaknesses than them.” The desire to learn is there but the resources are not there. People talk about education as a means for employability and public safety, which are all noble causes, yet education should be seen as an opening door and a window of self-awareness about being part of society. “We want access to freeing education, not to survive but to thrive and lead,” Nixon said. “Challenging environments need leaders.”

To conclude her lecture, Reverend Nixon shared a poem she wrote in prison, called “Lights Out”:

Eleven at night
My cell was locked tight
You are all sleeping
Alone I am creeping,
Weeping and peeping.
I’m up all night
Sleep I must fight
For if I sleep grizzly thoughts seep
Into my mind deep
And nightmares leap.
My weary eyes weep
For in my sleep
Walkie-talkies beep
And guards in a jeep
Are creeping and peeping
Blood they are seeking
Pain they are heaping
But you are still sleeping
While I am weeping.
The life I’ve been keeping.
Wake up.

There are actually no words that can properly describe this talk so please feel free to watch the lecture, which will be up beginning Friday, March 10th.

Reverend Vivian Nixon via Columbia University Events

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