When work began eight months ago to host a community discussion on “Mass Incarceration and Racial Inequality,” organizers had no way of knowing how ready Connecticut would be to participate.
The hosts had their answer at 7 p.m. on May 6 when several hundred people flocked to Bridgeport’s Klein Auditorium to hear a blue-ribbon panel discuss these aspects of criminal justice reform.
The panel discussion covered the impact on communities and families of a criminal justice system that imprisons a disproportionate number of minorities, and often releases them without adequate support for their re-entry into community life or access to crucial social services.
The discussion was honest and lively; the audience reception was enthusiastic.
The audience could not have been more diverse. There were community activists, religious leaders, attorneys, ex-offenders, families, and prosecutors.
There were also a number of political movers and shakers in the house. Former Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim — himself an ex-offender — sat in the front row as his successor and now opponent for the Democratic mayoral nomination, Mayor Bill Finch, delivered welcoming remarks.
The event was organized by Family ReEntry, a nonprofit that develops, implements and shares solutions to the unprecedented number of people involved in the criminal justice system. Family ReEntry provides support for incarcerated parents and their children; programs to help inmates successfully reintegrate into the community; and guidance in accessing mental health and substance abuse services.
‘The haves and have-nots’
One of Family ReEntry’s most popular figures, Fred Hodges, was a panelist who shared his firsthand experience with the impact of mass incarceration on the offender as well as on the economic health of a community. A lifelong Bridgeport resident, Hodges was greeted enthusiastically when he was introduced.
Hodges served 17 years in prison, and now manages the Family ReEntry Fresh Start program. He wasted no time in reminding the audience, “There have always been the haves and have-nots. It’s made worse when a person comes out of prison and can’t find a job or housing.
“We have to look at the collateral damage of mass incarceration and racial disparity on our communities today.”
Joining Hodges on the panel were acclaimed actor and leading social activist Danny Glover; Glen Martin, founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA; respected actor and radio personality Charles Grodin; Superior Court Judge Erika Tindill; Chief Joseph Gaudett of the Bridgeport Police Department; and Steve Lanza, executive director of Family ReEntry. The event was moderated by Colin McEnroe, renowned WNPR host, blogger, and contributor to various media publications.
As soon as the panel opened its discussion, bluntness took center stage.
“Civil rights reform brought us great expectations that seem to have fallen flat,” Glover said. “But the power for change is we, the people. The issue of mass incarceration didn’t come out of the blue.”
Glover would seem to have plenty of research to support his concern about mass incarceration and racial disparity.
The United States Department of Justice estimates that, as of Dec. 31, 2013, approximately 3% of black male United States residents of all ages were imprisoned, compared to 1% of all Hispanic male residents and .5% of all white males.
A separate study by the Prison Policy Initiative, based on the 2010 U.S. census, reported that blacks are incarcerated nationwide five times more than whites. In Connecticut, PPI research indicated that while blacks constitute about 10% of the total state population, they make up 41% of Connecticut’s incarcerated population.
Panelist Glenn Martin, president of JustLeadershipUSA, served six years in prison in neighboring New York state. He attended college while incarcerated, and has dedicated himself since his release to mentoring leaders among ex-offenders. He hopes to empower them to drive policy reform.
Martin agrees that while the number of inmates is staggering, “We can’t be just about shrinking the system. We have to get to the point where the people who have been affected by this system talk directly to the American people. We have to invest in shifting the hearts and minds of Americans on this issue.”
The other panelists agreed, none more so than Judge Erika Tindill. Appointed to the bench by Gov. Dannel Malloy in March 2014, Tindill sits in the Stamford-Norwalk judicial district.
“Every day in my work, I try to bring some humanity that’s missing from the criminal justice system,” she said. “While I diligently follow the law, the Connecticut General Statutes, and judicial guidelines, I also try to ensure that the accused are heard and that they are given a fair shake.”
This “fair shake” may include referrals for offenders and alternatives to incarceration.
In fact, Family ReEntry gets many referrals through the criminal justice system while offenders are on probation, on parole or imprisoned. Roughly 94% of the clients utilizing the Family ReEntry intervention, re-entry or family programs are below the designated “low income” level.
“We know that the issues of incarceration are imbedded in larger social issues,” said panelist and Family ReEntry executive director Steve Lanza. “We’ve built our programs on the latest research and on the recommendations of national experts.”
“I think most experts would say that a vast number of people who are incarcerated — a large percentage, perhaps 50% to 60% — would be better served in the community, managing risk, receiving better treatment with better outcomes at lower cost to the taxpayers,” Lanza said. He cited enhanced family and community cohesiveness, improved job prospects and reduced recidivism as additional advantages of such non-incarceration programs.
The panel agreed that recent events nationwide are sparking conversations across economic and racial lines about the criminal justice system and prison reform.
“This is an important moment,” said panelist Glenn Martin. “But we don’t want to just have a series of moments. Now it’s time to build momentum, and keep it going.”