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Speakers address implications of half century of mass incarceration in U.S.

Elle Cross of Mano Amiga, fourth from left, welcomes her speakers to two events on mass incarceration.
Daily Record photo by Shannon West

Speakers address implications of half century of mass incarceration in U.S.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Speakers from several prominent local activist groups met in San Marcos to discuss the implications of mass incarceration in the United States over the last 50 years.

Elle Cross, right to justice coordinator for Mano Amiga, a local non-profit working in criminal justice reform and immigration in Hays County, coordinated two separate presentations to allow the public a better opportunity to participate on Thursday, March 30.

Speaking were Nicole D. Porter, senior director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project; Karen Muñoz, Mano Amiga co-founder; Bea Halbach-Singh, Vera Institute of Justice senior research associate; Shahd Elbushra, Vera Institute of Justice; and Cyrus Gray III, Hays County jail advocate/ researcher.

High incarceration rates are hitting close to home with the rate in Hays County tripling since 1983 and a majority of those in the jail–80 percent, are now held pretrial, according to information from trends.vera. org. Also in Hays County, black people are incarcerated at 4.6 times the rate of white inmates and LatinX individuals at 1.5 times the rate.

Halbach-Singh said that in Hays County “black people only make up five percent of residents and 15 percent of the jail population.”

Porter said that 2023 is the 50th year of mass incarceration worth a closer examination because 1973 is “when the prison population first started to surge.” The peak of mass incarceration was in 2009 with 1.6 million under lock and key. Since then, the numbers have declined by approximately 25 percent, Porter explained.

If it continues at this rate, it will “take 75 years to return the country to the incarceration level of the early ‘80s,” Porter said.

“There is a mix of policies and practices for why the United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world,” Porter said. She noted that there was an increase in violent crimes in the United States in the 1970s, but that the U.S. was not the only country impacted by this phenomena. She identified high rates that occurred in Finland and Germany, but “those countries did not respond to an increase in violent crime with an expansion of their prison sentencing, with an expansion of community sentencing laws that drove up incarceration, that drove admissions into prison. Porter said that crime went down in the 90s and yet, the prison population continued to rise, and “in some neighborhoods crime is still high, too high.”

Porter recommended the country consider investing in a guaranteed living wage, as well as employment and quality housing for communities instead of additional policing leading to more incarcerations. Porter said that increased contact with the police increases the likelihood of being incarcerated and “suffering collateral impacts that can follow someone for the rest of their life.”

“On our team, we like to call jails the front door to mass incarceration. On any given day there are roughly 660,000 people in local jails. In a year, people will cycle through jails more than 11 million times,” said Elbushra, of the Vera Institute for Justice, saying that change can and should start on a local level.

According to Elbushra, pretrial detention has increased significantly and accounts for a majority of the growth in the jail population. This means that many of the people in the jail have not been tried in a court of law.

Halbach-Singh said that the amount of women in jail is also increasing and they are “disproportionately people of color, overwhelmingly low income and many are survivors of trauma and violence and have high rates of mental illness and substance abuse.”

Halbach-Singh said that around the country the majority of women in jail are there for nonviolent offenses with many women stuck in jail pretrial situations because they are more likely than men to be unemployed and less likely to be able to afford bail.

Muñoz said that when Hays County expanded the jail, it cost approximately $60 million and even with that expansion, many inmates are still transferred to other facilities, further separating families locally. Last year, for example, Hays County signed a $3.65 million outsourcing contract with Haskell County, about a five-hour drive for families in Hays County wanting to visit jailed relatives.

“We started Mano Amiga because of … the anti- immigration bill, which people called the ‘show me your papers’ law. It targeted immigrants via criminalization,” Muñoz said. In turn, it contributed to the increase in the jail population. Muñoz gave an example of a woman who suffered a mental health episode, was arrested, spent six months in the county jail, spent 6 more months in the south Texas detention center in Pearsall and was eventually deported to “a country that she never knew.”

The last speaker, Gray, said he was incarcerated for nearly five years, pretrial, in the Hays County jail before receiving a trail.

Gray was in jail on charge in connection to the 2015 murder of Texas State University student Justin Gage and has long said he was wrongfully arrested. He talked about jail guard treatment of inmates.

“They treat you as if they were there when you did what you were accused of, so you’re guilty automatically,” Gray said. He talked about the lengthy process in place before inmates may receive medical care at the jail, offering the example of one inmate of his acquaintance, who, after waiting for care, “nearly died two times. They had to rush him to the emergency room. One time he was in a coma for like four or five days. It took a bunch of other inmates to raise hell and his family to call the jail over and over again for them to do something. Had that not happened, he would have been dead.”

Gray pointed out that even with the high rates of incarceration, “streets aren’t any safer.” He said there are many proven alternatives to incarceration that “could be implemented, but they’re just not.” He described the process of jail transfer that involves an inmate who is awakened in the night with what he called an excessive amount of guards wielding tasers and paintball guns.

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