02/23/14 — Saturday forum focuses on 'prison industrial complex'

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Saturday forum focuses on 'prison industrial complex'

By John Joyce
Published in News on February 23, 2014 1:50 AM

As of Wednesday, the Wayne County Jail housed a total of 203 inmates, 143 of them black males.

Of the 1,739 people on probation or parole in Wayne County on Jan. 31, 1,083 were black -- 790 of them black males.

On Saturday, the Wayne County Democratic Party's African-American Caucus drew about 30 people from Goldsboro and the surrounding areas to its forum on the "prison industrial complex" and the U.S. Prison System: "Speaking for the Speechless."

The event was held at the Imani Hall inside Rebuilding Broken Places at 2105 N. William St.

Vice chairwoman for the African-American Caucus of the state Democratic Party and former president of the African-American Caucus of the Wayne County Democratic Party, Linda Wilkins-Daniels, said she was pleased with the turnout.

"It went well. The message resonated and people got excited," she said.

Wilkins-Daniels said the U.S. prison population swelled from about 300,000 in the 1970s to more than 2.3 million in 2005 -- a rise of more than 700 percent.

Many of the speakers at the forum said the issue is not about race, but rather about a corrupt system of incarceration affecting mainly the poorer and less educated sects of society.

But race does play a role in the statistics, they said.

The North Carolina prison population is more than 37,000 people, according to the state Department of Public safety. As of Jan. 31, 19,442 inmates statewide were black males.

White males account for more than 12,000 of the total prison population, but that number is misleading, because in the justice system Hispanics are counted as whites.

Nationally, people of color make up 30 percent of the U.S. population, and 60 percent of the prison population, according to the Center for American Progress.

"Politicians are allowing this to happen," Wilkins-Daniels said.

Goldsboro City Councilman Bill Goodman was the only elected official in attendance.

"Where are all of our elected officials? I am the only councilman here and I see no county commissioners," Goodwin said.

"We've got four African-American councilmen, out of seven. And I seem to be voting by myself all the time," Goodman said.

But, said Jaymes Powell Jr., the blame for the mass incarceration of minorities and poor whites does not rest solely with politicians.

Powell is the communications officer for the African-American Caucus of the N.C. Democratic Party in Raleigh.

"Unless blacks, browns and poorer whites are genetically predisposed to going to jail, something has gone awry," he said.

Powell traced one of the many roots of the epidemic that is mass incarceration to the school to prison pipeline.

"In Wake County, black students make up 39 percent of the population and yet are 70 percent of those suspended from school. And 92 percent of those under long-term suspensions," he told the audience.

Once a child is out of the school system there is nowhere for them to go but to prison, he said.

Democratic candidate for Sheriff of Wayne County Glenn Barnes said the county needs more programs to keep young people positively engaged.

"The best way to approach it is prevention -- keep people from getting into the system. Once they are in, they stay in," he said.

Wilkins-Daniels said she does not want to confuse the issue.

"Do not get me wrong, if someone is breaking down your door to get in, or raping people or molesting children, they need to be in jail," she said.

She said the underlying issue is unfair sentencing laws that often result in more and longer prison sentences for minorities.

More than 50 percent of the jail population are non-violent offenders, she said.

"There needs to be mercy, mercy for the wrongly convicted and for the unfairly sentenced," she said.

The African-American Caucus plans to hold monthly forums on the topic of the prison industrial complex, and hopes the numbers of attendees will grow.

The next event has yet to be scheduled.