Jennifer Gregory, Chapter Leader at Wisconsin Law
On November 3rd, 2016, the Wisconsin Law chapters of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) and National Lawyer Guild (NLG) hosted a take action forum to discuss how students can organize to stop mass incarceration in Wisconsin. If/When/How – Wisconsin proudly co-sponsored the event with the Indigenous Law Students Association and the American Constitution Society.
Wisconsin has the highest racial disparity in its prisons in the country. Thirteen percent of the black population is incarcerated: that is almost double the national average. In fact, Dane County– where the law school, the state flagship campus, and the state capitol are located — has the highest racial disparity in the state. In 2015, black citizens of Dane County were arrested at ten times the rate of white citizens, despite only accounting for seven percent of the population.
The forum brought together law students, undergraduates, and community activists. We discussed potential lobbying efforts to end the collateral consequences of a felony conviction, to stop the UW system from purchasing prison labor goods, and to abolish the state’s use of private prisons. Community organizers stressed the unique skillset that law students hold to exact change in our community. Undergraduate organizers stressed the importance of passion, a proactive response, and recognizing social issues as student issues. Overall, the tone of the forum was impassioned and attentive. Attendees left with an overall sense of the problem and a direction for how individuals can get involved.
Reproductive justice was not a focus of the discussion, but that does not lessen our role in this effort. Women of color founded the reproductive justice movement. They were the first to envision a society where everyone has the right to choose if and when to have children, and how to parent those children in a safe and healthy environment. So, in a nation where nearly 40% of the prison population is black, and incarceration rates for women of color are increasing at double the rates of their male counterparts, RJ activists cannot sit on the sidelines. Mass incarceration directly restricts an entire community’s ability to choose to have children or raise families in safe and healthy conditions. We cannot truly achieve reproductive justice while black women and men are systematically denied these basic rights.
Our fight in Wisconsin is just beginning. This forum was the first in a series of collaborations geared towards local activism and ending mass incarceration. The next event was a screening of the documentary “13th” with a discussion panel of UW professors and community members taking place afterward. In the upcoming months, we hope to have Lobby Days at the state capitol and another forum to discuss our progress and vision for the future.
I encourage RJ activists everywhere to reach out to local community groups, law schools, and progressive lawyer groups to start a discussion on mass incarceration. If/When/How chapter leaders, please do not hesitate to contact me at [email protected] for questions or advice.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of If/When/How.