A new art exhibit at Aljira in downtown Newark is bringing social justice advocates together to bring attention to the issue of mass incarceration.
Recent statistics from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey show there’s over 35,000 people living behind bars in state penitentiaries. ACLU Criminal Justice Transparency Fellow Portia Allen Kyle says that comes at a cost of about 55,000 dollars for each incarcerated person per year.
“That is more than the median house hold income for a significant portion on New Jerseans. So, what we pay in other words to keep one person incarcerated, a family of four, probably six, could be living for a year.”
The recently implemented statewide bail reform is working to keep prison population down. She says decriminalization of low level arrests is another step towards keeping people out of jail.
“Marijuana legalization and decriminalization is at the top of everybody’s mind and it’s important. It’s going to be impactful. It also won’t solve our mass incarceration problem. If we released everyone who is in prison for marijuana offenses tomorrow, there will still be thousands of people who are in prison.”
There’s been a sharp decline in the number of young people jailed in New Jersey. Andrea McChristian with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice says it didn’t come without racial disparities.
“In the nation, New Jersey has the worst black to white racial disparity rate. We have the second worst Latino to white youth incarceration rate in the nation.”
McChristian says as of June 2017, there are 234 inmates in New Jersey’s youth prisons. About seventy-percent of them are African American.
“Youth incarceration and incarceration as a whole are a racial justice issue. If we were seeing for example the same sympathy for our kids of color that we are seeing with other children in terms of the opioid crisis, this would be a national issue. If these were white kids locked away in these youth prisons at these alarming rates, it would be a national issue on everyone’s tongue.”
An artist based out of Brooklyn has taken his mass incarceration awareness project to downtown Newark. It’s called ‘The Missing’, a tribute to the thousands of Americans who are put in jails and forgotten. “What I hope this will be in collaboration with the groups that are involved is a container of stories, said Duron Jackson. He was inspired in part by his brother who has been in and out of prison his whole adult life. “To advocate for the things that really matter to them socially in the community such as health care, mental health care, housing and education. Those are all of the things I know personally my brother has dealt with his entire adult life. Those are the things that stop people from being able to get back on board and fall into civic life once they fall out.”
Social justice advocates agree that there’s no quick fix to national mass incarceration. They say the best they can do is fight for reform and better solutions.