Michelle Alexander

A few months ago, we had the opportunity to talk to Michelle Alexander at length about the prison system in America.  In line with our post “Occupy The Dream: The Mathematics of Racism,” we decided to take a look back at this important conversation.

Could it be that one of the biggest human rights issues in the world is right here at home, in America’s prisons?

Consider these facts: we have an extraordinarily large number of people in prison, many of which are minorities that are in jail for an offense they are no more likely to commit than a white person; that is non-violent; that is the possession of small amounts of marijuana or other drugs.   Many are being incarcerated and then stripped of their voting rights, their employment rights, their basic opportunity to be an equivalent citizen to any other American citizen because of, at one point or another, being incarcerated.

Michelle Alexander, associate professor of law at Ohio State University, sees this moment as an opportunity to reform our prison system. “We’ve got to… really build a movement, a grassroots movement, for the kind of reform that will dismantle the system of mass incarceration as a whole,” she says.

Dramatic changes would need to happen, though.  “Because we could easily downsize our prison population somewhat and still have a rate of incarceration that is three or four times greater than we had in the 1980s and still far beyond the rate of incarceration of other countries in the world. So we can’t settle for minor reforms, and we have to use this moment as an opportunity to really build public support for a larger scale restructuring of our criminal justice system,” says Michelle.

She continues, “I think the reality is that this entire system rests on a single belief which is that some folks, poor folks and poor folks of color especially, are disposable. They’re just not worthy of our care, compassion and concern. When we challenge that core belief, this whole system will fall like dominoes.”

Michelle Alexander is Associate Professor of Law at Ohio State University, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Visit Michelle’s website at NewJimCrow.com.