Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who covers criminal justice, terrorism and the courts for WNYC. She found her way into public radio after practicing law for five years, and can definitely say that walking the streets of New York City with a microphone is a lot more fun than being holed up in the office writing letters to opposing counsel.
Occupy Wall Street Protesters Take Aim at Prison System
Monday, February 20, 2012 - 05:33 PM
Occupy Wall Street protesters gathered in Harlem Monday to protest what they call mass incarceration of minority men by a racist prison system.
Demonstrators dubbed criminal justice policies in the U.S. as the "new Jim Crow," pointing to a prison population made up mostly of blacks and Latinos.
Much like the messages heard in the broader Occupy Wall Street movement, the chants outside Lincoln Correctional Facility on West 110th Street called for wide-ranging, all-encompassing change to the criminal justice system.
The crowd rallied against not only the racial disparities in the prison population, but also against immigrant detention, the use of solitary confinement in detention facilities, the NYPD's high rate of marijuana arrests and stop-and-frisks, and the mass unemployment and disruption to families caused by imprisonment.
Prison abolitionists demanded eradication of the entire prison system, while others, like Sammy Crea, called for better rehabilitation programs for inmates.
"While incarcerated, I really had no education, coming into the prison system as a kid," said Crea. "Because my education is limited, my jobs are limited."
Crea, who called the prison system "modern day slavery," said he was first arrested for selling drugs as a teenager and spent the next 16 years going in and out of the system until his last release when he was 32.
Others standing around him also chimed in about rehabilitation programs. Larry White, a Harlem resident who said he spent 32 years total in prison for armed robberies, believes it's a joke to say prison reforms criminals.
"We can rehabilitate people better in the community than in prison, especially in an upstate prison," he said.
Demonstrators said the overcrowded prison system reflected a law enforcement community too bent on arresting people for minor crimes.
Many pointed to the more than 680,000 people who were stopped by the NYPD last year, 87 percent of whom were black or Latino. Last year's stop-and-frisk total represented a 14 percent increase from the year before.
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne has long defended the practice with the line, "Stops saves lives," arguing that the practice has been an important way to reduce violent crime in the city.
But protester Laura Whitehorn said most people caught up in the criminal justice system simply grew up in the wrong neighborhoods.
"I'm here today because when you walk out of prison, you're very aware that there are a lot of women in there who have no business being in prison for so long," said Whitehorn. "They're just locked up because they're black or because they were poor and they got involved in low-level crimes."