Incarceration in America conference

Last Saturday, I was fortunate enough to attend a conference at the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College in Vermont called Incarceration in America. Unfortunately, I could only attend the last two sessions on the last day of the two-day event because they fell on a weekend. But I still heard some really good information from a distinguished group of panelists.

The first session I saw, called “ATI and Re-entry,” had several notable speakers: Rita Zimmer, executive director of Housing+Solutions; JoAnne Page, president and CEO of The Fortune Society; Elizabeth Gaynes, executive director of the Osborne Association; and George McDonald, founder and president of the Doe Fund. Each gave a brief introduction of how they see alternatives to incarceration (or ATIs), and interestingly for me, it was their perspectives that truly offered a great dose of reality.

Page noted that ATIs stem originally from drug courts, which attempt to give drug addicts a chance at recovery rather than locking them in jail. But drug courts happen to also snag into jail or prison people who may never have been incarceration-bound because of the strict sanctions that are handed down if one doesn’t comply with the drug court’s rules.

Page also noted that the plea bargain system in place at many courts, particularly in New York City, is akin to a “sausage factory” because of the amount of people who get sentenced—and so quickly. Alternatives to incarceration, Page said, help put a stop to that cycle, because they force the courts to look at people as actual people, not as numbers, or almost like, I believe, how we view commodities.


Seated left to right: JoAnne Page, Elizabeth Gaynes, George McDonald, and Rita Zimmer. Bennington College, Oct. 11.

It’s probably not shocking, but worth noting, that most people swept up in the criminal justice system are victims themselves of violence at home or domestic abuse. Many have been in the foster care system since they were born, Page said, adding that most expect to be dead or in prison as they come of age.

“Our job is to create other alternatives,” said Page. Her organization, The Fortune Society, helps 4,000 people a year, mostly with re-entry to society after jail or prison. About 90 percent of the people who The Fortune Society helps are males of color.

Page noted the horrible conditions at New York’s famously troubled jail Rikers Island, saying the violence that occurs there is often a continuation of peoples’ home lives. There, people are either “predator or prey,” she said.

I plan a couple more posts on this blog about the conference. Stay tuned.


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