Two experts discuss how we can end mass incarceration by building infrastructure that addresses its root causes.
Eddie Conway: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway coming to you from Baltimore. In 1975, a French philosopher analyzed the prisons as an authoritarian institution based on dominance, violence, and control, scandal after scandal from violence between guards and prisoners, unsanitary and toxic conditions and prison overcrowdedness. The prison system in the United States is constantly trying to really legitimatize itself to reform measures that change the dynamics of incarceration in name only, not in practice. For example, the New York City Council proposed to create better and more humane prisons to replace the notorious Rickers Island prison.
To discuss alternatives to incarceration and what a world without prisons look like. We are joined by two guests, Shelly Davis Roberts and Brandi Mack. Shelley Davis Roberts is an architectural associate at Designing Justice and Designing Spaces, a visual artists and the former San Francisco chapter president of the National Organization of Minority Architects and joins us today from Oakland, California. Brandi Mack is the community liaison at Designing Justice and Designing Spaces as well as a holistic health educator and motivational speaker and joins us today from Detroit, Michigan.
Thank you for joining me today. Let’s start with the problem. The US prison system houses one fourth of the world’s prison populations. We know that it’s grossly inadequate and the criminal justice system incarcerates more people of color in the United States than any other populations. We know from the beginning, the system on the ground has contact in arrests more people of color. We know that they go into the prison system and failed to get bail, lose their jobs, et cetera. We know that they failed to get adequate legal defense and have to rely on public defenders. We know that once they are in front of judges, they don’t receive fair and equal treatment or once they’re incarcerated, they get more time.
When they go up for parole, they’re denied over and over again and when they’re released, there’s no wrap around service that really takes care of them and they end up back in the prison system. So we know all that and we know it not just from experience, but we know it from Michelle Alexander’s book, Mass Incarceration: The New Jim Crow. And since that book, politicians and prison officials had been advocating prison reform, how to build more humane prisons. And that’s the trend that we’ve faced now in the 21st century. And so my question is, can prison reform and more humane prisons actually address the problems of the prison industrial complex?Shelly Davis Roberts: So Designing Justice Designing Spaces, we are abolitionists of the prison system. We don’t spend time thinking about how to build prettier boxes for black and brown folks to be housed in. What we believe is that when starting at the community level, when communities are resourced and meaning that they have access to education, they have access to jobs, health care, all the things that are really basic human rights, housing, all those things that when you don’t have them lead to crime and to violence. And so those are the things that we need to be investing in the community, is to make sure that people have access to those things.
And I think what people don’t realize is actually huge disparities that are happening in access to those things. When you have those things, you tend to live in a bubble when you think that everybody’s living at the same standard, and that’s not what is happening. And so more investment in prisons is just less investment in human rights. So when you continue to do that, you just continue to feed into that never ending circle of trauma and violence.
The trauma that happens when you don’t have resources that leads to crime that you end up in the punishment, the punitive punishment system, you’re traumatized there and then you’re let back out right back into a lack of resources, as you mentioned before, Eddie. I mean it’s just a vicious cycle and so it just investing in prisons just is going to continue to perpetuate that.Eddie Conway: Well now some of the pushback has been that state officials, and prison officials now attempting to change the trend of where prisons are going instead of the warehousing and mass incarceration. They are now talking about turning prisons into treatment programs. They are talking about building inside the prison drug treatment programs. They’re talking about building mental health facility treatment programs. Just recently in LA, a $2 billion effort was stopped to build a treatment program that would replace the men’s jail in LA and turn it into a treatment center. Here in Merlin, there’s a $400 million effort to turn to replace the detention center with a drug treatment mental health facility run by the department of correction. These trends to do this is going to put people under the control of the department of correction. So is there a problem with that?Brandi Mack: I’ll jump in. This is Brandy. I want to channel our beloved Michelle who’s invoked the conversation deeper for us to begin to design around it. And I also want to invoke our wonderful ancestor Harriet Tubman who said free or die. And what we understand is that nature does not have a design of locking anything up and as a biomimic designer with the Designing Justice team and working with the beloved community, we understand that you can put a new skirt on something but it doesn’t change the intention of it causing harm.
So when we talk about creating new treatment prisons, there’s one big piece there that does not equate to freedom where we are steeled talking about caging people and offering service from a level of [inaudible 00:08:20] using a colonial design of helping those poor people. When we understand, again, when we talk about treatment, if people were resource-rich, meaning the amount of community based organizations that we have from mentorship to drug rehabilitation, if they had the actual resources to do the work, we would not need to cage individuals with the assumption that this is what’s better for them.
In fact, we be living in a more a reciprocity designed, a lifestyle where folks are mad as equal. So we can put a new name on it. But again, if the design is still saying we’re going to lock some folks up in order to make you better, when we also understand that our laws have been created, quite frankly, to continue the industrial system of slavery. So there’s a direct connection there. So we have to be very mindful of saying that we’re going to create a correctional treatment prison facility because there’s this thing again that here he would say free or die, there’s still this ability to lock people up.Shelly Davis Roberts: I also just wanted to add that when projects like this are initiated, you have to ask who’s in the room when these kinds of decisions are being made. And what kind of work has been done with the people who are living in these communities where these prisons are located or where the jails or these treatment facilities are located. What work is being done with the people who live around these facilities to ask, is this really the right solution? And I think there’s a level of arrogance and even ignorance that I think people have because they don’t even think to ask. I think there’s a notion that, “Oh well these, those people are, they’re poor, they’re, there’s, there’s, they’re violent, they’re out of control. They don’t know what they need.”
So here’s what we’re, here’s what we’re going to do. And that also needs to stop, there needs to be more engagement with communities to determine what are some real solutions that can help with these kinds of issues that are happening in the communities. Again, prisons exist, at this point in time and until they are completely phased out. Yes, there does need to be prison reform. But again, that is not the charge for Designing Justice Designing Spaces. And we are not spending time thinking about how to improve prisons. But there is something to be said about when you say treatment, treatment and then incarceration as we know it to be, that just doesn’t add up to a good outcome. And so there really needs to be some rethinking and re-engagement around that idea.Eddie Conway: Yeah. Well, and that’s so what’s happening here in Baltimore. That design has been formulated without any input from the community. The location is in the heart of the black community and the people that’s going to be most impacted people of color and very few, if any, was around the table when those things happen. Well, let’s move though to solutions like Designing Justice and Designing Space has been doing this work and you’ve been doing work in Oakland and you’ve been doing work in Atlantic city. Could you talk a little bit about your work, and how you actually intend to transform the prison industrial complex into a restorative justice model?Shelly Davis Roberts: Our projects are always centered around addressing the repositories in both mass incarceration. So there’s a focus on a restorative justice approach, a holistic approach to design and it always starts with community engagement. One of our projects restore Oakland. It’s located in Fruitvale in East Oakland. It’s an 18,000 square foot facility. That is one of the first restorative economic and restorative justice centers in the country. It is home to Ella Baker Center for Human Rights Council who suggests because they address housing and immigrant rights and also Restaurant Opportunities United, which deals with equity in the restaurant industry and helping black and brown folks be able to work in a front of house jobs and to be able to work and gain a living wage income to be able to survive, particularly out here in the Bay Area where it is just astronomically expensive to live.
And so it’s a social justice hub. And the way that it was designed was with community input, particularly around the restorative justice space that exists in the building. It was done with the community partners and we were practicing restorative justice and they had an important part in the design of that space as well as the design of many of the spaces that are in the building. There’s a restaurant on the ground floor that colors restaurant and they run workforce development programs where they have a training kitchen. There’s a food incubator program Lacocina that they’re also working with. And so they’re doing things to be able to provide people to be able to be able to start their own businesses, again to gain training and jobs so they can earn a living wage to be able to come.
And there’s conflict resolution that’s happening. There’s human rights and policy change that’s happening there in the building. And one of the most important things is that Restore Oakland actually owns that building. So Designing Justice Designing Spaces is also a developer. So we were able to help them to purchased that building. And with new markets, tax credits and fundraising, they were able to construct the building. And so ownership in communities like Oakland, which are being gentrified is huge. And so there’s as a multilayer process in terms of creating a restorative are starting to invest in restorative cities, if you will. And that and restore Oakland is just the start of that
Brandi Mack: Coming from the lands of working with our beloved community, doing community based organizing for the last 20 years, one thing that we recognize as agents of the built environment is that we don’t have a shortage of amazing programs that are looking to support our community to heal themselves from anti-blackness and racist systems. But what we do have a shortage of are the actual infrastructures for that to take place. And so we have been graciously brought on the team that our mayor, Keisha Bottoms has put together with our community partners who spent five years working policy to say let’s close down these jails, women on the rise and the racial justice action network.
Again, the most important part of our work is listening deep and working with community in order to make this holistic process happening. We understand that it is our work to look at the built environment. We often hear in history about red lining and all of the things that have caused black and brown marginalized. And so as we began to reimagine that, it’s not just about the building, the policy and the program are at ease. So as Shelly assertive, we start our engagement with the folks who are most harmed by the space because who else knows better what a space of equity should look like.
What I think is amazing about our project in Atlanta is that Mayor Keisha Bottoms after listening deeply to our partners, the Racial Justice Action Network and Women On The Rise ban five years outside of the jail saying close down these jails, this is not what’s needed. And the mayor was able to listen after our partners were able to continue to say, “This isn’t okay,” and she put together a task force of beloved community leaders throughout the city of Atlanta to say, “What does it look like if we were to reimagine the Atlanta City Detention Center as a center of equity? What does that look like?”
It’s all that process though very layered is some of this style and the design that we have to do to undesigned this environment that essentially was designed to keep us in slavery. When I say us, black and brown people. So again, we have the pedagogy and the degrees and we’ve created mentor programs and we continue to get grants and funding. But what does it look like, as Shelly said to have ownership to work in cooperation as Africans in America at one time had wall streets and different communities that were intentionally burned down. So as we begin to rebuild the built environment is important for us to work with folks who are doing the program.
There’s also a learning curve for folks who are doing program because often we’re not taught to think about the built environment and development is a process. It can be very uncomfortable. It requires capital, it requires engaging with all of the different players, even those who may not agree with what we’re doing, because the whole ecosystem has to be a part of it. But it has been an honor to work at those intersections with program, with people, with our city government who’s saying, “You know what? We do need to reimagine what it really means to create sovereignty in this nation that we call the United States.”
Eddie Conway: Well tell me this, how can other people get involved and… I can see in Oakland and Atlanta apparently there has been at least a friendly city government if not friendly, at least not hostile. How can other people in other cities get involved in a process like this? Creating that space that will give all those wrap around services to the population and prevent them from being snatched in the prison industrial complex. Can you give us some insight or contacts or suggestions on what people might do to duplicate the process?
Brandi Mack: As with any new thing, we’re excited that we’ve created a concept development process that you can visit our website at www.designingjustice.org and reach out to us because what we also understand is that we go fast alone, but we go far together and again, we have amazing programs who are doing great, great work, but the built environment hasn’t come into play. So we’re currently working in Atlanta. We’re working with Just City in Los Angeles. We’re tentatively working on projects in Jackson, Mississippi. Again, really being clear that architects, designers and developers is what we do. But also the importance of working with our community who are working in programs because it’s an intersection.
We, as Shelley said, are joyous that our co-founder Kyle Rawlins is working on what does it look like to have ownership, because what we also understand is that our nonprofit was not necessarily a regenerative model for black and brown people. It can support, but is it a liberatory tool? So having a team that is versed in development to give back ownership and create cooperation is also a big part as we reimagine what does the world look like without prisons and what can it look like with the spaces that are already existing if they were resource rich. And so we’re always looking for partners who are available to imagine a development is a long process. So we also say be ready to be in it for the long haul. It’s uncomfortable, but that’s what anything that’s good and growing is going to be uncomfortable. But what’s great about it is that we get to live in the lane of abolitionist.
Shelly Davis Roberts: It’s really important to be able to feel free, as Brandy said, to talk to one another. That’s simply the only way that it’s going to happen is that there has to be a lot of cross pollination that’s happening around this topic. So doing the research, reaching out to each other, talking to each other. And really this process has been about transparency and the city of Atlanta has recognized the process that we have done through community engagement by building equity into the process by reaching out to the community, building trust within the community. That has been one of the most transparent processes at the day they’ve had around a city project like this.
We spent a great amount of effort in developing tools, community engagement tools that would help people to really understand what the project is about, how the design process works, what are some of the things that they need to understand about the development process, how projects get funded, understanding basics of design and space planning. I mean, so all of those things help the community to be able to engage in the process and to be able to do it in a meaningful way, and one where they can start to have agency and ownership over the process.
And so it’s really, really important that we all stay connected, that we get the word out and that people talk to each other about what’s going on and put prep and steady to put pressure on their local government to be transparent about what they’re doing. And to always say, “Who’s in the room, we need to have a seat at this table to talk about this. You know, we’re on the ground we do know what needs to happen.” And you just simply need to ask. And so you’ve got to just keep fighting that good fight and again, it’s just asking for transparency and asking them to be at the table to help make decisions.
Brandy Mac: I also just wanted to add that…
Eddie Conway: Okay, Go ahead.
Brandi Mack: Eddie, you talked about, how do we get this everywhere? And what I value about our team is the respect of local ecosystems. Again, the idea of just, taking this, what we’re doing in Atlanta and going there, we understand that every single place has an ecosystem. There is overarching design of anti-blackness in America, but we also know that every single ecosystem has a way that it works, and part of our intention is it respecting a local ecosystem so that we can design in a regenerative way.
Shelly Davis Roberts: That’s so important.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Thank you Brandi and Shelly from Designing Justice and Designing Spaces for giving us that insight. And thank you for joining me at The Real News.