At first Prison Initiative event, Yale Law professor analyzes roots of mass incarceration

9/21/17 – Medford/Somerville, MA – Yale law professor and former public defender James Forman Jr. discusses the roots of mass incarceration in the United States during a Tufts University Prison Initiative at the Tisch College of Civic Life (TUPIT) event in Alumnae Lounge on Sept. 21. (Seohyun Shim / The Tufts Daily)

James Forman Jr., a professor at Yale Law School, spoke about his recent book “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” at Alumnae Lounge last night. Approximately 60 people attended the talk, which was followed by a question and answer session and book signing.

The talk was the first major event organized by Tufts University Prison Initiative at the Tisch College of Civic Life (TUPIT), according to Hilary Binda, a founding director of educational programming and principal investigator of research at the initiative.

A recording of the event will be streamed for incarcerated students of the “Mass Incarceration and the Literature of Confinement” course. The class, part of TUPIT’s educational program, allows both incarcerated and non-incarcerated individuals to take a class together.

Forman began by describing his motivation behind writing the book, explaining he wanted to tell a story of African-Americans facing injustice in the current criminal justice system.

“I knew that when I write my first book, I was going to write a book that has African-Americans front and center in the narrative,” Forman said. “This was going to be a book full of African-American characters.”

He then explained his background as an Atlanta native from an underprivileged neighborhood. He said he has witnessed the permanent nature of mass incarceration.

“I have seen [the results of a growing prison population] in my own life. There were two huge buildings in my neighborhood: Atlanta Federal Penitentiary [and] General Motors’ plant,” he said. “By the time I graduated from law school … one of those buildings has shut down and the other had built an addition, and I don’t need to tell you which is which.”

Throughout the talk, Forman highlighted various constraints faced by African-Americans in the American criminal justice system.

He explained that, in many American cities over the past 50 years, African-American elected officials worked hard to fight violence and crime in their communities by demanding more federal funding for education, community building and law enforcement. He then argued their demands were ignored except for one thing: more funding for law enforcement.

Forman ended the talk by urging the audience to start taking steps to defeat social injustices, following the lead of previous generations.

“All of us, in our domains of control, in our spheres of control, we have to look at … how can I make the contribution today,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to be the action. I don’t know who’s going to be the collective of this generation of Tufts students … that is going to lead us to defeat mass incarceration the way our previous generation [defeated] Jim Crow and the previous generation defeated slavery.”

“But I know that you are going to do it, and when you do, they are going to make a movie about you,” Forman added.

Binda, who also teaches the “Mass Incarceration and the Literature of Confinement” course, said Forman’s talk was effective in identifying a problem and calling listeners to action.

“Professor Forman’s talk was inspiring,” Binda said. “He has a really smart analysis of the role and responsibility of people in social justice movements [in] addressing hyper-incarceration state of affairs we are living in.”

“[Forman] also understands that big change happens in little ways, so all of us being reflective and doing what we do … with social justice ideas in mind is how [we] make the change,” she added.

Amanda Borquaye, student primary collaborator for educational programming and research assistant at TUPIT, said Forman’s talk opened a window for her to examine the issue in the eyes of a former public defender.

“It was a really different perspective than what we often hear, that kind of zeros in on how the black community has historically dealt with and continues to deal with the issue of mass incarceration,” Borquaye, a senior, said. “It was interesting to hear [his] perspective as a [former] public defender … questioning how it is that black people leading the police department, black judges in the circuit arena, black prosecutors … became punitive [to the defendants] in the epidemic of mass incarceration.”

In an interview with the Daily, Forman stressed that despite the obstacles they may face, students have an important role in making change.

“When I was a student, I was a student activist and we were always frustrated with the university. It wasn’t doing as much as we thought it needed to do in response to our concerns,” he said. “The role of the students is to push and to challenge and to fight and not accept a ‘no,’ and keep agitating because if the students are not agitating in our society than nobody is going to be agitating.”