Last night, the Afro-American Cultural Center hosted a discussion on a new social justice project called We Are All Criminals.
The event, which was organized by the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project (YUPP), centered on We Are All Criminals, a one-person project started by Emily Baxter, who spoke at the event.
The project is a series of interviews conducted by Baxter in which anonymous individuals reflect on getting away with committing crimes, and how their lives would be different if they had to live with the label of ‘felon’.
Baxter informed the audience that more than 25 percent of Americans have criminal records. The total number of people with felonies on their records has skyrocketed over the past 50 years, from approximately two million to 20 million individuals.
Baxter highlighted the disadvantages that come with having a felony on one’s record. Housing and job opportunities are some of the most limited areas for these individuals, according to Baxter, 87 percent of all employers conduct criminal history reports. Job applications with the “felony” box checked are often immediately discarded, she said.
To raise awareness about the potential ramifications about having a felony on one’s record, Baxter has gone on a series of drives through her home state, Minnesota, and has conducted over 200 interviews with people who do not have criminal records, but have committed crimes in the past. Her project began with emails to family and friends that were passed on throughout the community, asking this question: “What have you done that you have had the luxury to forget?” Baxter wants to remind people that everyone has done something that they are not proud of.
“Everyone needs a second chance,” Baxter said in her presentation. “We need to break down the dichotomy of ‘us versus them,’ ‘clean versus criminal.’”
After Baxter’s presentation, three panelists spoke about their involvement with the movement to end or reform mass incarceration. Barbara Fair, a community organizer in New Haven and founder of the organization My Brother’s Keeper, stressed that current policies have disproportionately impacted minorities.
Kristi Lockhart, a psychology professor at Yale, said prisons have no incentive to shorten sentences; because prisons are often run by private corporations, they are incentivized to lengthen sentences instead. George Chochos DIV ’16, the third panelist, spoke about the need to support criminals in their re-entry into society after time in prison.
The event ended with a discussion of how students could make a difference.
“The first step for students is to get educated,” Fair said.
Representative Gary Holder-Winfield, who is currently running for a Senate seat in Connecticut attended the talk. He said students can also get involved in policy, naming three bills to which students should pay attention: a police in schools initiative, a reformation of school drug zoning and a bill regarding juvenile justice sentence review.
Nia Holston ’14, an organizer for the event and member of YUPP, said that part of the solution is changing the way students speak about felons in everyday language in order to reduce the stigma surrounding felony convictions.
Charlotte Feingold ’17 said she came to the event because she is involved in policy research on juvenile justice.
“People don’t think that anything like this could go down at Yale,” Feingold said. “But frankly, there’s illegal drug possession going on as we speak.”
Baxter said she hopes her project will spur movements around the nation.
Funding for the event came from the Social Justice Network, BSAAY, and UOC, said Holston.