Neil Barsky, founder of the nonprofit criminal justice news organization The Marshall Project, came to campus on Tuesday to speak about the unique culture surrounding mass incarceration in the United States.
In his two separate speaking engagements at the Yale School of Medicine and Yale Law School, Barsky interwove psychology, law and ethics to draw a comprehensive image of the U.S. prison system. The first event, which was held in the Jane Ellen Hope Building and drew around 30 attendees, explored America’s high incarceration and recidivism rates, as well as the effects of incarceration on individuals’ mental health. In the second event, held at the Law School, Barsky focused more on the specifics of how current legal frameworks allow for mass incarceration and how the media can expose and dismantle the frameworks through public action and outrage.
“This is the most closed society in the world,” Barsky said. “And the only way to improve that is to demystify the men and women in prison because, right now, the men and women in prison are the most demonized people in America.”
The Marshall Project investigates inequality and corruption in the U.S. criminal justice system. The project takes its name from the renowned civil rights lawyer and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
To a journalist like Barsky, the connection between civil rights and mass incarceration is indisputable. He spoke at length on the institutions that perpetuate oppression and inequality using the prison system, from privatization of prisons to politically motivated “Right on Crime” campaigns.
In wrapping up the lecture portion of his first talk, Barsky zeroed in on why there is such a fraught conversation around prisoners and former prisoners in the country.
“We had a crime epidemic in the ’90s and we passed a lot of stupid laws based on false science on what caused crime and how to prevent it,” he said.
While Barsky took the time to delve into specific forms of injustice, from the practice of solitary confinement to the frequent deaths of prisoners in transit vehicles, he also offered solutions. In order to humanize our image of prisoners, Barsky said, it is valuable to engage with them. Barsky himself has traveled to, “as many prisons as [he] could, just to find out what was going on.” He envisioned a project like Teach for America set in prisons, which would encourage interaction between educators and inmates.
Commenting on the current political climate, Barsky, a fervent critic of President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, described his fears regarding the damage he believes the current administration will do to the criminal justice system, especially as it applies to immigrant detainees.
The event was free, open to the public and attended by journalists, legal professionals, Yale faculty and students and other New Haven residents.
“All I heard was that he was giving a talk on incarceration,” said Jeff Williams, a local resident and one of approximately 40 attendees at the second talk. “Because I am someone coming from incarceration, and I want to know what can be done to fix that system.”
Stanley Caviness, who lives in New Haven and attended the talk at the Law School, brought his two daughters to the event. Caviness noted that he was interested in learning about the work the media is doing to change the way criminals are portrayed.
“We label all people who have been incarcerated as criminals, and we just see them as criminals for the rest of their lives,” said Caviness’ 13-year-old daughter, Isabella.
The U.S. prison population has quadrupled since the year 1980.