Lewis University faculty, staff and students, public and elected officials, and leaders of local- and state-level nonprofit organizations joined forces last week to discuss the issue of mass incarceration.
The event, by design, aimed to provide a space for conversations focused on addressing injustices in prisons through education, networking and advocacy for policy changes.
Featured speakers during the program included State Sen. Pat McGuire, Jobi Cates, Julie Anderson, Jennie Amato, Marshan Allen, David Perez, Jon Horton, Roberto Almadovar, Scott Main, Dan Johnson and Yaacov Delaney.
Cates spoke to the magnitude of the issue that has grown over time because state of Illinois laws take away opportunities for people to exit early on parole and said more people are entering the prison system, and more people are serving longer sentences.
Data indicates that mass incarceration costs the nation an estimated $8 billion every year.
Dr. Christie Billups, peace studies program advisor and assistant professor of theology for Lewis University, said she and her colleague were hoping the program they led reaches those who would be the reformers and/or voters from the area.
Billups is currently teaching a course titled, “Practicing Faithful Justice,” at Lewis University this fall.
“The students in my class are learning the stories of people to be reminded of human dignity of every person,” she said. “My hope is it will increase their civic engagement in justice issues, such as mass incarceration and prison reform in Illinois.”
In his time in office, Gov. Bruce Rauner has made it a goal to reduce the prison population by 25 percent in the state of Illinois by 2025.
Data that shows more than two million people are incarcerated nationwide, and more than 40,000 of them are in the state of Illinois’ prisons.
Cates said one misconception people often have is they think parole is instituted as it was originally intended.
“In the late 70s, we got rid of parole for release,” she said. “We got rid of something that everybody thinks exists that really doesn’t.”
There is no active parole board in Illinois to review the cases of those who face incarceration.
“They started increasing the minimum sentences,” Cates said. “Not only did we take away the backend, we took away a parole; we took away good time. We started jacking up the sentences, as well.”
A piece of proposed legislation is seeking to reinstate parole for people who have received large sentences.
Several community leaders spoke to the issue with mass incarceration, saying that a potential legal remedy for it exists, but it’s not reliable.
Cates tried to explain part of why mass incarceration persists as it does.
“In Illinois, prosecutors are elected officials,” Cates said. “If there’s crime going on in the community, they want to be tough. They want to be seen as strong. What looks stronger than putting more people away for longer amounts of time? It’s human nature. It’s not that they’re bad people. It’s human nature. It’s their job. They’re getting paid to do that. We elect them to do that.”
Richton Park resident Marhsan Allen shared his story of incarceration during the panel discussion. He said at age 15, he became heavily involved in a drug business and went on to serve as an accomplice to first-degree murder and a host of other crimes.
“At the time, the only sentence available to me because I was a juvenile was mandatory life without parole,” Allen said. “If I would’ve been [age] 18, it would have life without parole with death penalty.”
Allen has been home for 21 months since completing 25 years in prison. He recently took a trip to Springfield to present his concerns for the penal system to lawmakers.
“There definitely can be work to be done where there is a differentiation between people convicted of violent crimes, but didn’t commit any violent act,” Allen said.
Billups stressed how important it is for everyone to humanize people whose paths enter the prison system.
“They’re people, just like the rest us,” she said. “I think people pile everyone into one pile and decide they know who they are because they are behind bars.”