Several years ago, Reno Friends committed to finance the operating costs of the Nevada chapter of the Alternatives to Violence Project. AVP’s volunteers lead conflict resolution workshops inside Nevada prisons, seeking to empower inmates to lead nonviolent lives. The Meeting’s decision was not difficult: Quakers embrace the principle of nonviolence, and they have cared deeply about prison issues since the early members of the Society of Friends were jailed for their beliefs.
In this tradition, Reno Friends will gather Wednesday evenings this month and next to discuss the game-changing book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. Alexander, a law professor at Ohio State University and former director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Project in Northern California, argues that changes made to state and federal sentencing laws during the 1980’s – particularly those for non-violent drug offenders – have resulted in the imprisonment today of more black men than were enslaved in the United States in 1850.
The United States is now the world’s leader in incarceration. Our nation’s prisons and jails hold 2.2 million people, five times as many as were imprisoned 30 years ago, according to the Friends Committee for National Legislation (FCNL). Alexander says sentencing laws that require mandatory minimums for nonviolent crimes are a legacy of generations of discrimination. She says the War on Drugs focused heavily on black drug users in cities, and prosecutors are twice as likely to seek mandatory minimum sentences for black defendants as for white. Today African-Americans serve almost as much prison time for nonviolent drug crimes (58.7 months) as whites do for violent crimes (61.7 months).
Incarceration has long-term effects. One in three black men in America are now incarcerated during their lifetime, and those who are convicted struggle for years to overcome the repercussions of their criminal record. According to FCNL, some states ban formerly incarcerated people from driving or getting the professional licenses they need to be a hair stylist or an accountant. Federal laws also permanently ban those with felony drug convictions from receiving welfare or food stamps. Many released prisoners are banned from public housing; not surprisingly, many become homeless.
To guide our discussion, Reno Friends will follow a book-group curriculum provided by Chris Moore-Backman, director of the Chico, CA, Peace and Justice Program. The group will meet from 6:30 pm to 8 pm every other Wednesday, starting Oct. 7 and continuing Oct. 21, Nov. 4 and Nov. 18 at our Meeting House at 497 Highland Avenue in Reno. The class is free, but you will need to buy or borrow a copy of the book. If you would like to join us, please email me, the Clerk of Reno Friends, at wswallow54 (at) gmail.com to sign up. We hope to see you there!
Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting
email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com
The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.