By Eric Lopez
Glendale Community College welcomed speaker Heather Hamel to speak about the issue of mass incarceration in the United States in the Student Union Aug. 28.
Heather Hamel is an activist for people who are wrongfully incarcerated. After practicing law for a few years, she realized litigation was not the best strategy for change because every time she appeared in court or put her name on a motion she felt like she was participating in a system that was fundamentally unjust. Hamel left that system and is now a law professor who focuses primarily on policy advising and community advocacy.
During her talk, she covered a range of issues from police brutality, to court reform, to abolishing prisons.
Because the number of individuals incarcerated in the United States has increased, Hamel has become dedicated to educating people on the judicial system.
Placement of police in poor areas insures higher arrest rates for people who are unable to afford bail on charges they may not be guilty of, according to Hamel.
“Push, pull and trap,” was how Heather described the justice system and her spider web metaphor helped to make this method of entrapment easy to understand.
She introduced an activity where students placed themselves in the position of someone who was arrested on bogus charges and could not post bail. The exercise gave students the opportunity to see how easily it is to become a target of law enforcement and the justice system.
“I thought it was shocking how she made an activity out of a situation that actually happened,” GCC Freshman, Summer Manea said.
Hamel provide a graph that compared the prison population in China to that in the United States, which has the highest proportion of prisoners worldwide, housing 25 percent of the world’s prisoner population. The professor noted that the U.S.has built the largest prison system to ever exist and compared the prison population of 1970, which was around two hundred thousand to today’s incarcerated population of 2.2 million.
After the civil rights movement, the justice system introduced a new strategy for imprisoning people. The post racial America promised after the movement never came to fruition and the era of mass incarceration began as a way to suppress individuals of color. Hamel reminded those attending that prisons today are viewed as normal but that there are alternatives to locking people up in large numbers. Mass incarceration is a new practice.
“(The judicial system) isn’t broken, but working exactly the way it was designed to by keeping people of color behind bars,” Hamel said.
Hamel noted that use of historically high crime rates for policing in poor areas makes it more likely that individuals of color become imprisoned. She stated that our criminal punishment system pulls people into proximity then, when they are close enough they become trapped, become stuck. Simply criminalizing people’s status can also increase their likelihood of encountering the system. When the justice system uses biased tactics in policing it determines who will be locked up and what charges they will face.
“Most people feel that the justice system is a passive system but it’s actually an active predatory system that lures in prey like a spider web,” Hamel said.
One of the most surprising things Hamel mentioned was how the act of simply holding people in jail becomes a way of getting them to plead guilty to charges they may not be guilty of.
Millions of dollars in resources are unevenly distributed, and instead of being used for education, infrastructure and healthcare, they are being used to lock people up.