Friday, Feb. 24 and Saturday, Feb. 25, the College of William and Mary Law School hosted a symposium titled “Mass Incarceration Nation: How the United States Became Addicted to Prisons and Jails and How it Can Recover.” The William and Mary Law Review, the College’s law journal, organized the panel which featured two days of discussions with various speakers.
Cabell Research professor and Mills E. Godwin, Jr., professor of Law Jeffrey Bellin’s book, “Mass Incarceration Nation: How the United States Became Addicted to Prisons and Jails and How it Can Recover,” served as the inspiration for the symposium.
Law school Dean A. Benjamin Spencer introduced the symposium on Friday afternoon.
Bellin acknowledged that his work aims to cover multiple topics, such as both federal and local prosecution, rather than focusing completely on a singular topic. With this method, he believes that it provides effective knowledge in the potential formation of a solution to mass incarceration.
Professor of Law Margaret Hu moderated Panel One. The panel featured former Attorney General of Virginia Mark Herring, R. Hugh and Nolie Haynes professor of Law and Director of the College’s Center for Criminal Justice Policy and Reform Kami Chavis, Anne Shea Ransdell and William Garland “Buck” Ransdell, Jr. Distinguished professor of Law at the University of North Carolina Carissa Byrne Hessick and affiliate professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at University of South Carolina School of Law Seth Stoughton.
Herring began the conversation by addressing the interconnected systems behind mass incarceration and called for investments in poverty relief, health care, education and job training. Through these investments, Herring believes that substantial benefits and increased safety in communities can be achieved.
“We still have a lot of work to do, but we cannot let ourselves give in to cynicism,” Herring said. “Throwing up our hands and walking away is not an option. While it is a large problem and it’s going to take a lot of effort, reform can at times be transformative.”
Chavis followed by introducing the topic of the duality, or double consciousness, of Black police officers and the concept of police reform. She mentioned that systemic biases and disproportionate violence against Black communities cannot be addressed until bias within police departments is confronted.
“We really need to think about how we are going to reflect the realities of modern policing, how we are going to address the code of silence.Until we address that, we are really not going to be able to make a dent.”
“We really need to think about how we are going to reflect the realities of modern policing, how we are going to address the code of silence,” Chavis said. “Until we address that, we are really not going to be able to make a dent.”
Hessick continued the conversation by recognizing that through her work, she has recognized a frequency of generalizations regarding differences between local and state systems.
“When people try to generalize, to speak about crime in the criminal justice system in America, they tend to overgeneralize and they tend to say things that actually aren’t true or are only partially descriptive of what’s true,” Hessick said.
Chavis continued her speech by assessing the different types of groups invested in crime in America, specifically in reference to those who encourage frequent conviction for misdemeanor crimes and those who push for more serious policing in the country.
“Police forces will go out and engage in law enforcement, but what does that law enforcement look like?” Chavis said. “Is it solving the crimes people are really scared about, or is it sweeping people up in the streets because they’re doing something visibly that is easy for an officer to see and do something about?”
Chavis prompted the attendants to think about the number of resources put towards the legal system and to consider what would occur if these resources were instead shifted to the justice system.
Stoughton concluded the conversation by discussing the issue of oversimplification in relation to mass incarceration.
“We’re talking about complex problems that exist both within the system, that is, problems within policing or problems within the criminal justice system or criminal legal system, but we’re also talking about problems that exist outside of those systems in the society that those systems have to exist in,” Stoughton said.
“Be involved in those conversations, but think about specific legal mechanisms. That is our special competency as lawyers.”
As an example, Stoughton mentioned that the lack of diversity in the police force can be attributed to a lack of diversity in American society. Stoughton also encouraged attendants to think critically when considering mass incarceration and issues in the police force.
“As we think of how to address issues within policing or within the criminal justice or criminal legal system, I want to urge you to not just think of it in terms of broad social policy,” Stoughton said. “Be involved in those conversations, but think about specific legal mechanisms. That is our special competency as lawyers.”
Hu concluded the first session by opening the floor to questions for the panelists from online participants.
On Saturday morning, Chavis moderated the second panel. Panelists included Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of Virginia Nia Vidal, S.D. Roberts and Sandra Moore professor of Law at the University of Richmond School of Law Corinna Lain, associate professor of Law at Washington and Lee University Brandon Hasbrouck J.D. and assistant professor of History at the College Brianna Nofil.
Vidal first introduced the impacts and effects of mass incarceration from her perspective as a public defender.
“Congress must recognize that imprisonment is not a means of promoting correction and rehabilitation, and that is actually in the United States Code,” Vidal said.
“In terms of the impact on the community and the impact on my clients, it just takes people out of the community without putting anything back into the community.”
Rather than solely focusing on incarceration as a resolution tactic, Vidal noted the importance of putting things back into the community, such as healthcare resources and substance abuse treatment.
“In terms of the impact on the community and the impact on my clients, it just takes people out of the community without putting anything back into the community,” Vidal said.
Nofil continued the discussion by addressing immigration and border control in relation to mass incarceration. She noted that Immigration and Customs Enforcement detain an average of 54,000 migrants each day, each distinguished as administrative detainees, which has often separated them from discussions of mass incarceration.
“This distinction has all sorts of consequences for people in removal proceedings. The biggest consequence and one of the most obvious consequences is a distancing of people in removal proceedings from access to legal representation and due process rights,” Nofil said.
Nofil discussed the infrastructure of mass incarceration in relation to immigration detention sites.
“Today, when we think of an immigration detention site, you might think of a site run by the federal government and those pop up for the first time in the 1980s,” Nofil said. “Lurking beneath or behind these slightly more visible sites of detention is a network, currently, of over 600 city and county jails that maintain contracts with ICE to hold people in deportation proceedings in the local jail.”
ICE detainees imprisoned in city or county jails face issues of visibility, especially in relation to crossing custodial lines between private and public and local and federal immigration courts in the case of a singular removal proceeding.
“Lurking beneath or behind these slightly more visible sites of detention is a network, currently, of over 600 city and county jails that maintain contracts with ICE to hold people in deportation proceedings in the local jail.”
Nofil additionally noted that governments often used migrants as a way to gain revenue from jail systems, since local jails form contracts with the Immigration Service.
In the contemporary scene, Nofil concluded by noting that the vast majority of new criminal cases filed in federal courts on a nationwide scale target people with immigration charges.
Migrant incarceration isn’t just an outgrowth of criminal incarceration,” Nofil said. “Migrants share the same physical spaces of incarceration, they often endure deportation proceedings via interactions with local law enforcement and they are similarly affected by racist over policing in communities and financial incentives to keep jails full.”
Lain continued the conversation discussing the perception of “disorder” in relation to crime. Lain circled back to Stoughton’s comments on solving problems of mass incarceration in relation to problems outside the system.
“What I want to talk about is that in the 1970s and beyond — something else happened too,” Lain said. “It foisted upon the criminal justice system a vexing problem that policymakers never intended the criminal justice system to solve, and that is what to do with the severely mentally ill.”
Lain discussed the creation of psychiatric hospitals, dating back to the 1840s, when a schoolteacher, Dorothea Dix, entered a jail and witnessed the sight of a great number of mentally ill individuals suffering in jail settings. Dix pushed for those diagnosed with severe mental illnesses to be placed in psychiatric hospitals rather than prisons.
“She, with other people, succeeded, because 40 years later, in the 1880s, there were over 100 psychiatric hospitals for the severely mentally ill, and slightly less than 1% of mentally ill people actually being jailed,” Lain said.
Though psychiatric hospitals were originally intended to serve as a place for therapeutic care and refuge from subjection, they were not properly funded. Lack of resources led to the release of mentally ill individuals back into the community without proper treatment.
Lain closed her speech by proposing that the road to recovery must also address mental health.
“We’re uncomfortable with disorder.We’re the ones basically criminalizing poverty, criminalizing disorder, criminalizing race. It’s all on us.”
Hasbrouck concluded the panel discussion by focusing on the conclusion of Bellin’s book. Rather than relying on prisons as a solution, Hasbrouck suggested it may be useful to instead focus on provisions of community resources.
“Abolition is also a project of construction. It’s a project of creating better schools, providing supply to housing and access to jobs. It’s a project of creating access to healthcare, including mental health care,” Hasbrouck said.
Hasbrouck noted that it is vital to address the underlying inequalities behind incarceration and pointed out that individuals in the United States have been comfortable with criminalization.
“We’re uncomfortable with disorder,” Hasbrouck said. “We’re the ones basically criminalizing poverty, criminalizing disorder, criminalizing race. It’s all on us.”
On Saturday afternoon, Bellin introduced the final panel of speakers. Hasbrouck returned as a panelist, accompanied by Assistant Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of Virginia Andrew Grindrod J.D., associate professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center Shon Hopwood J.D. and Tyler Haynes professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Richmond Dr. Vincent Chiao J.D.
Speakers discussed reform via bottom-up perspectives, referring to policy changes made by lower-level positions within the incarceration system.
“Bottom-up reform provides immediate benefit to those directly affected by the decisions of that low level player, so you can’t end mass incarceration by one case at a time, but you can contribute to it in each individual case,” Grindrod said.
Hopwood continued the conversation by mentioning that he was imprisoned at 22 for a series of armed bank robberies. He emphasized the importance of compassionate release and told stories about rehabilitation, including one about his friend and former client Matthew Charles.
“Bottom-up reform provides immediate benefit to those directly affected by the decisions of that low level player, so you can’t end mass incarceration by one case at a time, but you can contribute to it in each individual case.”
“What no one could understand was that Matthew had changed, but the system couldn’t recognize that we need to have second looks and the ability for judges to reevaluate sentences,” Hopwood said.
He mentioned that compassionate release would not only help to reduce long sentences, but would also incentivize individuals to take part in educational programs.
Hasbrouck believes that the prison industrial complex is an ineffective way to decrease interpersonal violence and emphasized the importance of increasing public safety in other ways.
“When we spread that dream far enough and enough other people share in it together, that’s when the world changes,” Hasbrouck said. “We must dismantle this oppressive regime. We have provided potential ways forward.”
Chiao discussed the specifics of what issues mass incarceration faces and posed questions in regard to the limitations and allocations of punishment.
“You have to have some theory about what the correct amount of incarceration is before you can meaningfully say this country has too much of it,” Chiao said. “One way to get around that is to say, well, let’s try to look comparatively to what other countries are doing.”
The panel concluded with a question and answer session and a brief announcement from the incoming Editor-in-Chief of the William and Mary Law Review, Amelia Tadanier, who offered thanks to the panelists and audience members.
CORRECTION (03/28/23): Article was updated by Sarah Devendorf, the Standards and Practices Editor to change the sentence, “Congress must recognize that imprisonment is not a means of promoting correction and rehabilitation, and that is actually in the United States Constitution” to “…and that is actually in the United States Code.”