Photo courtesy of Jared Rodriguez / truthout Flickr

Vivian Nixon Talks Mass Incarceration, Education, and Social Justice

On Thursday night, the Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC) hosted Vivian Nixon, the executive director of College and Community Fellowship, for a talk on mass incarceration in America.

Nixon began by thanking UGBC and students for working not only to change their own circumstances, but also to improve the circumstances of those who do not have the power or opportunity to change their own. This, she asserted, is social justice.

According to Nixon, the concept of social justice is not attached to a political party.

"[Social justice] is for each of us to define ourselves," said Nixon. "Social justice is linked to a set of values with which we honor, respect, and promote the dignity of all.”

Nixon said it took her a long time to find the power to say those words and truly define social justice. She was able to do so over time as she began to learn more about the criminal justice system. 

“The undercurrent of mass incarceration is historical racism and marginalization of certain groups," said Nixon. "There is a thread starting with slavery working its way up to mass incarceration—education is the thread."

"[Mass incarceration] has kept people marginalized by limiting their access to knowledge," Nixon continued. "If you can’t know, you can’t solve, and if you can’t solve, you can’t extricate yourself.”

The criminal justice system in the United States promises that if people are locked up for a certain period of time, they will return and no longer be a threat to society. But the numbers show that 67% to 80% of people who are arrested and released are re-incarcerated. 

“If eight out of 10 planes dropped out of the sky, what airline would survive?” Nixon asked rhetorically. 

In 2004, the Bush administration promoted the Second Chance Act to create opportunities rather than perpetuate punishment. The Obama administration then followed suit, pointing out additional problems in the system by raising the question of why the United States has 25% of the world’s prisoners when the U.S. only has 4.4% of the national population.

Nixon then discussed some of the Obama administration’s work. The sentencing for crack cocaine was disproportionate to the sentencing for powder cocaine, causing the incarceration of a distorted amount of black men because crack cocaine was cheap and on the streets. The administration changed sentencing policies and observed results from a council that worked with inmates inside prison walls and out, something that had never been done before.

“Research has always shown the benefits of education," said Nixon. "Those arrested are 40% less likely to revisit prison if offered education.”

The punishment for crime is the loss of freedom. People have realized that prison is expensive. Not only did the majority of those in the prison system not graduate through the public education system, but for them there remains no greater punishment than the loss of freedom.

Nixon then asked the question, "Why do I care? I am 19 years out of prison and have made a good life for myself, so why do I care?” 

Nixon recounted how her experience in the criminal justice system opened her eyes to the disparity between herself and other women who were incarcerated.

"In prison, I found myself teaching 60-year-olds how to write, reading letters to 25-year-olds, and listening to stories of 17 year old girls living in the streets as prostitutes," said Nixon. "I saw the criminal justice system with fresh eyes. It changed me in a way that words cannot express—but I so badly want to.”

Nixon said that continuing to advocate for people in the criminal justice system is her way of standing up for what she believes in. This is her idea of social justice.

“Prison and education systems have close ties to the legacy of slavery. It is the conversation we can never finish,” she noted. 

Nixon mentioned that while she does not know what the future will be for this issue, she knows that the more we learn and share, the better the outcome will be.

“Education, or lack thereof, affects everyone,” said Nixon.