Miami Law’s Race & Social Justice Law Review recently held its panel discussion, “Mass Incarceration: Prison Conditions and the Collateral Damage to Communities of Color” on the Coral Gables campus. This year’s event provided an in-depth discussion on the mass incarceration phenomenon in the United States, with a specific focus on prison conditions and the collateral effects of imprisonment.
The distinguished panel of speakers included Randall C. Berg, Jr., Esq., Executive Director, Florida Justice Institute; Paul Prestia, Esq., Criminal Defense and Civil Rights Abuses Attorney; Margo Schlanger, Henry M. Butzel Professor of Law, University of Michigan Law School; Brenda V. Smith, Professor of Law, Washington College of Law at American University; and Paul Wright, Founder and Executive Director, Human Rights Defense Center and Editor of the Prison Legal News.
Dean Patricia White provided poignant opening remarks to a full house of law students, local dignitaries, members of the University of Miami community, and the community at large to kick off “the first of many annual panels” put on by the Race & Social Justice Law Review.
During her introduction, Janyl Relling, Editor-in-Chief of the Race & Social Justice Law Review, provided an overview of the panel - “Although ‘mass incarceration’ has garnered mainstream national attention in recent years, it is an issue that has plagued our country for decades,” said Relling. “It is a multi-layered phenomenon, and the layer we hope to better understand through tonight’s focused discussion is prison conditions in the U.S. and the impact of these conditions on communities of color.”
Prestia was the first panelist to address the audience during the opening segment titled, “The Tragic Case of Kalief Browder.” Prestia played a soundless video showing Browder being beaten by prison guards and follow inmates. Miami Law Professor Osamudia James’s tweet about the tape encapsulated what many in the room felt as the video played: “Heart-wrenching and horrifying. Injustice in America.”
Five minutes later the chilling footage ended and Prestia told the story of his client. He provided an intimate look at the circumstances surrounding the imprisonment of a then 16-year-old Browder at Rikers Island – an infamous adult correctional facility in New York.
“I met Kalief about a month after [his release] and he was completely broken,” Prestia said about his former client, who committed suicide on June 6, 2015. The harrowing story of Browder’s traumatic ordeal that resulted in his tragic death set the tone for the rest of the discussion.
Miami Law Professor Donald M. Jones, who moderated the event, said “the Kalief Browder case cries out…about what we say we are going to do within the legal system and what we are doing.” Jones, a criminal law and constitutional law professor, drew on his own critical race theory scholarship to pose thought-provoking questions to the panel of experts.
Professor Margo Schlanger, a distinguished scholar and a leading authority on civil rights issues and civil and criminal detention, offered her insights on the issues and opened the second segment of the panel, “Current Conditions in U.S. Prisons.” “We have not figured out how to decarcerate,” she said. Schlanger proposed court-ordered alternatives to solitary confinement rather than prison population caps as a realistic solution to the issue of “restrictive housing” in prisons.
Distinguished scholar and leading expert on the Prison Rape Elimination Act and issues affecting women in prison, Professor Brenda V. Smith offered her expertise on sexual abuse in custodial settings. Smith discussed former clients who had conceived in custody, stating “the unequal treatment of women fed the abuse.” Smith noted there were facilities that offered rehabilitative services for inmates but men had the opportunity to obtain bachelor’s degrees, while women could only obtain a GED.
Randall C. Berg, Jr., a leading civil rights attorney who focuses on prisoners’ rights, offered his perspective on the issue of prison conditions in the context of what he has encountered here in Florida. He stated that Florida is “warehousing people” and cutting prison programs that assist inmates with re-entry. Berg also discussed the tremendous issue of mental health and its affect prison conditions and the treatment of inmates. “The state prison system has become Florida’s mental health system,” said Berg.
Founder of the Human Rights Defense Center and editor of Prison Legal News, Paul Wright kicked off his part of the discussion with a staggering statistic—there are approximately eight million people incarcerated, on probation, or on parole in America today. “The United States is a rich country…. We spend a lot of money to make [prisoners] worse than when they came in [to the system],” said Wright.
The panel concluded with questions from the audience and a reception. “It was amazing to see so many members of the Miami legal community coming together to support our young journal in its continued efforts to shed light on issues related to social justice and racial inequities,” said Josie Farinelli, Business & Online Managing Editor of the Race & Social Justice Law Review. A video of the panel will be available soon at the University of Miami Race & Social Justice Law Review website and scholarship from the panel will be published in the forthcoming Volume VI of the Review.