Scholar-activist discusses American prison system

As part of the Geneseo’s annual Diversity Summit, the college welcomed associate professor of African American literature from the University of California at San Diego Dennis Childs to give the keynote speech. Childs discussed a social-justice-centered approach to diversity, as well as inclusivity on Geneseo’s campus.

Childs addressed the efforts of the campus community to increase diversity among the student body. He acknowledged that while some initiatives have led to improvement, it’s important to continue to cultivate an inclusive environment beyond merely reaching benchmarks. 

 As the author of Slaves of the State: Black Incarceration from the Chain Gang to the Penitentiary, Childs also examined the connections between the beginnings of slavery in America and structural white supremacy that leads to prison slavery in modern society. 

Childs does not use the term mass incarceration; he instead uses “prison slavery” in his work, finding it a more accurate depiction of the system of imprisonment that continues the enslavement of black people that has spanned across centuries. 

“For one, mass incarceration implies that maybe if we got the number down it would be just right. Number two, I find the timeline for mass incarceration to be very problematic: it starts around 1979 or 1980 with Ronald Regan and the birth of the war on drugs,” Childs said. “From a technical way that’s true, but from another register it’s really not, which is to say slave ships were the beginning of mass incarceration for black people in the United States.”

Childs noted that there are 2.3 million incarcerated people in the U.S., including one out of every 100 adults and one out of every nine black men between the ages of 10 and 30, as of 2010. There have also been steady increases in migrant incarceration and that of black women and Latinos since the 1980s. 

Childs told the story of Kalief Browder, an African American man imprisoned for three years at the age of 16 because he was suspected of stealing a backpack. Browder was never charged with a crime, and following his release due to insufficient supporting evidence, he committed suicide as a result of mental and physical abuse he endured while in prison. Childs also referred to victims Erika Rocha and Shaylene Graves, who ended their lives in an ongoing epidemic of prison suicide.  

Childs encouraged people to search for untold stories about the prison system and about structural racism embedded in American systems. 

“We have to take responsibility for diversifying ourselves and our modes of thinking,” Childs said. “What have we been taught about prisons and prisoners?”

Childs believes that structural white supremacy and injustice for people of color is sustained partially through the prison system. He works with Critical Resistance toward the abolition of the prison-industrial complex.  

“None of us are free until all of us are free,” Childs concluded.