In the world’s most eager exporter of democracy, justice is as remote for some as it is for people living in the most troubled parts of the world. The US has just 5% of the world’s population, but over 20% of its prisoners. For the over 2.3 million people behind bars, the approximately 7 million on probation, parole or in correctional facilities, or for the 70 million Americans with criminal records, discrimination, violence and assaults on dignity are a daily reality.
According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, mass incarceration is the most pressing racial justice issue of our time. As she and other civil rights activists have argued convincingly, slavery and Jim Crow have not ended in this country, they have simply evolved into a new racial caste system. There are now more men of color under correctional control in the US than there were enslaved in 1850. US prisons hold more than one third of the world’s incarcerated women, the majority of whom are Black and Hispanic and have experienced physical and sexual abuse, poverty and addiction. For the over 650,000 people who are released every year, the collateral consequences of a criminal record make productive re-entry almost impossible and fuel pain, trauma and high recidivism rates.
No time has ever been more important for the public, and particularly for high school students, to learn about mass incarceration from the people who have experienced it and from those working to end it.
Since 2015, students in the UNIS Human Rights Project have been exploring social justice issues related to America's criminal justice system. From 2015-2016, UNIS collaborated with Proof: Media for Social Justice to sponsor a program called Picture Justice. Participating high school students met with academics, journalists, lawyers, service providers, policy makers and human rights activists. They trained with photographers and photo journalists. Most importantly, they met with over 20 formerly incarcerated people to hear their stories and take their portraits.
The culmination of this program was a photo exhibit called "Broken?" which brings into focus many of the broken aspects of the criminal justice system, highlights the reforms that are taking place and profiles local activists. "Broken?" has been on display at locations throughout NYC and the US. In 2016, it had its largest audience to date at Photoville in Brooklyn which was attended by more than 60,000 people.
In 2017, students began building on this work by updating the exhibit, creating video stories and a documentary. These will feature in an online multimedia platform and curriculum for high school students. This program will continue throughout the 2018-19 school year and will include an educator conference, public symposium, theatre performance and updated exhibit. Check back for updates.