The United States incarcerates more people – and a larger portion of its population – than any other country in the world, Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, pointed out to an audience Tuesday at Notre Dame Law School.
“We lock up a huge number of people – something that no other country has tried to do in the history of the world,” Mills said.
One concern about the nation’s prison population is that it disproportionately consists of poor people and African-Americans, he said. Another concern is how people are treated while they are incarcerated and how those experiences hinder their ability to function in society after being released.
Mills said the prison population has boomed since U.S. law enforcement started cracking down more aggressively on drug activity. It’s a bipartisan trend that started in the 1960s during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration and has continued through the decades.
“The percentage of people who use drugs is the same for all races and classes. That is not true when we look at who is arrested for using drugs,” Mills said. “It has to do with which laws we choose to enforce and who we choose to enforce them against.”
Former coal miners and their widows started the Uptown People’s Law Center in 1975 to try to secure benefits for disabled miners. Over the years, the organization has developed expertise in several legal areas, including prisoners’ rights. The center has advocated against the use of solitary confinement and excessive force.
“Going to prison is the punishment,” Mills said. “They’re not supposed to be tortured once they’re there.”
He contrasted life in a U.S. prison with that in Norway, where prison cells resemble a comfortable room in a college residence hall. In Norway, he said, the goal is to rebuild people by providing work for them and allowing them to go home on weekends.
Prison reform is a political problem in the U.S., Mills said. It’s much easier for politicians to continue incarcerating people than it is to address homelessness, mental health, or income inequality.
Mills urged students in the audience to do something about the problem. He said actions as simple as writing letters or collecting books for prisoners can make a positive difference.
“Whatever your skill set is, use it,” he said. “Don’t sit around waiting for the perfect movement.”
Mills’ presentation, sponsored by the Notre Dame Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and co-sponsored by the Center for Civil and Human Rights, is part of a series of speeches and events organized for the Student Week Against Mass Incarceration.
On Monday, the NLG sponsored a panel discussion on the school-to-prison pipeline. The panel included Candace Moore, a staff attorney at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
On Wednesday, the Innocence Project displayed 149 roses in Eck Commons to commemorate the 149 people who were exonerated in 2015 – a record year for exonerations. The roses were displayed in vases on each table in the commons, and each vase included a placard with facts about exonerations.
On Thursday, the LGBT Law Forum and the NLG are co-sponsoring a speech titled “LGBTQ Immigrants in the Trump Era.” Nebula Li, of the Community Activism Law Alliance in Chicago, will speak at 12:30 p.m. in Room 1310, Biolchini Hall of Law.
Rasheed Gilmer, president of the NLG’s Notre Dame Chapter, said he wanted events like Mills’ talk Tuesday to inspire students to make a difference.
“Our hope is to get a conversation started, not just at the Law School but across campus,” said Gilmer, a third-year law student from Detroit. “We want students to reflect on how the law impacts the lives of everyday folks.”