Talks about prison system in America in lecture titled ‘Cages are the New Plantations’

As part of UCSB’s MultiCultural Center lecture series “Race Matters,” visiting Ithaca College professor Paula Ioanide spoke yesterday about the interplay of racism, education and the prison system in America at her talk “Cages Are The New Plantations.”

Ioanide, an assistant professor in the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity at Ithaca, has conducted research on institutional racism, with her work drawing greater focus to the psychological underpinnings of racist thought and the effectiveness of grassroots movements in combating racism. Describing institutionalized racism as embedded in the United States’ prison industrial complex, Ioanide spoke about the destructive social, political and economic impacts that such discrimination has on society. Using statistical data, imagery and her personal experience teaching a class at Auburn Correctional Facility last year, Ioanide presented her critique of the American justice system.

Ioanide began by asking the audience to remain open towards the information she would present throughout the lecture, asking a series of questions about how incarceration may be considered similar to socially unjust institutions such as slavery.

“If we confront the fact that the economies of incarceration today echo the economies of plantation slavery and worker exploitation, will our minds be receptive?” Ioanide asked. “And if our minds are receptive, and if our minds are receptive of the facts, will they carry the message to our hearts?”

According to Ioanide, about 2.3 million Americans — the majority of which are people of color — are currently imprisoned, with an additional seven million under some form of state supervision or probation and 15,000 in solitary confinement. Ioanide said the United States has, by far, the highest number of people incarcerated out of any nation in the world, both as a percentage of the population and in real numbers.

During her lecture, Ioanide protested the proposed development of a county jail and ICE facility in Santa Maria, a project expected to cost upwards of $100 million dollars while housing fewer than 400 inmates.

“Why build a new jail if you could address your problem of overcrowding by letting some people out? … Eighty percent of people in jail are pre-trial — that means they have not been convicted of a crime, that means they are sitting there because they are too poor to make bail,” Ioanide said.

She also addressed the strain on higher education caused by increased funding for prison facilities to house the ever-expanding inmate population.

“The more we invest in prisons and jails, the higher your tuition goes,” Ioanide said.

She pointed to the proportions of spending changes between higher education and incarceration over the last quarter century as evidence for need for reform. In the past 25 years, spending for corrections facilities rose from four to 10 percent, while spending for higher education went from 11 percent down to seven percent.

“There is a direct correlation to what’s happening to us here and what’s happening over there,” Ioanide said.

During the lecture, Ioanide also spoke about the prevalence of sexual abuse amongst prison populations, saying such abuse is very much an accepted part of prison life.

“Prison rape is so endemic that more than 70,000 prisoners are raped each year,” Ioanide said. “That is routinely held out as a threat from correctional officers and other prisoners alike — part of the punishment to be expected.”

MCC programmer Ruby Mojarro said she hoped the talk would spur students to work against the planned Santa Maria facility.

“I’m hoping that some students will be excited about reaching out to the community and fighting against the new jail … I’m just hoping that they will be as motivated as she is,” Mojarro said.

Assistant English Professor Dr. Felice Blake, who attended the event, said she was taken aback by the huge sums of taxpayer funds allotted to incarceration.

“The sheer amount of money that is going into creating something that is so detrimental to our community is devastating to hear and shocking to think about why we’d be so committed financially to our own destruction,” Blake said.

Dr. Ioanide read aloud a poem by an inmate student, Reggie Bell, in which he challenged society to correct the shortcomings of the current social system.

“The onus is on parents and pedagogues to protect tomorrow’s generation from today’s injustices,” the poem read. “Anything less is a dereliction of duty and a sign of complacency.”

Visiting professor Paula Ioanide delivered her lecture as part of the MCC’s “Race Matters” series.

Visiting professor Paula Ioanide delivered her lecture as part of the MCC’s “Race Matters” series.

Photo by Peter Vandenbelt / Daily Nexus

A version of this story appeared on page 3 of Wednesday, February 12, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.