‘New Jim Crow’ author spells out price of prison time

October 7, 2013 11:00 AM

Hannah Dean

Author and acclaimed civil rights lawyer and activist Michelle Alexander delivered a raw and powerful talk on Wednesday (Oct. 2) to a packed auditorium in Dixon Hall on the Tulane University uptown campus. The New Jim Crow, Alexander’s compelling exposé on the mass incarceration of men of color in the United States, was selected for this year’s Reading Project.

Michelle Alexander, author of ‘The New Jim Crow’

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, this year’s Reading Project selection, speaks in Dixon Hall. Alexander advocated for a rebirth of the civil rights movement to address the inequities in the criminal justice system. (Photo by Guillermo Cabrera-Rojo)

Both Alexander and James MacLaren, dean of Newcomb-Tulane College, started off the evening by noting the relevance of The New Jim Crow in New Orleans, given Louisiana’s status as the prison capital of the world and, coincidentally, the release of Herman Wallace of the Angola Three last week. (Wallace died two days later.)

The Angola Three are three African American men from Louisiana who served a collective 110 years in solitary confinement in Angola prison. Alexander used the example of the Angola Three to segue to her main point in the lecture — to “talk about the truths” within the U.S. criminal justice system.
“The Angola Three case is not extraordinary,” said Alexander. “It is a reflection of a mentality.”

Alexander described the current system of mass incarceration as an evolved form of racial oppression, in which black men serve unnecessarily long sentences for menial crimes and, after being released, find themselves in a world where housing, employment, voting and educational discrimination are legal against them because of their personal criminal records. Many of these men are unable to find a job or even somewhere to live, and they frequently wind up in prison again, thus trapped in a vicious cycle.

Alexander also spoke to the deep social, political, and economic roots that this system maintains, specifically in reference to the rapid growth of the prison system, which employs over 1 million people and often serves as the economic backbone of rural communities. Given these connections, she noted, social change in this realm requires a human rights movement equivalent to a rebirth of the civil rights movement. 

Hannah Dean is a first-year Newcomb/Tulane College student.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 website@tulane.edu