For Khalil Cumberbatch, it was never a question of whether he would go to prison, but when.
Cumberbatch grew up in South Jamaica, Queens, during the 1980s; in the latter part of the decade, the neighborhood was decimated by the crack epidemic and the drug trade that came with it. There were “systems of oppression” everywhere he turned, from underfunded schools to draconian policing.
In this environment, “where everything you do can easily be criminalized,” discussions about incarceration were as common as those about sports and girls, Cumberbatch said.
“Prison culture shaped my experience—my friends and I talked about it in the sense that it was inevitable,” he told the crowd gathered at the Theresa Lang Community and Student Center in April. “I expected to be arrested.”
And, in 2003, he was: Cumberbatch, then young and impressionable, landed behind bars. Not one to let time go to waste, he spent the next seven years working on behalf of the prison reentry community and, in 2010, was granted clemency by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Today he serves as manager of training and communications at JustLeadershipUSA, a national organization that advocates for reforms to reduce incarceration.
Cumberbatch doesn’t condone the behavior that led to his seven-year sentence. But it’s no surprise that he and so many other young people in neighborhoods like South Jamaica end up in prison when faced with so many hurdles to survival and so few mechanisms of support.
“When given the lesser of two evils, the decision you make will nevertheless still be an evil,” Cumberbatch said.
Cumberbatch was one of the many individuals who shared stories of incarceration at the two-day national summit of States of Incarceration, a coalition of 500 individuals from 20 cities across the United States that is building a participatory public memory project on the history and future of mass incarceration. The public dialogues are part of a broader effort—including a national traveling exhibition, Web platform, public dialogues, a “Shape the Debate” mobile campaign, and a podcast series—to undertake a national public reckoning with one of the most pressing issues of our time.
“Remembering our past by sharing human-centered stories of oppression and triumph is critical to repairing the harm of mass incarceration and identifying a clear path to national and local policy change,” said Glenn E. Martin, founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA. “States of Incarceration acknowledges the traumatic generational effects on the communities we’ve failed. It builds a new public memory and national narrative that are critical for guiding the path to a more restorative future.”
For the national summit, 500-plus participants of States of Incarceration—students, formerly incarcerated individuals, and leading national scholars and advocates—gathered to explore the deep historical roots of, and share personal stories connected to, an issue that has had a profound impact on American society. Mass incarceration in the United States can be traced to a series of tragic events, “from slavery and settler colonialism to Indian boarding schools and immigrant detention centers,” said Liz Sevcenko, director of Humanities Action Lab, the initiative behind States of Incarceration.
Today the legacies of those injustices take many forms: systemic racism and poverty, harsh law enforcement tactics and policies, and economic interests that encourage the expansion of the prison-industrial complex. Despite being the land of the free, the United States has earned the disturbing distinction of being the world’s leading jailer: Representing just five percent of the world’s population, the country now holds 25 percent of its inmates.
“We hope to build a platform of collective action to address the origins of the crisis we’re in and the legacies we see today,” Sevcenko stated in her introductory remarks. “It includes dialogue about where we’re coming from and where we need to go from here.”
States of Incarceration—a national exhibition created by students and formerly incarcerated individuals—helps to answer those questions. Designed by Brooklyn, New York–based design firm Matter Practice, it features interviews with formerly incarcerated people, corrections officers, and policy advocates; images capturing the evolution of crime and punishment in different contexts; and data demonstrating the explosive growth of incarceration and its impact on American society.
The exhibition will be on view at The New School’s Sheila C. Johnson Design Center through April 24 before traveling to the 19 other communities that created it. In each community, the exhibition will focus on an issue of incarceration unique to that community; The New School exhibition, a collaboration between university students and The Fortune Society, spotlights Rikers Island.
The prison, located between Queens and the Bronx near LaGuardia Airport, has become a powerful symbol of criminal justice dysfunction. The night before the summit, Martin and Venida Browder came together to tell the story of their son, Kalief Browder, whose arrest at 16 for the alleged crime of stealing a backpack and subsequent three-year imprisonment at Rikers Island without trial sparked a national debate about solitary confinement and calls to shut down the jail.
It is just that sort of discussion that organizers of States of Incarceration hope to ignite. For participants in the project, which includes individuals working collaboratively across disciplines, the goal is to fundamentally transform the way we as a society think about incarceration and to advance policy change on this pressing issue.
“There are many people in this country who don’t understand what the term ‘mass incarceration’ means,” Cumberbatch said. “They actually believe it means that people make bad choices and if you can’t do that time, you shouldn’t do the crime. But they don’t understand the political and historical context that comes with that. That’s something we all need to reckon with.”