University of Wisconsin students gathered with community leaders and grassroots organizers Thursday to discuss reforming the Wisconsin criminal justice system and how students could join the cause.
UW graduate student Reginald Thedford said current prison conditions force prisoners to work long hours for minimal wages, and that Wisconsin’s prison system also disenfranchises certain groups of inmates like African Americans.
Currently, over 6 million individuals nationwide cannot vote or perform jury duty due to mass incarceration, Thedford said. Thedford said almost 9 percent of these individuals are African Americans who have finished their sentence.
Thedford argued the state’s justice system allows private companies to benefit from convicting people. Approximately 4.5 percent of prisons are owned by private companies, and companies send convicts to these prisons to use them as cheap labor, he said.
Madison community leader M Adams said the criminal justice system, or the “prison industrial complex,” is not capable of being reformed and should be abolished. She said Wisconsin prisons should be rehabilitating inmates instead of using them as an extension of “slavery.”
“Revolution is necessary,” Adams said. “You don’t upgrade on slavery — you abolish it.”
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Experts at the forum also discussed how Wisconsin’s criminal justice system impacted prisoner rights. In order to address violations of prisoners’ rights, National Lawyers Guild spokesperson Michael Roy introduced the Prisoners Legal Advocacy Network, which is an organization that would advocate for prisoners’ rights.
After receiving complaints from prisoners, PLAN would investigate the issue and ask prisoners to sign paperwork allowing them to file a claim and make the government aware of the violation.
Roy said UW students are also trying to incorporate a Wisconsin chapter of PLAN. The organization is not able to take legal action against prisons, but it would help preserve the claims of prisoners and push prisons to end such violations.
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UW junior Tyriek Mack said students need to be involved in reforming Wisconsin’s criminal justice system and start seeing community issues as their own.
“This is all our fight,” Mack said. “We’re here, and we have to be committed. We have to take advantage of the moments we don’t have control over, so everyone can benefit.”
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