Hannah Michelle Bussa
The TRAC (Transform, Renew, Achieve, Connect) Program at UNO is hosting the event “Decarcerate Nebraska: Common Sense Alternatives to Building a New Prison” on Thursday, April 29 at 6 p.m.
The ACLU will provide an educated assessment of the overcrowding problem in our prisons, and there will be three featured guest speakers: Alana Alexander, UNO TRAC Student President; Racquel D. Henderson, the Operations Ambassador at Black and Pink; and Jason Witmer, who is part of the Free Ernest Jackson Movement.
The event will also feature a partial performance of “Where the Lovelight Gleams,” which examines faith, capitalism, and incarceration viewed through the lens of incarcerated female forest fighters. The evening will end with presentations from state senators regarding the new prison, followed by a Q&A session.
Alexander said that she helped to form the TRAC Program at UNO. She wanted to provide a place for people like her, who want an advanced education, but may need a safe community to do that. This place would help people with criminal histories find realistic advice for career goals.
“I wanted to create a space where those of us who have been incarcerated can go for support, a place where we don’t have to discuss the crime we were convicted of,” Alexander said. “Rather, a place where we can leave the past in the past and talk only about the future – who we intend to be, not who we were or who we are perceived to be.”
Henderson said the TRAC Program offers college courses in Nebraska Prisons while seeking to bring awareness to relevant issues in the community with the intent of educating.
“I would love for this to be a place of advocacy for expanding educational opportunities while in prison,” Alexander said. “I would also love for this to be a place where those students who intend to work in law enforcement, criminology, forensics, and social justice can come to hear or experience a little bit of the other side of the story before entering that work force.”
The event on Thursdays intends to provide a brief overview of Nebraska’s prison overcrowding problem. They will discuss the state government’s solution of building a new facility instead of addressing the systemic and social problems that lead to incarceration or reincarceration.
“We hope to discuss alternative options that holistically address the issue, that will be more effective in reducing recidivism, and will ultimately create a safer society,” Alexander said.
The featured speakers will apply their lived experiences with incarceration to address the alternatives to mass incarceration.
Witmer said the goal of the conversation is education. The ACLU will present the practical information on the cost, both in finances and resources.
“The goal of my part is to provide a human-based experience — as opposed to statistics, costs, et cetera — of our local system and the utter lack of genuine opportunities for reform,” Witmer said. “Also, I plan to provide examples of where and from whom reform inside our prisons come from a majority of the time.”
Witmer said to expect an open discussion and the opportunity to ask questions. Both facts and actual lived experiences will be included in the discussion.
Henderson said the conversation is “for a better understanding of what is going on in our community and how to help be a part of the solution – a better solution.”
Alexander said that, in this time, while the world is watching history unfold, it is the perfect climate to be discussing social justice and alternative options to incarceration.
“Communities and individuals can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines while others decide the fate of their neighbors,” Alexander said. “Most people care deeply about this issue but there are little resources available for us to make informed decisions. I think this event is a great place to start.”
Witmer said people should attend this event to actually hear about the experiences of those impacted.
“This is an opportunity to learn both of how another prison can impact our state and to hear actual accounts of how it has impacted individuals,” he said. “If rehabilitation via incarceration is effective, this is the opportunity to hear that. It is also an opportunity to hear if it is not effective. Finally, it is an opportunity to ask questions in an open space for sharing and learning.”
Witmer said he believes the current prison system is failing and has been increasingly getting worse. Nebraska is one of the country’s most over-capacitated prison systems. He compared building another prison to putting a Band-Aid on an infected wound.
“As ‘insane’ as it may sound to people, giving out life sentences and those that add up to a life sentence – 100 plus years – does not reduce crime nor have a positive impact on our community,” Witmer said. “This practice should end.”
Witmer said there are plenty of examples of people committing crimes and receiving a life sentence for the same crime that others have been released into the community to be productive citizens.
“We need more investment into community resources that divert from incarceration as well as the focus on assisting those who come out of our prison be successful,” Witmer said. “This is the tip of the iceberg. We live in a state that has the resources to be an example for the country as leaders in innovative thinking and change to the criminal justice system if we but have the courage to take the steps and to stop the politics that keeps us in the ongoing parasitic cycle of our prison system.”
Witmer is part of the movement to Free Earnest Jackson. Jackson was forced to grow up inside the Nebraska prison system – for a crime in which he has maintained his innocence and has evidence to prove that innocence. More on his case can be found here. Despite the evidence that proves his innocence, Jackson has remained in prison due to the language of the courts and the lack of a pardon.
Jackson’s case is part of why Witmer sees the prison system as failing.
“No matter how one feels about the use of incarceration, using it in a detrimental way that is failing to make our society safer and a drain on resources that can be directed back into our communities is not effective leadership,” he said. “Building upon decaying bones of a failing system will only compound the ongoing problems of our system.”
Alexander said that just about anything is a better alternative for the majority of those who are incarcerated.
“Criminal justice should be focused on intensive and extensive treatment for mental health care and trauma, resources for recovery from substance abuse, and addressing systemic poverty,” she said. “These are the root causes of crime. If these issues are not addressed, prison will help no one, in my opinion.”
Henderson is also not supportive of the proposal to build a new prison.
“I think it’s a horrible idea and will not foster a better community,” she said. “I think a better alternative is preventative services – like [identifying the] core reasons you feel you need a new prison and put resources towards that, like addressing housing, workforce, safe & affordable quality housing, high wage jobs, transportation, and the healing component of people that have already been in prison because it’s generational.”