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Sheila Bedi, a law professor at Northwestern University, wants to end mass incarceration

Photographer: Olivia Wallace

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Student Matthew Kinlow asks speaker Sheila Bedi a question, while Kaylin McBooth listens

Photographer: Olivia Wallace

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Professor calls for end of current U.S. criminal justice system

Mass incarceration lecture part of 2015 MLK Jr. Celebration


Sheila Bedi, clinical associate professor of law at the Northwestern University School of Law, brought a simple message to Ohio University on Thursday evening – end the current prison system and mass incarceration.

Bedi is an expert in civil rights and civil litigation and is a former deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

During her talk titled, "Tearing Down the Walls: The Urgent Human Rights Crisis in U.S. Prisons and the Drive to End Mass Incarceration," Bedi said the struggle for freedom is the struggle to end mass imprisonment.

A Detroit native, Bedi told the Baker University Center Ballroom audience that too many people are locked up for non-violent drug offenses, despite research that suggests most prisoners are not better off after they are released. She said one of the main challenges to ending mass incarceration is figuring out what to do with the prisoners who committed violent crimes.  

Bedi shared some shocking figures about the U.S. criminal justice system. She said 2.3 million people are in jail, one in nine African Americans between ages 20 and 34 are locked up and despite African Americans being only 12 percent of all drug users, they make up 59 percent of people jailed on drug offenses.

"It's as if the Civil Rights Movement skipped over the criminal justice system," Bedi said.

She added that since 1970, U.S. incarceration rates have increased by 500 percent, and prison spending has increased 127 percent in the past 10 years with about $70 billion being spent annually.

Solitary confinement was another topic Bedi discussed. She said it is considered a form of torture by many people and several states are considering banning it. She also talked about the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, which is a federal law that deals with the sexual assault of prisoners.

Bedi said there are annually 200,000 sexual assaults in prisons and 13 percent of all imprisoned children are sexually assaulted.  

"Our tax dollars pay for this to happen," Bedi said. "Is this right?"

Joshelyn Smith, a junior communications studies major who attended the talk, said she was appalled to hear the disproportionate statistics of incarcerated African-American males and the number of inmates who are sexually assaulted each year.

"It seems that we have allowed this prison behavior to become a culture," Smith said.

According to Bedi, she does not have a glamorous job because she spends much of her time visiting prisoners who are being sexually and physically abused. She said unfortunately the abuse is being handed out by prison guards and other inmates.

Bedi quoted the late Black Civil Rights Leader Fannie Lou Hamer, who she said is one of her heroes, when she said, "nobody's free until everybody is free."

She said Hamer's quote motivates her to endure the discomfort of her job and keep doing the hard work needed to make things better for prisoners.

Bedi said some of the collateral consequences of incarceration for former prisoners are: limits on public benefits, employment and housing restrictions, limits on their right to vote and numerous fees and costs.

"I believe our prison system is doing what it is designed to do. It is perpetuating racial hierarchy and creating a permanent underclass," Bedi said. "We must dismantle this system and invest that money in healthcare, education, vocational training and mentoring."

Bedi gave audience members a call to action. She asked them to use their vote and reject the politics of fear, use their voice to counter racist narratives about crime and criminals, engage with those caught up in the justice system and join the #blacklivesmatter movement.

"If you ever wished that you could have participated in the Black Civil Rights Movement, then you should join the #blacklivesmatter movement," Bedi said. "It needs new ideas, more debate and more voices. We're getting freer every day, but we have more work to do."

Elizabeth Cychosz, a senior journalism and anthropology major, said Bedi gave a great presentation. "She spoke from a lawyer's perspective about the prison system," Cychosz said. "I really liked how she told the individual stories about the children she met in the prisons."

Matthew Carpenter, a junior political science major, said he believes the U.S. prison system is a big business industry that is not set up for the prisoners' benefit.

"Mass incarceration is like new age slavery, it's disgusting and foul," Carpenter said. "Prisoners are used as slave labor and then assaulted when they speak out about their exploitation."

Bedi's talk was part of the 2015 Ohio University Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration and was sponsored by the Ohio University Center for Law, Justice and Culture; School of Communication Studies; Multicultural Center; Black Student Cultural Programming Board; and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.