Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color are disproportionately arrested, indebted, and incarcerated by the criminal justice system. According to data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, as of Oct. 2020 Black inmates made up 38.5 percent of the national incarcerated population.

The percentage of Black Americans in the U.S. population? 13.4 percent.

This dynamic of Black people being imprisoned at a ratio of three times their demographic representation can and must change. Here’s some solutions I’m learning to fight for and recommend:

  • Hold prosecutors accountable and accelerate prosecutor reform.
  • End money bail.
  • End profit incentives fueling mass incarceration.
  • Decriminalize poverty and stop unnecessary prosecutions.
  • Implement fair sentencing laws and sentence reductions.
  • Stop prison expansion and prison labor exploitation.
  • Stop anti-black violence and vigilantes.

More specifically, I embrace and recommend these five action steps to drive the aforementioned solutions.

  1. Research and Learning (Including Data Gathering): Make an ongoing effort to educate yourself on the facts, history, complexities, and nuances of criminal justice and mass incarceration. Keep links, notes, and data handy so that you can be informed when you interact with others or on social media. This tracker can help you with those efforts.
  2. Equitable Relationships with Members of Historically Underrepresented Groups (HUGs): There’s no substitute for getting to know and spending time with people who are different from you, especially those with less privilege than you enjoy (and who’ve been impacted in some way by the criminal justice system). It’s crucial that these relationships are built on equal footing, without the person with more privilege positioning themselves as the “helper” or, worse, “savior.” The person with more privilege should also do most of the listening and a lot less of the talking.
  3. Speaking Against Injustices: When you hear or see injustice taking place, whether it’s right in front of you, explained to you by others, or observed through media, take a stand and speak out against it in a compassionate, skillful manner. These engagements can often be awkward, uncomfortable, or downright scary. Sometimes speaking out costs you a relationship or changes how people perceive you.
  4. Communication With Elected Officials and Signing Petitions: Regularly comment on posts from elected officials or others in positions of power, and create and share posts that address the actions of these individuals. Sign well-organized petitions that can influence criminal justice and incarceration policy changes by such elected or appointed individuals. And do so, again, with compassion, skill, and non-violence.
  5. Contributions of Time, Money, and Resources: Being an effective activist who helps to influence meaningful, sustainable change will cost you something. Contribute as much as you’re able to, depending on your individual circumstances and interests. This includes supporting non-profits that are doing effective work on issues that matter to you.

Regarding non-profits, here’s four organizations doing great work to drive policy changes concerning criminal justice and mass incarceration:

  • The Marshall Project Criminal Justice: The Marshall Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system and its disproportionate impacts on communities of color.
  • The Sentencing Project: The Sentencing Project works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.
  • Testif-i: Testif-i is a multimedia initiative from A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project that aims to transform the public dialogue on mass incarceration through storytelling and the lived experiences of formerly incarcerated women.
  • National Bail-Out Collective: The National Bail Out collective is a Black-led and Black-centered collective of abolitionist organizers, lawyers and activists building a community-based movement to provide support and end systems of pretrial detention and, ultimately, mass incarceration.

Self-Care and Mindfulness

Advocating for criminal justice and against mass incarceration are long games, marathons that requires a lot of strategy, self-care, and support from others. A key part of my own self-care and ongoing personal growth is practicing the “Five Mindful Trainings,” derived from Buddhist teachings and compiled by Vietnamese Zen monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh and summarized here by me:

  1. Reverence for Life: Eliminate all forms of violence against one’s self, other human beings, animals, and nature.
  2. True Happiness: Practice gratitude and generosity and avoid stealing from or exploiting others.
  3. True Love: Cherish and celebrate others and practice sexual virtue in romantic relationships.
  4. Deep Listening and Loving Speech: Practice active listening and kind, helpful speech in order to facilitate equitable and peaceful relationships.
  5. Nourishment & Healing: Eat and drink in a manner that avoids bringing toxins or diseases into the body, and consume media of all forms in moderation.