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New Beloit club advocates criminal justice reform

The United States is still the best in the world at incarcerating their own population. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, even when compared to larger, and even more totalitarian nations. While the prison population has decreased over the past couple of years, the United States still spends over $80 billion on correction facilities.

For years there have been national bipartisan efforts to seriously address criminal justice reform. This semester a Beloit College senior has taken it into her own hands to make Beloit College students a part of those efforts.

Liberating the Convicted is a brand new club founded by Alexandria Kohn’19. “The idea was fostered from my work in LA this summer,” she explained. In Los Angeles, Kohn worked with the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network. A program that, according to their website, provides different arts programming “to build resiliency and wellness, eliminate recidivism, and transform the juvenile justice system.”

Throughout June, Kohn contemplated forming the new club but did not fully commit until August. It is a topic that Kohn has always been passionate and inquisitive about. “I was always interested in this punitive idea of punishment,” Kohn stated. Her experiences earlier in life also made it something she constantly considered. Seeing her friends go to juvenile detention, her experiences after her own brother was incarcerated and her time in Los Angeles with the network cemented her belief that the issue of incarceration is not behavioral, but systemic.

“The United States is the number one jailer. How did we come to that?” she mused. It is a question Kohn hopes other students can start to ask as well.

Liberating the Convicted is not an official club–they do not have a Clubs and Organization Oversight representative, set constitution or budget–but their unofficial status has not slowed the club down. Instead, the club has already met a couple of times and hosted their first event of the semester: a letter drive. The event, held on Sept. 21, was successful, with over 50 letters signed.

Letters went to South Carolina representatives and demanded the evacuation of incarcerated citizens in evacuation zones during natural emergencies, a pressing demand after news emerged that incarcerated individuals in South Carolina would not be evacuated as Hurricane Florence barreled towards the state despite mandatory evacuation orders for residents.

The letter drive is an example of Kohn’s mission for the club: tangible and active efforts for change. “I want more of an action based club. This is not going to be theorizing and talking about prison reform but we are actually going to do things to make an impact, make change,” Kohn emphasized. “We are pushing reform.”

It is a club that will also be working “towards dismantling the prison system and spreading awareness on mass incarceration and hyper policing, locally….[We will] help at a local level and also with Wisconsin’s legislation that’s targeted towards incarceration,” Kohn said during early advertisements for the club on the Beloit College Student Group.

“A lot of horrific things happen in our prison system,” Kohn said, and so more events will occur that aim to inform others on campus about the issue, and work to dismantle these practices.

Without a budget Kohn hopes to collaborate with clubs, which will also help the club to better reach out to others on campus.

While the club does not have an official executive board Kohn mentioned a couple of passionate members.

Grace Gerloff’19 joined Liberating the Convicted as a firm believer that “prison abolition needs to be a part of any conversation about race, identity, power, capitalism etc.” Gerloff was also excited to participate in “something that extends beyond campus.” Additionally, Gerloff has “always been really inspired by [Alex’s] work and what she has to say.”

Gerloff wants “other students and myself to use the critical thinking skills that Beloit is so damn proud of to challenge their perceptions of ‘good guys vs bad guys’ and to feel compelled to take action against oppression instead of just writing a paper about it or sharing a Facebook article.” She wants others “to experience different forms of resistance and dissent and learn how action in any form and at any level can influence change. I think students should be aware of the fact that the “justice” system in the US is not justice, it is punishment.”

Eva Haykin’21 similarly echoed Gerloff’s belief in the abolition of prisons especially “because criminality is racialized, the US prison system further marginalizes incarcerated individuals of color in masses under the guise of solving social issues by putting these people behind bars — in reality, incarceration only creates more of these social issues.” Haykin reflected on her experience visiting an immigration detention center last semester during Spring Break with another group of students and how impactful that was.

In a continuation of Kohn’s active efforts students will likely see posters around campus listing companies that use prison labor this week. “It is many more than people expect,” Kohn noted. Some websites list up to 50 companies participating in prison labor at various levels, the list includes McDonald’s, Whole Foods, Victoria’s Secret and AT&T.

Kohn also hopes to host a screening of “13th”– a 2016 documentary by Ava DuVernay that explores racial injustice through the examination of U.S’ disproportionately black prison population– followed by a panel discussion.

Students interested in joining the club are welcome to attend their meetings on Sundays at 6 p.m. in Haven’s common area.

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