Jailed for Melanin places spotlight on mass incarceration, prison industrial complex

Aug. 8, 2020, 10:44 a.m.

The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in recent months not only inspired widespread calls for protests and petitions, but also brought the development of numerous advocacy coalitions nationwide. One of them, Jailed for Melanin, was established under the direction of rising second-year Tufts student Kaili Liang and Daily editor Sarina Deb ’23. 

Jailed for Melanin’s primary goal is improving awareness of “how mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex disproportionately affect minority communities,” while also being a resource for civic engagement in this issue. 

“During the Black Lives Matter movement, people have been paying more attention to these issues. … Within my personal [social media] network, many posts are related to politics or racial injustice in some way,” Liang said. “However it’s not as though [these issues] weren’t there before.”

Neither Deb nor Liang have previous backgrounds in advocacy for incarceration reform. However, during their years at Crystal Springs Uplands High School in Hillsborough, where they met, the two engaged in activism for intersectional feminism through founding a club called Women Driving Change. By hosting panels, events and guest speakers, they raised awareness in their school’s communtiy for issues relating to feminism, sexual harassment and slut-shaming. 

Deb and Liang agreed that their high school experience contributed to interest in becoming involved in other areas of activism. 

The idea for Jailed for Melanin began taking shape while Deb and Liang started learning more about voter disenfranchisement and voter suppression and how it relates to the national prison complex system. Throughout the past few months in which policing practices and police violence has been put under incredible scrutiny, Liang noticed a larger demand for awareness and acknowledgment of the racial injustices in our everyday lives and in the prison systems. 

“During the BLM movement, people have been paying more attention to these issues. I can definitely say that within my personal [social media] network, many posts are related to politics or racial injustice in some way,” Liang said. “However it’s not as though [these issues] weren’t here before. We are trying to build off of [this attention] and to bring out more information.” 

A desire to contribute to this spread of information led to the creation of Jailed for Melanin. 

“We started reaching out with our personal networks,” including Facebook groups, Instagram posts and “many, many Slack channels,” Liang said. “We had [spread the word] to as many people as we knew.”

The intention of the coalition is, according to Deb, to illustrate that systemic racism and mass incarceration are “instructable from each other. Systemically, the mass incarceration issue has echoed and reflected the racial injustice we see in America.” 

The group hopes that, “whether it’s through statistics or the stories, these issues are humanized,” Liang said. “We hope that through this information people will start to understand our perspective and recognize this as a human rights issue.”

Alongside pages of stories, history and resources to learn more, Jailed for Melanin provides an outlet on its website to take action. This incorporates access to petitions as well as templates to send a message to state representatives. 

“We try to make it as accessible as possible because we realize that although it is online and accessible, the fact that it can take a few more clicks may deter people from actually taking action,” Liang said. “So we are doing our best to make it as easy as possible.”

Legislation that the group supports and provides information for includes the Next Step Act, which according to the group’s website, “would make reforms to reduce the prison population and provide systematic support for re-entry for people released from prison,” and the Second Look Act, which “would appoint federal judges to consider petitions for sentence reduction after a person has served at least 10 years.”  

The coalition also endorses the current advocacy for releasing coronavirus-free San Quinton inmates

Allison Fong, a new member of Jailed for Melanin and rising first-year at Washington University in St. Louis, has done “quite a bit of research about the COVID outbreak in the prisons, and how terrible the health conditions are for the inmates.” 

Fong’s first project in social media outreach and programming was developing  “a few slides with the information I found. I also provided ways in which people can take action and push for better conditions and expedited releases,” which can be found on Jailed for Melanin’s website. 

Deb said that releasing the coronavirus-free San Quinton inmates “is obviously one of the more controversial issues we support.” But, she added, the message they are trying to convey is that “this is a safety issue and public health issue first and foremost, and that’s why it’s so important that we look at what is going on in the prisons and how we can address the primary concern of health and safety [for the inmates].”

Because of the nationwide safety policies in place for COVID-19, Jailed for Melanin has yet to host public events; however they’re in the early stages of planning their first one virtually. In the meantime they “are continuing to send out a newsletter and have continuous updates to our site, as well as interacting with people on our social media platforms.” 

According to Fong, one of the ways the coalition is doing this is through a “10-day challenge” on its Instagram page, which provides a new educational opportunity or a way to take action every day, for 10 days. These daily challenges include actions such as registering for voting and signing a petition. 

“They are not huge [action items] like banging on the White House’s door or going to a protest, rather pretty manageable first steps,” Fong said. 

Moreover, Deb and Liang said Jailed for Melanin is building relationships with nonprofits working in similar areas, and that they have scheduled meetings with high schools to expand their outreach to younger demographics.  

“Hopefully, when it is safe, we will be able to host more events, [charity] drives and screenings,” Deb said. 

Although its members have been working virtually, Jailed for Melanin has seen support from people across the country. 

“We are seeing people sign up for our newsletter [in states] such as New Jersey, Texas, and North Dakota,” Deb said. “Which was pretty cool — we were like, ‘How did this get to North Dakota?’”

In addition, the group’s website has had views in countries including China, Canada, India, Korea and Spain. 

“It’s cool that our efforts have been showing some sort of result in terms of getting out to people,” Liang said.

While Deb and Liang have experienced little pushback on their coalition, they’ve received a few “hate comments” on occasional written articles. 

“There are always people who don’t see the issue the same way we do,” Deb said. 

However, Liang added that most of the backlash the group has seen has been “related to the issue itself, not our coalition.” 

Moving forward, Deb and Liang have plans to reach out to communities where backlash is expected, in an effort to not only “preach to the choir.” To achieve this, according to Liang, they want to utilize the “broader community of news outlets” to amplify their advocacy. 

“We do want to emphasize that this is only a starting point,” Liang said. They believe that real change has to come from education of the younger demographic. That is why Jailed for Melanin is also cultivating a seven-day curriculum for high school students that is “dedicated to helping [them] understand and discuss mass incarceration.”

As stated in the learning objective, the curriculum would include “a comprehensive overview of the policies, systems, and historical factors that created and continue to perpetuate this epidemic.”

In a later email to The Daily, Deb confirmed that Jailed for Melanin “is already in contact with local high schools and are working with them to figure out the best way to run our pilot curriculum.”

Fong added that “It would be great to get this [curriculum] out to the masses because reflecting on what I learned in high school, I just didn’t learn a lot about this stuff. There wasn’t a huge emphasis on what modern-day slavery might look like and how it impacts [minority] communities.” 

Until then, the group will continue its advocacy in as many directions as possible, according to Deb, while generating and maintaining virtual connections with government officials and advocacy organizations alike. 

“Mass incarceration is an issue that is so systemic that there are so many places we could go to next,” Deb said. “This is the point where we cannot reform the prison system without contributing to the system of discrimination.”

“Now we have to completely change the system to flip it on its side and look at how we can make sure people are leaving it as better, fully-functioning, members of society,” she added.

Contact Emily Stull at stull242 ‘at’ gmail.com.

Emily Stull is a high school student writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop.

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