CHICAGO – In general, academic conferences are not filled with the stuff that makes great news stories. All to often, when “learned” folks get together, the result is a long discussion that produces little real-world application. However, one recent University of Chicago conference took a step toward rectifying the theory vs. practice imbalance.

The two-day conference, “Incarceration and Detention: Race and Human Rights,” sponsored by the university’s Center for Race, Culture and Politics, brought together activists and academics on April 2-3. All had strong words of condemnation for the U.S. prison system.

Angela Davis, now teaching at UC Santa Cruz, opened the conference to an overflowing room with a stirring critique of capitalism’s effect on the prison system. Davis examines prisons in depth in her latest book, “Are Prisons Obsolete?”

Ahmad Sanders, director of the Green Light Project, a program that gives computer job skills to men released from prison, said, “Last year Cuba opened its prisons to human rights investigators. … We need to call for human rights investigations to come into U.S. prisons.”

“It’s the perfect system of mass incarceration,” according to Beth Richie, who said that this incarceration spreads well beyond the prison’s walls. Richie heads the Department of African American studies at University of Illinois at Chicago and researches the growing rate of incarceration of women of color.

According to Richie, “People are released (from prison) in much worse shape, to families that are in worse shape, and in communities that are in worse shape,” resulting from the psychological damage and financial stresses that incarceration produces.

Racial disparities were also discussed by Congressman Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), who said, “In the state of Illinois, Black men make up 6 percent of the population, but 60 percent of the prison population.”

The reintegration of people who have been released from prison was also a topic of hot debate, with legislators like Davis saying that stable housing was the most important need versus grassroots social service providers like Sanders saying that jobs are the biggest challenge.

The growing fight to abolish the death penalty was also given attention. One activist, Lauren Adams, who is a staff attorney for the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University, cited the Washington sniper case against the younger defendant as evidence that even in the most heinous cases, juries opt for life imprisonment rather than the death penalty.

Many speakers pointed to our society as a whole for answering why the U.S. has become the most “imprisoned nation” on earth. Judge R. Eugene Pincham, who served on the Circuit Court of Cook County and the Illinois Appellate Court, gave a detailed list of fundamental inequalities that leave some with little or no options except for crime. According to his experience, common to all who came before him was the lack of extracurricular opportunities in majority-minority high schools.

“The educational system of Chicago is not designed to educate children,” Pincham said. Rather, he said, the system’s limited budget only allows for “holding” children and not giving them adequate and varied educational choices.

All in all, the conference gave the 200 who attended a new source of data to draw from in their activism and organizing efforts.

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