Our society’s warped sense of law and order has resulted in historically marginalized communities of color and low income communities which are policed with zero-tolerance policies which mandate severe penalties despite the circumstances. This nationwide problem effects families the most. Children, for example, are exposed to over-policing in their communities. New York City itself has more police officers/school safety agents in its schools than the entire police department of Washington, DC. When a criminal justice system reproduces cycles of marginalization and disempowerment instead of actually deterring crime, policy reform becomes necessary.
Maribel Valdez Hermosillo, a PolicyMic pundit and student at University of Texas at San Antonio, is currently working on a documentary that focuses on communities in Texas that are disproportionately marginalized by the criminal justice system. Through telling the personal stories of families, Ms. Valdez Hermosillo hopes to demonstrate the very real and personal ways families are affected by the cycles created by the prison system in Texas. I spoke with Maribel about her understanding of the issues at stake in her film.
Justine Gonzalez (JG): What inspired you to do this documentary and how does it relate to the work you want to do?
Maribel Hermosillo (MH): I am a Young People For (YP4) alumni and spent the last year working with a wonderful team of dedicated mentors and staff [where I came up with the idea for] this documentary. YP4 was incredibly helpful because it inspired me to work through my self-doubt and realize I am indeed a visionary… As a queer Xicana, from a migrant family, I want to empower those who feel the same way I did: alone and destined to fail.
I envision a world free of discrimination where we have access to opportunities for jobs, health care and education. Currently, [many] do not have full access to these opportunities, and the prison industrial complex clouds our ability to fight for them.
I have helped organize protests, participated in civil disobediences and helped organize workshops. I am ready to transition into political art. However, I will continue to support direct action as much as I can. I also thought a lot about creating a bridge between the university research I am doing and the community I am from. University research and dialogue is generally inaccessible to the [communities impacted by it]. Filmmaking is an art that I can share to the world, about an issue I care about and an issue that needs to be addressed.
JG: Can you give us a quick response to the questions you identified as your main questions in the documentary? ("How does the system make it difficult for working class men and women of color to successfully re-integrate into society?" and "What is the reality for communities of color in a society where prisons are for profit and prisons dictate how many beds are needed based on third grade reading capabilities in school?")
MH: Institutional racism, internalized racism and the prison industrial complex are factors that lead communities of color to incarceration. The solutions to this problem are to focus on education accessibility and job opportunity. It is problematic that those who become incarcerated have a problem paying their debt based on monthly dues to probation officers, community service, are unable to be hired because of their records and etc. Growing up in a working class background, it may be hard to get out of the situation.
How can a person successfully re-integrate into society when they can’t get hired, owe money to the city for being incarcerated and have to complete volunteer service hours? This is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed.
The film will focus on the experience of families impacted by the prison industrial complex and what our communities can do about this issue. Our families can keep the schools accountable by not criminalizing or punishing students for petty behavior, and by telling our students and children that they can have a better life. Teachers perpetuate the culture of poverty by assuming the child and their families do not care about education. By starting with our public education system and families, we can eradicate the low self-esteem youth may have about what they can do with their lives. We can also push for legislation so that those persons charged with felonies have better access to employment and health care.
JG: How are specific communities targeted by the Texan criminal justice system/ the prison industrial complex culture? Please describe what you understand to be the school-to-prison pipeline.
MH: The prison industrial complex is a term used to describe how imprisonment has become the first response solution to social problems such as privacy.
The school to prison pipeline pushes students out of schools into the prison system based on the relationship between private prison industry and criminalizing student behavior. When young children disrupt classrooms, teachers threaten to call the police. Not only is this ridiculous, but it also perpetuates the prison culture for students of color. The school to prison pipeline is a dangerous [and crucial] component of the larger prison industrial complex.
By addressing the problems of the public education experience in low-income neighborhoods, we will be lowering the high incarceration rate of our communities.
JG: What are Texas's incarceration rates? What do you think is unique about Texas and its history that results in these statistics?
MH: There are over 700,000 people incarcerated in Texas. If Texas were a country, it would have the largest incarceration rate in the world. The incarceration rate for black communities in Texas is at 63% higher than the national average;1 in 3 black men are in jail in Texas. More than half of those who return to their communities will return to prison within three years.
Texas has a history of being racially discriminatory towards communities of color. Texas criminalizes our communities by participating in police brutality and targeting communities of color through the school to prison pipeline. Where you are born directly correlates with what kind of education you’ll receive. Additionally, private prison corporations determine how many prison beds they’ll need by the amount of third graders who are unable to read. This creates a prison culture that disempowers and criminalizes low-income families of color.
JG: What, if any, recommendations do you have for the Texan criminal justice system?
MH: I would recommend making it easier for those charged with petty non-violent crimes to re-integrate into society by removing the stigmatization of having a felony. I would recommend that the Texan criminal justice system judges give the PR bond much more frequently. The PR bond will make it cheaper and allow people to be released from detention centers quicker and easier.
I would recommend the Texas legislature pass the Racial Justice Act, which will allow defendants to appeal convictions and sentences based on race. I would also recommend that those charged with felonies complete their community service requirement where they can learn a skill and get paid for their work. This will make it easier for formerly incarcerated to successfully re-integrate into society.
I would also recommend that Texas remove private prisons completely. The Texan criminal justice system should figure out a way to reduce the incarceration rate rather than focus entirely on how to pay for more prison beds. A good way to reduce the incarceration rate is to focus on the economy and educational system from a people of color and working class perspective.
JG: Is there anything specific about the culture of the United States that creates this punitive and marginalizing criminal justice system? Are there any models from other countries that we could learn from?
MH: The U.S. is turning into a police state [where] prisons [are used to rid] society of social problems [such as] homelessness, drug addiction, unemployment and mental illness. LGBTQ, migrant community, working class and communities of color are usually the ones impacted by this [most] because of the culture of the U.S. that “others” those who do not look like citizens. The U.S. was born by constructing a country for white males. They did so by sanctioning genocide and violence specifically on people of color. While we have come a long way, we are working with state sanctioned violence and institutional oppression [that manifests itself via our prison culture].
JG: Have you conducted any of the interviews? Any that are particularly memorable?
MH: I have conducted an interview with a fellow student who is struggling because he committed a petty non-violent crime. He is doing well in school and work but feels it will hold him back. Like so many of us, he deals with trauma [related to] his [racial] identity [and his criminal background]…. It is interesting to look at the different ways we work through [this kind of] trauma, whether or not we know it is a trauma.
JG: What insight do you think personal stories add to the knowledge we have now on this policy environment (ie. the prison industrial complex/ school-to-prison pipeline)?
MH: The personal story is essential to understanding the impact of the prison industrial complex especially when those of privilege are making decisions for [the society – as is the case with our legal system]. Bill writers may not understand, and feel they do not need to understand issues that impact marginalized communities. As the filmmaker, I feel I have a [particular type of’] privilege as well [and because of that] I want to create a space for folks to tell their own stories.
To support your fellow PolicyMic-er and to learn more the documentary she's working on, please visit the fundraising page for the project.