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Incarceration Can Change Views on Freedom


TOMPKINS COUNTY, NY (WSKG) - Incarceration changes how someone thinks about freedom.

“Black men need hugs, man.”

Harry Smith is one of the organizers of a recent march and rally in Ithaca. It’s part of the protests being held since the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

In front of the Tompkins County courthouse the marchers stopped. There, Smith spoke about the issues surrounding racism in the United States.

“We need more than just-,” Smith said before pausing. “Black men need hugs, man.”

The crowd erupted in applause and cheers. The black men flanking Smith nodded and one stepped up and hugged him. Moments later Smith led the marchers on to their final destination, a rally on the Ithaca Commons.

Later, Smith spoke again. He described how the constant police presence in his Ithaca West End neighborhood feels.

“It’s hunting,” he said. “A hunter finds his spot, watches his prey, figures out which one he’s gonna get and goes for it.”

Impact of Incarceration

Smith was incarcerated in state prison and has a felony conviction. Speaking over the phone days after the rally he said getting out of prison brings a euphoria, but it doesn’t last long.

“It’s right back to hiding and ducking and worrying about everything, especially right now,” Smith said.

A felony conviction carries some permanent restrictions. For example, a person isn’t eligible for federal student loans, food stamps or housing assistance. Until recently in New York it meant losing the right to vote.

After release, being on parole means the state still controls someone’s life. Smith is done with parole now but said when he was still on it parole officers could make it easier or harder to get a job. Having a job or being enrolled in school is often a requirement of parole.

“If you do get a job, you’re gonna have to tell your boss ahead of time, ‘Listen every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thurs-whatever day it is, I’m going to have to leave from work and I’ll probably be back an hour late or I’m gonna have to leave from work and I might not be able to [be] back, depending on how far the parole is from your work site,” he explained.

Smith said that feeling of being watched by police actually starts when you’re little for kids in his neighborhood.

“At five-years-old, we can’t be in groups. At five-, six-years-old we can’t be kids and throw firecrackers or anything of that sort,” he said. “They will literally- do you know what the psyche is of grabbing a kid, holding him against his will. putting him in the back of a cop car, driving him to the police station?”

Smith added it doesn’t matter that a kid's parents come and get them the damage is done.

Those early encounters with law enforcement are now part of school for black children.

Cornell University sociologist Anna Haskins studies the impact of parent incarceration on children’s academic achievement. She said studies have found that black boys in particular are suspended and expelled from school at a higher rate than white kids with the same offenses.

“They are already engaging with the criminal justice system within schools and that leads to the engaging with, that leads to them already having a record early on,” Haskins said.

She adds that those early negative interactions limit what options they have if they end up in the criminal justice system later.

Haskins said a parents’ incarceration plus a child’s own encounters with law enforcement can lead children to rule out college, even if they are doing well in school.

Freedom from Suspicion

Back at the rally, Smith spoke on how interactions with police and videos and reports of black people being killed by law enforcement ripples across every day life for his community.

“Do you know what kind of P.T.S.D. must be going on, even if you don’t do nothing, just going out your house -- being black is P.T.S.D.,” he explained, as black people in the crowd nodded and voiced their agreement.

“You get in your car and you’re like, ‘damn, I hope I don’t get [pulled over by the police],” Smith was interrupted by the shouts of “yes” and clapping from the crowd. “There’s no, there’s no time or sense of relaxation,” he said.

In the phone conversation after the rally, Smith said it’s that relaxation that is freedom. It’s a freedom from feeling constant suspicion from police. And society.

“The ability to have the same opportunity as anyone else. And the ability to be able to relax my mind and be at ease,” he said.

“That’s all.”

Full disclosure: Cornell University is a WSKG Underwriter.