Rebecca Bowles saw her uncle go in and out of prison her entire life.
Bowles, a travel and expense processing specialist at the University of Michigan’s Shared Services Center, says it was a prison ministry that finally got him out of prison for good. This provided him with the support he needed to turn his life around, and ultimately get a job and his own apartment.
Bowles recently got the opportunity to talk with other U-M staff members about the impact of mass incarceration in the United States.
The WeListen Staff Discussion, organized by the Edward Ginsberg Center for Community Service and Learning and LSA’s Department of Psychology, is modeled off the WeListen student group. It works to foster dialogue through small-group conversations between students across the political spectrum.
Erin Byrnes, the democratic engagement lead for the Ginsberg Center, said the staff series previously brought staff members together to discuss a variety of issues, including free speech, marijuana legalization and immigration.
“Right now we’re living in a hyper-partisan time and everything feels political,” Byrnes said. “We have a unique opportunity here on campus to bring people together to talk about how our views have been formed, to develop our views around certain issues, and to do that in a way that’s meaningful and helps move the conversation forward.”
About 30 staff members attended the mass incarceration discussion Friday at North Quad.
Before breaking into small group discussions, organizers presented a slideshow on the history of incarceration in the United States, including lessons about the war on drugs, mandatory minimum prison sentences, prison privatization and the disproportionate representation of people of color in the U.S. prison population.
In small groups, staff members then discussed various facets of mass incarceration, including investing in mental health services and public education to give people pathways that don’t lead to prison, the social costs of incarceration to families and communities, prison conditions in other countries, and the need to help former prisoners re-enter society.
Jeanette Kearney, an LSA financial specialist, attended the discussion and said many of her family members have been through the prison system. Her nephew currently is in prison, where he has spent a decade in solitary confinement.
Kearney said the discussion gave her hope that people with different views will come together and find a solution to mass incarceration. She said she thinks staff should continue to come together and have conversations on important issues.
“It opens up the communication and it allows us to see and understand different points of view,” Kearney said. “Because without these discussions, I would just believe what I believe and feel how I feel. But when I get around a table and get to hear how others feel opposite of me, it helps me understand why they feel the way they do and maybe why I’m feeling the way I am.”
During the discussion portion of the event, Bowles found out that four out of the five people in her group are affected by mass incarceration.
For Bowles, the discussion inspired her to give back and help those who are leaving prison and re-entering society.
“It just really helped empower me to feel like I can do something now to help be an ally in this area.”