The Elizabethtown College Alumni Peace Fellowship (ECAPF) and the Center for Global Understanding and Peacemaking recently honored 2016 Peace Fellow Melanie Snyder ’85.
Snyder is currently executive director of the Lancaster County Re-Entry Management Organization (LCRMO) for her work researching and maintaining peace in Pennsylvania.
Following her naming as the 2016 Peace Fellow, Snyder came to Etown to present two public lectures and to connect with students and faculty in classrooms and small group settings.
The LCRMO is an organization which, according to their mission statement, has created a network of faith-based and community organizations in partnership with the criminal justice system to help create safer communities and to reduce re-offenses.
Snyder’s work in this organization has largely been trying to work with the local criminal justice system in order to create programming and to provide training that will help to better support those incarcerated in order to help them “become productive citizens and to remain crime-free.”
Throughout her studies and years of work in the field, Snyder has witnessed first-hand some of the major flaws in the criminal justice system, especially those related to discrimination against those incarcerated.
The first lecture, entitled “Racialized Structures in the American Criminal Justice System,” occurred Tuesday, Oct. 25 in the Susquehanna Room.
One out of every 100 American adults are incarcerated in the criminal justice system, and this number is disproportionally disadvantaging those of color. Eighty percent of those incarcerated come from low-income areas, and 60 percent cannot afford bail, which is, again, disproportionally higher for those of color.
Additionally, 64 percent suffer from mental health problems, 50 percent have learning disabilities and 66 to 75 percent have a history of substance abuse.
“Many will say and believe that these people are dangerous and should, therefore, be in prison, but when we look at the statistics, it is clear that this is untrue, and we need to look at who is incarcerated and why,” Snyder said.
In addition to the racialized structure of the criminal justice system, in Snyder’s second lecture, entitled “Criminalization of Poverty, Addiction and Mental Health Needs,” she discussed the criminalization of poverty and mental health.
Poverty is something that is not always connected with but is often intertwined with issues of race.
As mentioned earlier, most incarcerated people come from low-income areas. Snyder spoke about how three out of five prisoners in local and county jails are in jail solely because they cannot afford their bail. They have not had their court date yet.
According to Snyder, this criminalization of poverty has recreated debtor’s prisons that were outlawed nationally in the 1800s. However, there is no law forbidding individual states from creating and enforcing debtor’s prisons.
The other aspect of Snyder’s second lecture was the idea of criminalizing mental health. She cited the fact that two-thirds of currently incarcerated people suffer from mental illness.
She specifically focused on the fact that people who have suffered trauma, especially childhood trauma, have a direct link to mental health issues and incarceration.
Funding for mental health programming and resources is lacking across the nation and the criminal justice system is not exempt from this issue.
By not having a trauma-aware criminal justice system, people with mental health struggles are likely to be repeat offenders as the issues that landed them in prison are likely related to trauma they have experienced.
While not all prison systems are beginning to accept the need for trauma-aware training, the Lancaster County prison system is planning to work with Snyder throughout 2017 to train all, or at least most, of their employees in how to be trauma-aware and how to use that as a way to prevent re-offenses.
Unfortunately, not all prison systems are willing to work to stop the incarcerated from reoffending. A large part of this unwillingness to help prisoners is directly related to the for-profit prison system.
“Since the majority of American prisons are private institutions that are for-profit, there are many financial incentives for law enforcement to keep these prisons operating at full capacity,” Snyder explained.
These incentives range from federal grants for Drug Task Force programs to money for arrest quotas. Additionally, many of the companies operating within the prisons, such as private phone and electric companies, offer incentives. For example, the Lancaster County Prison’s phone company offers a minimum of $33,000 to the prison for using their private services.
Snyder also presented many resources for the attendees to get involved and become more educated on the subject. First were three documentaries focused on the subject of racism within the criminal justice system: “The House I Live In,” “The 13th” and “The Central Park Five.”
Next were three books: “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, “Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow” by Daniel Hunter and “Unfair” by Adam Benforado.
Finally, Snyder talked about three ways one can act to make a direct impact on the injustices presented. The first was to support the LCRMO. The second was to participate in the Healing Communities Training. The third was to participate in the YWCA Anti-Racism Training.
“These are challenging problems, and they are difficult to talk about, but we have to wrestle with these issues and create an open dialogue in order to have a system that can be truly just,” Snyder said.
The topics discussed by Snyder are nationally important but also resonated with the passions and interests of many students across campus.
Sophomore Amy Lieberman said she was interested in the topics discussed because she is passionate about helping people with social issues. She was also able to make connections between the lectures and what she learned in her first-year seminar.
Other students were able to find some career guidance through Snyder’s talks and the topics she discussed.
“Going to the lecture made me realize that I don’t want to work on a national level or a federal level, I’d rather work in small county prisons or county jails,” said sophomore sociology and psychology double major Stevie Caronia.
Caronia was even able to make a connection with Snyder outside of the lectures through lunch and an in-class presentation with Snyder. Caronia now plans to intern with her within the next year.
Rita Shah, assistant professor of sociology, spoke of the importance that Snyder’s lectures and the lessons they provided have to students and the community at large.
“While they may not be directly impacted by the criminal justice system, the system plays a role in all aspects of society and indirectly impacts every single person,” Shah stated via email.
Through the help of the community and the criminal justice system, Snyder believes that the wrongs in the criminal justice system can be fixed, no matter how bad they may seem.
“I believe it was Maya Angelou who said, ‘We did the best we could with what we knew at the time, and when we knew better, we did better,’ and I think we are reaching a point where we need to know better so we can do better,” Snyder said.