University of Michigan professor hosts lecture on mass incarceration

Peace studies program and department of history host guest speaker Heather Ann Thompson who spoke on effects from war on crime and war on drugs


Heather Ann Thompson gave a lecture on Tuesday, March 22, on the fifth floor of S.E. Wimberly Library of the Boca Raton campus at 3 p.m. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Joe Pye, Staff Writer

University of Michigan professor Heather Ann Thompson spoke Tuesday, March 22, on the fifth floor of S.E. Wimberly Library of the Boca Raton campus at 3 p.m. She shared her research on civil rights and mass incarceration through a presentation titled “Why Incarceration Matters.”

The lecture presented the audience with researched information on the history of racial influence on harsher punishments for crimes and how it has affected society.

“The amount of black and Latino population in prison is staggeringly higher than it is to whites nationally and in Florida,” said Thompson. “About one out of three young African American men have potential to be connected to the incarceration system.”

According to Thompson, the civil rights movement of the 1960s transitioned from solely an issue in the South to an issue in northern cities like Detroit, Philadelphia and Harlem, New York. After this, northern mayors and federal politicians stopped defending civil rights, opposing the rise of minorities in their cities.

“Racism is knee deep in the north in 1964, when that happens they start referring to black males as thugs and hoodlums, and that they needed to bring new law and order,” said Thompson. “Lyndon Johnson decided to have a full out war on crime, and enforced the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration Act of 1965.”

That law allowed increases in funding for police departments to bring new weapons, militarize police departments and build more prisons.

“After we did this, we just added to it with the drug war with Rockefeller in New York,” said Thompson.

Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York in the wake of the Attica uprising in 1971, signed a bill to tighten drug laws in 1973.

“Rather than treat drug addiction as a public health problem, it would be treated as a criminal justice problem,” said Thompson. “Other states caught on with the same quickly, the number of people for drug offences skyrocketed.”

“What happened in these cities is incarcerating a majority of people living in a neighborhood, social scientist call this phenomenon a ‘million-dollar block,’ because that’s what it costs to lock them all up,” she continued. “What I call a million-dollar block, cops in Los Angeles call a ‘gang injunction zone.’”

The term “gang injunction” refers to the way police decide which areas of a city will be most policed or targeted by police. 

“[When] a white student in a fraternity keys a car it’s criminal mischief, when someone in a low income neighborhood does the same, it’s gang injunction — which may mean an additional 20 years or life without parole,” said Thompson.

“Once you are in the criminal justice system, you can’t get out.”

The presentation was a part of the peace studies lecture series, which sponsors speakers specializing in peace studies-related issues. The program has been available at FAU since 1999 and has evolved into the peace, justice and human rights certificate — a 15-credit-hour undergraduate certificate and nine-credit-hour master’s and doctorate certificate.

Joe Pye is a staff writer with the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @jpeg3189