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Changing hearts and minds about those in prison - An interview with Korbin Felder

Changing hearts and minds about those in prison - An interview with Korbin Felder

Published: February 28, 2017
Korbin Felder

Korbin Felder is a Program Associate with AFSC's Criminal Justice Program in Michigan.

Photo: AFSC
Man looks at laptop screen with a no new prisons sticker

Korbin Felder served as an intern with AFSC's Criminal Justice Program in Michigan as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan.

Photo: AFSC

Korbin Felder returned to the AFSC Michigan Criminal Justice program in January 2017 as a program associate. He had earlier served as an AFSC volunteer and intern during his undergraduate career at the University of Michigan. (Jon Krieg is Communications Specialist for AFSC's Midwest Region.)

Jon Krieg: How are things going for you?

Korbin Felder: Pretty good. Moving from Alabama to Michigan in January resulted in some physical adjustment to the inclement weather, but it’s all good now. The new AFSC office [here in Ypsilanti] is very nice.

JK: Would you please tell us about yourself?

KF: I’m 24, originally from South Orange, New Jersey, a small town next door to Newark. Since graduating in 2014, I’ve been in Montgomery, Alabama, where I worked for a non-profit legal organization called Equal Justice Initiative. They represent people on death row in Alabama and juveniles with life without parole, along with work on other criminal justice and racial justice related things. I did a lot of re-entry and prison conditions work down there. Alabama’s prisons are really, really bad in terms of levels of violence and abuse. Granted, all prisons are bad, but Alabama is unique.

Now I’m back at AFSC full-time. I had stayed in touch with Natalie Holbrook [the program director] and Pete Martel, my predecessor, since I graduated. They were big resources for some of the on-campus organizing which some of my peers and I did. We started an advocacy group for students where we were trying to deal with issues of over-incarceration and different aspects of criminal justice reform. That’s how I originally met the folks at AFSC Michigan.

I stayed in touch with them after school ended. AFSC was definitely a place for me to grow in terms of my advocacy and thinking about criminal justice and racial justice issues.

JK: Why do you feel compelled to do this work?

KF: I don’t think it’s anything too unique. As a 24-year-old Black guy, seeing how some of my friends have been impacted by criminal justice issues, or family members dealing with incarceration – things of that nature. This work has always felt personal in some form or fashion.

It seems like issues around mass incarceration or the prison-industrial-complex, whatever you want to call it, definitely form the civil rights movement of today because of the impact it has on so many millions of Americans – obviously coming out of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and social oppression of mostly African Americans, along with other historically marginalized folks. I was a history major, so that’s interesting to me, also. So I’m back in cold Ypsi, and it’s cool.

JK: You’ve adjusted to the Michigan weather?

KF: Slowly but surely. Even though I grew up in Jersey and went to school in Michigan for four years, I was definitely spoiled these past two and a half years. Your body does acclimate to certain climates.

JK: Please tell us about your work at AFSC now.

KF: We correspond with about 2000-plus folks incarcerated in Michigan’s prisons annually. All of us play a role in that. Day to day, letters come into the office from people in Michigan’s prisons with issues they may be having, whether it’s parole assistance they’re seeking, filing grievances, health care, segregation or solitary confinement, navigating programming or access to programs – things like that.

As a program associate here, I’m also looking at the bigger picture in terms of criminal justice reform in Michigan. Things like reviewing whatever bills may be introduced in the legislative session, which just started. Staying on top of possibly progressive bills that may have been introduced. Things like contracts for how people deposit money to their loved ones in prison – reviewing that and contacting Department of Corrections officials about concerns particularly low-income people may have about the manner in which they’re allowed to deposit funds for loved ones.

Something interesting that we’re also trying to do something about is in regards to some pretty regressive efforts by the corrections union to try to prosecute people for what they call “dignity assaults,” which includes throwing bodily fluids at officers. The problem is that they’re not acknowledging that a lot of those people who do those sorts of things are very often seriously mentally ill, and there inevitably will be racial disparities between those who will be prosecuted, and overall it’s a waste of taxpayer money to keep mentally ill people in prison for even longer.

So, my role contributes to addressing things like this in the criminal justice landscape in Michigan and other systemic issues, plus the day-to-day advocacy. We utilize a lot of volunteers and interns; I play a role in assisting them with their advocacy in terms of the letters and things that come into the office.

Things are pretty open. As we see issues or trends in the prisons, we try to tackle them. I’m excited to be playing a role in those larger, systemic issues.

JK: What will it take to build a movement that’s strong enough to make positive changes?

KF: Fundamentally we need to re-think crime, punishment and justice in this country. It starts on an individual level. The AFSC Michigan Program has our Good Neighbor Project, which is a good effort towards that, linking outside people up with people inside prisons and learning from them about the realities of incarceration.

As we’ve seen since the election campaign, this country seems to have taken a step back to “law and order” politics and the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” type of approach. But fundamentally, as we think about crime and punishment, does putting people away solve anti-social behavior that is crime? It doesn’t. Does it make our communities safer? It doesn’t. It’s a waste of resources, not to mention the long legacy of social oppression it comes out of.

To do that as individuals, people have to think about what happens when something bad happens to you, and what’s our response? How do we treat those people who’ve committed harm? If people can start re-thinking and de-programming themselves, so things aren’t just in a dichotomous way, that people we label as “criminals” are “bad,” and the rest of us are “good,” and that we need to separate the good from the bad. Nothing’s that simple.

That’s when we’re able to have a successful, long-term movement. We’ve made reforms over the past several years, but it’s not just the folks who fall into the non-violent drug offender narrative that need relief from the criminal justice system. It doesn’t seem very sustainable. As we’ve seen over the past several weeks, progress can be made, and progress can be taken away quickly. But if you have a fundamental shift in how people think about these types of issues, that’s more sustainable.

So changing hearts and minds is one of the keys. But obviously, you do that at the same time while you work toward incremental change, whether it’s addressing policy work or things that come up in the day-to-day, working with people most affected by it.

JK: I assume you go into prisons as part of your job. How do you feel when you enter a prison?

KF: Since I’ve been back, we’ve done one parole readiness workshop at an MDOC facility. We plan to do more workshops in the future.

In Alabama, I went into prisons a good amount to interview people after really terrible stuff had happened, whether people had been stabbed or sexually assaulted or beaten by officers.

How do I feel upon entering a prison? It’s kind of interesting, I’ve always enjoyed going in and talking with the folks there. (I’ve actually only been in men’s prisons, so I’ll use a gendered pronoun and say “guys.”) I’ve enjoyed it because the guys really appreciate it when people listen and take the time out to engage them. This is fascinating, because I didn’t think I was doing anything particularly special, but it’s the nature of incarceration that we separate people from society, and we’re made not to think about them.

They really do appreciate knowing that people are thinking about them and are willing to listen to them or provide them with information that might assist them. So I’ve always enjoyed that.

It’s always a little weird walking around, navigating a prison. In certain contexts – in Alabama, we were suing the prison, so that made some interactions with staff a little tense. They might say certain things to you but you don’t really engage them.

Or when there’s a really high need, when you’re walking back into segregation or solitary confinement, and you hear everyone yelling for help, things like that. It’s real and surreal. It’s frustrating because you know you can’t help everybody. I think that if most people were actually to go into a prison, that would fundamentally change how people think about our criminal justice system.

The other day, Demetrius Titus, the other AFSC program associate here, and I were talking about how it’s fascinating that so many people in this country, particularly politicians, have so much to say about criminal justice issues, but they’ve never dealt with the criminal justice system, in terms of going into a prison or talking with people who are incarcerated, or knowing people personally who are incarcerated.

They may be prosecutors who “did their job” by putting people away, but they didn’t really interact with those people. I’m going to paraphrase, but I think it was Dostoevsky who said you can tell the degree of civilization of a society by the way the prisons are. After going into a lot of really terrible prisons in this country, I think his quote stands true.

JK: How many people are in Michigan prisons these days, and what’s the racial breakdown?

KF: I think it’s a little over 41,000 people, with about five Black men to every white man. The women’s population is different. Interestingly, in Michigan’s prisons, there are more white women than Black women.

From everything I can tell, Michigan is a pretty white state with pockets of Black people in places like Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, Saginaw etc. – so it’s a pretty drastic racial disparity of who is in prison.

JK: It’s very cool you’re now helping people – interns and volunteers – who are in a role you once were in.

KF: Definitely, it’s interesting. I know I probably won’t be able to play the role as masterfully as Pete did, but I’m going to try my best. It’s also interesting that I’m not too far removed from my collegiate days. It’s fascinating how things come full circle.

JK: AFSC is very fortunate to have you back, Korbin, and we wish you all the best.

KF: Thank you.

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