Cross Cultural Social Work in the Criminal Justice System

On April 13, the NYU Silver School of Social Work hosted a day-long symposium on “Cross Cultural Social Work in the Criminal Justice System” at NYU’s Palladium Hall. This symposium was co-sponsored by the Students of Color Collective, Global Social Work Collective, NYU Center for Multicultural Education and Programming, McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research, Pride in Practice, Social Workers on Public Policy, and U+ME and supported by the NYU Silver Social Justice and Diversity Grant. Panelists and speakers touched on topics of immigration rights, reentry after incarceration, racial profiling, transgender issues, and methods to address inequalities.

Glenn E. Martin, vice president of development and public affairs of the Fortune Society, provided the keynote address. The organization focuses its work around re-entry services from prison and serves over 3,000 people a year. One of the Fortune Society’s current projects is making Pell grants available to previous drug offenders in order to make college more accessible.

Martin encouraged students to explore what society’s indifference will look like in the future on the issue of criminal justice and the impact it has on communities of color: “Society will look back and ask us what we did.”

In the “Stop and Frisk: The Dangers of Perception” segment of the symposium, panelist Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform, examined the damaging effects that stop and frisk has had on communities of color. According to Kang, communities of color are often treated with suspicion—of selling drugs or brandishing a weapon—without needing to exhibit suspicious behavior. Racial profiling makes them suspicious simply because of their race or ethnicity. Mitchyll Mora, a panelist from the organization Streetwise and Safe, related this profiling to the life of trans people, speaking on how GLBTQ youth are often antagonized by the police. Trans youth are frequently subject to strip searches to humiliate people for their gender identity expression. He said, “It’s a constant violation of our bodies.”

In “Transgender Populations in Prison,” panelist June Brown from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, discussed the constant criticism trans people face. “Trans people are told they are sick and wrong,” she articulated. Because they are often marginalized from families that do not understand them into a world that does not accept them, trans youth often enter into the foster care system, lack access to safe school, and minimal job opportunities. This puts trans people at risk for incarceration and persecution once in the criminal justice system. Alisha Williams, also from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, shared the stories of trans people in prison. Often kept in “protective custody,” trans people are put in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, without access to programming activities such as educational opportunities and overall human interaction.

Vincent Schiraldi, commissioner of the NYC Department of Probation, and a panelist in a discussion about “Macro Changes Within Systems,” spoke about his role as commissioner and what his department is doing to create sustainable changes in the system to decreased recidivism. Based on a Justice Reinvestment Model, the Department of Probation has created smaller officers in seven New York City neighborhoods, which are largely staffed by members of the community. This allows probations offices, which are usually overpacked and impersonal, to provide more attention to parolees. Schiraldi remarked on how less burnout among staff can create a friendlier atmosphere and more time allotted to helping parolees stay on track. Since the start of this initiative a decade ago, incarceration rates in NYC have decreased by 32 percent.

In closing remarks, Shoshana Brown, an LMSW at a high school in the South Bronx, and a member of the Radical Social Workers Network, encouraged students to think about the following goal: “I’m doing my job when I’m out of a job.” She implored students to push against the systems that affect our clients and ultimately employ us. “How do you become a gate-opener?” she asked.

What will NYU Silver students do with this knowledge on the criminal justice system? As the NASW states, it is the role of social workers “to prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person.” With graduation one month away for many NYU Silver students, the time for change starts now.