By Raquel W. ’21
On July 13th, 2020, Gryphon Gazette interviewed alumni Sarina and Kaili, regarding their website: Jailed for Melanin. Sarina and Kaili created their website to spread awareness about social justice issues and inform readers about mass incarceration. Sarina commented they want “to educate users about the mass incarceration epidemic and the prison industrial complex and then empower you to take change.” Though Sarina and Kaili are not experts on the subject of mass incarceration, but rather students compiling research and data on the matter, the pair mainly wants their viewers to “realize that the mass incarceration epidemic disproportionately impacts people of color and marginalized communities.” During the interview, Kaili said that their website is “just a starting point,” and serves as a way for people to fundamentally understand the mass incarceration epidemic before taking action. They commented that the most difficult part of creating their platform was compiling all of their evidence together in a manner that was approachable for their audience. For example, on their website, they provided personal stories of people who were victims of racial injustice and wanted to choose “stories [that] will have the biggest impact on people”.
During the interview, we also discussed what policy changes Jailed for Melanin finds most important to focus on. According to Sarina and Kaili, first and foremost, we must change the prisoners’ personal experience. One example might be focusing on rehabilitation in drug courts and providing more sympathetic help for those with mental illnesses. Sarina gave this example: when someone has a panic attack, they should be given an empathetic voice, not be strapped to a hospital bed. Second, we must consider that these prisoners have families. While many families lose their source of income when a family member goes to jail, studies also show that about ¼ of kids who have a parent in jail during their childhood have higher rates of mental health issues, anger issues, feelings of abandonment, substance abuse issues, and drop out of high school and college at a higher rate. Third, we discussed the issue of the rise in female prisoners, especially women of color. Sarina believed that this increase in women of color is due to the female prison population also rising, citing that there has been a 700% rise in this population in the last 30 years, according to the American Psychological Association. She said that the criminalization of women of color has become more of a problem because “police see black women as the perpetrator more than the victim.” Kaili then elaborated, emphasizing “the importance of intersectionality,” and “understanding that it’s different for different people.” Fourth, we discussed the downsides to money bail. Essentially, money bail favors the wealthy and those who can afford to pay the bail, regardless of if the person on trial is guilty or not. Sarina claimed that whether someone is held in police custody before their trial, it should be based on whether they are a danger to society, not their wealth. For example, Sarina also added that it is extremely unfair to those who committed nonviolent offenses and are later found innocent. Sarina concluded that with money bail, the “criminal justice system favors those who already have the power and who keep the power”. In order to tackle these issues, Kaili reminded us that we need to look back at our initial values and why we began the criminal justice system.
We asked how high school students can help. Kaili said that it starts with learning, which is the exact reason they created the website. A great place for high school students to start would be to visit the “Taking Action” section on the site, which provides concrete steps one can take as an advocate. Kaili also recommended watching the Jubilee YouTube account to see differing opinions discussed in an appropriate manner. With their platform, Sarina and Kaili want to “reveal how the media has such an important role in shaping public perception and of telling the story.” Their online presence is meant to “counteract” social media accounts that put out false information and negative messages. Along these same lines, Kaili also stressed that it is important to look at which social media accounts we follow and to which companies we give our money. For example, the site lists alternatives to companies that support the prison industrial complex or use prison labor, such as Microsoft and Starbucks, and provides alternatives such as FireFox and Peet’s Coffee and Tea in place of them. Sarina emphasized that boycotting these companies is a simple yet effective action we can all take.
Sarina and Kaili also gave us their advice for engaging in particularly difficult conversations about race. Sarina said that we must live by Ms. Wade’s catchphrase: “Lean into discomfort.” Sarina stated that it is okay to be uncomfortable and that she likes to share informative articles with her more close-minded relatives as well as those looking to learn more. She added that getting to the core of someone’s beliefs can help to dismantle stereotypes that people hold. It is also important to have conversations with people about what is going on in the world. Kaili told us that “normalizing learning from experiences, and learning from others, and changing your mind is perfectly fine to do.” She said that we need to “seek out” challenging conversations. Kaili also discussed cancel culture and how it takes away the “value in learning from experiences and learning from one another.” We must instead recognize that they have learned from past mistakes and educated themselves.
We also asked Sarina and Kaili if they felt that Crystal prepared them with the right tools to continue to tackle challenging conversations about race in college. They commented that they both sought out these conversations in high school and learned a lot from them. They remembered that sometimes, diversity work at Crystal felt like a joke to the student body when it was required. Unfortunately, Kaili said that at her current university she feels that her school does not do a good job of providing a space for students to share their experiences. She said that the Asian-American identity at her college is defined by racist fraternities, if it’s present at all. The main takeaway here, in Kaili’s mind, is that students also have a responsibility to hold their institutions accountable for what they promise their students.
Sarina and Kaili hope that you explore their site and continue to learn about mass incarceration. As you do so, Sarina said that it is important to “start reaching out, taking initiative, being proactive, always learning, having these conversations, willing to learn and feeling uncomfortable”. Kaili said we must be “willing to learn.”