BATON ROUGE, LA — The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its adult population than any other nation. Presently, more than one in 100 Americans over the age of 18 are imprisoned. In Louisiana, the figure is one in 86.
“That’s more than any other state, which makes Louisiana the world’s leading jailer,” explained Bryan McCann, the newest addition to LSU’s Department of Communication Studies.
A scholar, teacher and community organizer, McCann is a member of the Prison Communication, Activism, Research, and Education, or PCARE, collective. A national working group of communication scholars, several of PCARE’s members are included in the new University of Illinois Press book “Working for Justice: A Handbook of Prison Education and Activism.”
Edited by Stephen John Hartnett, Eleanor Novek and Jennifer K. Wood, the book showcases efforts “to put democracy into practice by merging prison education and activism.”
“We represent a group of individuals who believe in the ability of communication to change the world,” McCann explains, “and we also share a strong commitment to reversing our nation’s tide of mass incarceration.”
McCann went on to explain that today’s high incarceration rates are the product of a political climate that took off in the 1980s and 1990s.
“Politicians from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton began winning elections by promising to be tough on crime,” said McCann, “In the process, they taught us to fear each other and embrace incredibly harsh sentencing policies.”
However, McCann claims, there is little evidence that imprisoning more people to longer sentences makes us safer. He adds that the poor and ethnic minorities are incarcerated at higher rates than their fellow citizens.
For his contribution to the volume, McCann draws on his experiences as an anti-death penalty organizer while working on his doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin. He specifically asks whether individuals who want to abolish the death penalty should embrace life without parole as an alternative sentence.
“Capital punishment is obviously a very divisive issue in America,” said McCann, “but it may surprise people to learn that there is actually a good deal of debate within the movement to end it.”
For his part, McCann worries that turning to prisons as an alternative to capital punishment prevents activists from asking challenging questions about the criminal justice system as a whole.
“It’s a death sentence in slow motion,” McCann argued. “And while I understand that it’s tempting and sometimes necessary for folks to embrace life without parole as a sort of middle-ground, I worry it prevents us from criticizing the entire system.”
Other chapters in “Working for Justice” include studies on the experiences of families with incarcerated loved ones, prison theater programs and the role of hip-hop in prison activism.
“We’re very proud of this volume and grateful for the editors’ hard work,” McCann said. “Now our goal is to spread the word and use the book to encourage more dialogue and activism surrounding the prison system.” His hope is that this book will encourage dialogue and reform in America’s criminal justice system.
In addition to his chapter in this book, McCann has published numerous articles on the death penalty, prison activism and mass media and the criminal justice system. He is currently finishing a book on “gangsta rap” and the law and order politics of the 1980s and 1990s.
“I’m very excited to be joining the faculty at LSU,” says McCann, “I look forward to working with top-notch faculty and students, and working with members of the community to address incarceration and other important issues facing Louisiana.”
For more information about McCann and his research, visit http://uiswcmsweb.prod.lsu.edu/hss/cmst/People/Faculty/item62081.html.
To learn more about LSU Communication Studies, visit http://uiswcmsweb.prod.lsu.edu/hss/cmst/index.html.