Mass incarceration impacts discussed at ASU law school

Panelists discuss issues regarding systemic racism at "Modern Day Slavery: A Panel Discussion on Mass Incarceration" at the Beus Center for Law and Society on Sept. 28, 2017. (Nicholas Serpa/DD)

Panelists and audience members discussed the consequences of mass incarceration Thursday at a panel discussion on mass incarceration at the Beus Center for Law and Society.

The event featured community members and convicted felons and was hosted by ASU’s leadership program Next Generation Service Corps and Remnant REACH and featured professors and activists who focused on the impact mass incarceration has on individuals and society.

Cornelia Wells, director of ASU’s Prison Education Programming, is directly involved with ASU students who are volunteering this semester to teach classes such as Spanish, art, and American Studies at an Arizona State Prison. She spoke about the educational obstacles of those in the prison system.

“What is mass incarceration? It’s being in an American prison, it’s being part of the United States,” Wells said. “It’s living in a country that has almost five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its incarcerated people.”

Wells, other panelists and audience members said that a lack of proper education is among many major roadblocks to reentry and rehabilitation.

Activist Brenda Combs shared her story of personal experience with the justice system. Combs was homeless and living under the Seventh Avenue bridge for 10 years, during which she battled a drug addiction and was also raped, shot, beaten and stabbed.

“Of course I tried to commit suicide,” Combs said. “I didn’t think that I’d ever be successful, or do anything positive with my life or be able to even give back to society.”

After having a breakthrough moment during a particularly hard day on the streets, Combs decided to go back to school and turn her life around. She went on to get rehabilitation treatment, and later received a bachelor’s and master’s degree before completing her doctorate at Grand Canyon University.

However, not everyone in the justice system will have the same outcome as Combs. State policies make it difficult for convicted criminals to see a future outside of prison, let alone be prepared for it.

Panelist Shawnee Ziegler works with the Arizona Justice Project, an organization which seeks to find justice for people who are wrongfully accused and convicted.

She expressed her frustration with manifest injustice, a term used to describe when an individual receives an excessive sentence for their crime. She gave the example that in Arizona, a person who is selling $10 worth of crack cocaine can be sentenced to at least 50 years in prison.

Wrongful or unjust convictions like these are what Ziegler calls “life sentences.” This struck a chord with many audience members.

Several people stood up during the discussion to share that they had been charged with felonies and had served their sentences more than 20 years ago, but are still feeling the effects of being labeled “felons”.

Audience members throughout the discussion shared personal experiences with the justice system and issues they still face from their “felon” label.

“We are all better than our worst mistakes and we need to start treating people like that,” Ziegler said.

Contact the reporter at