Since August, members of a brand-new student organization called “Liberating the Convicted” have been gathering to write letters to legislators; create posters to hang up around campus listing corporations that benefit from prison labor; and make plans for further action towards awareness and advocacy for the nearly 2.3 million individuals who are incarcerated in the United States today. Liberating the Convicted was realized at the beginning of this semester by Alexandria Kohn’19, a health and society major, following a summer participating in the Public Health Scholars Training Program through the University of California - Los Angeles and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Alexandria spent eight weeks in residence in Los Angeles between June and August of this year, working with six other undergraduate students from around the country to research rates of youth incarceration in the city and their toll on the children and young people who have been put behind bars. She also did promotional work and data analysis for an organization in the area called Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network, through which she visited detention centers and spoke with the young people there.
At the end of the summer, Alexandria and her team presented their work at the CDC’s headquarters in Atlanta, Ga. They argued that “our punitive system is not working, and we need something more,” Alexandria told Beloit News.
“We’re not giving these kids the tools or assets to avoid incarceration, and the health consequences are outweighing what we’re getting out of putting youth behind bars.” Other groups from the program presented research on mental health, sexual health, environmental health, and homelessness in Los Angeles.
Alexandria was one of just 40 applicants selected from a pool of about 1,200 to participate in the program this summer. She had learned about it the previous winter break while researching public health scholarships from home.
“At first I didn’t want to apply because it was so competitive,” Alexandria said, “but I decided, ‘why not?’” When she learned that she would be among the less than three percent of the public health undergraduate applicants who would be travelling to Los Angeles, “I cried,” she admitted.
After dedicating three months to completing the application, “it reassured me of my skills and assets.”
One day this summer, at a detention hall, Alexandria heard an incarcerated child speak about witnessing his mother getting shot. “He was given all these barriers and trauma with no way to navigate it,” she said. “I realized these kids got to where they are because we failed them as a society.”
“In my hometown [of Freeport, Il.], lots of my friends were locked up,” Alexandria continued. “And I was told that they were just bad people, but I’ve realized that’s not the case. These kids are amazing, and so funny. They’re not bad people.”
Although crime rates have not changed in recent years, incarceration rates have been rising briskly. Alexandria hopes to help others understand that behavior is always a symptom, and that it is exacerbated by the fact that the African American community and other marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration.
After she graduates from Beloit in May, Alexandria plans to attend graduate school and to eventually go into wellness programming, through which she can continue the work that she began this summer.
Offering advice to other students interested in following a similar path, Alexandria said, “don’t be afraid of failure; don’t be afraid you’re not going to be accepted into a program; just apply anyway. Beloit prepares you, and you have more than enough to get in.”