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Profile: Beth Richie examines alternatives to incarceration

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Beth Richie

“Let’s try to imagine a world with safe, thriving communities without the negative impact of prisons,” says Beth Richie, director Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy, which will focus its research on alternatives to incarceration during the next academic year.

Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

It’s a stunning statistic: of all the incarcerated people in the world, nearly 25 percent are being held in U.S. prisons and jails.

The enormity of this reality is one reason UIC’s Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy, headed by Beth Richie, has chosen alternatives to incarceration as its “thematic focus” for the next academic year.

One alternative is the daring step of abolishing prisons altogether.

“There are lots of people who know prisons are not working,” said Richie, who is completing her first year as director of the institute.

“They cause great harm to a particular population. There are better ways to increase public safety.”

Prison abolition is “a social thought experiment,” she said. “But also, let’s try to imagine a world with safe, thriving communities without the negative impact of prisons.”

Richie calls for “alternative processes of accountability” that include recompensing crime victims and a commitment by offenders not to commit more crimes.

“Imagine sentencing someone to four years at UIC rather than at a downstate prison,” she said.

“It’d be cheaper, for one thing. Then they would get a job and become a contributing member of society. What’s the benefit of being locked up for four years and getting out without the ability to get a job?

“The situation requires that we think of something much more creative.”

Another idea is to “sentence” offenders to work in community gardens.

Men who’ve abused women could undergo re-education, Richie said, asking, “Wouldn’t that do more to keep women safe than a prison?”

In its year of examining alternatives to incarceration, she said, the institute will:

• bring together faculty who are doing research in the area

• hire a visiting scholar with the appropriate expertise

• host Ruth Wilson Gilmore of the City University of New York, author of Golden Gulag, a book about prisons, and active in Critical Resistance, a prison abolition organization.

The institute funds and supports faculty members who are doing research on race and public policy.

Some examples: health disparities in the transmission and treatment rate of HIV, immigration policy and the ways girls in criminal detention are disadvantaged by the criminal justice system.

“The faculty come to the institute and we give them small amounts of money, connect them to outside organizations and sometimes link them up with students,” Richie said.

“Separate, but related to the institute, we try to center ourselves in discussions about diversity, especially faculty. We try to be sure they find a climate in their department that is hospitable to their work.”

In her 10 years at UIC, Richie has served as head of African American studies and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She’s worked in the departments of criminal law and justice, and gender and women’s studies.

She was named UIC Woman of the Year and University Scholar in 2006.

Richie’s latest book, due out in the fall, is Black Women, Male Violence and the Build-up of a Prison Nation.

“It is about the ways anti-violence strategies have relied too much on the criminal legal system instead of creating real alternatives at the community level,” she said.

She is the author of Compelled to Crime: Gender Entrapment of Black Battered Women, which she described as “an analysis of women in Rikers Island [prison in New York City] and the ways violence or the threat of violence — domestic violence, sexual harassment and police brutality — impact their involvement in illegal activity.”

Richie grew up in Shaker Heights, a Cleveland suburb.

“Both my parents were deeply committed to the questions of equality and social justice,” she said.

Her mother, a retired librarian, worked for causes such as literacy and access to early childhood reading programs. Her father “had a second career as an integration activist” after he retired from a career in dentistry.

Richie received her bachelor’s at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and her master’s at Washington University in St. Louis.

She then taught at Hunter College in New York City, where she earned a Ph.D. in sociology.

“I love to read, inside and outside my area,” she said. “I think I got it from my mother being a librarian.”

She especially enjoys women’s accounts of surviving difficult circumstances.

Richie lives in Hyde Park with her partner, Cathy Cohen, deputy provost for graduate education at the University of Chicago, who does research on the political mobilization and participation of black youth.

They have a 5-year-old daughter, Ella.

“She’s our inspiration for trying to change the world, hopefully by the time she’s 6,” Richie said.

“Issues become much more serious when we try to make it a better world for her, like my parents did for me.”


More profiles:

Kristin Gearhart hits her stride

Jason Lotter: two degrees, a world of experience

Ann Weller watches over library treasures

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