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Blacks in Prison: "Each of Us Knows Someone in the System"

Joyce Russell/IPR
Kim Chase, Iowa Commission on the Status of African-Americans and others at the NAACP's Iowa Summit on Justice and Disparities

The NAACP held a day-long symposium Friday on the overrepresentation of African-Americans in Iowa prisons.   

The symposium addressed a wide range of issues, from racial profiling to the underrepresentation of minorities on Iowa juries.  

The NAACP cites statistics showing the overrepresentation of minorities in corrections is worse in Iowa than in any other state, in particular for drug offenses.  

Arnold Woods with the Des Moines NAACP says it’s not an abstract topic for blacks.

“Each and every one of us here knows someone in the system,” Woods says, “whether our kindred, church members, fraternity brothers and sisters.”   

Representatives from law enforcement, corrections, and the courts discussed police community relations as well as fair chance hiring for blacks after they get out of prison.  

Governor Branstad announced a new working group on justice system reform.  

The Governor’s  working group will look at areas he says may be ripe for reform, including not enough minorities on Iowa juries, keeping juvenile records confidential, and mental health and drug courts as an alternative to prison.          

The group will also study whether Iowa prisoners are paying too much for phone calls to loved ones which hits low-income families hard.     

Peter Wagner with the Prison Policy Initiative says Iowa rates are higher than in other states.

“The result is to punish the families trying to stay in touch,” Wagner says.    

The NAACP wants new legislation to ban racial profiling by police.   The governor says that’s a tougher sell and his group won’t be addressing it.

NAACP Criminal Justice Manager Carlton Mayers advocates for the rights of prisoners after they’ve served their time.      

He urges Governor Branstad to make it easier for convicted felons to vote:  

 “We pay taxes.  Let us vote,” Mayers says, to loud applause.

Governor Branstad tightened up restrictions on felons voting when he took office after Governor Vilsack.