Poet explores mass incarceration among people of color

By Jen Warner

Portrait of Dr. DaMaris B. Hill. Photo courtesy of her website.

Writer and scholar Dr. DaMaris B. Hill joined DCCC’s Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer Simuelle Myers and an audience of students and faculty via Zoom on Feb. 18 for a conversation about the disproportionate effects of mass incarceration on the black community in America. 

Hill was nominated in 2020 for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry for her book titled “A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing: The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland.” 

Cover of “A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing: The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland.” Photo courtesy of Dr. DaMaris B. Hill’s website.

“My exploration of mass incarceration revealed a very complex tapestry that makes up this industry,” Hill said. “And much of it was a perversity of the values that we uphold as Americans.”

In addition to being a published author and scholar, Hill is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Kentucky.

“In 2006 I began to meditate on what it means for people to be incarcerated in a land that values freedom, how incarceration functions as a social institution, and who are the loved ones that are incarcerated,” Hill told the audience. 

Through her research, Hill determined that many of these people were living below the poverty line, or experiencing the effects of addiction, racism and other health crises. 

“It was easy to see that some of the choices people were making in breaking the law had a lot to do with surviving,” Hill said.

Myers began the conversation by asking Hill to expand on what inspires her most in her work.

 “Between 2004 and 2014, the incarceration rate of women increased over 700%, 814% for black women, and nobody was talking about that,” Hill said. “Most of these women have at least two children.” 

Hill said that statistic haunted her, leading her to consider the millions of children experiencing life with at least one parent behind bars.

Myers asked Hill how she arrived at the decision to focus closely on the incarceration of black women in particular. 

“I want to be very clear that a body like mine, one that was black and female, is the cornerstone and foundation of capital,” Hill said. “Yet contributions of labor and work of black women are vastly understated in the popular narratives in America.”

Hill shared that her family history is rooted and widespread in one of the largest plantations in the upper south. Her ancestors made up more than half of the 300 slaves on that plantation and were largely responsible for its economic wealth.

“So, when you look at it in terms of studying the prison industrial complex and how many people are at work in jail making 22 cents an hour, it’s just another exploitation that’s too familiar for me that I’m not okay with,” Hill said.

Myers circled back to Hill’s concern for the children of the incarcerated and asked about the effects of the prison industrial system on communities and generations alike.

“When we have mothers separated from their children for long durations of time, there is psychological research that draws connections between that and criminality,” Hill said. “This creates another generation of potential incarcerated people.”

According to Hill’s research, the trauma a child experiences in losing a parent to the prison system is an impediment to her learning and development, further contributing to future generations of people behind bars.

Myers then asked Hill what actions are being taken to counter this narrative and break this cycle.

“On the front lines, you have teachers, social workers, and family members that are stepping up,” Hill said. “They are receiving low salaries and limited resources to remedy a problem that, in my opinion, is rooted in systemic poverty.”

Hill suggested that declaring racism or mass incarceration as a public health crisis would warrant much needed federal relief. Since these labels are not in place, the burden of relief falls on charitable organizations and those paid far too little for their work to combat these issues.

“There is a disparity in earnings and class regarding who ends up in jail that can also be quantified in terms of race and gender,” Hill explained. “It creates a type of vortex where the people going down the drain are usually poor and non-white.”

Hill then described the crucial roll that creativity and art have played in her activism.

“As an artist, everything that touches me changes me,” Hill said. “When I started reading those statistics it changed me and I haven’t been able to move past it.”

Myers shared that an important part of activism, allyship, and awareness is the exposure or creation of something that others aren’t able to forget, just as Hill’s work does.

“No one in this country needs to die because they’re hungry or go to jail because their kids don’t have food to eat,” Hill said. “It’s not that there aren’t enough resources to go around. The problem is that some people have valued resources over lives.”

When asked about what the public can do to fight this for-profit prison industry, Hill shared the importance of changes in policy. 

“In a dream world we would get rid of the prison system as it exists because it’s been flawed from the beginning.”

– DR. dAMARIS B. HILL

Hill said. “Reform should be specialized rather than generalized based on best practices, with an emphasis on rehabilitation.”

Hill posed this solution while acknowledging the codependences and intricacies of the current industry as it stands.

Next, audience member Rebecca Perry shared her intentions to run for her local school board. Perry sought advice in helping to prevent future generations of children from becoming a part of the problem, as many are forced to attend school districts that are lacking in educational opportunities and governed strictly by state mandates.

Hill thanked Perry for her work and shared her thoughts on creating positive change to combat early institutionalism within the school system.

“Invest in professional teacher training that works on transforming students and isn’t driven by state testing,” Hill said. “Because once you ignite a passion for learning, that cannot be turned off and you end up with students and teachers invested in a liberation from poverty.”

Portrait of Harriet Tubman. Photo by: CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Hill finished the call with a poetry reading of “Harriet is Holy,”  which can be found in her newest collection “A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing.” 

In a follow up with Myers, Hill had a message for students and creatives looking to be a part of the solution in the fight against poverty, mass incarceration, and racism.

“Love humanity and one another, choose an action area for your justice movement, strategize a role that amplifies your strengths, schedule time to rejuvenate and prepare to engage and do the work,” Hill recommended. 

Contact Jen Warner at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu

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