Playing Offense In The Age Of Mass Incarceration

By Ehtan S. Auston - Last Updated July 8, 2020

Today we live in an era where one in three black men will go to jail during their lifetime. One in three!

Crime rates have been dropping for decades. Yet, paradoxically, the prison population from 1978 to 2014 has risen 408%.

To put this in context compared to the rest of the world, we only have 5% of the world’s population, yet we have more than 20% of the world’s prison population.

Stop and think about that. That doesn’t make any sense, does it? How is that even possible?

The answer is that while the crime rate in the United States is similar to crime rates in other countries around the world, it’s the incarceration rate that differs here. We’ve made the decision to become the world’s largest jailer. Rather than attempt to lift people up, we’ve chosen to lock them up. As a result we’ve robbed generations of families the opportunity to live the American dream.

And if you’re wondering, who are these people we are locking up, it’s disproportionately black and brown people.

This in a nutshell is the system of mass incarceration, and in my opinion it is the single greatest US human rights travesty of our generation.

In late 2015 I had an opportunity to hear civil rights leader Bryan Stevenson speak on a panel with John Legend and Harry Belafonte about racial justice. Towards the end of the discussion, he asked the packed audience a series of questions.

If you lived during the age of slavery, raise your hand if you think you would have been an abolitionist?

Most people raised their hand. Then he asked:

If you lived during the Jim Crow era, how many of you would have stood up and fought against the terrorism and lynchings enacted against black people?

Again most people raised their hands.

What about the era we are living in now, the era of mass incarceration?

The room went silent.

It was stunning.

His point was well taken. The era of slavery didn’t end in 1865. It evolved. Today’s mass incarceration is yesterday’s Jim Crow. We evolved from chains to nooses to cages. The means of subjugation are different but the racial narrative has always been the same.

The question is, why are we not treating today’s system of mass incarceration the same way we would have treated Jim Crow or slavery.

In 2015 Bryan Stevenson brought me to tears and I told myself in that moment I was going to do more. In 2017 I’m starting with baby steps.

As a first step I’m committing to writing more and speaking up more when I witness injustice. The system we have is broken. But it doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed. I think the very first step is truly acknowledging it for what it is.

As a second step, I’ve made a decision to be more intentional about my charitable giving. I tend to play defense when it comes to charitable giving. When my friends ask for money to support a cause they care about, I’ll give $50 and call it day. At the end of the year I have given to all these people I care about, but I haven’t actually helped move the needle for any cause I care about.

For 2017 I’ve decided to stop playing defense and start playing offense. So this year I’m dedicating my entire giving budget to a single organization called Defy Ventures.

Defy Ventures is an entrepreneurship program for people in prison. Think of it as a Techstars or a YC except the entrepreneurs are behind bars rather than co-working spaces.

Graduation day in prions with Defy Ventures via INC

As a third step, I am planning to go to prison more. I have been a mentor with Defy since 2015 and it’s been phenomenal. But this past December I had the chance for the first time to go to prison with the organization and invite about 25 LA entrepreneurs and investors with me. I won’t share too much about the experience because I want everyone to go and experience it for themselves but it was deeply powerful. I can promise you, if you go on one of these trips, it will change you. I’ve committed to going on four more prison trips in 2017 and hope to see friends in the tech community join me in LA, SF or NY. If you’re interested in coming to prison, please get in touch.

Ethan is business graduate, who talks about gadgets, technology and startups. He's an exception track record in content creation and readers engagement and have been previously contributing to HBR, INC, Entrepreneur, and alike.
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