Race and Incarceration

Conversation Guide

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The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Between 1970-2005 the U.S. population grew by 44% while the prison population grew by a staggering 700%. People of color represent over 60% of state prison populations. Multiple studies of these racial disparities identify three recurrent explanations: policies and practices that drive  disparity; the role of bias and stereotypes in decision-making; and structural disadvantages in communities of color which are associated with high rates of offending and arrest. As a result, Black men are 6 times more likely to be imprisoned than white men and more than twice as likely to be imprisoned than Hispanic men. The Sentencing Project writes that “African Americans are more likely than white  Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more  likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences.” These statistics paint a bleak picture independent of potential disagreements about  which systemic factors contribute to them and why. Is this what we want for our country? Can we do better?

Background Information:

While you don’t need to be an expert on this topic, sometimes people want background information. Our partner, AllSides, has prepared a variety of articles reflecting multiple sides of this topic

Let's Get Started!

Living Room Conversations offers a simple, sociable and structured way to practice communicating across differences while building understanding and relationships. Typically, 4-6 people meet in person or by video call for about 90 minutes to listen to and be heard by others on one of our nearly 100 topics. Rather than debating or convincing others, we take turns talking to share, learn, and be curious. No preparation is required, though background links with balanced views are available on some topic pages online. Anyone can host using these italicized instructions. Hosts also participate. 

Why We're Here (~10 min)

Each participant has 1 minute to introduce themselves.

Share your name, where you live, what drew you here, and if this is your first conversation.

Conversation Agreements:
How We'll Engage (~5 min)

These will set the tone of our conversation; participants may volunteer to take turns reading them aloud. (Click here for the full conversation agreements.)

  • Be curious and listen to understand.
  • Show respect and suspend judgment. 
  • Note any common ground as well as any differences. 
  • Be authentic and welcome that from others. 
  • Be purposeful and to the point. 
  • Own and guide the conversation. 

Question Rounds:
What We’ll Talk About

Optional: a participant can keep track of time and gently let people know when their time has elapsed.

Round 1:
Getting to Know Each Other (~10 min)

Each participant can take 1-2 minutes to answer one of these questions:

  • What are your hopes and concerns for your family, community and/or the country?
  • What would your best friend say about who you are?
  • What sense of purpose / mission / duty guides you in your life?

Round 2:

Race and Incarceration (~40 min)

One participant can volunteer to read the paragraph at the top of the web page.

Take ~2 minutes each to answer a question below without interruption or crosstalk. After everyone has answered, the group may take a few minutes for clarifying or follow up questions/responses. Continue exploring additional questions as time allows..

  • Is the information in the introduction new to you or very familiar? What happens as you read it?
  • What comes to mind when you think about incarceration? What mental images do you see? What stories do you remember?
  • If you or members of your family have been incarcerated, what have been the implications for your life?
  • If you or members of your family have not been incarcerated, have you ever worried about that happening? What experience brings you to that worry or freedom from worry?
  • What is your concern for our country in regard to this situation? What is your hope?

Round 3:
Reflecting on the Conversation (~15 min)

Take 2 minutes to answer one of the following questions:

  • What was most meaningful / valuable to you in this Living Room Conversation?
  • What learning, new understanding or common ground was found on the topic?
  • How has this conversation changed your perception of anyone in this group, including yourself?
  • Is there a next step you would like to take based upon the conversation you just had?

Closing (~5 min)

  • Give us feedback! Find our feedback form here.
  • Donate! Make more of these possible; give here.
  • Join or host more conversations! With a) this group by exchanging your emails; b) others in person and/or by video call online. Get more involved or learn how to host here.

Thank You!