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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
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Racism, Prisons, and the Future of Black America
Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science, and the Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia University. This essay appeared August 2000 in his column "Along the Color Line," available on the Internet at <www.manningmarable.net>
There are today over two million Americans incarcerated in federal and state prisons and local jails throughout the United States. More than one-half, or one million, are black men and women. The devastating human costs of the mass incarceration of one out of every 35 individuals within black America are beyond imagination. While civil rights organizations like the NAACP and black institutions such as churches and mosques have begun to address this widespread crisis of black mass imprisonment, they have frankly not given it the centrality and importance it deserves.
Black leadership throughout this country should place this issue at the forefront of their agendas. And we also need to understand how and why American society reached this point of constructing a vast prison industrial complex, in order to find strategies to dismantle it.
For a variety of reasons, rates of violent crime, including murder, rape, and robbery, increased dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s. Much of this increase occurred in urban areas. By the late 1970s, nearly one half of all Americans were afraid to walk within a mile of their homes at night, and 90% responded in surveys that the US criminal justice system was not dealing harshly enough with criminals. Politicians like Richard M. Nixon, George Wallace, and Ronald Reagan began to campaign successfully on the theme of "Law and Order." The death penalty, which was briefly outlawed by the Supreme Court, was reinstated. Local, state, and federal expenditures for law enforcement rose sharply.
Behind much of anti-crime rhetoric was a not-too-subtle racial dimension, the projection of crude stereotypes about the link between criminality and black people. Rarely did these politicians observe that minority and poor people, not the white middle class, were statistically much more likely to experience violent crimes of all kinds. The argument was made that law enforcement officers should be given much greater latitude in suppressing crime, that sentences should be lengthened and made mandatory, and that prisons should be designed not for the purpose of rehabilitation, but for punishment.
Consequently, there was a rapid expansion in the personnel of the criminal justice system, as well as the construction of new prisons. What occurred in New York State, for example, was typical of what happened nationally. From 1817 to 1981, New York had opened 33 state prisons. From 1982 to 1999, another 38 state prisons were constructed. The state's prison population at the time of the Attica prison revolt in September 1971 was about 12,500. By 1999, there were over 71,000 prisoners in New York State correctional facilities.
In 1974, the number of Americans incarcerated in all state prisons stood at 187,500. By 1991, the number had reached 711,700. Nearly two-thirds of all state prisoners in 1991 had less than a high school education. One third of all prisoners were unemployed at the time of their arrests. Incarceration rates by the end of the 1980s had soared to unprecedented rates, especially for black Americans. As of December 1989, the total US prison population, including federal institutions, exceeded one million for the first time in history, an incarceration rate of the general population of one out of every 250 citizens.
For African Americans, the rate was over 700 per 100,000, or about seven times more than for whites. About one half of all prisoners were black. Twenty-three percent of all black males in their twenties were either in jail or prison, on parole, probation, or awaiting trial. The rate of incarceration of black Americans in 1989 had even surpassed that experienced by blacks who still lived under the apartheid regime of South Africa.
By the early 1990s, rates for all types of violent crime began to plummet. But the laws which sent offenders to prison were made even more severe. Children were increasingly viewed in courts as adults, and subjected to harsher penalties. Laws like California's "three strikes and you're out" eliminated the possibility of parole for repeat offenders. The vast majority of these new prisoners were non-violent offenders, and many of these were convicted of drug offenses that carried long prison terms. In New York, a state in which African Americans and Latinos comprise 25% of the total population, by 1999 they represented 83% of all state prisoners, and 94% of all individuals convicted on drug offenses.
The pattern of racial bias in these statistics is confirmed by the research of the US Commission on Civil Rights, which found that while African Americans today constitute only 14% of all drug users nationally, they are 35% of all drug arrests, 55% of all drug convictions, and 75% of all prison admissions for drug offenses. Currently, the racial proportions of those under some type of correctional supervision, including parole and probation, are one-in-fifteen for young white males, one-in-ten for young Latino males, and one-in-three for young African-American males. Statistically today, more than eight out of every ten African-American males will be arrested at some point in their lifetime.
All meals are served to prisoners through a thin slot cut into the steel door. The toilet unit, sink and shower are all located in the cell. Prisoners are permitted one hour "exercise time" each day in a small concrete balcony, surrounded by heavy security wire, directly connected with their SHU cells. Educational and rehabilitation programs for SHU prisoners are prohibited.
As of 1998, New York State had confined 5700 state prisoners in SHUs, about 8% of its total inmate population. Currently under construction in Upstate New York is a new 750 cell maximum security SHU facility, which will cost state taxpayers $180 million. Although Amnesty International and human rights groups in the US have widely condemned SHUs, claiming that such forms of imprisonment constitute the definition of torture under international law, other states have followed New York's example. As of 1998, California had constructed 2942 SHU beds, followed by Mississippi (1756), Arizona (1728), Virginia (1267), Texas (1229), Louisiana (1048) and Florida (1000). Solitary confinement, which historically had been defined even by corrections officials as an extreme disciplinary measure, is becoming increasingly the norm.
The introduction of SHUs reflects a general mood in the country
that the growing penal population is essentially beyond redemption.
If convicted felons cease to be viewed as human beings, why should
they be treated with any humanity? This question should be elevated
and discussed in every African-American and Latino neighborhood,
community center, religious institution, and union hall across
this country. Because the overwhelming human casualties of this
racist leviathan are our own children, parents, sisters, and brothers.
Those whom this brutal system defines as being "beyond
redemption" are ourselves.
Costs of the system
What are the economic costs for American society of the vast expansion of our prison-industrial complex? According to criminal justice researcher David Barlow at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, between 1980 and 2000, the combined expenditures of federal, state, and local governments on police have increased about 400%. Corrections expenditures for building new prisons, upgrading existing facilities, hiring more guards, and related costs, increased approximately one thousand percent. Although it currently costs about $70,000 to construct a typical prison cell, and about $25,000 annually to supervise and maintain each prisoner, the US is currently building hundreds of new prison beds per week.
The driving ideological and cultural force that rationalized and
justifies mass incarceration is the white American public's
stereotypical perceptions about race and crime. As Andrew Hacker
perceptively noted in 1995, "Quite clearly, 'black
crime' does not make people think about tax evasion or
embezzling from brokerage firms. Rather, the offenses generally
associated with blacks are those ...involving violence."
A number of researchers have found that racial stereotypes of
African Americans--as "violent," "aggressive,"
"hostile" and "short-tempered"--greatly
influence whites' judgments about crime. Generally, most
whites are inclined to give black and Latino defendants more severe
judgments of guilt and lengthier prison sentences than whites
who commit identical crimes. Racial bias has been well established
especially in capital cases, where killers of white victims are
much more likely to receive the death penalty than those who murder
The greatest victims of these racialized processes of unequal justice, of course, are African-American and Latino young people. In April 2000, utilizing national and state data compiled by the FBI, the Justice Department and six leading foundations issued a comprehensive study that documented vast racial disparities at every level of the juvenile justice process. African Americans under age 18 comprise 15% of their national age group, yet they currently represent 26% of all those who are arrested.
African-American youth are taken there. Blacks comprise 44% of those detained in juvenile jails, 46% of all those tried in adult criminal courts, as well as 58% of all juveniles who are warehoused in adult prison. In practical terms, this means that for young African Americans who are arrested and charged with a crime, that they are more than six times more likely to be assigned to prison that white youth offenders.
For those young people who have never been to prison before, African Americans are nine times more likely than whites to be sentenced to juvenile prisons. For youths charged with drug offenses, blacks are 48 times more likely than whites to be sentenced to juvenile prison. White youths charged with violent offenses are incarcerated on average for 193 days after trial; by contrast, African-American youths are held 254 days, and Latino youths are incarcerated 305 days.
What seems clear is that a new leviathan of racial inequality has been constructed across our country. It lacks the brutal simplicity of the old Jim Crow system, with its omnipresent "white" and "colored" signs. Yet it is in many respects potentially far more devastating, because it presents itself to the world as a system that is truly color-blind. The black freedom struggle of the 1960s was successful largely because it convinced a majority of white middle class Americans that Jim Crow was economically inefficient, and that politically it could not be sustained or justified.
The movement utilized the power of creative disruption, making it impossible for the old system of white prejudice and power to function in the same old ways it had for decades. For Americans who still believe in racial equality and social justice, we cannot stand silent while millions of our fellow citizens are being destroyed all around us. The racialized prison industrial complex is the great moral and political challenge of our time.
For several years, I have lectured in New York's famous Sing Sing prison, as part of a master's degree program sponsored by the New York Theological Seminary. During my last visit several months ago, I noticed that correctional officials had erected a large yellow sign over the door at the public entrance to the prison. The sign reads: "Through these doors pass some of the finest corrections professionals in the world." I asked Reverend Bill Webber, the director of the prison's educational program, and several prisoners what they thought about the sign. Bill answered bluntly, "demonic." One of the M.A. students, a 35-year-old Latino named Tony, agreed with Bill's assessment, but added, "let us face the demon head on." There are now over two million Americans who are incarcerated. It is time to face the demon head on.
BRC-NEWS: Black Radical Congress <www.blackradicalcongress.org>