“Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.” ― Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
After addressing the origin of the criminalization of people of color in the era of slavery, we can now progress into understanding how this has grown into a massive system of continued oppression. First, America currently makes up 25% of the worlds prison population while only being 5% of the global population. What is more astounding, and frankly frightening, is that both Hispanic and African-American males made up a total of 58% of the prison population in 2008.
There have been many factors that have contributed to the exponential increase in prison population. An implementation of polices in regards to illicit drug use, heavy policing on inner city crime areas, and privatized corrections management have bolstered the prison industrial complex. Examining these things individually brings a bleak understanding of how far away we are from ending racial bias.
The War on Drugs
In 1971, President Nixon had officially declared a “war on drugs”. Implementing a mandatory sentencing policy and increasing the presence of drug enforcement agencies had an immediate effect on the way America was looking at drug use. President Ronald Reagan spent a large portion of his presidency advocating for the awareness of drug use and insuring a zero-tolerance policy. “In 1985, the proportion of Americans polled who saw drug abuse as the nation’s “number one problem” was just 2-6 percent. The figure grew through the remainder of the 1980s until, in September 1989, it reached a remarkable 64 percent – one of the most intense fixations by the American public on any issue in polling history.” This was huge. With the media fueling the fire on the popular usage of cocaine, it created a hysteria. Prison populations continued to increase wildly from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997. Even now, according to the NAACP fact sheet, African-Americans comprise 14% of regular drug users, but are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses. Currently 70% of inmates behind bars are there due to a drug violation and at the same time, “5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African-Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites”.
Policing Inner City Crime Areas
The relationship between minority communities and the police patrolling them has been tumultuous at times. Understanding how these communities were formed and the culture it has developed since, is crucial. In his NY Times Article The Real Problem With America’s Inner Cities, Orlando Patterson describes the street culture in inner city minority communities. Patterson argues that the culture is “reinforced by contemporary conditions like poverty, chronic unemployment, single parenting, and a chemically toxic, neurologically injurious environment.” While I disagree occasionally with how Patterson chooses to phrase his opinion, I believe that while the culture has been a culmination of a never-ending racial bias, it does have a continued effect on how the community police feel the need to criminalize them. With that being said, that is a weak excuse and a crutch used to increase police in these areas, implement violent tactics and unnecessary use of force. This year this topic has been debated by various people in political standing. For example, Washington D.C Mayor, Muriel Bowser, held a conference in 2015 in order to discuss her plan to decrease crime in their urban areas. Her plan largely consists of increasing the police presence and strengthening “law enforcement tools”. As I have previously discussed in one of my articles, Donald Trump’s vaguely stated solution to the increased unrest with policing is “law and order” and it mirrors that of President Nixon in 1967 who referred to himself as the “law and order” candidate. This is a continued disconnect between the people and our government.
Privatized Corrections Management
Companies like CCA, Corrections Corporation of America, have been an essential role in the monetization of prison inmates and facilities. Founded as the first private corrections management company in 1983, CCA is contracted to maintain prison facilities and also maintain that they are filled. In order to keep their contract intact with the prisons they work for, they must have inmates to fill these facilities and that has created an incentive for criminalization. With the war on drugs and the criminalization of people of color in the media, it was easy for them to make an astounding profit. In 2015, according to CCA’s financial results, they profited nearly $1.8 billion dollars, an increase compared to the $1.65 billion the year before. The company has also been in numerous scandals anywhere from employee mistreatment, staff misconduct, deplorable living conditions for inmates, and sexual assaults. Grassroots Leadership and the Public Safety and Justice campaign released an extensive and detailed report on the actions of CCA which can be found on their website.
“There is a multi-headed, multi-tentacled monster out there devouring blacks who live in certain neighborhoods. Incarceration is just one aspect of this menace, but it is an overwhelmingly damaging aspect. Our job, in working to achieve fairness and equity, is to sound the alarm about the unjust criminal justice system and demand that our leaders and those in power act now to halt this destructive, unfair treatment of our brothers and sisters, especially of our children.”
– James Bell
There are so many instances of continued criminalization, oppression and flat-out racism that I could touch on and I will continue to shed light on what I can. Mass Incarceration is a beast that has been fed people of color since it’s infancy. It has brought about so many issues and swallowed so many people, innocent people, whole. I will be speaking with the sister of an inmate who was wrongfully convicted, currently sentenced to life and has been denied his first appeal. Jean Pierre Devaughn’s story is heartbreaking and unfortunately there is not a lack of similar stories of black men who have been trapped by this system. Join me in part 3, as I discuss police brutality and continue to examine the pieces of this puzzle on white privilege and racial injustice.
Previous Post: 5 Ingredients for White Privilege Part 1: Slavery