Did you know that the US makes up only 5% of the world’s population, but has 25% of the world’s prisoners? We currently have 2.3 million people inhabiting our prisons, the highest rate of incarceration in the world. This isn’t by accident. The increase in prison population from the 1980s to now is a direct result of slavery, and I’ll tell you why.
After the Civil War (1861-1865), the South’s economy was badly shaken. Up to this point, slaves had been an integral and, in the minds of slave owners, necessary part of our economic system. Once they were “freed” and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was introduced, white people were faced with the question of what to do with them. The 13th Amendment states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” So, in theory, it grants freedom to all Americans, but the one big loophole is “except as a punishment for crime.” That clause was immediately exploited by white people to suit their own purposes. Blacks were arrested en masse for minor crimes like loitering and vagrancy, and since they were then considered “criminals” they were forced to provide free labor to rebuild the South after the war.
Using persuasion techniques like in the silent film The Birth of a Nation (1915) which was hailed for its artistic achievement, Black men were depicted as out of control animals, rapists, menacing evil doers who had to be exiled. The movie told the story that white people wanted to tell about the war and what came after—they wanted to erase their own defeat. After the film was released, there was a resurgence of the KKK (the movie was based off of a 1905 play originally entitled The Clansman) which led directly to another rise in terrorism and seems to have been a clear prediction of how racism would percolate in this country for the next one hundred years.
It was during this time, between Reconstruction (1863-1877) and World War II (1939-1945), that whites had to figure out a new way to control Blacks. There was an inordinate amount of white on Black abuse—lynchings, floggings, messages carved into the skin of Black people; they were shot to death and thrown into rivers. Southern Blacks dispersed to all areas of the US, not as immigrants but as refugees fleeing from the abuse. Segregation shifted into something more legal, the Jim Crow era, which basically includes all the laws made to continue the oppression of Black people that lasted until 1965.
By the early 1950s, Civil Rights activists had begun to see the necessity of building a human rights movement. They were portrayed in the media as criminals, people who deliberately violated the Jim Crow laws. To Blacks one of the worst things possible was to be arrested by a white person, but the Civil Rights Movement made it noble—they voluntarily defined the movement around this idea. Crime was increasing, and the baby boom generation that had emerged after WWII were adults now—it wasn’t difficult for politicians to say that the movement itself was the sole reason for rising crime. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was considered by the FBI to be one of the most dangerous people in the country. Malcom X’s entourage included undercover police because they were so worried about the Black “threat.” The Black Panthers’ entire movement was criminalized. Those in charge were so afraid of leaders who could unite people that they murdered them, exiled them or found ways to discredit them.
The early 1970s began an era, Nixon’s to be specific, that would eventually lead to our current situation of mass incarceration. At the start of that decade, the US prison population was roughly 357,000. Nixon talked incessantly about the “war on crime” which was really his way of fighting the movements of his time (women’s rights, gay rights, environmental movement, antiwar movement). There was an outcry for “law and order.” (Sound familiar? Our current president hails it.) Nixon gave birth to the war on drugs as a crime issue rather than a health issue, claiming drug abuse as public enemy number one. His rhetoric was about “getting tough” and it was most definitely backlash for the Civil Rights movement. He used the Southern Strategy, a political strategy implemented after the Civil Rights movement which involved persuading members of the white working class (poor people) to join the Republican party in throngs, to get re-elected.
By 1980 the US prison population had risen to over 513,000. It was Reagan’s turn, and he transformed the rhetorical war on drugs into a literal one. He used First Lady Nancy Reagan to sell his national crusade. Remember the “Just Say No” campaign? You probably haven’t forgotten the fried egg commercial either – This is your brain on drugs. There were a number of people who had been living below the poverty level for the two decades prior, and in 1985, crack—smokable cocaine—made its way onto the scene. It was cheaper than coke and could be marketed in small doses. And since the crack dealers were usually Black men (cocaine was more sophisticated, the whites had that) they are the ones who took the fall when Congress established mandatory sentencing far harsher than what one would receive for powder cocaine. So now we have Black men spending their whole lives in prison, leaving their families behind to fend for themselves. Reagan took hyper segregation and criminalized it in the form of the war on drugs without once taking into consideration the socioeconomic inequalities of all the years prior. Sentencing for crack and cocaine should have been treated the same. Make no mistake, this was a war on communities of color, and by 1985, the US prison population was over 759,000. TV shows like Cops marched Black men across the screen in handcuffs; they were over represented in the media; a context was created that made people afraid of Black and Brown people and grateful for the prison system. Even many Black families started supporting policies that discriminated against their own children—because these men were depicted as “superpredators,” a word politicians and law enforcement alike used to describe an entire generation of Blacks.
By 1990, the prison population had nearly doubled from five years earlier and was roughly 1,179,000. Bush had won the presidential campaign over Dukakis by focusing on Willie Horton in a campaign ad, painting Dukakis as a sympathizer with criminals. And then came Bill Clinton, who by comparison to former Democratic hopefuls, had to adopt a much more centrist stance. He couldn’t appear soft on crime, and so he introduced his 1994 crime bill which included the Three Strikes Law (as a third time offender, you’d be sentenced to prison for life) and mandatory minimum sentencing. Sharanda Jones was sentenced to mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole in 1999 for selling cocaine, her first ever encounter with the criminal justice system (President Obama granted her clemency in 2015). Clinton spent copious amounts of federal dollars (30 billion) to massively expand the prison system and vastly increase the number of cops on the streets, militarizing law enforcement with swat teams even in smaller cities. In the end, Clinton’s measures have proven to be far more harmful than any of his predecessors’ because he created the prison infrastructure we see today. Clinton now admits that his 1994 crime bill was a mistake and that he made the problem worse.
Have you ever heard of ALEC? It’s short for American Legislative Exchange Council and is basically a club for rich corporations who get to propose legislation to their political counterparts, mostly Republicans. ALEC has been around for more than four decades and their corporate members have been influencing lawmaking since their start. They are responsible for the Stand Your Ground Law, which is how Trayvon Martin’s murderer was acquitted on the basis of self-defense, the case that really ignited the Black Lives Matter movement we see today. After the bad press around Trayvon’s case, corporations like Walmart left ALEC, but KOCH Industries, AT&T, Verizon and State Farm, among many others, are still there. Makes you wonder who and what you’re supporting with your hard-earned money.
And corporations are getting rich off the punishment of Black and Brown men in the prison system. CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America, was the first prison for profit company and was involved with ALEC until 2010, when an NPR story accused the exchange council of being responsible for Arizona’s SB 1070 (which gave police the right to stop anyone they thought looked like an immigrant). That bill directly benefited CCA—they need to keep their prisons filled, it’s how they make money. If there is a merger of the country’s immigration system and law enforcement, cha-ching! (An immigrant detention center is the same as a prison, just with a different name.) Numerous companies are making top dollar from the privatization of the prison system—Securus Technologies makes money off of ridiculously priced inmate phone calls; Aramark is a food service provider (despite the fact that there have been numerous reports of maggots found in the food served to inmates); Corizon Healthcare has multi-million dollar contracts in 28 states. It doesn’t matter if they actually provide the health care, they’re going to get paid anyway no matter how many inmate deaths occur on their watch. Even those big names you love, like JCPenney and Victoria’s Secret, have profited off the prison system…in the form of slave labor – okay, I’ll put it in terms easier to swallow: prison labor.
And let’s focus for a minute on the prisoners themselves. Thousands of innocent people are sitting in jail for no other reason than they are too poor to get out. Bail fees are exorbitantly high and don’t even think about the retainer fee a top lawyer charges. The criminal justice system is not about judges and juries anyway, and the reason for that is so many accused people never go to trial. Instead, they take plea bargains—97% of inmates have done this. Because if you don’t take the deal and you lose at trial, you are punished for even having the gall to try to defend yourself. When looking at a three-year deal versus the possibility of being sentenced to thirty years, you’re less inclined to take the chance of losing (the innocent think this way, too, because a longer prison term sounds worse). Kalief Browder is a prime example. Accused of a petty crime he didn’t commit, this Bronx youth spent two out of his three years in prison in solitary confinement. Once in the pen, his mental health started to deteriorate. He suffered from sexual abuse and beatings by other inmates and guards. After three years, the charges were dropped and he was set free. He hanged himself two years after his release at 22 years old. The system is designed to break you. I’d like to know how Browder’s slow and torturous walk to his own death is any different than a lynching.
Where are the social workers who can help with the human emotional and psychological needs of inmates? Why is there so little rehabilitation happening in these prisons? The criminal justice system uses guards with force that inherently dehumanize. It keeps human beings in conditions that most people wouldn’t keep their dogs (isolation cells with no windows and no human contact come to mind). And then when the prisoners get out, they are shunned. They continue to be punished. “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” reads your first post-incarceration job application form and every application after that. Oh, you want to vote? Sorry. Yeah, we can’t issue you a business license. Or housing. Or food stamps. You can’t own a gun and you’ve lost your parental rights, too. And nope, you can’t serve on a jury. (Not that most of us want to anyway.) THIS IS JIM CROW, FOLKS! We have taken away the rights of our citizens. We never really ended slavery, we just remodeled it. Is America ready to admit it?
We certainly won’t be making any changes with the “Law and Order President” at the helm, with his comments like, “In the good ole days law enforcement acted a lot quicker than this” or his definition of white nationalists as “very fine people.”
I will leave you with this: Black men make up only 6.5% of the US population, yet they represent 40.2% of the prison population. Only 1 in 17 white men have a likelihood of imprisonment while Black men stand a 1 in 3 chance. We have more African Americans in prison today than there were slaves in the 1850s. The total count for prisoners in 2020 is over 2.3 million. The 13th Amendment didn’t really give Black people freedom. Because they have had to suffer through oppression as second-class citizens by way of convict leasing, Jim Crow, stop and frisk, murder by law enforcement with impunity and mass incarceration, and these things don’t even begin to cover the fear they might feel walking down the street at night or the fact that they are less likely to land a good job than their white neighbor.
And some still ask, “But why is there rioting?” For those people, we must all be able and willing to give them the historical context. The pain and suffering of Blacks that is finally being heard didn’t come out of nowhere—it is centuries old. It is built into the fabric America was sewn from—it is systemic racism. We must share our knowledge; we must learn (and unlearn) Black history; we must force the conversation; we must rehumanize. All of us.