The social Matrix

The social Matrix

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Incarceration of Black America in the era of Obama

   February is black history month—it is a time to reflect on the many contributions African-Americans have made to this country. It is also a time to reflect on the current economic, social and political issues facing the black community. Arguably, one of the most salient issues that confront the African-American community is the mass incarceration of its male population.   
  Last year marked the fortieth anniversary of the Attica prison riots in which 39 people died and 90 wounded and denied medical coverage. Recently, tapes surfaced of Richard Nixon approving of New York Governor Rockefeller's management of the riots. 

    Since that event, the prison population has exploded. From 1980 -1994 the prison population increased by 195.6 percent compared to the rest of the population that increased by less than 10 percent. The U.S. federal prison system has increased by 790 percent from 1980-2011. However, the Federal prison system only accounts for ten percent of the total incarcerated population. Moreover, that specific correctional institution is almost 40 percent overcrowded. However, statistics also show that the prison population is beginning to level out in the last two years.

  Interestingly, although the United States consists of five percent of the world population, it contains 25 percent of the total incarcerated population.  According to the World Justice Project rule of Law index, the United States fails to provide adequate legal resources to minorities in civil and criminal cases.  Specifically, the index shows that the criminal justice system is ineffective and it is not free of discrimination. Compared to its peers, Canada and Western Europe, The United States ranks 14 out of 16 in the category of Criminal Justice.

Word Rule of Law Index 

Rule of Law Index 


   Louisiana alone has a higher incarceration rate than Iran and China.

   The prison population exploded in the last few decades under the pretense that incarceration is the best way to deter crime in the future. In the early 90’s, Senior editor Euguene H Methvin of Reader's Digest advocated for the construction of more prisons to end crime.  

   However, many sociologists have concluded that once the number of incarcerated prisoners reaches past critical mass then crime will increase. Sociologists have also concluded that there is a strong correlation between poverty and mass incarceration. 

   It is no secret that African-Americans are disproportionately more affected by the criminal justice system than whites. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics  40 percent of the incarcerated population is black yet African-Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population.    According to the New York Times 25 percent of African-Americans had one parent incarcerated in the last thirty years. In addition, according to the Department of Justice, 33 percent of African American men will spend time in prison.

   One explanation for the increase in black incarceration is the war on drugs. 

Bureau of Justice Statics 

   In 1992, The United States Public Health Service estimated that 14 percent of illicit drug users are black, and 76 percent are white, yet African Americans consist of 35 percent of all drug arrests, and 55 percent of all drug convictions. For example, although only 10 percent of Columbus is African American, yet they were arrested 18 times more for drug offenses than their white counterparts.

   The disparity in justice between blacks and white is most visibly illustrated in the prosecution of cocaine and crack.  However, in 2010 Congress enacted legislation to reduce this racial disparity. 

   Still, the war on drugs is only part of the problem.  The legalization of drugs is not the only reason for black incarceration. For example, in 1998 53 percent of those arrested for murder, 37 percent of those arrested for rape and 55 percent of those arrested for robbery were African Americans.  One plausible explanation for the increase incarceration of African-Americans could be that blacks commit more crimes per capita than other races. 

   According to a report (2008) by Bureau of Justice Statistics although, blacks account for 13 percent of the population in 2005 they are nearly 50 percent of homicide victims, (8,000.) 

   However, other studies suggest that blacks are targeted more than whites.  One study concluded that in Florida Blacks who kill white are five times more likely than whites to be sentenced to death for the same crime. There are numerous studies that show African-Americans are more likely to be arrested, convicted and committed to a correctional facility than whites for similar offense.  In 2005 another study concluded that  African American  youth are seven times more likely to do jail time for the same offense as a white adolescent, who will receive probation. 

  On a side note  the glorification and personification of the black  male stereotype as gun-wielding, misogynistic, drug-dealing, criminals by the mainstream hip hop media  needs to end. The hip hop media should stop marginalizing indie hip hop artists who don't incorporate racial stereotypes into their lyrics.  

  Another reason why the prison population has risen significantly over the years is because of longer sentences. A recent article in Wall Street Journal referenced a study by the Sentencing Commission which found that black men served a 20 percent longer sentences than whites for similar crime however when probation sentences were included the disparity shrunk to 14 percent.  The study attributed this disparity to the judicial latitude in sentencing granted judges and suggested that judges base their decision on set guidelines established by the Sentencing Commission. However, the problem becomes more complex because in 2004 the Sentencing Commission arrived at the opposite conclusion after a 15 year study. 
   However, the debate between set guidelines and exercising judicial discretion has been contentious within the legal community.  There are many noteworthy examples of how mandatory sentencing has lead to ethical ambiguity. In 1993 Judge Richard A. Gadbois, Jr. was furious when he was forced to issue a ten year sentence to a woman who was paid $50 to deliver a package containing crack cocaine.      

   The third strike policy in California exemplifies this legal model. Robert Wayne Washington received a 25 year sentence for possessing a small amount of cocaine because of two burglaries 8 years ago. One of the most interesting cases was Jerry Dewayne Williams who received a 25-year sentence for stealing a slice of pizza. Lastly, The California Department of Corrections estimated that by 2024 approximately half of the prison population will be third strike offenders.    


 Another reason for the burgeoning prison population can be linked to the expansion in prosecutorial leverage in criminal trials. Impervious defendants who think that they can win in the courtroom, may lose their case instead and face minimum mandatory sentences that can lengthen their incarceration by decades. It is especially difficult to win when many politicians have expanded felony qualifications. This has led to an increase in plea bargains, however attempts to assuage the severity of punishment, causes defendants to accept culpability even if they are innocent. This can also contribute to a rise in incarceration.
  One of the reactions to the growth in the prison population has been the privatization of correctional facilities. This is known as the prison-industrial complex.  

   The vocational use of prisons would be beneficial if the prisoners where able to transition their skills into the real world or get a job from the company they were working for during their incarceration. Even after the inmates return to society they have a difficult time finding employment because of their criminal background. 
    Prominent civil rights activists Angela Davis wrote about this issue in the 90s.  

“In California….the passage of an inmate initiative in 1990 has presented businesses seeking cheap labor with opportunities uncannily similar to those in Third World Country.”

   Bob Sloan has chronicled the rise of privatized prisons for the last decade. According to Sloan there are numerous states that have expanded the use of prison labor including Wisconsin, Arizona, Maine, Georgia and Florida. There are 1,022 factories taken advantage of the large labor pool that is provided through the U.S. prison system. 

   In addition this has also hurt small businesses who are not able to compete because of the higher labor costs. More than 2/3rd of the country has created programs that cement this partnership between the prisons and corporations. Moreover, many of these private prisons are contractually obligated to maintain 90 percent capacity. In other words, there is a financial incentive to ensure these prisons remain crowded. 

  The exploitation of prisoners for profit is nothing new.  W.E.B Du Bois, the first black American to earn a PH.D, wrote in his Magnum Opus The Soul of Black Folks, a century ago: 

The country prison...the white folks say it is ever filled with black criminals  the black folks say that only colored boys are sent to jail, and not because they are guilty but because the state needs criminals to eke out its income by their force labor.



   Again, the social and economic problems that affect the black community cannot be divorced from the reality of mass incarceration. Many sociologists believe that the exodus of black men from the community due to the criminal justice system has led to the increase in poverty and unemployment. Two sociologists have estimated that mass incarceration in the last decades has increased the poverty rate by 20 percent. 
  Moreover, it is difficult for convicts to economically assimilate back into their communities because employers are reluctant to higher ex-felons and because there may be a technical skills gap. 
   In addition, other Sociologists have argued that the high rate of STDS in the black community is directly linked to the high incarceration rate of black men, because the gender ratio facilitates multiple sexual relations. 

In The Soul of Black Folk, Du Bois wrote: 

The chief problem in any community cursed with crime is not cursed with crime but the preventing of young from being trained to crime" 

Furthermore Psychologist Karl Menniger wrote in 1968 that society needs to relinquish its  putative thirst for vengeance and instead focus on rehabilitating criminals. 

"We must renounce the philosophy of punishment the obsolete, the vengeful penal preserve are peace and our public safety. "    

   In 1997, Then Chicago Barack Obama worked with Democrats and Republicans to reform the criminal justice system. In 2007, then-Chicago politician Barack Obama, realized the need for reforming the criminal justice system by passing the Recidivism and Second Chance Act of 2007 which included economic re-integration into society.

  Du Bouis understood a century ago, that the advancement of black America is intimately linked to the criminal justice system.  Until, serious reforms occur on all levels addressing these racial disparities than the accomplishments by blacks outlined in Black History Month will be nothing more than a footnote in the history textbooks rather than an accurate reflection of the black experience today.  


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