Mass Incarceration: America's New Apartheid
Racism may well be the biggest crime in the criminal legal system. African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population. Blacks are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. If present trends continue, 1 of every 3 African American males born this decade can expect to go to prison in his lifetime despite the fact that the Census Bureau reports that African Americans constitute only 13% of the our population. This is a staggering statistic.Racism may well be the biggest crime in the criminal legal system. African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population. Blacks are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. If present trends continue, 1 of every 3 African American males born this decade can expect to go to prison in his lifetime despite the fact that the Census Bureau reports that African Americans constitute only 13% of the our population. This is a staggering statistic.
The premise for this commentary is that racial policy drives mass incarceration and that mass incarceration is racial policy. If the past is any guide, penal reform in the US rarely attacks the root of the problem, which is racial and economic injustice. As the rising numbers of our minority prison population continue to grow, so too is the proliferation of prison privatization as a potentially lucrative economic boon to the incarceration crisis. Here is a quick look at how manifestly racist State and Federal drug policies have helped fuel this phenomenon.
Mass Incarceration: A grand “social service program”?
When Brown v Board of Education was decided in 1954 about 100,000 African Americans were in prison. Now there are over 1 million African Americans in jails and prisons. Black males represented the largest percentage (35.4 percent) of inmates held in custody, followed by white males (32.9 percent) and Hispanic males (19.7%).
According to the Sentencing Project (a non-profit organization that analyzes the US criminal system), African American males are nearly six times as likely to be incarcerated as white males. Hispanic males are 2.3 times are likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts. One in six Hispanic males born after 2001 can expect to be incarcerated during their lifetime.
One dramatic change in the political landscape of the US criminal justice system has been the expansion of our jails and prisons (both privatized and non-privatized) over the last several decades. This political reality, when combined with the deep institutional racism embedded into every step of the criminal justice system, has created an inherently racist criminal legal system, operating exactly what it has been designed to achieve: which is to incarcerate as many blacks and other minorities as possible.
Many people associate the mass imprisonment of a population with authoritarian political systems. Consequently, many Americans are surprised when they learn that their country incarcerates more of its own citizens than any other. With 2.3 million prisoners, the “land of the free” has more people in prison than China, which has a population four times the size of the United States. A hugely disproportionate percentage of those incarcerated are African-Americans as Washington's war on drugs constitutes the latest incarnation of racist policies that have existed since the country's founding.
The United States has a long and ongoing history of implementing policies ensuring that blacks and other minorities are physically segregated from whites, and denied Constitutional rights all but guaranteed to whites. While we were still a British colony, white settlers first exterminated much of the indigenous population. They then started to import black slaves from Africa to work the plantations and to serve as domestic servants.
Even after achieving political independence, white policy makers under our newly formed “democracy” and its creation of the Bill of Rights immediately made evident this country's hypocrisy. Privileged white males benefitted by continuing the practice of slavery and ensuring that only white male property owners could vote. In short, there was no “independence” for African Americans.
When slavery was finally abolished in the United States in 1865, blacks still remained second-class citizens under a system of apartheid in which a series of Jim Crow laws kept African-Americans segregated from whites. It wasn't until the mid-1960s, one hundred years after the abolition of slavery and almost two hundred years after independence, that officially-sanctioned segregation eventually ended. Finally all blacks in the United States obtained the right to vote and to equal access to public schools and other public spaces.
Impact of Drug Wars
However, by 1971, the US government's “war on drugs” became another tool for implementing social control over blacks in order to segregate them from the general white population. It was during the ‘70's that drug arrests and incarceration rates increased significantly, with a disproportionate number of those targeted being African-Americans. By 1980, there were 41,000 imprisoned drug offenders. That number skyrocketed to more than half a million by 2011, according to The Sentencing Project.
In 1986, President Reagan intensified the war on drugs by declaring that illegal drugs constituted a threat to national security. That same year, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act with very little debate, establishing harsher and mandatory prison sentences for crack and powder cocaine. But the mandatory sentences for crack were much harsher than those for powder cocaine.
The race and class bias of the 1986 sentencing laws soon became apparent as the ratio of blacks who were imprisoned compared to whites increased dramatically. Crack cocaine was much cheaper than powder cocaine and it became popular in poorer urban neighborhoods, many of which were Black. In contrast, most of the principal users of powder cocaine were middle- and upper-class whites living in relatively wealthy suburban neighborhoods.
Consequently, a conviction for selling 500 grams of powder cocaine resulted in a five-year mandatory sentence, whereas only 5 grams of crack cocaine would trigger the same five-year sentence. In other words, a conviction for possession of crack cocaine resulted in a prison sentence 100 times longer than a conviction for the equivalent amount of powder cocaine. Essentially, Congress imposed disparate sentencing laws for basically the same drug. Furthermore, crack became the only drug that carried a mandatory sentence for first offenders.
So while record numbers of black and Hispanic low-level urban drug dealers and users were being sent to prison, most middle and upper class white suburban dealers and users remained relatively free to indulge their criminal activity with little police harassment.
By the late 1990s, despite constituting only 13% of the nation's drug users, African Americans represented 58% of imprisoned drug offenders. According to the United States Sentencing Commission, the majority of these offenders were low-level dealers or users.
This rate of incarceration contributed to a social breakdown in many poor and inner-city neighborhoods. The number of minority children growing up fatherless skyrocketed, with 70% living in single-parent homes without their biological father at the beginning of the 21st century. This is compared to only 14 percent twenty years earlier.
In 2010, Congress finally addressed the 100:1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine by reducing it to an 18:1 ratio and eliminating mandatory prison terms for crack possession. While an improvement, the new sentencing laws still disproportionately impact blacks because the new sentencing laws were not made to be applied retroactively. As a result, thousands of drug offenders convicted under the old laws remain incarcerated.
Impact of Mass Imprisonment on Local Communities
While the mass imprisonment of African-Americans and Hispanics has created a social crisis, particularly in poor urban neighborhoods, it has proven to be an economic boon for corporations and rural communities. The prison system is becoming largely privatized, thereby turning this part of the criminal justice system into a for-profit industry.
Rural communities that have struggled to survive economically have found one solution is to host privatized prisons. With an average of 35 jobs created for every 100 inmates, local elected officials began viewing prisons as an economic development tool. In the decades following Reagan's intensification of the war on drugs, more than 213 prisons were opened in rural areas, housing prisoners from distant cities and even other states. Many of these prisons were operated by private corporations.
This process has had devastating consequences on poor minority communities in cities. First, it has made it even more difficult for children to maintain a relationship with their imprisoned fathers because of the expense and time required to visit distant prisons. Second, it has undermined the democratic system by shifting federal dollars and elected representation away from urban neighborhoods to rural communities. The privatization of our prisons has incentivized rural communities because Congress has allowed rural communities to include the prison population in their census count, which translates into more federal funding for the local community.
The flip side of this coin occurs in communities where prisoners come from which primarily are poor inner-city neighborhoods. With increasing numbers of African Americans and other minorities being sent to distant prisons as a result of mandatory drug sentencing, the census count shows a smaller population. This results in less federal funding. Given that the census only occurs every ten years, many prisoners return home to live in under-funded urban neighborhoods while rural communities continue reaping the financial benefits from their incarceration.
The disproportionate incarceration of our minorities also has implications for democracy. All but two US states (Maine and Vermont) prohibit prisoners from voting while incarcerated and twelve states disenfranchise convicted felons for a specific period of time following their release or for life. As of 2010, disenfranchisement laws meant that six million Americans were prohibited from voting in elections with Blacks constituting a hugely disproportionate percentage of the disenfranchised. In fact, one out of every thirteen African-Americans is banned from voting.
The mandatory sentencing and disenfranchisement laws are not the only forms of legislation that have disproportionately affected minorities and lower economic classes. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 contains a provision stating that anyone with a felony conviction for using or selling drugs is subject to a lifetime ban on receiving government financial assistance and food stamps. This provision only applies to drug offenders, not to violent felons. Consequently, someone who has served a sentence for murder or rape remains eligible for welfare benefits upon their release.
In 1998, Congress enacted a similar ban preventing drug offenders from receiving government grants or financial aid for college education. Tens of thousands of college-bound students have been denied federal aid because of prior drug convictions, often for past misdemeanors such as marijuana possession. As is the case with the lifetime welfare ban, the college aid ban only applies to drug offenders, while convicted murderers and rapists remain eligible for government grants and student loans. As a result of the war on drugs, black males are almost seven times more likely to go to prison than whites, resulting in a disproportionate number of young black men being declared ineligible for federal college aid.
Ultimately, US drug-war policies that have utilized mandatory sentencing laws, disenfranchisement and lifetime bans on receiving welfare benefits and student financial aid have disproportionately affected minorities and the poor. A black teenager convicted for a first offense of possessing five grams of crack cocaine could be sentenced to five years in prison, lose his or her right to vote for life, become ineligible to receive welfare benefits and food stamps, and not qualify for student financial aid should he or she want to get an education in order to obtain a decent job.
This dead-end approach generates almost unsurpassable barriers for individuals and families attempting to change their lives, thereby continuing the cycle of marginalization experienced by many blacks and other minorities from generation to generation. Furthermore, it could be argued, given that a hugely disproportionate percentage of prisoners are black, that the exploitation of their labor in prison call center constitutes modern-day slavery while disenfranchisement undermines the hard-won gains of the civil rights movement.
Ultimately, millions of blacks continue to be segregated through imprisonment and the denial of their basic rights. Though the mechanisms of oppression have changed over time from segregation through slavery to segregation under Jim Crow laws to segregation by incarceration, many Blacks and other minorities in the United States continue to be treated as second-class citizens in the 21st century.
But no matter where the polemic begins in an attempt to accurately frame the question, what is both anecdotally and statistically crystal clear, is that racism, whether blatant or insidiously hidden, accelerates the process of incarceration of African American males and other minorities. The resultant mass incarceration of our minorities have now become our country's new apartheid.