Mass incarceration

“[Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks,” [H.R.] Haldeman, his Chief of Staff wrote, “The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

newjimcrow2Arthur, the Yankee Kiwi dandy, in response to my July 4 post, notes:

Yep, and now we have people like Bobby Jindal [Republican governor of Louisiana] — who always follows his party’s rightwing, never leads it—declaring that an armed rebellion by rightwing “Christians” is in the offing. It just keeps getting better, eh?

I’d be quite keen to see a post about government overreach. We hear that all the time from the right—the far, FAR right in particular—but I can’t recall ever seeing anyone from our side of the Great Divide talking about it.

Do you want an example of government outreach? OK, and it was massive, and it continues. Per The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, and other sources, there have three major enslaving periods of black people in the United States. A July 4, 2014 talk by Alice Green addressed this phenomenon.

The first period, of course, was chattel slavery, It was, in most ways, the easiest to define. When Frederick Douglas gave his ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’ address in 1852, everyone was on the same page as to what was happening, even as they vigorously disagreed about what to do about it.

(Note that in 2014, an Arizona charter school teaches from a book arguing slavery wasn’t so bad.)

This period ended with the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865, which reads:
“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.”

In fact, it is that section between the commas that have been the problem for the next two phases.

After the brief Reconstruction, which ended by 1877, there is the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (and they are STILL around), Jim Crow laws, the 1896 separate but [ostensibly] equal Supreme Court ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson, and Slavery by Another Name, picking up blacks for minor crimes and renting out their services to industry.

Following World War II, indeed, in part as a result of the war, the US experienced a major pushback against racism, with Truman desegregating the army, the Supreme Court’s Board v. Board of Education (1954) and other cases, the Montgomery bus boycott (1955-1956), Freedom Riders, the 1963 March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and various other activities that suggested that equality was right around the corner.

Enter President Richard Nixon and the War on Drugs. Early on, circa 1971, “the majority of funding goes towards treatment, rather than law enforcement.” In a test market the year before, a methadone program in Washington D.C. “reduced burglaries by 41%.” So there were early signs that treatment could work.

For reasons too complicated to go into here – read this The Atlantic piece – Nixon wanted to employ an electoral “southern strategy.” “In Nixon’s eyes, drug use was rampant in 1971 not because of grand social pressures that society had a duty to correct, but because drug users were law-breaking hedonists who deserved only discipline and punishment.”

But there were also more cynical motives:

Look, we understood we couldn’t make it illegal to be young or poor or black in the United States, but we could criminalize their common pleasure. We understood that drugs were not the health problem we were making them out to be, but it was such a perfect issue…that we couldn’t resist it.

– John Ehrlichman, White House counsel to President Nixon on the rationale of the War on Drugs.

“[Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks,” [H.R.] Haldeman, his Chief of Staff wrote, “The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

Did you ever wonder how this country went from a prison population of about 300,000 in 1973 to 500,000 in 1980 to 2.3 million people in 2008, the most imprisoned population in the world, and still over two million today? Is this a result of a sudden lack of moral character? No, this was a function of a decision to criminalize more actions.

States went along with this policy. New York State had the draconian Rockefeller drug laws “that put even low-level criminals behind bars for decades.” It had harsher prison terms for people who took crack cocaine (primarily blacks) than those who snorted powdered cocaine (primarily whites).
Once you have put people in prison, though, they never get out. Not really. Recidivism rates are generally high. Turning one’s life around is difficult with a criminal record and no job skills.

Did I mention that “African Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population”?

Now this an oversimplification, but I think a lot of the problems with police overreaction with criminals, and with citizens who aren’t necessarily committing a crime, are linked to creating a criminal class. The excessive militarization of American policing is the result. A group of people is demonized, again. See, for instance, a woman beaten by a California Highway Patrol cop or the death of Eric Garner.

You may have heard about a new epidemic of heroin use in Vermont, upstate New York, and elsewhere. Most of the addicts are white, and most of the time, you see stories of their parents saying, “He’s not a bad kid, he just needs help.” While I agree with this, I wish the hearts and minds of people were so considerate towards black and Hispanic people with the same problem. White kids need help/black kids need jail codifies the mass incarceration scenario.

Not that white people don’t get caught up in the dragnet of excessive use of jail time. An impoverished mother dies in a jail cell over unpaid fines for her kids missing school. The Pennsylvania jail became a debtor’s prison.

I’ve noted recently how important it is to let people who had been in jail and served their time to be able to vote. (Note: I wrote that before you asked the question, but didn’t post until after.)

Also, this is why I tend to be in favor of legalized marijuana use, which is happening in Colorado and Washington state recreationally. I never “got” pot; the few times I tried it, it just made me sleepy. But the decriminalization of cannabis almost HAS to be better than Drug Enforcement raids.

The problem with the government’s overreach of mass incarceration is that it was so broad that it has become systemic. Now there are other factors, including education and poverty, but too many people in prison certainly affect these as well.

Since I started writing this, there was a stellar piece about prison on This Week Tonight with John Oliver. Also, How Race And Class Drive The Justice System:

Why are African-American youth 4.5 times more likely to end up in jail than white kids who commit identical offenses? According to Nell Bernstein, the answer is simple: Race and class determine who gets locked up in this country.

In her shocking new book, Burning Down The House, Bernstein examines America’s broken juvenile justice system and the toll that it takes on those who go through it. Bernstein explains why minorities are treated so much more harshly than their white peers, why the government won’t shut down the most abusive prisons, and how difficult it is for teens to rebuild their lives after spending time on the inside.

Finally, you should read Miriam Axel-Lute’s article on making reparations. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea, mostly because I don’t know what the mechanics of doing that look like at this point. She cites Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article “The Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic, about which she says, correctly, “Coates ties together a number of disparate historical facts into a compelling, cohesive narrative about how this country didn’t just happen to have slavery until we finally got rid of it, but that our wealth, our economy, even our democracy, is the way it is because of slavery, and the racial violence that allowed it and outlasted it.” Four years ago, Coates opposed reparations.
And speaking of education: Ronald Reagan stuck it to millennials: A college debt history lesson no one tells.

And actual slavery is not dead in America.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

4 thoughts on “Mass incarceration”

  1. As befits the innate librarian in you, you have beautifully pulled together a bunch of informative and perceptive resources. Thanks!

  2. “I think a lot of the problems with police overreaction with criminals, and with citizens who aren’t necessarily committing a crime, are linked to creating a criminal class.”

    In which case, the officer who gunned down an unarmed Ferguson, Missouri teenager today earns his Participation Ribbon.

    Excuse me while I spit.

  3. I’ve been a student of the schemes behind the Rockefeller drug laws… and i lived in Attica, NY, a little town with a Max and Medium prison. Attica is considered “the most racially diverse town in upstate NYS” because… wait for it… they add the incarcerated into the census. So in a 98 percent Anglo town, the other half of the population is behind bars.

    When the Attica riots broke out, it was because the warden refused some simple requests by “guests of the state” (that makes me puke, that one): More than ONE roll of toilet paper per month
    Pork out of the diet, since many converted to Islam
    More African-American and Latino guards… a need for some to communicate in Spanish was sorely needed
    Better treatment of their visiting families

    I could go on and on about this, but frankly, if Nelson Rockefeller hadn’t been such a self-important spoiled brat (hmmmm… makes me think of a few others, mostly Republicans), none of this would have started.

    Let’s keep supporting the decriminalization of marijuana – it’s a CLASS ONE FELONY DRUG up there with heroin and cocaine. It would get the “fake pot” (some of which is lethal) off the streets and hopefully have a lot of people who simply got caught holding back out in society. But the work doesn’t stop there. We must embrace the formerly incarcerated, help them get jobs, hell, CREATE jobs… anyway, until we find a common voice, it’s just a Rockefeller world. We just live in it. What the hell? Thanks, Roger. Amy

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