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How to Make Mass Incarceration a Political Issue

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by BAR Managing Editor Bruce Dixon

This article was originally published in Black Commentator July 21, 2005 

 

“A great force of suffering accumulated between the basement of heaven and the roof of hell...”

Zora Neale Hurston wrote those words almost seventy years ago at the beginning of her great allegorical work on black America, Moses, Man of the Mountain. She could have been speaking about African America today. As black activists ponder how best to build a mass movement to transform America, a mass movement that must start in but not be confined to our communities, one single low-hanging fruit of organizing opportunity is hard to miss.  That opportunity lies in the manifest unfairness and hypocrisy of America’s system of racially selective policing, prosecution and mass imprisonment.  These awful public policies are inviting targets for electoral and other mobilizations in black communities and beyond.

 

The fact that America does implement a public policy of racially selective mass imprisonment is well documented and beyond dispute.  With under 5 percent of the world’s people, the US accounts for 25 percent of the planet’s prisoners.  More than half its 2.2 million prisoners come from the one eighth of its population which is black.  Today, an astounding 3 percent of all African Americans languish in prisons and jails, and nearly as many more are on probation, parole, bail, house arrest or court supervision.  Tens of thousands of jobless, skill-less, often anti-socialized inmates are released into black communities each month in which jobs, medical care, educational opportunities and family or official support are almost completely absent.  Unsurprisingly, many are back behind the walls in a matter of months.  Right now, the shadow of prison squats at the corners of, and often at the center of nearly every black family’s life in this nation.

Since 1970, the US prison population has multiplied more than six times.  The explosive growth of America's incarceration and crime control industries have occurred despite essentially level crime rates over the last four decades.  This has only been possible because the public policies which enable and support locking up more people longer and for less have until now been exempt from analyses of their human, economic and social costs or from any reckoning of the relationships of spiraling imprisonment to actual crime rates and public safety.  Most tellingly, while public discussions of these policies are deracialized, their racially disparate impacts are a seldom discussed but widely known fact.  Thus even though the damning numbers are widely reported and well known, mass incarceration is practically invisible as a political issue, even in those heavily black communities which suffer most from its implementation.

Making mass incarceration a political issue

In the absence of an independent, adversarial press, which might be willing to raise issues on its own and educate the public, US political discourse is limited to what officeholders and candidates say and what the media chooses to report about what they say.  As long as no candidate or official can be heard calling for a moratorium on the prosecution of juveniles as adults, it is a non-issue.  If no candidate or official is cited in the media advocating the extension of health care, job and educational opportunities or the rights of citizenship to the prisoner class such proposals are absolutely off the table.  And unless some candidates or officials somehow get ink or air time publicly questioning the economic and social effects of mass incarceration on children, on families, on whole communities, these concerns remain politically invisible. 

The fact that sizeable chunks of the population, including likely majorities in constituencies with large numbers of African Americans might support radical reforms of America’s racially skewed policing, prosecutorial and sentencing practices, if anybody would ask them, is irrelevant.  The establishment political consensus and media lockdown assure that no section of the public will ever be asked such questions, and hence will never know how widely shared their own views on the clear injustice of these policies are.

If we are to build a mass movement in opposition to America’s crime control and prison industries, we must succeed in putting the facts of racially selective mass incarceration, impoverishment and criminalization, first, in front of our African American communities, and then before the whole of America, and do so effectively, persuasively, consistently and persistently.  America must be forced to publicly unpack and examine the myths that have justified its incarceration binge.  An indispensable tactic in this struggle must be the mounting of competent, effective campaigns for elected office which directly question the unfairness, along with the social and human costs of these policies, political campaigns which propose radical and understandable measures to shrink the “crime control” and prison industries rather than expand them, and to ameliorate some of the harm already done to families and communities.

A short list of such down-to-earth public policy proposals might include, but not be limited to the following:

  • A moratorium on the prosecution of juveniles as adults, and the confinement of juveniles in facilities with adult inmates.
  • A moratorium on all privatization of prisons and jails, including piecemeal privatizations of such services as inmate feeding, medical care and probation.
  •  Repeal or sunset of all “two-strikes”, “three strikes” and indeterminate sentencing legislation.
  • The imposition of mandatory ethnic and racial impact statements for all future prison construction and sentencing legislation, with a period set for mandatory review comparing the statement at outset with the results no less than four years out.
  • Elimination of sentencing disparities between powdered cocaine and crack.

  • End felony disenfranchisement in those states where it exists, perhaps with a constitutional amendment guaranteeing voting as a right.
  • Repeal of legislation banning Pell Grants to convicted felons and inmates, and require states to offer college credit courses to inmates who have completed their GED or the equivalent.
  • Refocus parole systems upon the re-entry and productive reintegration of former prisoners into society rather than re-imprisonment.
  • Civilian review boards with teeth to oversee police and prosecutorial practices.
  • Explicit commitments to reduce and eliminate disparities in prosecution and imprisonment.

Over the next several months we should refine and expand the list of policy positions that campaigns must incorporate if they expect the support of a mass movement to end the nation’s policy of racially selective imprisonment. 

Organic connections between electoral campaigns and mass movements

In another article, It's Time To Build a Mass Movement, we described some of the essential characteristics of mass movements, progressive and otherwise:

”Mass movements exist outside electoral politics, and outside the law, or they don’t exist at all.  Mass movements are never respecters of law and order.  How can they be?  A mass movement is an assertion of popular leadership by the people themselves.  A mass movement aims to persuade courts, politicians and other actors to tail behind it, not the other way around. ”

“Politicians are elected and selected, but mass movements transform societies.  Judges uphold, strike down, or invent brand new law, but mass movements drag the courts, laws and officeholders all in their wake.  Progressive and even partially successful mass movements can alter the political calculus for decades to come, thus improving the lives of millions….

There are already many serious people in our communities involved in churches and voluntary organizations that try their best to offer services to the families of inmates, that lobby and agitate against drug and incarceration policies, that attempt to offer counseling and re-entry services to those emerging from our state and federal gulag.  An electoral campaign and a mass movement is an unparalleled opportunity for grandmothers in church-sponsored re-entry programs to work with unchurched young people who know that they, their siblings and classmates are destined to be fodder for the imprisonment industry if things don’t turn around.  If that isn’t a formula that can feed a mass movement, no such thing exists.  Electoral campaigns conducted against the crime control industry are an indispensable tool in extending a movement’s outreach.

Still, we must not allow ourselves to become confused about the differences between a mass movement to change America's policy of selective policing and racist incarceration, and an electoral campaign, even ones that succeed in putting the issue of mass imprisonment at its center.  Unlike a mass movement, a political campaign is a decorous, time-limited legal exercise.  We must know that political campaigns have often heralded the demobilization of a mass movement, even when that movement’s objectives have not been met.  Being able to use electoral campaigns to advance the agenda of a mass movement demands prior preparation and steadfast resolve, lest the candidate before or after election stray from within the bright lines of opposing the incarceration of juveniles as adults, or demanding racial and ethnic impact statements and evaluation for sentencing legislation, to use two of several possible examples.

The culture of campaigns and officialdom as practiced in America today makes officeholders unaccountable to anyone except corporate cash and corporate media.  Hence it is suicidal for the leaders of local movements to wait for candidates to emerge and then decide which if any to support.  Candidates that surface without the help of a movement against mass incarceration will have intended all along to run whether such a movement existed or not, and should hence be shunned.  Local “movement leaders,” forced to choose among such a crop, will inevitably choose the “least worst” candidate, who will offer only tepid support to a movement’s “bright line” issues and will not advance the cause of de-legitimizing our nation’s racially skewed crime control industry at all.

To guarantee that political campaigns endorsed by the movement do indeed advance the cause, over the individual fortunes and pressures to which candidates are prey, we must set up local, statewide and even regional screening committees to recruit and interview suitable candidates for office, and to facilitate the channeling of funds and campaign expertise to those who pledge to stay within the bright lines and place the issue of mass incarceration squarely at the center of their campaigns.  A national PAC whose sole purpose is funding movement-vetted candidates running against mass imprisonment – and other “bright line issues – might be employed.

Candidates who run against the crime control industry and racist mass imprisonment will certainly need all the help they can get.  Although they are likely to receive surprising support and attract tons of youthful talent and enthusiasm in our base communities, they will face formidable odds getting their message out through an indifferent or hostile media.   Time-tested best practices like accountable voter registration drives, accurate phone and door to door canvasses in base areas, and competent Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) practices will have to be combined with newer innovations to circumvent the monopoly that corporate media have on access to the American public, including the black public.  BC will explore the impact of some of these new media tactics and tools in an upcoming article.

Targeting local prosecutors and sheriffs

Federal prosecutors are presidential appointees.  But the state level gatekeepers for the prison industry’s stream of human raw material are local prosecutors – elected officials who must run for office at the level of counties, cities and judicial circuits.  A number of these jurisdictions have black majorities.  The local politicians with responsibility for housing pre-trial inmates are usually elected county officials too: sheriffs. 

The table below, which arranges the list of US counties to show those with the top 130 black populations, shows a target-rich environment, with fully 37 jurisdictions having African American population percentages of 30% or greater.  Every major city in the state of Georgia, for instance, is on the list, including 3 of the 4 largest counties in metro Atlanta.  And you don’t need a black majority to run against mass imprisonment and win.  A black prosecutor ran against the Rockefeller drug laws in Albany NY, where African Americans are a distinct minority – and won.

Counties by Black Population

County Name

State

Total County Population

Total Black  Population

Percent

Cook County

IL

5,376,741

1,405,361

26.1

Los Angeles County

CA

9,519,338

930,957

9.8

Kings County

NY

2,465,326

898,350

36.4

Wayne County

MI

2,061,162

868,992

42.2

Philadelphia County

PA

1,517,550

655,824

43.2

Harris County

TX

3,400,578

628,619

18.5

Prince George's County

MD

801,515

502,550

62.7

Bronx County

NY

1,332,650

475,007

35.6

Miami-Dade County

FL

2,253,362

457,214

20.3

Dallas County

TX

2,218,899

450,557

20.3

Queens County

NY

2,229,379

446,189

20

Shelby County

TN

897,472

435,824

48.6

Baltimore city

MD

651,154

418,951

64.3

Cuyahoga County

OH

1,393,978

382,634

27.4

Fulton County

GA

816,006

363,656

44.6

DeKalb County

GA

665,865

361,111

54.2

District of Columbia

DC

572,059

343,312

60

Broward County

FL

1,623,018

333,304

20.5

Essex County

NJ

793,633

327,324

41.2

Orleans Parish

LA

484,674

325,947

67.3

New York County

NY

1,537,195

267,302

17.4

Jefferson County

AL

662,047

260,608

39.4

Milwaukee County

WI

940,164

231,157

24.6

Duval County

FL

778,879

216,780

27.8

Alameda County

CA

1,443,741

215,598

14.9

Marion County

IN

860,454

207,964

24.2

Hamilton County

OH

845,303

198,061

23.4

Mecklenburg County

NC

695,454

193,838

27.9

St. Louis County

MO

1,016,315

193,306

19

Franklin County

OH

1,068,978

191,196

17.9

Tarrant County

TX

1,446,219

185,143

12.8

St. Louis city

MO

348,189

178,266

51.2

East Baton Rouge Parish

LA

412,852

165,526

40.1

Orange County

FL

896,344

162,899

18.2

San Diego County

CA

2,813,833

161,480

5.7

Allegheny County

PA

1,281,666

159,058

12.4

Palm Beach County

FL

1,131,184

156,055

13.8

San Bernardino County

CA

1,709,434

155,348

9.1

Suffolk County

MA

689,807

153,418

22.2

Hinds County

MS

250,800

153,297

61.1

Jackson County

MO

654,880

152,391

23.3

Baltimore County

MD

754,292

151,600

20.1

Hillsborough County

FL

998,948

149,423

15

Davidson County

TN

569,891

147,696

25.9

Richland County

SC

320,677

144,809

45.2

Nassau County

NY

1,334,544

134,673

10.1

Mobile County

AL

399,843

133,465

33.4

Montgomery County

MD

873,341

132,256

15.1

Westchester County

NY

923,459

131,132

14.2

Jefferson County

KY

693,604

130,928

18.9

Clark County

NV

1,375,765

124,885

9.1

Wake County

NC

627,846

123,820

19.7

Erie County

NY

950,265

123,529

13

Guilford County

NC

421,048

123,253

29.3

Lake County

IN

484,564

122,723

25.3

Clayton County

GA

236,517

121,927

51.6

Sacramento County

CA

1,223,499

121,804

10

Oakland County

MI

1,194,156

120,720

10.1

Pulaski County

AR

361,474

115,197

31.9

Maricopa County

AZ

3,072,149

114,551

3.7

Cobb County

GA

607,751

114,233

18.8

Richmond city

VA

197,790

113,108

57.2

Caddo Parish

LA

252,161

112,483

44.6

Montgomery County

OH

559,062

111,030

19.9

Union County

NJ

522,541

108,593

20.8

Montgomery County

AL

223,510

108,583

48.6

Charleston County

SC

309,969

106,918

34.5

Cumberland County

NC

302,963

105,731

34.9

Jefferson Parish

LA

455,466

104,121

22.9

Norfolk city

VA

234,403

103,387

44.1

New Castle County

DE

500,265

101,167

20.2

Monroe County

NY

735,343

101,078

13.7

Bexar County

TX

1,392,931

100,025

7.2

Hennepin County

MN

1,116,200

99,943

9

Hartford County

CT

857,183

99,936

11.7

Richmond County

GA

199,775

99,391

49.8

Oklahoma County

OK

660,448

99,241

15

Suffolk County

NY

1,419,369

98,553

6.9

Riverside County

CA

1,545,387

96,421

6.2

Chatham County

GA

232,048

93,971

40.5

King County

WA

1,737,034

93,875

5.4

New Haven County

CT

824,008

93,239

11.3

Camden County

NJ

508,932

92,059

18.1

Genesee County

MI

436,141

88,843

20.4

Contra Costa County

CA

948,816

88,813

9.4

Fairfield County

CT

882,567

88,362

10

Durham County

NC

223,314

88,109

39.5

Jefferson County

TX

252,051

85,046

33.7

Fairfax County

VA

969,749

83,098

8.6

Pinellas County

FL

921,482

82,556

9

Hudson County

NJ

608,975

82,098

13.5

Muscogee County

GA

186,291

81,488

43.7

Virginia Beach city

VA

425,257

80,593

19

Delaware County

PA

550,864

79,981

14.5

Forsyth County

NC

306,067

78,388

25.6

Gwinnett County

GA

588,448

78,224

13.3

Lucas County

OH

455,054

77,268

17

Travis County

TX

812,280

75,247

9.3

St. Clair County

IL

256,082

73,666

28.8

Bibb County

GA

153,887

72,818

47.3

Summit County

OH

542,899

71,608

13.2

Newport News city

VA

180,150

70,388

39.1

Fort Bend County

TX

354,452

70,356

19.8

Leon County

FL

239,452

69,704

29.1

Mercer County

NJ

350,761

69,502

19.8

Greenville County

SC

379,616

69,455

18.3

Middlesex County

NJ

750,162

68,467

9.1

Anne Arundel County

MD

489,656

66,428

13.6

Polk County

FL

483,924

65,545

13.5

Hampton city

VA

146,437

65,428

44.7

Henrico County

VA

262,300

64,805

24.7

Passaic County

NJ

489,049

64,647

13.2

Burlington County

NJ

423,394

64,071

15.1

Madison County

AL

276,700

63,025

22.8

Escambia County

FL

294,410

63,010

21.4

Hamilton County

TN

307,896

62,005

20.1

Tulsa County

OK

563,299

61,656

10.9

Denver County

CO

554,636

61,649

11.1

San Francisco County

CA

776,733

60,515

7.8

Solano County

CA

394,542

58,827

14.9

Dougherty County

GA

96,065

57,762

60.1

Chesapeake city

VA

199,184

56,823

28.5

Montgomery County

PA

750,097

55,969

7.5

Orangeburg County

SC

91,582

55,736

60.9

Douglas County

NE

463,585

53,330

11.5

Spartanburg County

SC

253,791

52,775

20.8

Prince William County

VA

280,813

52,691

18.8

Will County

IL

502,266

52,509

10.5

Kent County

MI

574,335

51,287

8.9

Portsmouth city

VA

100,565

50,899

50.6

Unpacking the myths around the crime control industry

Crime control policies on every level in the U.S. are based upon racist myths.  Myths are powerful because they are never questioned, never examined, never unpacked.  Nobody disputes that Justice Department data going back decades shows rates of drug use among blacks and whites to be about the same.  A combination of white racism and a willingness to ignore unpleasant facts largely account for white indifference at the disparity between white and black rates of arrest and prosecution for offenses created with equal frequency by both groups.  But black support for an industry and for public policies that criminalize a third of all young black men, which disrupt and retard the formation of strong families, and cripple workforce and educational opportunities for such a broad cross section of us, is at best ambivalent and at worst paper-thin, even among African Americans working in the industry, based as it is upon a tenuous mass acceptance that this is all somehow part of the normal balance of society.

“It’s hot in the summer,” we tell ourselves, “it’s cold in the winter, and a third of all young black men are in and out of jail.”  Or we say “It’s a trap!  It was out there waitin’ for them and they fell in it!”  Both these positions are understandable as mental adjustments much like those that some of our forbears thought they had to make to get along in the world of triumphant Jim Crow and white terror eighty or a hundred years ago.  Such views are uncomfortable for the black people that hold them, and unstable.  We must engage them by depicting mass incarceration not as the way normal societies behave, but as a failed experiment that punishes our entire community, a malevolent social policy that can be challenged and must be changed. 

Our language must be carefully constructed to aid in the process of demythologizing crime and crime control policies.  We need new terminology, new language that better enables people to grasp the issues around mass imprisonment and the criminal justice industry as malevolent social policies which can be changed, rather than unalterable facts like cold in the winter and heat in the summer.  For example, the terms “criminal justice system” and “corrections” ought to be replaced in all our dialogue with terms like “crime control industry”, or “imprisonment industry.” A “system” is a very generalized term that does not tell us much, while an “industry” is a very specific kind of system.  To call it an “industry” instead raises powerful questions of profit and accountability which are obscured when we call it anything else. 

White establishment pundits and politicians of a generation ago warned us.  They predicted the coming of what they called a “white backlash.” This was their name for a predicted white racist response to the just demands of African America for equality of opportunity and economic justice advanced by the movement of the 1960s, a response some feared would entrench racial inequality and privilege deeper than ever before.  They were right.  Beginning in the 1970s the selective mass imprisonment of African Americans helped to swell the six or sevenfold expansion of the prison population.  And while the rhetoric and official policies that enabled this were ostensibly race-neutral, the results were an open secret.  Around the same time, Dr. King was saying that the movement which would save the nation’s soul would have to emerge from black America.  He was right too. 

The struggle to de-legitimize the racist crime control and prison industries are at the heart of this generation's struggle to de-legitimize racism itself.  America’s policies of racially selective policing, prosecution and imprisonment are the first target for a mass movement which must emerge from our communities, but which must not be confined to them.

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