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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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