Thursday, September 29, 2016

On incarceration

I recently read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and Angela Davis' Are Prisons Obsolete?  Combined, these provide an accessible and informational overview of the history of mass incarceration in the United States, and provides some potential solutions. For the purposes of this blog post, I have focused on M. Alexander's book. 

The New Jim Crow posits that in the history of the United States, there have been three forms of racialized social control - a racial caste sysetm based on exploitation (slavery), subordination (the Jim Crow laws) and marginalization (mass incarceration).  It took a war to end slavery, and a mass social movement to end Jim Crow.  Alexander suggests that it would require another mass social movement to end mass incarceration and its stigmatizing effects on communities of color.  She sets out to stimulate conversation on thought on the role of the criminal justice system in perpetuating a racial caste system. 
Alexander describes some of the discrimination that the formerly incarcerated face, which include but are not limited to tangible impacts such as housing, employment, exclusion from jury service, denial of public benefits, ineligibility for food stamps, inability to secure a drivers license.  Coupled with intangible effects such as the social stigma and a "racially segregated and subordinated existence," felons are permanently on the margins of society, excluded from full participation as a citizen.  Alexander states, Hundreds of years ago, our nation put those considered less than human in shackles; less than one hundred years ago, we relegated them to the other side of town; today we put them in cages."  She further states that"A human rights nightmare is occurring on our watch."  

Alexander describes the history of the three racialized forms of social control, in particular mass incarceration, and describes its failure in actually preventing crime and that, in fact, it was not an increase in violent crime that accounted for the prison boom.  Rather, it stems largely from the war on drugs that was waged in poor black communities, as opposed to say, in white fraternity houses or wealthy white suburbs, that resulted in convictions for drug offenses.  The data shows that people of color are no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than whites.  Due to a combination of "stop and frisk" policies, pretext stops (ex. being pulled over for a supposedly broken tail light as a pretext for a drug search), and cash incentives to police departments for drug law enforcement, drug convictions soared.  Simultaneously, with a decline of jobs in the inner cities, there was an increased incentives to sell drugs to keep food on the table. 

Here are some facts and ideas she mentions:

- No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities
- 1 in 3 young African Americans is under the control of the criminal justice system (where it be in prison, jail, probation, or parole)
- African Americans are six times as likely to be sentenced to prison for identical crimes, than whites (among youth never sent to juvenile prison before)
- The stigma of incarceration leads to silence and a "collective denial of lived experience" and leads many to embrace a stigmatized identity
- Potential solutions:  meaningful re-entry programs, the elimination of incentives to arrest poor black and brown people.  She points out that affirmative action has been positive in providing psychological benefits to people of color, but in doing so abandons a more radical social movement

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