Monday, October 29, 2012

A National Tragedy

When Geoffrey Canada spoke on our Utica Campus earlier this month, I expected to hear about the success of the Harlem Children's Zone. He eventually got there, but Canada spent the first fifteen minutes talking about the impact that the mass incarceration of inner-city poor populations has had on families and children. I had planned this week to write about our local economy and the gap between students wanting jobs and employers decrying the dearth of trained workers to fill the open positions they have currently. But, simply, Canada's comments, along with information recently gleaned from several other sources on the subject of today's U.S. prison population shocked, saddened, and motivated me to place my focus here this week.

I first heard about the "mass incarceration of America" on National Public Radio last spring as Michelle Alexander talked about her book, "The New Jim Crow." A short time later, I read columnist Leonard Pitts' call for people to read Alexander's book and subsequently help create a national movement to make positive changes to our criminal justice system.

I checked Alexander's book out of the MVCC Library and was blown away by the facts published therein. Ms. Alexander has a number of speeches available on YouTube that provide insight and texture to the topic. (Here is a 12 minute piece.)

Since Canada's appearance at MVCC, I've seen several television interviews regarding newly released documentaries – some intense and moving, others ironic and shocking.

“The House I Live In” is a film that just opened and provides insight to the mass incarceration of young black males in this country, with the additional perspectives of law enforcement. The war on drugs has had an all-encompassing effect on prisoners as well as a broad range of emotional and other effects on the law enforcement professionals who have the challenging job of enforcing our drug laws. (Here is the powerful two-minute trailer.)

Additionally, D.L. Hughley has a short film on Comedy Central, titled the “Endangered List,” wherein the comedian proposes the not-so-tongue-in-cheek notion that black people would have more rights if they were on the endangered list. The film explores the impact the war on drugs has had on blacks in America. After speaking with private, for-profit prison owners, Hughley learns that they are able to select their prisoners based on age and health (longer sentences are more profitable!). He puts a fine point on the issue by talking L.A. gang members into buying stock in some of those particular prisons. Hughley notes that not only might some of those gang members wind up being prisoners one day, they may also be shareholders in the very prisons likely to hold them.

Irony and marginal humor aside, the facts remain – the United States truly is the largest jailor in the world. 
  • The United States incarcerates its citizens at a rate seven times greater than any other developed nation in the world. We jail a higher percentage of our citizens than any other country, including China, North Korea and that of South Africa during Apartheid.
  • The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners.
  • More African-American adults are under correctional control in the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1850.
  • Black children have less chance today of being raised by both parents than they did during slavery.
  • The drug war was declared when drug use was actually declining.
  • Crack cocaine use has been sentenced at a severity of 100 to 1 compared to powder cocaine – Congress recently addressed this incredible imbalance … now that ratio is only 18 to 1. Unbelievable.
  • Federal drug laws prohibit convicted felons post-release (including simple drug possession) from receiving financial aid for education, food stamps, welfare and publicly funded housing. These prohibitions do not apply to violent bank robbers, white-collar criminals (think Wall Street and high finance) and, in some cases, even murderers do not face such harsh post-release sanctions.
  • The U.S. prison population has risen from 300,000 in 1980 to more than 2 million today.
  • By the year 2000 more people were returning to prison on drug convictions than ALL people going to prison in 1980.
  • In some urban areas, more than 50% of working age African-American men have criminal records.
The list of startling statistics goes on and on. Generally, I consider myself to be socially aware, so to learn of all this – at this magnitude – was shocking to me. 

The quote at the end of the movie trailer above says mass incarceration in this country is a “holocaust in slow motion.” I am reminded of the great novel “Stones from the River” by Ursela Hegi that tells the tale of the Holocaust in similar form. That human tragedy gained traction over so many years that, by the time people recognized it, the scourge had progressed far beyond the collective imagination. I only hope it’s not too late for us and can only imagine how our worker shortage might be different if even half of those prisoners could find a path through college and to careers rather than "riding" the tractor beam of our current system of criminal justice.

If you have any comments or questions, please email me at presblog@mvcc.edu.