Friday, April 18, 2014

The Great American Prison System

"I would say that the prison-industrial complex reminds us that we live with the ghost of slavery. Punishment was used in the aftermath of slavery in order to re-institute slavery...So the criminalization of blackness, which is at the core of vast prison population today, finds its roots in slavery and in the aftermath of slavery." -Angela Davis on Democracy Now!
If you haven’t heard this statistic already let it be repeated: There are more black men in prison, on parole, and/or on probation then were enslaved prior to the American Civil War. Maybe that statistic is just too much to take in but it seems that fact alone isn’t enough for Americans, of any ethnicity, to bring this up as a major societal issue. This locking up of black and brown men and women, is the largest aspect of a growing prison industrial complex that this country is facing. However, it does not encompass the problem as a whole. There is privatization of what should be a government regulated institution. There is inhumane solitary confinement running rampant in what is one of the harshest treatments of prisoners among industrialized nations. There is money pumping into the prison industrial complex that is destroying families, communities, and fighting the so called war on drugs. These points better prepare a look into a societal ill that plagues the people of this country, disproportionately the lower class citizens in the great American Plutocracy.

During his presidency, Richard Nixon famously uttered America’s fight in the “War on Drugs” which became “public enemy number one”. This allowed for the rolling out of archaic laws, harsh and incomprehensible drug sentencing, as well as the locking up of people, mostly black and brown, by the droves. The war on drugs inflated Americans prison population immensely. Since 1970 the prison population has risen an outrageous 700%. Likewise, the shift to private prisons has created a boom to increase and maintain prison populations as well as exploit and mistreat them.

Private Prison systems is big business, there are companies such as Victoria’s Secret and Microsoft that get their product produced through prison labor. This labor might as well be slave labor where these prisoners are paid pennies a day for their work. A growing sector of the prison industrial complex plays hand in hand with America’s crack down of immigrants. Peoples that have come to America and found without proper documentation can very well find themselves in prison as a limbo between staying in the states and being deported. Immigrant detention facilities rake in close to $5.1 billion a year. Recently there were hunger strikes in Washington and protests at these immigration detention centers by prisoners denouncing their treatment and punishments while there.

In the same manner, the treatment of prisoners is a dark aspect of the complex. Female inmates in California can find themselves sterilized behind bars. Similarly, other gruesome parts of prison would have to be solitary confinement and the death penalty. When in solitary confinement you are locked in a cell for up to 23 hours a day only able to move around in the sun for one hour and solitary can be for any length of time. Prisoners can spend months and maybe years in solitary confinement. A prisoner could be thrown into solitary for the most minuscule thing like missing role call or talking back to a prison guard. It has been studied that solitary can literally drive people crazy in a very dehumanizing practice. Record hunger strikes in California brought attentions to this problem. The international community condemns solitary as inhumane and a crime against basic human rights. The death penalty is another problem. Interestingly, the original injection method for the death sentence has been halted by the original European companies that don’t agree with the practice. Unfortunately, instead of reconsidering killing people this has led to states making scary chemical cocktails to kill prisoners with grueling consequences.

It is hard to believe that all of this is happening in a country that proclaims liberty and justice. However, organized people, movements, and petitions, help on the grassroots effort to change some of these problems.

An innocent man who was never given a fair trial with evidence withheld proving his innocence, has been incarcerated for the past 38 years. There is no evidence linking this man to this crime yet an all-white jury convicted him based on the victim's identification when officers conducted an unusual "lineup." The "lineup" consisted of the officers bringing the victim to court to see Long. We all know that eyewitness testimony alone cannot be sufficient enough to convict someone of a crime especially when there is forensic evidence proving the innocence of the defendant. In 2008, the assistant DA who helped prosecute Ronnie in 1976, testified on his behalf.
In the case of Ronnie Wallace Long the circumstances of his arrest and conviction raise many questions and in the repressive state of North Carolina it isn't surprising a black man sees justice denied. A petition for a proper forensic investigation is underway.

Many petitions for reform of the justice system and halt to the prison industrial complex leads us to Massachusetts. Saturday April 26th at Boston Commons, a Jobs Not Jails rally will come to the front steps of the state capitol. A call and petition for more Jobs and less jails is being brought up by the Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement or EPOCA.
  • Massachusetts taxpayers are expected to build 10,000 new prison units by 2023, costing $2 billion, unless dramatic reforms are made;
  • Reforms in other states have led to greater public safety while actually closing prisons (e.g. New York, Texas);
  • Reducing long-term unemployment also improves public safety state-wide;

The prison system is costing taxpayers’ money, breaking up families, and destroying communities the way it is run right now. All this disproportionately in the black, brown, and poor communities. We have incidences where rich people are deemed "too rich" or suffering made up disorders like “affluenza” avoiding jail, but we are locking up the poorer classes at historic rates. It is time for a critical debate in Washington, and in our local communities on how we can fix these problems. It is time to look towards breaking the chains the prison industrial complex has put on this country.

Thanks to Melissa Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness for inspiration.

This piece was featured in emPower Magazine

Written by: E. Rey