Blacks and Prisons
I look across the room and out of approximately 80 prisoners 65 were black or brown. A question quickly came to mind are black people naturally violent, poor and bad people? I made several poor decisions that landed me into this jail cell but man it’s a lot of black and brown people in here I thought to myself. The next question that came to mind changed my life forever. Why is it that this place is filled with black and brown people when white people commit crimes as well? This question was the spark that ignited a life long quest to understand the America in which we live today.
Inspired by Cornell West, the ADOS movement, and the school to prison pipeline researched I have decided to write this post to speak about how race has a direct connection to mass incarceration today. Dr. West spoke in the book “Race Matters”, that our human continuity is all connected in the life we share. Slavery, colorism, and the first caste system which would lead to the institution of what would later be called chattel slavery and evolve into what’s now mass incarceration. The violence displayed on people of color provides a clear insight into the conditions, the mindset of elite whites’ attitudes toward people of color. It drew clear lines for what they wanted from their darker-skinned brethren.
The moment white settlers reached the now called Americas “color” was defined and used as a method that would shape the political, economic, social and cultural development of the United States of America. People of color encountered views of inferiority, were deemed unworthy of wealth, resources and opportunities that this very land possessed. The outright design to exploit people of color through violence and in the name of religion was a surge to justify the horrendous rape, brutalization, murder, hanging, and the systematic massacre of people of color both physically and biologically.
The caste system that emerged led to the kidnapping of millions of Africans which turned into the American slavery we are accustomed to hearing about today. The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, declared all slaves in rebelling states to be free. This brave act of the then President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln allowed the slaves that have escaped the harsh life of a southern slave the opportunity to fight as a human being and to fight for his or her relatives that were left behind.
The proclamation gave the Union a sizable advantage by utilizing the newly freed negro which enabled them to gain momentum and success over the Confederate Army. The Thirteen Amendment of 1865 officially abolished slavery in the United States. The Civil Rights Act of 1875, that African Americans were guaranteed equal treatment in public accommodations, public transportation and prohibited their exclusion from jury service. Unfortunately, this newfound freedom was short-lived; because in just eight short years the U. S. Supreme Court declared parts of the 1875 Civil Rights Act unconstitutional to include the prohibition of racial discrimination in inns, public conveyances and places of amusement. Therefore, causing a dealing a reversal back to segregationally norms.
Another example is that in the case of Bailey v. State of Alabama. Alabama at the time had a law that facilitated “debt peonage”, which is a form of involuntary servitude. This, in turn, would become the foundation of legal slavery through the escalation of laws and policies to incarcerate people of color on trivial, trumped-up charges coupled with harsh sentencing to create a steady flow of free labor.
I am drawn to this social justice issue of prison reform because I have lived it, grown up around it and would like to identify its ties to the psychological effects of slavery, education, white supremacy, racism and a systematic caste system designed to focus or eliminate people of color from modern-day society. The privatization of the penal system and its demand on public policy, executive and judicial branches to feed its need for greed has led to unfair laws like the implementation of “Three-strikes” laws removed sentencing discretion that judges used to have. Under these laws, which started in California, a person is considered to be beyond rehabilitation after committing three crimes. As a result, once they’ve reached the “third strike,” the penalty is much more severe than it would usually be. Sometimes a life sentence can result from a combination of relatively minor offenses, just because the third strike requires the judge to impose a very long prison sentence. There are people today spending their lives in prison for committing three petty crimes.
The 1984 Sentencing Reform Act, which added significant mandatory minimums for many federal crimes and abolished federal parole. States followed, and soon mandatory minimums became a standard response to drug epidemics and crime spikes. What started as a well-intentioned attempt to impose uniformity became too restrictive, creating new disparities and injustices in the process. These punishments are inhumane and nonsensical, even from a public safety perspective. It costs money to keep people in prison, so a three-strikes law can result in the government spending $500,000 to incarcerate someone for committing three $500 crimes. “Truth-in-sentencing laws” eliminate those opportunities for early release, requiring people to serve (for example) 75 percent of their prison term physically behind bars.
The goal is to ensure that the sentence the judge imposes is what a person will serve in prison — in other words, “what you see is what you get.” Lastly, add the different sentences for different drugs, Generally, possessing 5 grams of marijuana will earn you less prison time than possessing 5 grams of cocaine. The idea is that more dangerous drugs should be punished more severely. But that hasn’t always been the case. Crack and powder cocaine are chemically the same substance. But possession of crack cocaine, which is more common in communities of color, is punished much more severely than possession of powder cocaine, which is more common in wealthier white communities. While somewhat reduced, this disparity remains, even after the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.
It is through proper education, a concentrated effort of all races to acknowledge and have a dialogue about race, provide job opportunities, and continuous development will we begin to see some improvement with race relations in America. The fact that Dr. West spoke about the unexamined life and how we have to critically examine ourselves, our lives, our history and die to the things that are not beneficial to ourselves is still key to the growth needed for our development as humans today. We must examine our lives to get out of the bubble and treat each other with dignity, respect as another human, human to human, blood to blood we have to look at each other as brothers and sisters in the journey of humanity. We have to eliminate the desire to be separate and this notion that any race is better than another because of the color of their skin. It is required that we stand against white supremacy which has plagued this nation and world to chaos and destruction instead of using our common traits to bridge gaps and unite to produce real change that this world and nation have yet to explore.
13th The Netflix film by Ava DuVernay (October 2016)
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