I just read an excellent article by Michelle Alexander in The New York Times, “In Prison Reform, Money Trumps Reform.” Alexander is an associate Professor of Law at Ohio State, and she has researched and written extensively about the connection between “the war on drugs,” the massive increase in prison populations, and racism. In short, the war on drugs and the increase in prison populations have disproportionately targeted the black population, even though, as she says in this article, “they are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites. ”
The increase in prisoners and prisons cannot be explained or understood entirely in racial terms. I believe there are also important economic factors, as Alexander points out in this article.
The main premise of this article is that the calls for prison reform by white politicians is economically motivated in these days of financial strain. In California, for example, they spend more on prisons than on education.
Here are some quotes from the article (sorry for posting so many!):
African-Americans are far more likely to get prison sentences for drug offenses than white offenders, even though studies have consistently shown that they are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites.
In 1963, in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” he chastised white ministers for their indifference to black suffering: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ ”
He continued: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
If our nation were to return to the rates of incarceration we had in the 1970s, we would have to release 4 out of 5 people behind bars. A million people employed by the criminal justice system could lose their jobs. Private prison companies would see their profits vanish. This system is now so deeply rooted in our social, political and economic structures that it is not going to fade away without a major shift in public consciousness.
Yes, some prison downsizing is likely to occur in the months and years to come. But we ought not fool ourselves: we will not end mass incarceration without a recommitment to the movement-building work that was begun in the 1950s and 1960s and left unfinished. A human rights nightmare is occurring on our watch. If we fail to rise to the challenge, and push past the politics of momentary interest convergence, future generations will judge us harshly.