Prison Reform?

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.

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Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

3 thoughts on “Prison Reform?”

  1. I agree so much with what you wrote (and quoted) here. A very sad – and alarming – state of affairs, the U.S. prison system is a horrifying, money-making conglomerate of greed and profit, profit made off of human suffering and wasted human lives. Our country is so screwed-up; we put millions into the prison system each year, instead of education, rehabilitation & recovery. I do believe that there are those who should be incarcerated – who are a direct threat to society – such as violent offenders who rape, molest, and cause pain and injury to innocent people; of course it goes without saying that these offenders should be incarcerated. But since my own son has been incarcerated on all drug-related charges, it has opened my eyes to the injustices and horrors of the prison system. Don’t misunderstand me, Seth will be the first to tell you that prison has most likley saved his life; it took prison for God to get his attention, and He has it now! But his sentence (13-years) does not fit his crime; he is an addict, not a violent criminal. What upsets me so, is that seriously violent offenders – who rape, molest, and commit armed robbery, etc. – and some of them repeat offenders – they are getting LESS time than my son, who is NOT violent and did not intentionally hurt anyone. *Sigh* I could go on and on about it. There IS no “justice system.” It truly is about who you know and how much money you have, I really believe that if our family had money, that Seth would not have gotten 13-years, but, who knows. Our county is a “no tolerance” county, and I believe that the judge used Seth as an “example.” Since Seth’s incarceration, others who were arrested at around the same time as Seth, with the same charges – and who were repeat offenders (this was Seth’s first offense) – they are out of prison now and back on the street – BECAUSE they agreed to work with the police and became informants. The cops wanted for Seth to do the same thing – really put the heat on him and tried to talk him into it – but he refused. Seth refused to be a snitch. And we know the rest of the story. Sorry, I kind of got off on a tangent here. Guess your post pushed some buttons. 🙂 Glad you are here, love to you and Tami. 🙂


    1. The good news is that, according to the article I referred to in the post, the public at large may be changing their opinion, just a bit, and seeing the giant amount of waste that goes into criminalizing addicts…the bad news is that we’ve already spent thirty some years wreaking havoc on society and destroying lives….I guess we all need to do the best we can to stop these kinds of things. I wonder what a person can do, on a local level to try to bring some sanity to public policy or to raise awareness.


  2. Yes, I do agree that things may be shifting a little bit towards the public at large seeing the “error of our ways.” I am glad that you pointed this out; I needed to inject some positive thinking into my negative thinking! Thank you for reminding me that things DO seem to be getting a tad bit better as a whole – even if it does not seem like it too much …. baby steps …. baby steps.
    As far as what can I do on a local level, I don’t know! I am totally open to ideas, if anyone has some suggestions, etc. I would like to think that I can make a difference, even if only locally ….


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