“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” When the South lost the Civil War, they lost their slaves.
These slaves were a huge part of their economic production system, and now they were free. All 4 million of them. What can you do with all these people? How can the South rebuild their economy? This loophole, the one that basically said slavery was legal as a punishment for crime in the 13th Amendment was instantly exploited. The movie, Birth of a Nation, was not only directly responsible for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, but it was also responsible for the thorough criminalization of African Americans. Released in 1915, it portrayed African Americans as villains who take over the South and establish laws that force white people to salute to black soldiers and allow interracial marriage. (Birth of a Nation, 1915) From the time of Reconstruction to World War II, there were lynchings.
Hundreds of African Americans were murdered, not unlike the so-called “witches” that were drowned/burned under the idea that they had done something criminal. When it became unacceptable to engage in this kind of open terrorism, it turned into something more legal: Jim Crow laws and segregation. These laws were passed that permanently placed African Americans at the bottom of society. Civil rights activists began to be portrayed in the media as criminal, people who were deliberately violating these segregation laws.”For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'” – MLK, Letter from a Birmingham JailCivil rights activists completely changed the notion of criminality.
Getting arrested used to be a black person’s worst nightmare, and while it still is for many African Americans, these activists actually defined a movement around getting arrested. They completely turned it on its head. (13th, 2016)The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act was basically an admission, one that said that, even though slavery ended in December 1865, black people’s’ rights were still taken away. Unfortunately, crime rates started rising around the time the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum.
Although it was due to demographic change (the baby boomers born after WWII were now adults), it was very easy to blame it on the Civil Rights movement. Or, more specifically, black people. At this point, politicians were basically saying that, if black people were given their rights, the nation would be repaid with crime. Throughout most of the 20th century, the prison population remained constant. It didn’t go up and it didn’t go down.
But in the 1970s, that changed. In the 1970s, an era began that is defined by the term “mass incarceration”. U.S. PRISON POPULATION1970357,292The 1970s was when Nixon ran for president on his “Law and Order” campaign. And this was when crime began to stand in for race. Part of what Nixon talked about was a war on crime, but that was one of his code words- what might be called “dog whistle” politics today- and it referred to the political movements of that time. Black Panthers, Black Power, the anti-war movement, the movement for women’s and gay liberation.
Nixon felt compelled to fight against these movements. Many people felt like the nation was losing control of its citizens, and people cried out for “law and order” in this country. Nixon became this person who articulated that perfectly. “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.” – Richard NixonA new era had begun: The War on Drugs. Instead of dealing with it as a health issue, the government was now dealing with drug abuse as a crime issue. Prisons were filling up with people who had been arrested for low-level offenses.
An offense like the mere possession of marijuana was enough to send you to jail for a long, long time. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White house after that, had two enemies: the anti war left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.
Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” – John Ehrlichman, Nixon AdvisorU.S.
PRISON POPULATION1980513,900 “A War on Drugs” was a term first coined by Nixon, but Reagan turned that figurative war into a literal one. Reagan declared a “modern” war on drugs in 1982. Opinion polls taken during that time show that drug abuse actually wasn’t an issue for most people in America. But Reagan was determined to define it as a problem. (13th, 2016)Around the mid-1980s, along comes this new drug: crack cocaine. It was inexpensive, came in small doses, and it was already starting to take over communities, particularly African American communities. In almost record time, Congress established mandatory sentencing penalties for crack that were far harsher than those for powder cocaine.
And almost immediately, Hispanics and black people were getting disproportionately long sentences. Black people caught with crack cocaine ended up going to prison for almost the rest of their lives. White people, on the other hand, got caught with cocaine at almost the exact same rate as African Americans, yet there were much less of them going to jail.
U.S. PRISON POPULATION1985759,100The “war on drugs” had become part of American culture in television programs like Cops.
When you turned on your TV, you’d see black men being marched across the screen in handcuffs. Black men, and black people in general were (and still are) over represented in the news as criminals, meaning that they are shown as criminals more times than is accurate, that they are actually criminals, based on FBI statistics. (FBI, 2014)The term they used to describe this generation was “super predator”. “Animals.” “Beasts.” That needed to be controlled. Many black communities began to actually support policies that “criminalized their own children.
” (13th, 2016) In the Central Park jogger case, five teenagers were thrown in prison because the public pressure to lock up these “animals” was so strong. These children, 4 of them under 18, all went to adult prisons for 6-11 years, before DNA evidence proved they were all innocent. (NY Times, 2014) Black people are literally introduced as their crime. “That’s a rapist.
” “That’s a murderer.” “That’s a robber.” “That’s a gang leader.
” If you look it at them like that, it becomes so much easier to accept that they’re guilty, and that they belong in prison. U.S. PRISON POPULATION19901,179,200 There comes to be an agreement among Democrats that they must become more neutral. They were defeated in every election in the 1980’s, so they agreed to adopt a more centrist position. It became very difficult for a politician to run and appear soft on crime.
It’s very easy for everyone to end up in the same space when everybody is trying to do the same thing, when everyone is competing to be “tough on crime”, so it doesn’t become a political advantage unless and until you do something more. Clinton is now president, and he’s trying to figure out how to deal with a country that isn’t really his yet; it’s still Reagan’s. Some very horrible crimes take place during this time. The Polly Klaas case, for example, in which a man kidnapped and murdered a little girl.
This led to the California “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law. A person who is convicted of their third felony is basically thrown in prison for the rest of their lives, regardless of what their last crime was. This is where mandatory sentencing came in. Judges were no longer allowed to consider the circumstances around a crime. Of course, that’s very difficult for judges to do because discretion has been taken away from them and given to prosecutors. Judges are, arguably, the most neutral people in the court. An important note to add is that 95% of elected prosecutors throughout the United States are white. Racial bias becomes an even bigger issue, and the prison population shows that.
U.S. PRISON POPULATION20002,015,300 A truth in sentencing law was passed that kept people in prison for 85% of their sentence.
Parole has been completely done away with. In this new federal system, when you get 20 or 30 years, that’s what you get.We had parole in this country as a way to get people out of jails and prisons when they were no longer a threat to society. And then comes Congress with a new proposal for a nearly $30 billion Federal Crime Bill of 1994 that was mainly for law enforcement. This crime bill was responsible for a massive expansion of the prison system. It also gave money for law enforcement to do a lot of the things.
Not only does he increase funding to states to build prisons, but Clinton also increases funding to put 100,000 police officers on the street. (13th, 2016)Clinton built the system that we see today. The militarization, the number of people in prison. And again we see the number of people who are being arrested go up and, of course, this exploding prison population. “We shouldn’t ask why is Bill Clinton so strong. We should ask, why is the black community so weak in our ability to defend ourselves.
Let’s not forget how many martyrs we put in the ground in the 60s and 70s. Let’s not forget how many of our leaders had to leave the country, or are in prison. You stripped out a whole generation of leadership. You ran them out of the country, you put them in prison, you put them in cemeteries. And then you unleash this blitzkrieg. And we don’t have the ability to defend ourselves. You can tell the story of white leadership in America, and never mention the FBI one time. You can’t tell the story of black leadership, not one, without having to deal with the full weight of the criminal justice system weaponizing it’s black dissent.
” -Van JonesPeople forget that Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t this beloved figure. He was considered one of the most dangerous people in this country by the head of the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover said that the Black Panthers represented the greatest threat to democracy at the time. And then there was Fred Hampton.
This 21 year old had managed to pull together blacks, Native Americans, and Puerto Ricans to fight for justice. The FBI came in the middle of the night and shot him dead while he was sleeping, his pregnant wife next to him. When you destroy an entire generation of leaders, the next one will be vulnerable to people like Bill Clinton. (13th, 2016)U.S.
PRISON POPULATION20142,306,200 Who comes up with ideas for bills? Some people may say ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is a private organization made up of both corporations and politicians. The corporations get to propose bills to the politicians, who are usually Republican. So, through ALEC, corporations have a huge influence in passing bills and creating laws. Every ALEC bill benefits one or more of its corporate funders.
Walmart was a loyal member of ALEC at the time of the Trayvon Martin case, in which the “Stand Your Ground” law was used. This law helped the rise in gun sales. “Walmart is the biggest seller of long guns in the US, and the largest retailer of bullets in the world”. (13th, 2016) So it’s reasonable to deduce that Walmart benefitted from the “Stand Your Ground” laws that ALEC pushed that prevented the incarceration of the killer of 17 year old Trayvon Martin. It’s important to note that the jury in this case basically ruled that an armed man had the right to stand his ground against an unarmed teenager. (Exposing ALEC, 2012) After the inevitable outcry over this, Walmart left ALEC, but the family continues to fund them.
Other corporations followed suit and abandoned ALEC, but many corporations are still members, like Koch Industries. And for almost 20 years, one of those corporations was the Corrections Corporation of America. The CCA was the first private prison corporation in the US. They started making contracts with states, and to protect their investments, these states had to keep their prisons filled. Even if no one was committing a crime. In the late 80s and early 90s, this industry grew at a rate that was unlike any other industry in America.
With the help of ALEC, the CCA were able to pass a lot of bills. All these bills were passed that people were working so hard to get rid of; ‘Three Strikes and You’re Out, “Mandatory Minimum Sentencing”, etc. Through ALEC, the CCA became a multi-billion dollar business that got rich off punishment.
They became a leader not just in shaping crime policy across the country, but also a rapid increase in criminalization. After all, they needed to fill all these prisons, right? (CCA By The Numbers, 2017)Another bill that ALEC came up with (that the CCA pushed) was SB1070. This bill gave the police the right to stop anyone they thought looked like an immigrant. This law filled immigration detention facilities and, of course, directly benefited the CCA. Also: these “detention facilities” are really just prisons for immigrants. Changing the name doesn’t change what they are.
Some people call it the creation of a “crimmigration system”, the merging of immigration and the law enforcement system. The criminalization methods used in the war on drugs are now being used on the immigrant population. Trump, for example, with his description of not blacks, but Mexicans: “they’re rapists and murderers, and some, I suppose, are good people.” (13th, 2016)Prison Industrial Complex is a fancy name for not only the system of mass incarceration, but also the companies that are making money off of mass incarceration. That includes the operators of private prisons and the vendors that supply them. Mass incarceration has become so monetized that it’s actually become difficult to talk about.
Why would you want to get rid of something that makes a lot of money? There’s always so much controversy surrounding sweatshops. But no one realizes that it’s happening here in America every single day. Corporations are making money off of all of the people in jail. It’s difficult to get rid of something that’s become so big. There’s too much money out there, too many lawmakers supporting it. Many people are in prison right now because they can’t afford to get out.
The criminal justice system of this country actually “treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.” (13th, 2016) See, if everyone decided to go to trial, the system wouldn’t exist. What happens is the prosecutor tells you, if you go to court, you’ll get 30 years, but if you plead guilty, you’ll get 3. Most people, of course, take the plea deal. 97% of people in prison have plea bargained.
In this country, just the thought of going to prison for what the mandatory minimums are is so painful that people just decide to plead guilty. People aren’t taught that, if you go to trial and get convicted, you will be punished more. Kalief Browder was charged with a petty (really petty) crime that he didn’t commit.
He wanted to take it to trial. And in that time, in those 3 years he was sitting in prison charged with nothing, his mental health started to deteriorate. He started getting into fights. And when he was eventually released, after spending years being beaten and literally losing his mind, he killed himself. “After a while, I just kept hearing the same things from the whole 3 years, and I just learned to cope with being in there.
That was rough. I already knew, after a while, I just gave up hope.” -Kalief BrowderLooking at the problem, most people say “What are we doing? We have too many laws throwing people in jail for too many things. We’re giving them sentences that are too harsh, and while they’re in prison, we are doing absolutely nothing to help them. And when they do eventually get out, we shun them.” (13th, 2016)There are over 40,000 collateral consequences for people that come through the criminal justice system. It’s the question “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” It’s denial to the access of student loans. It’s not being able to get food stamps when you’re hungry or housing when you’re homeless.
It’s that question that appears on life insurance. It’s not having the ability to vote. It’s that “scarlet letter” that follows you for the rest of your life. If you do something wrong, you should pay it back, and then move forward with your life. Yet, in America, there is absolutely zero closure.
American citizens are literally told that, if and when they pay back their debt to society, their citizenship will be denied to them. Once you’ve become a felon, so many aspects old the old Jim Crow are suddenly applicable. We are now in an era of Democrats and Republicans who have decided that the time has come to reform the prison system.
Hillary Clinton met with Black Lives Matter activists to talk about it. President Obama visited a prison as the first sitting president to ever visit a prison. Conservatives, who are always seen as being “tough on crime”, have also embraced justice reform. When you look at efforts to create change in the past, you see that it usually leads to more oppression. These political leaders are probably going to mess with the system even further. They’re not going to do the kind of change that we want or need to see as a country, and they’re not going to go back and fix anything because that would be admitting they were wrong. However, I don’t America has been or ever will be ready to admit that they’ve destroyed entire communities and multiple generations. They called the end of slavery “jubilee”.
And then there were 100 years of lynchings and Jim Crow. All these civil rights activists came along and get the bills passed to vote. Then the handcuffs come out. They give you the label of “felon”, and you can’t vote. So no one knows what the next thing will be. LIFETIME LIKELIHOOD OF IMPRISONMENTWHITE MEN: 1 IN 17 BLACK MEN: 1 IN 3 BLACK MEN6.
5% OF US POPULATION40.2% OF PRISON POPULATION We wouldn’t be talking about 2 million people in prison today if it hadn’t begun with a race of people that this country was conditioned not to care about. People say all the time that they don’t understand how people could have tolerated slavery. How could people have tolerated lynchings? How could people tolerate segregation? The truth is, we are living at this time, and we are tolerating it. So how can we fix the problem of mass incarceration? We’ve established that standing by and letting all these people rot in jail is un-American and that we need to improve our criminal justice system. Obviously, we start by reducing the number of people who enter prison in the first place. Incarceration should be eliminated as a punishment for low level crimes, especially when they’re the result of drug addiction and/or mental illness.
And especially when they’re first-time offenses. The argument for public safety is weakened when money and space are wasted on imprisoning people who don’t need to be in prison. Prisons should be for people who pose an actual threat to society,Then we reduce the existing prison population by giving prisoners who have proven themselves worthy of re-entering society the opportunity to transition out of confinement. It’s totally possible to shrink the number of people in prison and protect the citizens at the same time.Parole/probation systems need to be modernized so that those who are actual threats are the ones who are monitored. People who need mental help and/or drug treatment should receive it so that they can avoid committing more crimes and be able to return to society. (ACLU, 2016)