Anti-Racism 101

07 Mass Incarceration


“The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the prison performs – it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.”

“The prison has become a black hole into which the detritus of contemporary capitalism is deposited. Mass imprisonment generates profits as it devours social wealth, and thus it tends to reproduce the very conditions that lead people to prison. There are thus real and often quite complicated connections between the deindustrialization of the economy – a process that reached its peak during the 1980s – and the rise of mass imprisonment, which also began to spiral during the Reagan-Bush era.”

However, the demand for more prisons was represented to the public in simplistic terms. More prisons were needed because there was more crime. Yet many scholars have demonstrated that by the time the prison construction boom began, official crime statistics were already falling.” –Angela Davis

At the Civil War’s end, black autonomy expanded but white supremacy remained deeply rooted. States began to look to the criminal justice system to construct policies and strategies to maintain the subordination of African-Americans. Convict leasing, the practice of ‘selling’ the labor of state and local prisoners to private interests for state profit, used the criminal justice system to take away their political rights. State legislatures passed the Black Codes, which created new criminal offenses such as ‘vagrancy’ and ‘loitering’ and led to the mass arrest of black people. Then, relying on language in the Thirteenth Amendment that prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude ‘except as punishment for crime,’ lawmakers authorized white-controlled governments to exploit the labor of African-Americans in private lease contracts or on state-owned farms.1

The legal scholar Jennifer Rae Taylor has observed:

While a black prisoner was a rarity during the slavery era (when slave masters were individually empowered to administer ‘discipline’ to their human property), the solution to the free black population had become criminalization. In turn, the most common fate facing black convicts was to be sold into forced labor for the profit of the state.

Beginning as early as 1866 in states like Texas, Mississippi, and Georgia, convict leasing spread throughout the South and continued through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Leased black convicts faced deplorable, unsafe working conditions and brutal violence when they attempted to resist or escape bondage. An 1887 report by the Hinds County, Mississippi, grand jury recorded that six months after 204 convicts were leased to a man named McDonald, twenty were dead, nineteen had escaped, and twenty-three had been returned to the penitentiary disabled, ill, and near death. The penitentiary hospital was filled with sick and dying black men whose bodies bore ‘marks of the most inhuman and brutal treatment…so poor and emaciated that their bones almost come through the skin.’”2

–Bryan Stevenson

Video–“Private Prisons, Public Menace:”

Author Joshua Aiken writes that two factors are driving jail growth: a massive increase in the number of people held pre-trial, and an increasing number of jails that rent cells to state and federal authorities. –Equal Justice Initiative

In New York, close to three-quarters of pretrial detainees in the city’s jail system, many exposed pointlessly to the horrors of Rikers Island, are there because they could not afford the price of release at the time of arraignment. Of those, less than 8 percent have been accused of doing anything gravely perilous to the common good — killing someone, committing sexual offenses or carrying a gun.” –Ginia Bellafante

“It’s no wonder that so many low-income people awaiting trial have to turn to a bail-bonds operation. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit, black men and women ages 23 to 39 who were being held in local jails had median earnings of between $568 and $900 the month prior to their arrest. The median bail for a felony arrest, meanwhile, is $10,000, a sum most arrested individuals and their families would simply be unable to pay. On top of that, black defendants between the ages of 18 and 29 years old were asked to pay, on average, higher sums for bail and were less likely to be released on their own recognizance, meaning no bail payment was required.”

–Gillian B White

“Between 1980 and 2014, the number of incarcerated women increased more than 700%; rising from a total of 26,378 in 1980 to 215,332 in 2014.

Today, Black women are two times more likely than white women to become incarcerated. 80% of incarcerated women are mothers, and more than 85% of incarcerated women are survivors of sexual violence.“ –People’s Paper Co-op

Several industries have become notorious for the millions they spend on influencing legislation and getting friendly candidates into office: Big Oil, Big Pharma and the gun lobby among them. But one has managed to quickly build influence with comparatively little scrutiny: Private prisons. The two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States – GEO and Corrections Corporation of America – and their associates have funneled more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts. Meanwhile, these private companies have seen their revenue and market share soar. They now rake in a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenue and the private federal prison population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute. Private companies house nearly half of the nation’s immigrant detainees, compared to about 25 percent a decade ago, a Huffington Post report found. In total, there are now about 130 private prisons in the country with about 157,000 beds.

Private prison contracts often require the government to keep the correctional facilities and immigration detention centers full, forcing communities to continuously funnel people into the prison system, even if actual crime rates are falling. Nearly two-thirds of private prison contracts mandate that state and local governments maintain a certain occupancy rate – usually 90 percent – or require taxpayers to pay for empty beds. In Arizona, three private prisons are operating with a 100 percent occupancy guarantee, according to Mother Jones. There’s even a lockup quota at the federal level: The Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention budget includes a mandate from Congress that at least 34,000 immigrants remain detained on a daily basis, a quota that has steadily grown each year, even as the undocumented immigrant population in the United States has leveled off. Private prisons have profited handsomely from that policy, owning nine of the 10 largest ICE detention centers, according to a report released this month by Grassroots Leadership. –Michael Cohen

More than 2 million people found themselves behind bars at the turn of the twenty-first century, and millions more were relegated to the margins of mainstream society, banished to a political and social space not unlike Jim Crow, where discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education was perfectly legal, and where they could be denied the right to vote. The system functioned relatively automatically, and the prevailing system of racial meanings, identities, and ideologies already seemed natural. Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black or Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate.”

Michelle Alexander

Video panel discussion on How Racial Inequality Shapes Criminal Justice:

“Of all the fields that could benefit from admitting its mistakes, law enforcement seems to be the most resistant to doing so. Why is this? People in law enforcement are no different than the rest of us. My  hunch is that it is a byproduct of our adversarial justice system, that emphasizes winning rather than unbiased inquiry. For whatever reason, a consequence is that while medical care continually improves its safety record, there is no evidence of any improvement in the rate of false convictions in our legal system. In fact, a recent study of exonerations in one of the world’s leading science journals estimated that about 1 in 25 death sentences imposed in the United States is a false conviction. We wouldn’t accept this sort of error rate in our mail delivery system but apparently we do in judging our most serious crimes. A little error reduction might be in order.

One particularly egregious example of a refusal to admit error is the case of Anthony Ray Hinton, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1985 for two murders in Birmingham, Alabama that he didn’t commit. He was exonerated and released from prison nearly 30 years later on Good Friday 2015, having become one of the longest-serving, falsely imprisoned individuals in American history.”  –Steven Austad

“On July 11, 2018, The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections started transferring prisoners to its newest prison. Called SCI Phoenix, the project took more than a decade to complete, cost more than $400 million dollars, and will house almost 4,000 people. It is the second most expensive construction project in Pennsylvania’s history.

Decarcerate PA fought for seven years to try to stop this prison from opening. Mass incarceration has come at a terrible cost to Pennsylvania’s communities, and expanding the prison system fuels this destructive cycle. We need policies that bring people home from prison, and resources for the things that actually keep us safe – education, healthcare, housing, jobs, addiction treatment and mental healthcare, and transformative forms of justice that address root causes of violence.” –Decarcerate PA

There are approximately 2.7 million children in the U.S. with an incarcerated parent. Why? Some parents are locked up in jails because they can’t afford to pay bail – a system that penalizes people who can’t afford to buy their own freedom. Some are incarcerated because of policies that treat drug addiction and mental illness as matters for the criminal legal system rather than as public health issues – despite decades of evidence that incarceration exacerbates these problems rather than alleviating them.

And some parents are incarcerated due to draconian, punitive sentencing policies, like harsh mandatory minimums and three strikes laws, that condemn people to a status of permanent exile rather than creating pathways for healing and transformation.”

“To end family separation, we need to uproot the systems of mass incarceration and mass detention, systems that decrease the safety and wellbeing of our communities. Policies that force children apart from their parents are a devastating part of our past, and a terrifying part of our present. We must make sure they are not part of our future.” –Lewis Webb, Jr.

 “The prison industrial complex is demonstrably not going to unmake itself. It’s growing all the time. So the question becomes: who is feeding it? I look at things like targets/quotas, the near-boundless ability of drug-related taskforces to marshal resources to target nonviolent offenders, and the fact that a felony charge has the ability to completely disenfranchise a person.” –D.P. on Facebook

Huge rise in numbers of incarcerated women of color:

Brief, thoughtful take on prison abolition:

Quotes from Angela Davis’ landmark work on prison abolition:

Even if we set aside the historical fact and context that these United States have used separating children from their families as one of its building blocks since the land was stolen, the simple fact is that this country continues to routinely separate children from their parents and has done so well before this current border crisis. I would posit that it has perfected this action, in fact. Even now, in 2018 they shackle mothers as they give birth….

We must not allow this issue at the border to be separated from the fight against prisons and policing—they are the same issue. Those who are working towards ending prisons should also be doing and supporting the work to end detention centers—because it is our duty to fight.” –Leslie Mac

“It is true that slavery, lynching, and segregation acquired such a stalwart ideological quality that many, if not most, could not foresee their decline and collapse. Slavery, lynching, and segregation are certainly compelling examples of social institutions that, like the prison, were once considered to be as everlasting as the sun. Yet, in the case of all three examples, we can point to movements that assumed the radical stance of announcing the obsolescence of these institutions. It may help us gain perspective on the prison if we try to imagine how strange and discomforting the debates about the obsolescence of slavery must’ve been to those who took the ‘peculiar institution’ for granted – and especially to those who reaped direct benefits from this dreadful system of racist exploitation. And even though there was widespread resistance among black slaves, there were even some among them who assumed that they and their progeny would always be subjected to the tyranny of slavery.” –Angela Davis

“The figures show that the United States has locked up more people than any other country: a half million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the U.S. Statistics reveal that the United States holds 25% of the world’s prison population, but only 5% of the world’s people. From less than 300,000 inmates in 1972, the jail population grew to 2 million by the year 2000. In 1990 it was one million. Ten years ago there were only five private prisons in the country, with a population of 2,000 inmates; now, there are 100, with 62,000 inmates. It is expected that by the coming decade, the number will hit 360,000, according to reports.

“The prison industry complex is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States and its investors are on Wall Street. This multimillion-dollar industry has its own trade exhibitions, conventions, websites, and mail-order/Internet catalogs. It also has direct advertising campaigns, architecture companies, construction companies, investment houses on Wall Street, plumbing supply companies, food supply companies, armed security, and padded cells in a large variety of colors.” –Vicky Pelaez

“I have witnessed abusers regularly use the criminal justice system to further abuse their victims. From custody courts, evictions, child abuse reporting, false accusations of assault against victims and so on. Abusers forcing their victims into criminal acts and women getting time for self defense. When women seek assistance from law enforcement they are putting themselves at risk, only to have the abusers released to continue or escalate their abuse. We regularly see headlines about women and children murdered at the hands of an abuser.

The headlines are along the lines of ‘senseless tragedy’ ‘crime of passion’ as though nothing could have been done, or the victim was somehow complicit in their own murder. I’m not sure how to fix the system.

An example I see repeatedly is a family becoming DHS involved due to domestic abuse only to have the court allow the abuser custody of the children because the victim is ‘unstable.’ Or lacks housing, a job, etc. All direct results of the abuse.” –Erin Blair

Video on women incarcerated for the crime of defending themselves from domestic violence. Many have tried every option for help, including going to police:

“Built at the turn of the century, Parchman [black prison] was supposed to be a progressive and reformist response to the problem of “Negro crime.” In fact it was the gulag of Mississippi, an object of terror to African Americans in the Delta. In the early years of the 20th century, Mississippi Governor James K. Vardaman used to amuse himself by releasing black convicts into the surrounding wilderness and hunting them down with bloodhounds. ‘Throughout the American South,’ writes David M. Oshinsky in his book Worse Than Slavery, ‘Parchman Farm is synonymous with punishment and brutality, as well it should be … Parchman is the quintessential penal farm, the closest thing to slavery that survived the Civil War.’” –TaNahisi Coates

“US chattel slavery was a system of forced labor that relied on racist ideas and beliefs to justify the relegation of people of African descent to the legal status of property. Lynching was an extralegal institution that surrendered thousands of African-American lives to the violence of ruthless racist mobs. Under segregation, black people were legally declared second-class citizens, for whom voting, job, education, and housing rights were drastically curtailed, if they were available at all.

What is the relationship between these historical expressions of racism and the role of the prison system today? Exploring such connections may offer us a different perspective on the current state of the punishment industry. If we are already persuaded that racism should not be allowed to define the planet’s future and if we can successfully argue that prisons are racist institutions, this may lead us to take seriously the prospect of declaring prisons obsolete.” –Angela Davis

Crimes of cash bail:

“Each year, millions of people are forced to pay money bail after they are arrested.

Across the country, there is widespread, unchecked racism when it comes to who prosecutors and judges force to pay bail, and how much they are forced to pay.

Just over two decades ago, most people arrested for felonies were released without having to pay bail. But today, millions of people must pay bail in order to avoid detention in jail while their case is underway, even though they are still presumed innocent.

Insurance corporations make a huge profit from money bail, and keep this injustice going by making political contributions to the local legislators who could end it. “Public safety” is rarely the issue in money bail cases, yet it is always used by the industry to cover up what they are doing.

If people cannot pay the amount set for their bail, which is often put intentionally out of reach for people of color, they remain stuck in jail and lose the ability to work, raise their children and be free as people who are legally presumed innocent.

Many people who cannot afford bail plead guilty—and suffer the consequences of a criminal record and unjust punishment—just to get out of jail, even if they are innocent or face exaggerated charges they could fight in court if they had the time and resources, and if the system were fair.

To come up with the money for release, many people and their families get caught in exploitative arrangements with bail bond corporations, backed by big insurance corporations, which typically charge a nonrefundable fee of 10 percent.” –Color of Change

Video—“The Truth About the Money Bail Industry:”

Most bail bond agents make it their business to get their clients to court. But when Ronald Egana showed up at the criminal courthouse in New Orleans, he was surprised to find that his bondsman wanted to stop him.

A bounty hunter was waiting at the courthouse metal detector to intercept Mr. Egana and haul him to the bond company office, he said. The reason: The bondsman wanted to get paid.

Mr. Egana ended up in handcuffs, missing his court appearance while the agency got his mother on the phone and demanded more than $1,500 in overdue payments, according to a lawsuit. It was not the first time Mr. Egana had been held captive by the bond company, he said, nor would it be the last. Each time, his friends or family was forced to pay more to get him released, he said.

As commercial bail has grown into a $2 billion industry, bond agents have become the payday lenders of the criminal justice world, offering quick relief to desperate customers at high prices. When clients like Mr. Egana cannot afford to pay the bond company’s fee to get them out, bond agents simply loan them the money, allowing them to go on a payment plan.

But bondsmen have extraordinary powers that most lenders do not. They are supposed to return their clients to jail if they skip court or do something illegal. But some states give them broad latitude to arrest their clients for any reason — or none at all. A credit card company cannot jail someone for missing a payment. A bondsman, in many instances, can.” –Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Shaila Dewan

“Bail has been around for centuries. It’s supposed to protect the rights of defendants like Mustafa who haven’t been convicted of anything yet. At the same time, bail gives courts an extra guarantee that people are going to show up for their trials. But can a system built on money ever be fair to the poor?” Keuth Romer/Joel Rose

“Rakem Balogun thought he was dreaming when armed agents in tactical gear stormed his apartment. Startled awake by a large crash and officers screaming commands, he soon realized his nightmare was real, and he and his 15-year-old son were forced outside of their Dallas home, wearing only underwear.

Handcuffed and shaking in the cold wind, Balogun thought a misunderstanding must have led the FBI to his door on 12 December 2017. The father of three said he was shocked to later learn that agents investigating “domestic terrorism” had been monitoring him for years and were arresting him that day in part because of his Facebook posts criticizing police.” –Sam Levin

“We will never, never FORGET !!

George Stinney Jr, of African descent, was the youngest person to be executed in the 20th century in the United States.

This young black was only 14 years old at the time of his execution by electric chair.

70 years later, his innocence has just been officially recognized by a judge in South Carolina.

From his trial to the execution room, the boy always had his Bible in his hands while claiming his innocence.

George was unfairly accused of murdering two White girls (Betty 11 and Mary 7), whose bodies had been found not far from the house where the boy and his parents lived. At that time, all the members of the jury were white. The trial lasted two and a half hours, and the jury made the decision of his sentence after 10 minutes.

The boy’s parents, threatened, were barred from taking part in the trial after being ordered to leave the city. Prior to his trial, George spent 81 days in detention without the possibility of seeing his parents for the last time. He was imprisoned alone in his cell, 80 kilometers from his hometown.

His hearing of the facts was done alone, without the presence of his parents or a lawyer. George’s electrocution charge was 5,380 volts on his head. We let you imagine what such an electric shock can have on a young child’s head.

We will never, never FORGET!” –Benjamin Jimerson-Phillips

Racist history of loitering:

Video about how Philadelphia’s DA, Larry Krasner, is changing the incarceration landscape, while saving taxpayer money:

Other good links/Things you can do:

Incarceration Nations Network: (direct bail payments nationally)