Why is Prison Becoming the Norm for Black Males?
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A report released last week revealed that in the last two decades the population of black male inmates grew three times as fast as the number of black men enrolled in higher education.
Authored by the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, the study showed that in 2000 there were 791,600 black men in jail or prison and 603,032 enrolled in colleges or universities. In 1980, the study noted, those numbers were 143,000 and 463,700 respectively.
Although comparisons of the two categories are not symmetrical -- students comprise a narrower age range than prison inmates -- the difference in numbers over two decades reveals the corrosive effect of our incarceration epidemic on the health of the African-American community.
The study, titled "Cellblocks or Classrooms? The Funding of Higher Education and Corrections and Its Impact on African-American Men," makes perfectly clear that society's investment priorities produce commensurate results. The survey found that during the 1980s and 1990s state spending on corrections grew at six times the rate of state spending on higher education.
"Between 1980 and 2000, corrections' share of state and local spending grew by 104 percent while higher education's share of state and local spending declined by 21 percent," noted Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Justice Policy Institute and co-author of the study.
On the national level, the figures are even more lopsided. According to David Barlow, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, between 1980 and 2000, the combined expenditures of federal state and local governments on corrections skyrocketed approximately 1,000 percent.
During this same period, the total number of inmates grew from 502,000 to 2.1 million. Because of these numbers, the world's only superpower is also the world's leading jailer. With about 5 percent of the world's population, we imprison about 25 percent of the world's inmates. California alone incarcerates more people than does France, Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore and the Netherlands combined.
African-Americans comprise about half of that total although they make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population.
"It is sad that our states are finding it easier to contribute more to incarcerating our men and women and creating a downward spiral of poverty and destitution rather than investing through our educational system to create an upward spiral of accomplishment and achievement," said Hilary Shelton, of the Washington branch of the NAACP.
What's even sadder is that this growth of what many critics refer to as the "prison industrial complex" is being fueled largely by an absurd war on drugs. It has failed in its professed goal to wipe out drug abuse, as the availability of drugs has increased and the price decreased.
But this disastrous war also has nourished a ruthless underground economy, triggering the growth of both international drug cartels and domestic gang warfare, and endangered Americans' civil liberties. It also has had a vastly disproportionate effect on the African-American community.
According to a 2000 study by Human Rights Watch, African-Americans comprise 62 percent of the drug offenders admitted to state prisons. In seven states, "blacks constitute between 80 and 90 percent of all people sent to prison on drug charges." Nationwide, "black men are sent to state prisons on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men.
According to studies of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, African-Americans constitute 15 percent of the national drug users, but comprise about one-third of all those arrested on drug charges and 57 percent of those convicted on drug charges.
This is a national outrage. It is beyond explanation how Americans can continue to support the insane logic of a failed "war" that also exacerbates this nation's enduring racial divide.
The corroding effects of this war combined with the law-and-order posturing of opportunistic politicians has led us to this ignoble point where our nation leads the world in incarcerating its own citizens.
For African-Americans these misguided policies have enduring ramifications.
The jailing of so many young men (and increasingly young women) at the primary age of family formation stunts the vitality of the black community and contributes to family dissolution, single-parent households, increased incidence of HIV/AIDS, reduced job prospects and political participation (due to state-based disenfranchisement laws) and other debilitating effects.
We can do better. We must do better.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.