ALONG THE COLOR LINE: The Crisis of Black Men in Prison
There are today over two million Americans incarcerated in federal and state prisons and local jails throughout the United States. More than one-half, or one million, are black men and women. The devastating human costs of the mass incarceration of one out of every thirty- five individuals within black America are beyond imagination. While civil rights organizations like the NAACP and black institutions such as churches and mosques have begun to address this widespread crisis of black mass imprisonment, they have frankly not given it the centrality and importance it deserves.
Black leadership throughout this country should place this issue at the forefront of their agendas. And we also need to understand how and why American society reached this point of constructing a vast prison industrial complex, in order to find strategies to dismantle it.
For a variety of reasons, rates of violent crime, including murder, rape and robbery, increased dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s. Much of this increase occurred in urban areas. By the late 1970s, nearly one half of all Americans were afraid to walk within a mile of their homes at night, and 90 percent responded in surveys that the U.S. criminal justice system was not dealing harshly enough with criminals. Politicians like Richard M. Nixon, George Wallace and Ronald Reagan began to campaign successfully on the theme of "Law and Order." The death penalty, which was briefly outlawed by the Supreme Court, was reinstated. Local, state and federal expenditures for law enforcement rose sharply.
Behind much of anti-crime rhetoric was a not-too- subtle racial dimension, the projection of crude stereotypes about the link between criminality and black people. Rarely did these politicians observe that minority and poor people, not the white middle class, were statistically much more likely to experience violent crimes of all kinds. The argument was made that law enforcement officers should be given much greater latitude in suppressing crime, that sentences should be lengthened and made mandatory, and that prisons should be designed not for the purpose of rehabilitation, but punishment.
Consequently, there was a rapid expansion in the personnel of the criminal justice system, as well as the construction of new prisons. What occurred in New York State, for example, was typical of what happened nationally. From 1817 to 1981, New York had opened 33 state prisons. From 1982 to 1999, another 38 state prisons were constructed. The state's prison population at the time of the Attica prison revolt in September 1971 was about 12,500. By 1999, there were over 71,000 prisoners in New York State correctional facilities.
In 1974, the number of Americans incarcerated in all state prisons stood at 187,500. By 1991, the number had reached 711,700. Nearly two-thirds of all state prisoners in 1991 had less than a high school education. One third of all prisoners were unemployed at the time of their arrests. Incarceration rates by the end of the 1980s had soared to unprecedented rates, especially for black Americans. As of December 1989, the total U.S. prison population, including federal institutions, exceeded one million for the first time in history, an incarceration rate of the general population of one out of every 250 citizens.
For African Americans, the rate was over 700 per 100,000, or about seven times more than for whites. About one half of all prisoners were black. Twenty-three percent of all black males in their twenties were either in jail or prison, on parole, probation or awaiting trial. The rate of incarceration of black Americans in 1989 had even surpassed that experienced by blacks who still lived under the apartheid regime of South Africa.
By the early 1990s, rates for all types of violent crime began to plummet. But the laws, which sent offenders to prison, were made even more severe. Children were increasingly viewed in courts as adults, and subjected to harsher penalties. Laws like California's "three strikes and you're out" eliminated the possibility of parole for repeat offenders. The vast majority of these new prisoners were non-violent offenders, and many of these were convicted of drug offenses that carried long prison terms. In New York, a state in which African Americans and Latinos comprise 25 percent of the total population, by 1999 they represented 83 percent of all state prisoners, and 94 percent of all individuals convicted on drug offenses.
The pattern of racial bias in these statistics is confirmed by the research of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which found that while African Americans today constitute only 14 percent of all drug users nationally, they are 35 percent of all drug arrests, 55 percent of all drug convictions, and 75 percent of all prison admissions for drug offenses. Currently, the racial proportions of those under some type of correctional supervision, including parole and probation, are one-in-fifteen for young white males, one-in-ten for young Latino males, and one-in-three for young African-American males. Statistically today, more than eight out of every ten African-American males will be arrested at some point in their lifetime.
The latest innovation in American corrections is termed "special housing units" (SHU), but which prisoners also generally refer to as The Box. SHUs are uniquely designed solitary confinement cells, in which prisoners are locked down for 23 hours a day for months or even years at a time. SHU cellblocks are electronically monitored, pre- fabricated structures of concrete and steel, about 14 feet long and 8 feet wide, amounting to 120 square feet of space. The two inmates who are confined in each cell, however, actually have only about 60 square feet of usable space, or 30 square feet per person.
All meals are served to prisoners through a thin slot cut into the steel door. The toilet unit, sink and shower are all located in the cell. Prisoners are permitted one hour "exercise time" each day in a small concrete balcony, surrounded by heavy security wire, directly connected with their SHU cells. Educational and rehabilitation programs for SHU prisoners are prohibited.
As of 1998, New York State had confined 5,700 state prisoners in SHUs, about 8 percent of its total inmate population. Currently under construction in Upstate New York is a new 750 cell maximum security SHU facility, which will cost state taxpayers $180 million. Although Amnesty International and human rights groups in the U.S. have widely condemned SHUs, claiming that such forms of imprisonment constitute the definition of torture under international law, other states have followed New York's example. As of 1998, California had constructed 2,942 SHU beds, followed by Mississippi (1,756), Arizona (1,728), Virginia (1,267), Texas (1,229), Louisiana (1,048) and Florida (1,000). Solitary confinement, which historically had been defined even by corrections officials as an extreme disciplinary measure, is becoming increasingly the norm.
The introduction of SHUs reflects a general mood in the country that the growing penal population is essentially beyond redemption. If convicted felons cease to be viewed as human beings, why should they be treated with any humanity? This question should be elevated and discussed in every African-American and Latino neighborhood, community center, religious institution and union hall across this country. Because the overwhelming human casualties of this racist leviathan are our own children, parents, sisters and brothers. Those whom this brutal system defines as being "beyond redemption" are ourselves.
What are the economic costs for American society of the vast expansion of our prison-industrial complex? According to criminal justice researcher David Barlow at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, between 1980 and 2000, the combined expenditures of federal, state and local governments on police have increased about 400 percent. Corrections expenditures for building new prisons, upgrading existing facilities, hiring more guards, and related costs, increased approximately one thousand percent. Although it currently costs about $70,000 to construct a typical prison cell, and about $25,000 annually to supervise and maintain each prisoner, the U.S. is currently building 1,725 new prison beds per week.
The driving ideological and cultural force that rationalized and justifies mass incarceration is the white American public's stereotypical perceptions about race and crime. As Andrew Hacker perceptively noted in 1995, "Quite clearly, `black crime' does not make people think about tax evasion or embezzling from brokerage firms. Rather, the offenses generally associated with blacks are those ...involving violence." A number of researchers have found that racial stereotypes of African Americans -- as "violent," "aggressive," "hostile" and "short-tempered" -- greatly influence whites' judgments about crime. Generally, most whites are inclined to give black and Latino defendants more severe judgments of guilt and lengthier prison sentences than whites who commit identical crimes. Racial bias has been well established especially in capital cases, where killers of white victims are much more likely to receive the death penalty than those who murder African Americans.
The greatest victims of these racialized processes of unequal justice, of course, are African-American and Latino young people. In April 2000, utilizing national and state data compiled by the FBI, the Justice Department and six leading foundations issued a comprehensive study that documented vast racial disparities at every level of the juvenile justice process. African Americans under age 18 comprise 15 percent of their national age group, yet they currently represent 26 percent of all those who are arrested.
After entering the criminal justice system, white and black juveniles with the same records are treated in radically different ways. According to the Justice Department's study, among white youth offenders, 66 percent are referred to juvenile courts, while only 31 percent of the African- American youth are taken there. Blacks comprise 44 percent of those detained in juvenile jails, 46 percent of all those tried in adult criminal courts, as well as 58 percent of all juveniles who are warehoused in adult prison. In practical terms, this means that for young African Americans who are arrested and charged with a crime, that they are more than six times more likely to be assigned to prison that white youth offenders.
For those young people who have never been to prison before, African Americans are nine times more likely than whites to be sentenced to juvenile prisons. For youths charged with drug offenses, blacks are 48 times more likely than whites to be sentenced to juvenile prison. White youths charged with violent offenses are incarcerated on average for 193 days after trial; by contrast, African-American youths are held 254 days, and Latino youths are incarcerated 305 days.
What seems clear is that a new leviathan of racial inequality has been constructed across our country. It lacks the brutal simplicity of the old Jim Crow system, with its omnipresent "white" and "colored" signs. Yet it is in many respects potentially far more devastating, because it presents itself to the world as a system that is truly color-blind. The black freedom struggle of the 1960s was successful largely because it convinced a majority of white middle class Americans that it was economically inefficient, and that politically it could not be sustained or justified.
The movement utilized the power of creative disruption, making it impossible for the old system of white prejudice and power to function in the same old ways it had for decades. For Americans who still believe in racial equality and social justice, we cannot stand silent while millions of our fellow citizens are being destroyed all around us. The racialized prison industrial complex is the great moral and political challenge of our time.
For several years, I have lectured in New York's famous Sing Sing prison, as part of a master's degree program sponsored by the New York Theological Seminary. During my last visit several months ago, I noticed that correctional officials had erected a large yellow sign over the door at the public entrance to the prison. The sign reads: "Through these doors pass some of the finest corrections professionals in the world." I asked Reverend Bill Webber, the director of the prison's educational program, and several prisoners what they thought about the sign. Bill answered bluntly, "demonic." One of the M.A. students, a 35-year-old Latino named Tony, agreed with Bill's assessment, but added, "let us face the demon head on." There are now over two million Americans who are incarcerated. It is time to face the demon head on.
Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science and Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. He can be reached at email@example.com.