The Jail Generation

Human Rights

"I've been working fourteen years to keep my sanity, now I'm on vacation," mused J.J. Tennison, speaking in a slow, metered voice. In 1990, Tennison, then 18, and Antoine "Soda Pop" Goff, then 21, were convicted of manslaughter and sent to separate state prisons in California to serve sentences of 25 years to life. Then, in September 2003, they were proven innocent on appeal and exonerated. But in a small press conference with about 20 journalists at San Francisco's Pacific News Service last December, Tennison and Goff showed little bitterness. Didn't they despair over losing the prime years of their youth, asked one journalist, himself just pushing 25? Tennison, now 31, leaned back in his chair and shook his head. "Most of my friends from that time are either locked up or six feet under, so it's hard to say what my life would have been like," said Tennison.

It was a startling admission, but surprisingly realistic. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, far outstripping runners-up Russia and Belarus. The U.S. houses more prisoners than China and India combined, according to the King's College of London International Centre for Prison Studies. This has not always been the case. Prison populations have quadrupled in the past 20 years in the U.S. (to around 2.1 million people currently).

Of those incarcerated, 57% are under the age of 35. As welfare roles decline, prisons have become the primary institutional interface for more and more youth, informing everything from pop culture to worldview and life expectations. While commentators have sought to define today's young and restless as the Hip Hop Generation, a better moniker might soon be the Jail Generation.

"Going to prison has become normalized," says Billy Wimsatt, a journalist turned activist whose 1994 underground book Bomb the Suburbs was one of the first and most eloquent articulations of the politics and worldview of what would later be termed the Hip Hop Generation. "Prison used to be the monster way in the corner, now it's taking over half the room, and it's getting its slime all over," ventures Wimsatt. In his second book, No More Prisons, Wimsatt leveraged his grass-roots populist appeal to focus attention on the anti-prison movement. His path exemplifies the growing convergence between mainstream hip hop and an urban lifestyle that is deeply damaged by increased incarceration rates.

"Going to prison has a variety of negative effects," says Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based prison analysis and advocacy group. "It hurts employment prospects, it breaks up families, and the high degree of mobility creates a population that has fewer legitimate connections to the community." Although juvenile poverty rates have steadily declined, the percentage of children raised in single parent homes has risen from 12% in 1970 to 28% in 1998. Although it is unclear how large a role increased prison populations play in this phenomenon, the increase has been most marked among those populations that have high incarceration rates. In 2000, only 38% of black children were being raised in two-parent homes. "Think of the number of kids who can only talk to their parents through collect phones or class trips upstate. Prison fosters a culture which people bring out into their world," Wimsatt laments.

If so many young people are growing up in prison, what exactly are they being taught?

"In prison, you learn to talk less, listen more, and observe -- and you learn patience," says Eddy Zheng from a pay phone in Solano State Prison in Vacaville, CA. In 1982, when he was 12 years old, Zheng came to America from Canton, China, with his family. His parents worked full time -- "my Dad worked at McDonalds; all he memorized was how to say 'mayonaise, lettuce, tomatoes.'" Zheng didn't adjust well. In 1986 he was convicted of kidnapping with intent to commit robbery, and was charged as an adult at the age of 16. "I grew up in prison," admits Zheng. Still learning English when he was admitted, Zheng took ESL classes and got his GED, and then went on to receive an Associate Degree of Arts through extension classes at San Quentin State Prison (he has since been relocated to Solano State). He plans on starting a youth guidance center for new immigrants when he is released. Zheng realizes his story is unusual and praises the "huge support from family and friends beyond the community of incarceration" that have helped him make the most of his time in prison.

For many, prison is nothing but lost time. "You don't learn nothing in prison," says Darrell Anthony, 24, over the phone from his house on Chicago's Southside. Anthony (name changed to protect anonymity) is on house arrest while he awaits a court date later this month. "You might learn how to break a new crime, or a card trick, but that's about it." Anthony was arrested in 2001 for drug possession, and served 19 months in Statesville Prison, IL. Released in May 2003, he was arrested for narcotics possession again in August 2003. With legitimate job prospects hampered by a felony record, many ex-convicts return to old hustles to survive. "If you ain't got no job, you ain't got no life," says Anthony. His story is not unusual: 66% of prisoners return to prison within three years of their release.

The dramatic increase in prisoners has deeply affected the poor, urban, and black and latino communities that have long been the life force of the Hip Hop Generation. One in three black men and one in six Latino men will go to prison at some point in their lives, compared to one in 23 white men, and 64% of prisoners are minorities. In his 2002 book The Hip Hop Generation, Bakari Kitwana reserved the term for African-Americans born between 1965 and 1984, dismissing Generation X as applicable only for whites.

But even though incarceration disproportionally affects poor, minority neighborhoods, with Hip Hop as its publicity machine, criminal justice issues could find an audience beyond the communities directly impacted. Russell Simmons, the music producer cum media mogul cum patriarch of establishment hip hop culture allows that since 80% of hip hop listeners are white, the Hip Hop Generation applies to all those who "sympathize with the plight of the poor."

Courting the Jail Vote

Although it flies in the face of two decades of political orthodoxy showing that "tough on crime" stances are ballot box winners, appeals to the Hip Hop Generation on criminal justice issues could provide an untapped vote block for politicians willing to make the effort. Reverend Al Sharpton has hailed the Hip Hop Generation's tremendous swing vote power, and the Democratic National Committee has begun to enlist popular hip hop artists as headliners at fundraising dinners. But organizers agree that unless pleas to the Hip Hop Generation are centered around specific issues, they will fail to attract a population that is suspicious of electoral politics.

Efforts to create a mobilized Jail Generation may find some unlikely allies. Soaring budget deficits are forcing states to reconsider their prison budgets and traditional "tough on crime" politics. Public opinion polls also show support for decreased spending on prisons. A 2003 comprehensive statewide poll by the California Public Policy Institute, a non-partisan research organization, found that prisons and corrections was the only area of government for which a majority of respondents (55%) supported a decrease in spending.

"In 1994, at the height of 'tough on crime‚' you had Newt Gingrich, the Federal Crime Bill, and three strikes in California," says Franklyn Zimring, Berkeley Law Professor and criminal justice specialist, "there are few people who are nostalgic for that time."

In the past, anti-prison activists have had few allies in government, and so have fought hard to win small concessions. In 2002, The Prison Moratorium Project, a New York based outfit with chapters in Minneapolis and San Francisco, partnered with the Justice for Youth Coalition to block a proposed plan to build 200 new juvenile detention beds, and removed $53 million from the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice's budget. Groups of youth lobbied aggressively against the proposed expansion in Albany, the state capital, and at city council meetings. Prison activists welcome progressive prison policy reforms, regardless of the motivation. "We're against building more prisons because we think it's racist and targets the powerless," says Raybblin Vargas, campaign director for the Prison Moratorium Project, "they (politicians) are against it because of all the legal problems, and the costs and headaches -- but whatever it takes."

Many activists remain wary. "It's still not a question of how we care about people, its about state budgets," says Dorsie Nunn, director of All of Us or None, an Oakland, CA, based advocacy and support organization for former prisoners. For Nunn, waiting for a change in budget priorities is less important than building solidarity among the 1,600 prisoners who are released nationwide everyday. "One in three African-American men going to prison is serious," says Nunn, "but (the anti-prison movement) will be real effective when one in three African-American men start saying that shit."

It's probably too late for J.J. Tennison's childhood friends, but you can bet there's a new set of young men on the same street corners who might soon be telling their own prison stories. There may be many more jailed generations to come.

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