Why is the United States prison system so barbaric? And why is such an enormous percentage of the prison population African American? The conversation impacts black and brown men living in these United States more than any other group, not to mention their families and communities where they lived. So where are we and where do we go from here? First, a look at what’s real.
- On any given day, 1 of every 14 Black children has a parent in prison.
- Of the 2.3 million inmates today, 910,000 are African American.
- Blacks make up 43.9 percent of the state and federal prison population but only 12.3 percent of the U.S. population.
- Approximately 1.4 million African American men, or 13 percent have currently or permanently lost their right to vote as a result of a felony conviction – 7 times the national average.
- In at least 15 states, Black men were sent to prison n drug charges at rates ranging from 20-57 times those of white men.
- In 1954 there were 98,000 African Americans incarcerated – 288,800 in 1984 – That’s a 300% increase. From 1954 to today with 910,000 in prison or jail, it has increased a staggering 900%.
Here’s how the United States’ incarceration rate stacks up against the rest of the world according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
The impact on Black men is real. In 2011 New York City police conducted 700,000 stop-and-frisk searches according to teh New York Civil Liberties Union. Take that in for a second. Eighty-five percent of those searches included Blacks and Hispanics – mostly men. Keep in mind these brothers constitute only fifty percent of the city’s entire population. Basically, the NYPD stopped and frisked more young black men in New York than actually live there. Yeah. Also in New York state, the average cost for keeping someone in prison for one year is approximately $60,000. On Rikers Island its a whopping $168k per person, per year. They have over 10,000 detainees in custody. Do the math. It’s called the Prison Industrial Complex.
A Brief History
Mass incarceration began to take off in 1973 with the “War on Drugs,” in fact it jumped eightfold between 1970 and 2012. According to The Black Family in The Age of Mass Incarceration, an article written by author Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Among all black males born since the late 1970s, one in four went to prison by their mid-‘30s; among those who dropped out of high school, seven in 10 did.”
From the mid-1970s to the mid-’80s, America’s incarceration rate doubled. From the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s, it doubled again. Then it went still higher.
The Future For Non Violent Drug Offenders
In the spring of 2014, the Obama administration announced plans to consider granting clemency to thousands of federal prisoners who have been jailed for nonviolent offenses under historically harsher sentencing guidelines. Federal prisoners were notified of the project, and more than 30,000 submitted surveys to begin the process. While Obama’s 2015 clemency total registered at 91 pardons and 159 commutations, much more work is needed. The challenge – its a very long process with several layers of review within the Department of Justice. The Sentencing Commission estimated that an additional 8,550 inmates potentially eligible for release by Nov. 1, 2016. In short, there’s still time for justice.
So what can you do as a conscious citizen? Organizations like Just Leadership USA led by Glenn E. Martin are focused on decarceration – cutting the U.S correctional population in half by 2030, while reducing crime. They invest in formerly incarcerated people, through training, become stronger and more effective leaders. Consider supporting this or similar initiatives. Support children whose parents are incarcerated. Become a mentor in your community. Help a young man behave and do well in school.
One of best resources on Mass Incarceration in America is The New Jim Crow, written by legal scholar Michelle Alexander. Alexander agues that “by targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control.” Watch below as Yale Law Professor, Community Activists, and hip hop legend Talib Kweli debate and discuss this provocative and important book.