Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Tackling the Prison Industrial Complex

marjorie says...

Every time Bill Richardson does something to tick me off, he turns around and does something that pleases me to no end. I’ve noticed this time and again. Is this why he’s so popular you think?

In this case, he’s decided to take up the issue of prison reform. I hope he means it, because this would be one of the more just acts he could undertake during his tenure as Governor. From my perspective, actually, perhaps it would be the most just outcome of his governorship. Even if his motivations are entirely different from my own.

Maybe he read the Pew Center Report on our prison population, just released last week.

The Pew Center didn’t tell us anything new, it just updated us on what has been the case for awhile: the United States houses more prisoners than any other country in the world, both per capita and in total number. And we do it in an overwhelmingly racist manner, also nothing new to point out.

In the words of Glenn Loury, “…the current American prison system, is a leviathan unmatched in human history.” When you consider the degree to which it's privatized, and the contract labor prisoners provide for some of our mega-corporations, a better description might be American gulag.

Glenn Loury wrote a piece in the Boston Review last summer that I can not recommend enough, in which he documents the punitive trend (and its link to race) that led to increasing incarceration rates in the 1990s. And while the annual incarceration numbers have declined through the 2000s, the problem is that we release people from prison at a lower rate than we lock them up, so the numbers keep climbing.

The percentage at which we imprison black men is astounding, showing more clearly than anything else the institutional racism of our society:

Black males in their late twenties incarcerated at higher rates than other groups

At midyear 2006 more black men (836,800) were in custody in State or Federal prison or local jail than white men (718,100) or Hispanic men (426,900) (table 13). Black men comprised 41% of the more than 2 million men in custody, and black men age 20 to 29 comprised 15.5% of all men in custody on June 30, 2006. Relative to their numbers in the general population, about 4.8% of all black men were in custody at midyear 2006, compared to about 0.7% of white men and 1.9% of Hispanic men. Overall, black men were incarcerated at 6.5 times the rate of white men. The incarceration rate for black men was highest among black men age 25 to 29. About 11.7% of black males in this age group were incarcerated on June 30, 2006. Across age groups black men were between 5.7 and 8.5 times more likely than white men to be incarcerated.

The New Mexico numbers, in case you were wondering, appear to mirror the national stats. But the black men are replaced by brown men in our state.

Loury makes a compelling case that our American gulag is simply the next manifestation of our long racist history as a nation, with a criminal justice approach emerging in the wake of the civil rights movement as a mechanism through which the African American community is kept in a subordinate position. When you look at the numbers, the ramifications for the greater African American community, in terms of family and social cohesion, boggle the mind.

As with most institutional injustices, the truth is often hard to discern from a mountain of data. A blog like this becomes boring because of the litany of statistics it begs for. But I'd suggest the basic demographic numbers shown so clearly in these criminal justice reports tell us all we need to know. Despite the prevalent rhetoric, our country is not color-blind, nor are we by any stretch of the imagination "post-racial."

Loury continues:

"Whatever the number, analysts of all political stripes now agree that we have long ago entered the zone of diminishing returns. The conservative scholar John DiIulio, who coined the term “super-predator” in the early 1990s, was by the end of that decade declaring in The Wall Street Journal that “Two Million Prisoners Are Enough.” But there was no political movement for getting America out of the mass-incarceration business. The throttle was stuck.”

As I said in the comment section of one of my posts last week, about 20% of those in prison are there for non-violent drug offenses. Another 20% are there for other non-violent crimes. A little over 50% seek help for drug addiction once in prison. The recidivism rate however, is incredibly high. I can’t help but wonder how different our world would be if we funneled all the money we currently spend to imprison those with health problems into rehab and health care facilities instead.

There is a nascent political movement for change (see the Sentencing Project website) and Governor Richardson's signal that he will pursue prison reform is most definitely a step further in the right direction. Let's hope his effort bears fruit.