Since we know that criminal justice policy is developed by people with a vested interest in what happens to our people, what motive could our lawmakers have for creating policies that disproportionately enslave the same group of people (African-Americans) who were enslaved during chattel slavery? Could it be for the exact same reason as the first institution of slavery? Common sense seems to dictate that incarcerating criminals makes our society safer. I would argue that common sense is not so common when we compare it to reality.
For example, according to The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison,"We have a great and sometimes even a greater chance of being killed or disabled by an occupational injury or disease, by unnecessary surgery, or by shoddy medical services, than by aggravated assault or even homicide!” (Reiman/Leighton, p. 71). Reiman and Leighton assert with passion that the "Typical Criminal" is not the greatest threat to which we are exposed.
Many people assume that the majority of the 2.4 million prisoners incarcerated in the United States are violent offenders. The contrary is true. "The percentage of state prisoners incarcerated for violent offenses has actually declined from 57 percent to 48 percent." (Reiman/Leighton, p. 19). Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow points out that "although African-Americans do not engage in drug crime at significantly higher rates than whites, black men do have much higher rates of violent crime, and violent crime is concentrated in ghetto communities. Black men, they say, deserve to be locked up. Typically, this is where the discussion ends. The problem with this abbreviated analysis is that violent crime is not responsible for the prison boom. Violent crime rates are at historically low levels, yet incarceration rates continue to climb." (Alexander, pp. 204,99).
So what do we make of this seeming paradox? Glenn C. Loury emphasizes in his book, Race, Incarceration, and American Values that "one-third of inmates in state prisons are violent criminals, but a more convincing argument [for increased incarceration] is that we have become progressively more punitive: not because 'crime' has continued to explode (it hasn't) but because we have made a collective decision to increase the rate of punishment." (Loury, p. 6-7). Basically, my point is that "crime" is a socially defined, power based term that gives false impressions to the unsuspecting taxpaying American.
Crime is also a tool used for deception by politicians for the main purpose of misappropriating tax dollars for personal gain. Part of this deception comes from the habit of the media to sensationalize violent crime, projecting black faces on the screen and creating fear in the minds of the American public. This false impression of too much violence causes white voters to endorse politicians who use propaganda as a means to magnify crime as an existential threat, though in reality Blacks are far more likely to be violent toward other Blacks.
For example, Tennessee Governor Haslam campaigned on getting tough on prisoners (a code word for crime) and stated that "prisons should not be five star hotels," relaying the false impression that Tennessee inmates were living in luxury. Not long after, Tennessee's fiscal budget increased to nearly $1 Billion Dollars for the Department of Corrections and that money (tax dollars) would be overseen by a handpicked African-American Commissioner from Georgia, a state where 40,000 inmates had a non-violent sit down due to deplorable conditions in 2010. Now Tennessee's Commissioner has militarized the Department of Correction, and violence in its prisons has increased sharply.
Although it may be a counterintuitive concept, when one examines the larger context, it becomes evident that an inmate is worth more to the economy than a poor working or unemployed citizen. While the working poor make around $17,000 dollars a year, income which will then be spent and circulated through our economy, around $30,000 a year is allocated for each inmate. This money comes from the taxpayers and ends up in the pockets of those who service or work for the prison industry — the real revolving door of mass incarceration. The incarcerated body of a prisoner thus cycles more money through our economy than it would as a poor (possibly unemployed) laborer. Almost all prisoners suffered from severe poverty before incarceration. The reality is that slavery by whatever name has always been about control, labor, and profit from human bodies.
The Prison-Industrial Complex is a multi-billion dollar conglomerate that comodifies the bodies of poor people. The justification for this network of capitalistic greed is crime, and the beneficiaries are rich corporations which siphon money from the taxpayers into their own coffers. Reiman and Leighton support my argument by exposing that "the prison-industrial complex includes companies that regard the $80 billion in corrections expenditures each year, not as a burden on American taxpayers but as a lucrative market." (p. 183). They also quote Donna Selman and Paul Leighton's book, Punishment for Sale, when they say "private prisons were born from an incarceration binge that has fostered injustice and that these entities, pursuing their own economic interest rather than the public good, perpetuate policies causing injustice because they profit from them." (Reiman/Leighton, p. 182).
While my aim is not to attack capitalism, it is worth noting that the workings of the free market do not see human beings, only numbers. My problem is that it is acceptable to exploit human beings for profit under the guise of justice and punishment, permitting modern-day plantation owners to operate as private prisons to profit off of the misery of poor people and questionable definitions of crime.
Corrections Corporations of America operates two prisons in West Tennessee where the majority of the inmates (slaves) are African-American, where the conditions are the most severe, and where violence soars. This type of business is too close to chattel slavery, and as a Black man in prison, I find it very scary. Slavery never ended. Loury informs us that "we have a corrections sector that employs more Americans than the combined work forces of General Motors, Ford, and Wal-Mart, the three largest corporate employers in the country, and we are spending some $200 billion annually on law enforcement and corrections at all levels of government, a fourfold increase (in constant dollars) over the past quarter Century." (p. 5).
In her book, The Law is a White Dog, Colin Dayan illuminates the meaning of Civil Death and shares the words of Justice Christian: "The bill of rights is a declaration of general principles to govern a society of freemen, and not of convicted felons and men civilly dead. Such men have some rights it is true, such as the law in its benignity accords them, but not rights of freemen. They are the slaves of the State undergoing punishment for heinous crimes committed against the laws of the land." (p. 61).
To deny that slavery exists by using sanitized language to identify today's slaves is to pretend prisons are working in the best interest of society instead of only certain sectors of society. When we see that prisons are so ineffective at what they propose to do, and we know that the definition and the application of criminal justice is skewed against the poor and minorities, we are forced to ask: whose best interest is really being served?
In order to go beyond prison, we have to be honest about the past and set the record straight. Personally, I am calling on the church and all Christians, those who claim to love God (whom they have never seen) but hate sinners like me for missing the mark, to condemn this modern practice of enslaving the poor and to participate in shaping new policies that allow healing in both the lives of incarcerated Americans as well as in the lives of any they may have harmed. The facts don't lie; 150 years after the end of slavery, 13 percent of African-American adult males – 1.4 million people – are disenfranchised.
I close with Tupac Shakur's words:
"They ask us why we mutilate each other like we do. They wonder why we hold such little worth for human life. To ask us why we turn from bad to worse, is to ignore that from which we came. . . . you see, you wouldn't ask why the rose that grew from the concrete had damaged petals. On the contrary, we would all celebrate its tenacity, and we would all love its will to reach for the sun. Well, we are the roses, this is the concrete, and these are my damaged petals. Don't ask me why. Thank God, nigga. Ask me how."
25 years a slave and counting,