Captive Lives

By Ellen Spears

Vol. 22, No. 3 p. 3

"For Americans who still believe in racial equality and social justice," says writer Manning Marable, "we cannot stand silent while millions of our fellow citizens are being destroyed all around us." This special issue of Southern Changes brings together advocates, scholars, and photographers hard at work to reverse the policies that make the U.S. a world leader in incarcerating and executing its citizens, especially its citizens of color. Thanks to the contributing writers and to guest editor Constance Curry, author and human rights leader, or bringing these perspectives to the pages of Southern Changes at this critical moment.

As rates of incarceration rise in the U.S. faster and higher than any other Western industrialized nation, the South stands in the lead. Louisiana and Texas are out in front, imprisoning more than one in 131 of their residents. "Texas Tough," an August 29 report from the justice Policy Institute, points out that Texas leads the nation in incarceration growth, adding that, during the U.S. prison boom of the 1990s, Texas prisons accounted for nearly one-fifth: of the prison population growth. Of all the fifty states, Alabama and Florida deprive more prisoners of the right to vote, with nearly one-third of adult black males disfranchised. Texas and Virginia have executed more people than any other state. And, Southern-based corporations are driving the move to privatize, with nearly 70 percent of the inmates detained in private prisons held in the South.

As the U.S. crosses the two million mark in numbers imprisoned, race remains the defining factor in nearly every measure. "[A]lthough 13 percent of drug users in the U.S. are black, blacks account for 74 percent of all those sentenced to prison for drug offenses," reported Scientific American last year. According to Justice Department figures released in mid-September, nearly three-fourths of the 183 defendants recommended by U.S. attorneys for a death sentence were members of minority groups.

The electoral implications of the wholesale imprisonment of black men in the U.S. are becoming increasingly apparent, with one in seven adult black males having lost voting rights due to a felony conviction. Even inmates without felony convictions have great difficulty getting registered and find it hard to vote. Attempts by the NAACP to register jail inmates in Terrell County, Georgia, for the November 2000 elections have been barred by the county board of elections.

British criminologists Leslie Wilkins and Ken Pease (cited in the Scientific American report) show that high incarceration rates are linked to income inequality and argue that "high U.S. incarceration rates are unlikely to decline until there is greater equality of income." Certainly, the economic roots of the dramatic increase in the number of women in prison is evident, with 37 percent of women in state prisons reporting an income of less than $600 in the month prior to their arrest.

Although property-based and most violent crime rates have been dropping (rape is the notable exception). politicians' exploitation of crime as a thinly veiled proxy for race remains a long-standing election tradition. The nationalization of racially coded elections reached new heights in the Nixon era and again under Reagan and Bush, with "law and order" campaigns and the racially targeted "war on drugs." Building on the re-instatement of the death penalty in 1976, the rhetoric of the "war on drugs," and the construction of private prisons that began in the mid-1980s, the 1990s were a decade filled with "tough on crime" political themes. The tough talk was used to motivate voters through fear and nurture a "lock 'em up and throw away the key" mentality in contrast to implementing more effective rehabilitative programs and strategies.

While political courage to buck the tide of repressive action on crime and punishment remains in short supply, the past year has given a few encouraging signs. The American Bar Association's call for a moratorium on the death penalty adds a strong voice to the growing numbers of Americans seeking abolition. Republican Gov. George Ryan of Illinois declared a moratorium in his state and called for others to follow his lead, reflecting the growing public recognition that too many wrongly convicted people are in prison and on death row. Ohio Representative Ted Strickland's Public Safety Act, (HR 979) a proposal to prohibit placement of federal prisoners in private for-profit correctional facilities, has 143 co-sponsors in Congress.

The Southern Regional Council hopes this special issue of Southern Changes will provide support to prisoners and their advocates working to abolish the death penalty, to eliminate racial disparities in arrests and sentencing, to stop prison privatization, and to provide for alternative restitution. We offer this collection to be used by advocates who are, in Manning Marable's words, "facing the demon head on."

Ellen Spears is associate director of the Southern Regional Council. You may contact her by email at. espears@southerncouncil.org