The Care and Feeding of the Prison Industrial System

By George Napper Jr.

Vol. 22, No. 3, 2000 pp. 13-15

The multi-billion dollar prison-building enterprise in the United States is growing largely at the expense of the African-American population. The individual and social damage of this system reaches far beyond the enormous numbers and high percentages of African-American men and women presently in prisons to include vast numbers of former prisoners and their families.

Perhaps more tragically, the damage of the prison-building frenzy affects tens of thousands of youngsters and their families who are caught up in the highly punitive, harsh, and disproportionately African-American juvenile justice system. Since the juvenile system has become a feeder for adult prisons, and so much a part of the ritual of growing up as an African American, we must give great attention to its many failures of practice.

Another of the more sinister aspects of the current criminal justice system is the growing negative impact it has on the African-American population's political clout now and in the future. There are predictions that people of color may be in the majority of the U.S. population in the early years of the new millennium, and we must examine any phenomena that may mitigate against that eventual change, and its consequences. If there are increasing numbers of people of color who are disfranchised because of felony records, this will have very negative consequences for the concepts of democracy and political influences for African Americans, and other communities of color. Certainly, the ability of people of color to wield the political power necessary to bring change to the criminal justice system and to the fetid conditions triggering its operations will be greatly impaired.

I am not sure that there is a conscious effort by policy makers to create barriers to the population shift and its political implications, but barriers are in the making. There are growing numbers of activists and analysts who view the extraordinary expansion of the prison industrial complex as a conscious and deliberate method of providing cheap prison labor unencumbered by the issues of unionism, health benefits, and other rights. Images of a new form of slavery are often conjured up in this context.

Incarceration and African-American Families

The rate of imprisonment in the United States exceeds by far that of any industrial society. The prison industry is among the fastest growing in our country. Investment houses and large law firms watch the performance of their prison-building stock. The imprisonment enterprise has significant implications for both the present and future political influence of non-white communities, for their family structures, and for the concept of "justice." If we continue to see high increases in the rate and numbers of African-American women being incarcerated, in addition to what is happening to African-American men, a crisis o family formation and support will be further exacerbated.

A great number of incarcerated women have youngsters who are under eighteen, many of them less than six years old. Often, grandparents and foster homes are taking care of these children and youth. Many of them will grow up with the stigma that comes from being children of imprisoned parents. The stigma and the attendant marginalization affects their lives. We can anticipate increasing numbers of these youngsters becoming involved in drugs or violent activities. This, in turn, gives a generational dimension to the problem and provides politicians with more leverage to push for the building of more prisons and to be tougher on criminals. . , and the beat goes on. Unfortunately, being tough has not meant being effective!

Given these circumstances, it is difficult to be optimistic about what will be happening fifteen or twenty years into the future of the African-American population that is most affected by criminal justice policy and practice. It is not a question of whether or not we have the


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resources to do what needs to be done. It is a matter of political will. As long as the crime problem is largely defined as a problem of controlling African Americans and others of color, as long as criminality and African Americans are viewed as synonymous terms, the harder it will be for American policy makers to make the paradigm shifts necessary to cease over-relying on the criminal justice system to control crime in America. We cannot arrest ourselves out of our predicament. We cannot build enough prisons to solve the problems of social injustice, poverty, and lack of opportunity that form the conditions for much of today's criminality.

It is impossible to believe that our approach to the issues of incarceration and related concerns would not be different if the problem was white men, white women, and their youth suffering this outrageous fortune of disproportionately high incarceration rates.

The Dilemma of African-American Political Leadership

Thwarting the ability of the African-American "community" to mobilize its political energy to transform the criminal justice system is another factor that is also a product of the present arrangement the increasing social distance between groups within our population. There is already a reluctance on behalf of many African-American political leaders to be as outspoken as they need to be to effectively address the prison industrial complex and its implications.

Part of this reluctance can be explained by political leaders' being advocates of those who are the most likely to be victimized, i.e., their African-American constituents. Certainly, if anyone has a right to be more harsh, more punitive, it would be the members of the community who constitute, disproportionately, the crime victims. The relative failure to take a more progressive posture regarding the perpetrators is, in part, a reflection of the belief that those violating the law deserve what they gel Indeed, many victim advocates argue that more police are needed to make more arrests and to process more people through the system... and the quicker, the better.

Also related to the disappointing behavior of political leadership is the fact that new prisons can be built in their electoral districts. This means business opportunities and jobs for constituents, family, and friends. Further, their numbers usually are not strong enough in the political chambers to push an agenda that is different from.that of the Party line. Finally, many believe that the current policies and practices are the correct ones.

The greater point to be made here is that it would be easier to move with a more progressive (read preventive, proactive, and compassionate instead of reactive and punitive) agenda if African-American leadership was more visible on this issue. Doing so would ameliorate internal com-


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munity problems that have a generational character. That is, it is important for the African-American youth to know that the political leadership in their community cares greatly about them. Too often, youth in the African-American community feel that they are alone in their efforts to find meaning in life and to achieve a state of worthiness.

In the larger political context, it is difficult to believe that other politicians are going to care more for African-American youth than does its own leadership. Consequently and unfortunately, a less progressive political leadership feels that it is doing the right thing (at least something it believes it can get away with doing) because the African-American leadership seems to be okay with their policies and practices.

The nuances and maneuverings that characterize the political arena often mean that one has to compromise on certain issues to achieve what is believed to be higher priorities. While it is clear that controlling crime is a major concern with all politicians, what is ultimately the best approach remains a difficult challenge among many African-American political leaders. It is a monumental task to reduce crime and to develop a criminal justice system that is fair, just, and effective. It cannot be done by the African-American leadership alone. Well meaning Americans of all persuasions are needed to challenge our government to embrace a more rational approach to these issues.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Without question, the criminal justice system of today is destructive to the health and unity of the African-American population. When people come out of prison, without access to jobs, often alienated from their families, hardened by their experiences inside, they come back to their communities and, too often, continue in the process of victimizing others in the African-American community. They come out worse than they went in: more hostile, more angry, older, and less prepared, less able, and, sometimes, less interested in reintegrating as law-abiding citizens.

I am not arguing that we can salvage every person who comes to the attention of the criminal justice system. Nor am I suggesting that there are individuals who should not be locked up. I know that there are... and for a long, long time. I ran the Atlanta Police Department for twelve years and I have seen more than enough pain and hardship experienced by victims and their families to last a lifetime. However, I contend that we have a reactive, ineffectual criminal justice system with incarceration rates that are bringing havoc and ruin to communities of color, in general, and African-American communities in particular. In some states more money is being spent to build prisons than is being spent to educate our youth. These are monies that can be part of a more proactive, preventive approach to crime instead of being spent to feed the prison industrial complex. Processing increasing numbers through the system and building more and more prisons is not the answer.

The public safety demands that violent criminals be locked up. I agree wholeheartedly! Yet, the prisons in this country are teeming with young African Americans who have committed nonviolent, drug-related crimes. Research demonstrates that these individuals can benefit from community-based and other intermediate programs and from greater resources for drug treatment counseling, and education without compromising the public safety. Indeed, there is reason to believe that there is greater likelihood of not returning to crime from these approaches than from the more harsh, punitive "lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key" traditional approach driven by long term incarceration and mandatory sentences.

Simply put, we have an opportunity to move in a more productive direction. We can focus resources in a proactive preventive, early intervention mode. We can target the thousands of nonviolent drug prisoners in a more humane fashion. We can shift the focus from incarcerations of nonviolent offenders to a wide range of community-based intermediate sanctions and punishments. Finally, we can be more conscientious in our efforts to develop strategies and programs that minimize racial bias. Where efforts have taken place, there is evidence that public safety is not the only benefit The lives of individuals and their families are restored; the credibility and legitimacy of the criminal justice system are enhanced.

More and more people are growing weary and angry over the failed and destructive policies of the past that continue to shape our overly punitive incarceration policies. The insatiable appetite of the prison industrial complex is consuming the dignity of communities of color and the humanity of the larger society.

George Napper Jr. is a native of California and has an extensive background in both criminology and sociology. With a Ph.D. in criminology from the University of California at Berkeley, he came to Atlanta in 1970 as a professor at Spelman College, Emory University, and Morris Brown College. In 1978, he was appointed Atlanta's first African-American Chief of Police by Mayor Maynard Jackson and in 1982, he was appointed Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety for the City of Atlanta by Mayor Andrew Young. In 1992, Governor Zell Miller appointed Dr. Napper as the first Commissioner of the newly created Department of Children and Youth Services (now called the Department of Juvenile Justice). Napper is presently an Adjunct Professor of Criminal Justice at Clark Atlanta University.