Facing the Demon Head On: Institutional Racism and the Prison Industrial Complex

Facing the Demon Head On: Institutional Racism and the Prison Industrial Complex

By Manning Marable

Vol. 22, No. 3, 2000 pp. 4-7

As long as black people have lived in America, they have experienced some version of institutional or structural racism. During slavery, African Americans were defined as private property or chattel, purchased and sold on auction blocks. In the period following Reconstruction until the early 1960s, African Americans, especially in the South, lived under the oppressive restrictions of Jim Crow segregation. In the northern states, blacks were generally permitted to vote and had access to most public accommodations, but were forced by racial covenants and restrictive laws to live in ghettoes.

Under each successive racial formation, African Americans and their white allies formed political and social pro test movements, which ultimately transformed the nature of their society. In the antebellum South, there were uprisings and day-to-day resistance by enslaved African Americans, and in the northern states an abolitionist movement developed that contributed to the establishment of the Republican Party. Under Jim Crow, leaders such as Dr. Marlin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, James Farmer, Ella Baker, and a broad coalition of civil rights organizations mounted a series of nonviolent, direct action campaigns that directly led to the desegregation of the South. In the northern states, African Americans employed a variety of strategies, from the labor union organizing of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, to the mass political mobilization efforts that elected thousands of public officials, to achieve greater black representation at all levels of society. Progress was frequently slow, but the black freedom movement was generally successful in identifying the specific institutional barriers to American-American equality, and then ultimately finding the appropriate tactics to challenge then.

In the past three decades, the structure and character of American institutional racism has changed dramatically. We can measure the advances of African Americans in many ways. The number of black elected officials, barely 100 in 1964, has climbed above 10,000; the black consumer market has grown from $70 billion in 1980 to over $350 billion today. There is an affluent and substantial black middle class, and the economic expansion of the l99Os greatly improved the quality of life even for millions of working-class and low-income households. The unemployment rate of African Americans has now fallen to about 7 percent which, according to sociologist William Julius Wilson, is “the lowest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began compiling comparable data by race in 1972.”

However, this new prosperity for the black middle class obscures a very real crisis for millions of other African Americans. The unprecedented expansion of what a number of scholars increasingly describe as a “prison industrial complex” has created an oppressively new context for the articulation of racial politics. According to an August 2000 Justice Department report, the total population of the nation’s jails and prisons exceeded two million at the end of 1999. The dynamic and seemingly unchecked growth of the U.S. prison population has many profound consequences-politically, economically and socially-for all people of color.

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, for a variety of reasons, rates of violent crime, including murder, rape and robbery, increased dramatically, especially in urban areas. By the late 1970s, nearly one half of all Americans were afraid to walk within a mile of their homes at night, and 90 percent responded in surveys that the U.S. criminal justice system was not dealing harshly enough with criminals. Politicians like Richard Nixon, George Wallace, and Ronald Reagan began to campaign successfully on the theme of “Law and Order.” The death penalty, which was briefly outlawed by the Supreme Court, was reinstated. Local, state, and federal expenditures for law enforcement rose sharply. Behind much of the anti-crime rhetoric was a not- too-subtle racial dimension, the projection of crude stereo types about the link between criminality and black people. Rarely did these politicians observe that minority and poor people, not the white middle class, were statistically much more likely to experience violent crimes of all kinds. The argument was made that law enforcement officers should be given much greater latitude in suppressing crime, that sentences should be lengthened and made mandatory, and that prisons should be designed not for the purpose of rehabilitation, but punishment.

As a result there was a rapid expansion in the personnel of the criminal justice system, as well as the construction of new prisons. What occurred in New York State, for example, was typical of what happened nationally. From 1817 to 1981, New York had opened thirty-three state prisons. From 1982 to 1999, another thirty-eight state prisons were constructed. The state’s prison population at the time of the Attica prison revolt in September1971 was about 12,500. By 1999, there were over 71,000 prisoners

Page 5

in New York State correctional facilities.

In 1974, the number of Americans incarcerated in all state prisons stood at 187,500. By 1991, the number had reached 711,700. Nearly two-thirds of all state prisoners in 1991 had less than a high school education. One third of all prisoners were unemployed at the time of their nests. Incarceration rates by the end of the 1980s had soared to unprecedented rates, especially for black Americans. As of December 1989 the total U.S. prison population, including federal institutions, exceeded one million for the first time in history, an incarceration rate of the general population of one out of every 250 citizens. For African Americans, the rate was over 700 per 100,000, or about seven times more than for whites. About one half of all prisoners were black. Twenty-three percent of all black males in their twenties were either in jail or prison, on parole, probation, or awaiting trial. The rate of incarceration of black Americans in 1989 had even surpassed that experienced by blacks who still lived under the apartheid regime of South Africa.

By the early 1990s, rates for all types of violent crime began to plummet. But the laws, which sent offenders to prison, were made even more severe. Children were increasingly viewed as adults in courts, and subjected to harsher penalties. Laws like California’s “three strikes and you’re out” eliminated the possibility of parole for repeat offenders. The vast majority of these new prisoners were nonviolent offenders, and many were convicted of drug offenses that carried long prison terms. Nationwide, African Americans and Latinos comprised 24.3 percent of the population in 1999, but represented 63.6 percent of state and federal prisoners and 78.8 percent of state prisoners convicted of drug offenses. The pattern of racial bias in these statistics is confirmed by the research of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which found that while African Americans today constitute only 14 percent of all drug users nationally, they are 35 percent of all drug nests, 55 percent of all drug convictions, and 75 percent of all prison admissions for drug offenses. Currently, the racial proportions of those under some type of correctional supervision, including parole and probation, are one-in-fifteen for young white males, one-in-ten for young Latino males, and one-in- three for young African-American males. Statistically to day, more than eight out of every ten African-American males will be arrested at some point in their lifetime.

The latest innovation in American corrections system is “special housing units” (SHU), but which prisoners also generally refer to as “The Box.” SHUs are uniquely designed solitary confinement cells, in which prisoners are locked down for twenty-three hours a day for months or even years at a time. SHU cellblocks are electronically

Page 6

monitored, prefabricated structures of concrete and steel, about fourteen feet long and eight feet wide, amounting to 120 square feet of space. The two inmates who are confined in each cell, however, actually have only about sixty square feet of usable space, or thirty square feet per person. All meals are served to prisoners through a thin slot cut into the steel door. The toilet unit, sink, and shower are all located in the cell. Prisoners are permitted one hour “exercise time” each day in a small concrete balcony, stir-rounded by heavy security wire, directly connected with their SHU cells. Educational and rehabilitation programs for SHU prisoners are prohibited. Although Amnesty International and human rights groups condemned SHUs, claiming that such forms of imprisonment constitute the definition of torture under international law, many states are increasing the number of SHU facilities in their state prisons. As of 1998, California had constructed 2,942 SHU beds, followed by Mississippi (1,756), Arizona (1,728), Virginia (1,267), Texas (1,229), Louisiana (1,048) and Florida (1,000). Solitary confinement which historically had been defined even by corrections officials as an extreme disciplinary measure, is becoming increasingly the norm.

The introduction of SHUs reflects a general mood in the country that the growing penal population is essentially beyond redemption. If convicted felons cease to be viewed as human beings, why should they be treated with any humanity? This punitive spirit was behind the Republican- controlled Congress and President Clinton’s decision in 1995 to eliminate inmate eligibility for federal Pell Grant awards for higher education. As of 1994, 23,000 prisoners throughout the U.S., had received Pell Grants, averaging about $1,500 per award. The total amount of educational support granted prisoners, $35 million, represented only 0.6 percent of all Fell Grant funding nationally. Many studies have found that prisoners who participate in higher education programs and especially those who complete college degrees have significantly lower rates of recidivism. For all prison inmates, for example, recidivism aver ages between 50 to 70 percent Federal parolees have a recidivism rate of 40 percent Prisoners with a college education have recidivism rates of only 5 to 10 percent. Given the high success ratio of prisoners who complete advanced degree work and the relatively low cost of public investment, such educational programs should make sense. But following the federal governments lead, many states have also ended their tuition benefits programs for state prisoners.

What are the economic costs for American society of the vast expansion of our prison-industrial complex? According to criminal justice researcher David Barlow at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, between 1980 and 2000, the combined expenditures of federal, state, and local governments on police have increased about 400 percent. Corrections expenditures for building new prisons, upgrading existing facilities, hiring more guards, and related costs, increased approximately 1000 percent. Although it currently costs about $70,000 to construct a typical prison cell, and about $25,000 annually, to supervise and maintain each prisoner, the U.S. is currently building 1,725 new prison beds per week.

The driving ideological and cultural forces that rationalize and justify mass incarceration are the white American public’s stereotypical perception about race and crime. As Andrew Hacker noted in 1995, “Quite clearly,’black crime’ does not make people think about tax evasion or embezzling from brokerage firms. Rather, the offenses generally associated with blacks are those . . involving violence.” A number of researchers have found that racial stereotypes of African Americans – as “violent,” “aggressive,” ‘hostile,” and “short-tempered” – greatly influence whites’ judgments about crime. Generally, most whites are inclined to give black and Latino defendants more severe judgments of guilt and lengthier prison sentences than whites who commit identical crimes. Racial bias has been well established especially in capital cases, where killers of white victims are much more likely to receive the death penalty than those who murder African Americans.

The greatest victims of these racialized processes of unequal justice, of course, are African-American and Latino young people. In April 2000, utilizing national and state data compiled by the FBI, the justice Department and six leading foundations issued a comprehensive study that documented vast racial disparities at every level of the juvenile justice process. African Americans under age eighteen comprise 15 percent of their national age group, yet they currently represent 26 percent of all those who are arrested. After entering the criminal justice system, white and black juveniles with the same records are treated in radically different ways. According to the Justice Department’s study, among white youth offenders, 66 percent are referred to juvenile courts, while only 31 per cent of the African-American youth are taken there. Blacks comprise 44 percent of those detained in juvenile jails, 46 percent of all those tried in adult criminal courts, as well as 58 percent of all juveniles who are warehoused in adult prison. In practical terms, this means that young African Americans who are arrested and charged with a crime, are more than six times more likely to be assigned to prison than white youth offenders.

For those young people who have never been to prison before, African Americans are nine times more likely than whites to be sentenced to juvenile prisons. For youths charged with drug offenses, blacks are forty-eight times

Page 7

more likely than whites to be sentenced to juvenile prison. White youths charged with violent offenses are incarcerated on average for 193 days after trial; by contrast, A American youths are held 254 days, and Latino youths are incarcerated 305 days.

The August 2000 report of the US Justice Department finds that 9.4 percent of black men ages twenty-five to twenty were in state and federal prisons in 1999, almost ten times the rate for white men in their late twenties. Among Hispanic males hi this same age group, over 3 percent were incarcerated.

What seems clear is that a new leviathan of racial inequality has been constructed across our country. It lacks the brutal simplicity of the old Jim Crow system, with its omnipresent “white” and “colored” signs. Yet it is in many respects potentially far more devastating, because it presents itself to the world as a system that is truly color blind. The black freedom struggle of the 1960s was successful largely because it convinced a majority of white middle class Americans that the Jim Crow system was economically inefficient, and that politically it could not be sustained or justified. The movement utilized the power of creative disruption, making it impossible for the old system of white prejudice and power to function in the same old ways it had for decades. For Americans who still believe in racial equality and social justice, we cannot stand silent while millions of our fellow citizens are being destroyed all around us. The racialized prison industrial complex is the great moral and political challenge of our time.

For several years, I have lectured in New York’s famous Sing Sing prison, as part of a master’s degree program sponsored by the New York Theological Seminary. During my last visit several months ago, I noticed that correctional officials had erected a large yellow sign over the door at the public entrance to the prison. The sign reads: “walking through these doors pass some of the finest corrections professionals in the world.” I asked Reverend Bill Webber, the director of the prisons educational program, and several prisoners what they thought about the sign. Bill answered bluntly, “demonic.” One of the Master’s students, a thirty-five-year-old Latino named Tony, agreed with Bill’s assessment, but added, “let us face the demon head on.” There are now over two million Americans who are incarcerated. It is time to face the demon head on.

Manning Marable is professor of History and Political Science, and the Founding Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. He is also editor of Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society.