Race-ing Justice: The Prison-Industrial Complex
Several months ago, 650 people attended the "Race-ing Justice" Conference in New York, sponsored by the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. In more than two dozen panels and workshops, black people examined the destructive impact of the police, the courts and the prison system upon the African-American community. Our current situation today, however, must be understood against the totalitarian history of racial domination in America.
For two centuries, the black community was confronted with the totalitarianism of slavery. All people of African descent, slave or free, were oppressed and subordinated by this structure of unequal racial power. For nearly a century after the Civil War and Reconstruction, black people experienced the systemic subordination of Jim Crow segregation. Regardless of one's income, education or social status, to be black under the totalitarian restrictions of Jim Crow meant confinement to second class status. In the twentieth century, the construction of the urban ghetto imposed another kind of social control on black development, certainly less pervasive than slavery had been, but in some respects was more destructive to the human spirit. Today, the new totalitarian mode of racial domination has become the prison industrial complex, an ever expanding archipelago of prisons across the American countryside.
In the United States today, about four to five million Americans receive criminal records every year. Roughly one in five U.S. citizens has a criminal record. In a society severely stratified by race and class, most of those who are pushed into the penal system are not unexpectedly black, brown and poor. One third of all prisoners were unemployed at the time of their arrest, with the others averaging less than $15,000 annual incomes in the year prior to their arrest. About one half of the 1.8 million people in federal and state prisons and jails are African Americans.
As researcher J.W. Mason noted, "The proportion of black men in prison-about 6 percent-is approximately 20 times the corresponding rate for white men . . . In Baltimore, 56 percent of black men are in prison or jail, out on bail, on probation or parole, or being sought on an arrest warrant. At least 90 percent of black men can expect to be arrested and jailed for a non-traffic offense at some point of their lives." Although the majority of black prisoners are young men in their twenties and thirties, the fastest growing sector of the penal population consists of men fifty-five years old and above.
Even outside of the prison walls, the black community's parameters are largely defined by the agents of state and private power. There are now about 600,000 police officers and 1.5 million private security guards in the U.S. Increasingly, however, black and poor communities are being "policed" by special paramilitary units, often called SWAT ("Special Weapons and Tactics") teams. Researcher Christian Parenti cites studies indicating that "the nation has more than 30,000 such heavily armed, military trained police unites." SWAT team mobilizations or "call outs" increased 400 percent between 1980 and 1995, with a 34 percent increase in the incidents of deadly force recorded by SWAT teams from 1995 to 1998.
What are the political consequences of regulating black and poor people through the criminal justice and penal systems? Perhaps the greatest impact is on the process of black voting. According to an October, 1998 study, "Losing the Vote," produced by the Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch, two nonprofit research groups, about 3.9 million Americans, or one in fifty adults, have currently or permanently lost the ability to vote because of a felony conviction. In 32 states, convicted offenders are not permitted to vote while on parole. In fourteen states, former prisoners who have fully served their terms remain disenfranchised, and in ten of these states, ex-felons are prohibited from voting for life. For African Americans, these figures can be translated into 1.4 million men who are denied the right to vote, compared to 4.6 million who actually voted in the 1996 elections. The racial impact of ex-felon disenfranchisement cited by the study is truly astonishing
- In Alabama and Florida, 31 percent of all black men are permanently disenfranchised.
- In five other states-Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico, Virginia, and Wyoming-one in four black men (24 to 28 percent) is permanently disenfranchised. In Washington state, one in four of black men (24 percent) are currently or permanently disenfranchised.
- In Delaware, one in five black men (20 percent) is permanently disenfranchised.
- In Texas, one in five black men (20.8 percent) is currently disenfranchised.
- In four states-Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin-16 to 18 percent of black men are currently disenfranchised.
- In nine states-Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma and Tennessee-10 to 15 percent of black men are currently disenfranchised.
In effect, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed millions of African Americans the right to the electoral franchise, is being gradually repealed by state restrictions on ex-felons from voting. A people who are imprisoned in disproportionately higher numbers, and then systematically denied the right to vote, can in no way claim to live under a democracy
Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science and Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. "Along the Color Line" is distributed free of charge and appears in over 325 publications throughout the U.S. and internationally.