Posts Tagged ‘race & incarceration’
The New Orleans Times-Picayune has an excellent series on how Louisiana became the world’s leading jailer. The eight-part series begins with these sobering stats:
Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s. …
One in 86 adult Louisianians is doing time, nearly double the national average. Among black men from New Orleans, one in 14 is behind bars; one in seven is either in prison, on parole or on probation. Crime rates in Louisiana are relatively high, but that does not begin to explain the state’s No. 1 ranking, year after year, in the percentage of residents it locks up.
In Louisiana, a two-time car burglar can get 24 years without parole. A trio of drug convictions can be enough to land you at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for the rest of your life.
The New York Times “Room for Debate” feature this week addresses the racial imbalance in incarceration rates, providing a range of opinions on the question:
The news for young black men is not good: they are disproportionately singled out for discipline in school, they are more likely to be stopped and frisked by New York City police officers, and according to Michelle Alexander in her book, “The New Jim Crow,” nearly one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison at some point in their lives.
Would pulling back on draconian drug laws or legalizing marijuana be enough to fix this imbalance? What else needs to be done?
USC law professor Kim Shayo Buchanan has a (relatively) recent article about sexual violence behind bars, which you can download here. UC-Davis law professor Angela P. Harris calls the article “a tour de force of critical legal theory.” Here’s Harris discussing Buchanan’s findings, over at Jotwell:
Buchanan’s observations about the taken-for-grantedness of sexual violence in prison and the seeming complacency about it in the outside world eerily recall a time when women who were raped would routinely be blamed for dressing too provocatively. Her analysis of how male victims of sexual violence are similarly ignored, disbelieved, held responsible, or told that it must have been consensual clearly draws on second-wave feminist analysis. Buchanan also draws on this analysis when she shows how the world of prisons and jails is as effectively shielded from legal scrutiny as was the home in an earlier era. Then, as now, the creation of a “private” sphere free from legal intervention made room for an informal order patrolled by patriarchal violence. …
Finally, Buchanan’s article is about a racialized sex/gender panic on the part of white men that crystallizes in the joke I repeated at the beginning of this review (and hundreds of variations scattered throughout popular culture). In her fascinating cultural history, Manliness and Civilization, Gail Bederman suggests that the male fantasy of vulnerability to rape by a “big black dude” may have its roots in the late nineteenth century, when white male masculinity entered a period of crisis from which it has never fully emerged. Buchanan demonstrates that the fantasy persists as a “myth” about prison rape – the belief held by experts as well as laypersons that the perpetrators of prison rape are disproportionately black and the victims disproportionately white. There is no good evidence to believe that prison rape is raced in this way. Yet the fantasy persists.
To learn more about the issue of prison rape, visit the website of Just Detention International.
Overpoliced and Underprotected: Women, Race, and Criminalization
Recently, mass incarceration has been theorized as a system of racialized social control. This frame, however, often relies on long-standing gender reductionism that posits the primary subject of punishment and criminalization as male. At the same time, the unprecedented growth of female incarceration has spawned a host of gender-sensitive interventions, yet the discourses that are gender-sensitive often marginalize if not entirely erase the distinctive racial dimensions of the punitive turn in public policy. This Symposium will interrogate how criminalization is mediated through various intersections of race, gender and class and will shed light on the dimensions of racialized criminalization that are gendered differently.
Moreover, this symposium will investigate the parallel and reinforcing nature of institutions that prepare certain populations for incarceration and function to exclude them upon their release. In examining various logics of punishment, the discussion will not be limited to formal boundaries of the criminal justice system, nor the processes that govern adjudications of innocence or guilt. Instead, this symposium will interrogate the processes of control that parallel and intersect with the prison system such as the public health, welfare, foster care and education systems. Examining these overlaps reveals the way that systems which are seen as policing race have gender dimensions and those which are seen as embodying gender norms police them along racial lines. Lastly, we will examine the ways in which formalistic examinations of the criminal justice systems and constitutional limitations on state action can obscure these race and gender dynamics.
The full lineup of panels and panelists is at this link.
Previously I noted Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas Blackmon’s book Slavery by Another Name, a history of the convict-lease system in Alabama. When an Alabama inmate, Mark Melvin, tried to read the book recently, officials at the Kilby state prison seized it, calling the book “incendiary.” Melvin is now suing in federal court with the help of the Equal Justice Initiative. From the New York Times:
Mr. Melvin never received the book. According to his lawsuit, he was told by an official at Kilby that the book was “too incendiary” and “too provocative,” and was ordered to have it sent back at his own expense.
He appealed, but in his lawsuit he says that prison officials upheld the decision, citing a regulation banning any mail that incites “violence based on race, religion, sex, creed, or nationality, or disobedience toward law enforcement officials or correctional staff.” (Mr. Melvin is white.)
So he sued.
A spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections said officials had not seen the suit on Monday and could not comment.
Mr. Stevenson, who is also the director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, said he considered the lawsuit to be less about the rights of people in prison but primarily about the country’s refusal to own up to its racial history.
Readers of this blog are likely familiar with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, which works to protect the rights of prisoners as well as pretrial and immigration detainees nationwide. Now, the ACLU has embarked upon a related initiative, the Safe Communities, Fair Sentences project, which will advocate against mass incarceration. Bookmark this site for a weekly dose of “overincarceration” news.
At the ACSblog, ACLU attorney Inimai Chettler asks “Just What Is So Wrong with the War on Drugs?”:
So what’s the verdict 40 years later? Have we won the war on drugs? Quite simply, no. From a public safety perspective, the war has been completely ineffective at stemming the supply or use of drugs in this country. From a cost perspective, it’s been horrific – with a whopping $1 trillion price tag thus far and an unimaginably higher toll in lives and families lost to prison. In terms of fairness, it has been a total bust as well. The effect on communities of color has been astonishingly tragic: there are more African-Americans under the control of prison and corrections departments today than were ever enslaved by this country. Even the current head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, and more recently the Global Commission on Drug Policy, have announced that the drug war has been an abject disaster.
According to the federal government, drugs are increasingly widely available and the rates of drug use are actually up by 10 percent since the start of the war on drugs. Drug supply and use have increased despite the2.3 million people languishing in prisons – about 25 percent of whom are locked up for drug violations. If we look at just federal prisons, things are even worse, with nearly half of those in prison locked up for drug crimes.
When we incarcerate drug offenders, they stay locked up for insanely lengthy periods of time – and often forever. We increasingly sentence them to life in prison under three-strikes-and-you’re-outlaws for petty drug crimes. And disappointingly, our Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of laws imposing disproportionate mandatory sentences of life without parole for simple possession of drugs.
William Stuntz, a renowned scholar of criminal justice at Harvard Law School, an evangelical Christian and a teacher much beloved by students and colleagues, died March 14 after a long battle with cancer. …
A year ago, in March 2010, a large group of his many admirers, including legal scholars, colleagues, friends, and students—“a simply dazzling array of conference participants,” as Dean Martha Minow said in opening remarks—gathered at HLS for a two-day conference, “A Celebration of the Career of Bill Stuntz.” …
Present at the conference, Stuntz described factors that had led to what he called the “disaster of criminal justice in our time,” in particular, the massive and “racially unfair” prison population in the U.S., but held out hope that the system might become fairer.
We can look forward to Stuntz’s two forthcoming books, including one from Harvard University Press on the collapse of the criminal justice system. At The Volokh Conspiracy, Orin Kerr rounds up some links for readers interested in learning more about Stuntz’s legacy. Within the legal academy Stuntz was one of the most perceptive observers of the manifold failures of the criminal justice system, and he will be greatly missed.
Heather Schoenfeld of Northwestern Law has a new article out entitled “Mass Incarceration and the Paradox of Prison Conditions Litigation” (h/t: Legal History Blog). From the abstract:
In this article I examine how prison conditions litigation in the 1970s, as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement, inadvertently contributed to the rise of mass incarceration in the United States. Using Florida as a case study, I detail how prison conditions litigation that aimed to reduce incarceration was translated in the political arena as a court order to build prisons. … The findings suggest how “successful” court challenges for institutional change can have long-term outcomes that are contrary to social justice goals. The paradox of prison litigation is especially compelling because inmates’ lawyers were specifically concerned about racial injustice, yet mass incarceration is arguably the greatest obstacle to racial equality in the twenty-first century.
In the current issue of the Boston Review, Georgetown Law professor James Forman has some interesting thoughts on two of last year’s most significant books on mass incarceration — Robert Perkinson’s Texas Tough and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Here’s Forman on the limitations of Alexander’s account:
This account of the origins of mass incarceration reinforces the Jim Crow analogy by tracing a direct line from a profound social ill (mass imprisonment) to a well-known enemy (racist voters and politicians who pander to them). But the account is incomplete. Something else was going on in the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s: violent crime shot up dramatically just before the beginning of the prison boom. Homicide rates doubled between 1965 and 1975, and robbery rates tripled.
The increase in crime helped to fuel demands for more punitive policies. In The Politics of Imprisonment, Vanessa Barker describes how black activists in Harlem fought for what would become the notorious Rockefeller drug laws. Harlem residents were outraged by rising crime rates in their neighborhoods and sought increased police presence and stiffer penalties. …
Those who call attention to the harm caused by our current criminal-justice policies must also be ruthlessly honest about the harm caused by crime. This, too, is a matter of racial justice: victims of crime—especially violent crime—are disproportionately poor, young, and black or brown. It is also a strategic imperative. Tough-on-crime advocates are not going to stop talking about violent offenders and the need to protect communities from them. If reformers shy away from the topic, their chances of building a broad movement for change will suffer.
The review is well worth reading in full. It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that the carceral state was already on its way to expansion even before homicide rates shot up in the late 1960s. It’s worth wondering whether black leaders responded to violence in their communities in the late 1960s and early 1970s by calling for more incarceration at least in part because that was a solution that the nation, dating back to the Johnson years, had already indicated that it would support; whereas more comprehensive social programs such as those envisioned by Johnson’s War on Poverty were already falling out of favor.
Although it’s unfortunately still not the dominant policy approach in the U.S., it’s also not that controversial to suggest that drugs should be handled as a public-health problem, not a criminal-justice problem. Jakada Imami of the Ella Baker Center argues that we should see homicide as a public-health problem, too:
If we add up all the deaths of all these young, predominantly men of color, and see what we’re looking at. I mean this country went to war over the attack on the World Trade Center and what will we be willing to do when you add up all these numbers of lives lost? Young men right here at home. The level of just trauma right now that people face when you’ve gone to more funerals than graduations. That’s just seen as normal, right? But when you think back to Columbine or the Virginia Tech shooting and you think about the level of resources and the care and support that those communities rightly received – you look at East Oakland or West Oakland or East L.A., you don’t see that level of support even though these communities go through that sort of trauma on a weekly basis. …
You can also triangulate, by looking back, figure out who is most likely to be the victim of a homicide or even kill somebody. Who’s likely? It actually turns out in most communities, that it’s not every single person. It’s also not every single black or brown person. It’s not every single person who lives in a particular neighborhood. It’s a very small subset, a very easily determined population who are most at risk of being killed, just like there are very specific and subset populations that are at risk of heart disease and are at risk of diabetes and any other public health crisis or issue. And so just as you would go about figuring out who most you need to treat first, who most you need to vaccinate first.