Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

As Pundits Parse Election Results, Let’s Not Forget Who Can’t Vote

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I suspect I wouldn’t agree with John Boehner on much, but I agreed with the first few lines he said last night: “Frankly this is not a time for celebration, not when one in 10 of our fellow citizens are out of work.” I’d only add that the official unemployment numbers underestimate the true extent of what we might call enforced idleness in our culture since they don’t count the 2 million men and women in prison (and lest you think prisoners are stamping license plates, keep in mind that in many states prison work programs are a thing of the past). As Michelle Alexander observes, the rise of the prison-industrial complex coincided with the near disappearance of urban jobs:

In 1954, black and white youth had about the same rates of employment — with black youth actually having a slightly higher rate of employment. As recently as the early 1970s, about 70 percent of black men held industrial jobs in cities like Chicago. But by the early 1980s, when the drug war was kicking off, that figure had plummeted to less than 27 percent. Indeed, by 1984, the black unemployment rate had nearly quadrupled, while the white rate had increased only marginally. This was not due to a major change in black values or black culture. This dramatic shift was the result of deindustrialization and globalization. Urban factories shut down as our nation transitioned to a service economy. Practically overnight, jobs vanished from inner cities. Hundreds of thousands of black men were suddenly jobless and inner city communities were suffering from economic collapse. Sociologist William Julius Wilson documents this tragedy in his book, When Work Disappears.

The economic collapse of inner-city, black communities could have inspired a national outpouring of compassion and support. … Instead we declared a War on Drugs.

One of the reasons we remain in denial about the existence of this new caste system and its role in creating and perpetuating racial inequality is because prisoners are not included in unemployment and poverty statistics. Prisoners are treated as though they do not exist. The exclusion of 2 million poor people, most of whom are people of color, from poverty and unemployment data creates the impression of far greater progress in remedying racial inequality than has actually occurred to date.

During the 1990s, for example, during the “economic boom” of the Clinton years, African American men were the only group to experience a steep increase in real joblessness, a development directly traceable to their rapid inclusion in the criminal justice system. In fact, during the 1990s – the best of times for the rest of America – the true jobless rates for noncollege black men (including prisoners) was 42 percent! Standard unemployment data underestimates true black joblessness by as much as 24 percentage points, by failing to count prisoners.

Of course, destructive criminal justice policy is a vicious cycle: felon disenfranchisement laws ensure that those most harmed by mass incarceration are also barred from helping to vote out those politicians who’ve perpetuated it. As the Brennan Center for Justice notes:

Nationwide, 13% of African-American men have lost the right to vote, a rate that is seven times the national average. Given current rates of incarceration, three in ten of the next generation of African-American men across the country can expect to lose the right to vote at some point in their lifetime.

Then again, now that I think about it, those most harmed by mass incarceration may not be people with criminal convictions themselves, but their children. Of course, they can’t vote either.

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