Mass incarceration is by far the greatest crisis facing Black America,
ultimately eclipsing all others. It is an overarching reality that colors and
distorts every aspect of African American political, economic and cultural
life, smothering the human – and humane – aspirations of the community.
Even the boundless creativity of youth cannot escape the chains that
stretch from the Gulag into virtually every Black social space. We
hear prison, talk prison, wear prison and – to a horrific degree – have
become inured to the all-enveloping presence of prison in virtually
every Black neighborhood and extended family.
After more than three decades of mass Black incarceration as national
policy, Black America teeters at the edge of an abyss, unable
to muster more than a small fraction of its collective energies to
advance its agenda in housing, employment and education. The community
has been poisoned by massive, ever increasing infusions of the prison
experience – a debasement that now permeates much of the fabric of
Yet mass Black incarceration is
not a political priority for much of what passes for Black leadership.
A deep and historical
current in Black America feels far more shame than anger at the ever
lengthening line of march through the prison gates. For others, the
incremental blending of community and prison through the constant human
traffic between the two, seems like a natural state of affairs. Associate
Editor Bruce A. Dixon writes:
“Much as black Americans of two and three generations
ago adjusted to pervasive segregation as a ‘normal’ condition of
life, many in our communities have learned to treat the phenomenon
of mass incarceration like we do the weather. It's hot in the
summer, cold in the winter, and a third of the black males between
18 and 30 are in jails and prisons, on parole or probation. It's
life. Get over it.”
When Black anger does erupt, it is too often directed only at those
who are already paying for having been caught up in the induction
mechanisms of the Prison Nation. Although it is true that few inmates
are “political prisoners” in the narrow sense of the term, America’s
rise as the world’s prison superpower was certainly the result of
calculated political decision-making. “Mass incarceration
was the national response to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements,
a white societal reaction to Black intrusions onto white ‘space,’” wrote
18. “White society clearly approves of the results:
massively disproportionate Black and Latino incarceration.”
Since 1971, U.S. prisons and jails have grown ten-fold – from less
then 200,000 inmates to 2.1 million – while whites have dwindled
to only 30 percent of the prison population. With only five percent
of the world’s people, the U.S. accounts for 25 percent of the planet’s
prisoners – fully half of them Black. One out of eight prisoners
on Earth is African American. That’s race politics with a vengeance.
The U.S. broke with historical patterns of incarceration – a little
over 100 prisoners per 100,000 population – in the mid-Seventies.
Then, with roughly equal fervor, Presidents Reagan, Bush, Sr. and
Clinton and each of the states methodically assembled the world’s
largest Gulag. As the Justice
Policy Institute reported in
2001, the Black prison population exploded.
”From 1980 to 1992, the African American incarceration
rate increased by an average of 138.4 per 100,000 per year. Still,
despite a more than doubling of the African American incarceration
rate in the 12 years prior to President Clinton’s term in office,
the African American incarceration rate continued to increase by
an average rate of 100.4 per 100,000 per year. In total, between
1980 and 1999, the incarceration rate for African Americans more
than tripled from 1156 per 100,000 to 3,620 per 100,000.”
The Institute notes that, “In 1986 and 1988, two federal sentencing
laws were enacted that made the punishment for distributing crack
cocaine 100 times greater than the punishment for powder cocaine.” No,
Black crack dealers and users are not “political prisoners” – but
they are imprisoned for long stretches and in huge numbers for what
are clearly political reasons.
Unless there exists a Black “prison gene,” politics is the reason
that 12 percent of African-American men ages 20 to 34 are in jail
or prison. The evidence is irrefutable: mass incarceration
of African Americans is national policy.
Last month the U.S. Justice Department
announced that the U.S. incarceration rate had risen to 715
per 100,000 – up from 703 the previous year, and seven-times the
levels that existed before mass incarceration of Blacks became
national policy. Crime rates remain historically low – a disconnect
that Attorney General John Ashcroft rationalized, this way: "It
is no accident that violent crime is at a 30-year low while prison
population is up. Violent and recidivist criminals are getting
tough sentences while law-abiding Americans are enjoying unprecedented
Thus, the engines of mass Black
incarceration keep turning, faster and faster every year, whether
crime is up or down. The only constant: more Blacks in prison.
National policies are far more
powerful than conspiracies, which tend to die with the men who
hatch them. The U.S. policy to imprison ever higher proportions
of the Black population, is open-ended – there appears to be no
limit. Yet, as the incarceration machinery grinds away at Black
society, internal voices full of hatred for other Black people join
the racists in turning reality on its head, blaming African American “culture” for
the relentless warehousing of Black men, women and juveniles. Clearly,
the reverse is true: prison has worked its corrosive effects on
African American culture has been
profoundly victimized by three decades of mass incarceration. This
is largely the fault of those Blacks who failed (or refused) for
all these years to mount sufficient political resistance to the
prison body-snatchers. It is both cruel and redundant to heap more
scorn on people who
are, quite literally, besieged by a hostile state.
By the mid-Eighties, only a (culturally)
blind person could have failed to see that the prison experience
had reached critical mass among Black youth in America’s
big cities. The ill-fitting pants without belts, the unlaced or
lace-less footgear – that was the culturally shared prison experience,
manifesting. The hip hop “sensibility” cannot be separated from
the pervasiveness of prison – its presence in ghetto life.
It is the now-inescapable influence – the logical cultural product
of objective facts.
Many of the same Black opinion-molders
who ignored (or even encouraged) the state’s criminalization of
entire neighborhoods, in favor of celebrating the escape of
people like themselves from these neighborhoods, now express shock
at the crudity, violence and raw aggression of some hip hop performers’ on-
and off-stage behavior. Lyrical misogyny is blamed on failures
of “parenting” and other deviations from traditional Black
culture. Preaching and moralizing is prescribed, rather than a
mobilization against a state policy of mass Black incarceration,
the primary vector of Black street culture.
There is much more horror in the
prison pipeline, which empties directly into the reservoir of Black
life. Self-righteous howls of indignation at the warping of Black
culture are irrelevant to the millions of African Americans
who have been made witness, victim or perpetrator of rape – a near-universal
experience in the Black American Gulag. In such a world, everything
and everyone is a “bitch.”
Prison rape pervasive
At least 90% of assaults are not even reported to staff. The
units with the younger offenders seem to carry by far the higher
rates of sexual assaults. – Texas inmate R.B. to Human Rights
I have seen or heard of rapes on a weekly basis at the least.
Mostly it is a daily occurrence. Rapes are a very common occurrence
due to the fact of coercion being "played" on ignorant
first timers. Once someone is violated sexually and there is no
consequences on the perpetrators, that person who was violated
then becomes a mark or marked. That means he's fair game. – Indiana
Each year, hundreds of thousands
of young Black men and boys (and record numbers of women and girls)
are immersed in the most intensely coercive
environment imaginable. Older inmates and ex-prisoners uniformly
report that prison rape has become exponentially more prevalent,
with gangs dominating the closed world behind the bars. Human Rights
Watch activist and lawyer Joanne Mariner, writing in FindLaw,
reported extraordinary levels of sexual assault.
”In December 2000, the Prison Journal published
a study of inmates in seven men's prison facilities in four states.
It found that 21 percent of the inmates had experienced at least
one episode of pressured or forced sexual contact since being
incarcerated, and nearly one out of ten had been raped.
”An earlier study of
the Nebraska prison system produced similar findings, with 22 percent
of male inmates reporting that they had been pressured or forced
to have sexual contact against their will while incarcerated. Of
these, over 50 percent had submitted to forced anal sex at least
Mariner spent three years soliciting
over a thousand letters about rape from prison inmates, which she
compiled in a book, No
Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons.
Human Rights Watch and Stop
Prison Rape found allies in strange
places – among white Southern Baptists, born again Watergate convict
Colson, and the rightwing Hudson Institute. In the
end, a coalition of 32 groups, ranging from the NAACP to the National
Council of La Raza and the National Association of Evangelicals,
won congressional passage of the Prison
Rape Elimination Act, signed into law by President Bush last September.
Pat Nolan, Vice President of former Nixon
aide Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship, wrote:
"For too long prison
rape has been accepted as a normal part of prison life, subjecting
inmates, many of them nonviolent offenders, to brutal and repeated
rapes that not only scar them physically and emotionally for life
but in many cases expose them to AIDS, with a resulting death sentence.
No crime, no matter how terrible, carries a sentence of rape."
The legislation provides $40
million in grants for rape prevention – the bulk of which are
likely to be awarded to religious groups associated with the bill’s
conservative supporters – authorizes a Department of Justice panel
to subpoena officials at prisons with high sexual assault rates,
and creates an independent, nine-person commission on prison rape.
The Department of Justice in March released a report on its
preliminary discussions for implementing the legislation.
For all its good intentions, however,
the bill is ill-equipped to deal with the prison rape horror.
The same congressional conservatives
who embraced the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, were also
responsible for passage in the Nineties of legislation that effectively
denied prison inmates access to the federal courts. “They can be
abused, tortured, raped without effective recourse to law,” said
Anthony Lewis, in an April, 2001 column:
”One statute bars poverty lawyers who get federal funds from representing
prisoners. Another sets the fees so low for private lawyers who
sue successfully that few can afford to take on prison cases….
”Harshest of all is the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996,
passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Clinton.
Among other things it requires prisoners to exhaust a prison's ‘administrative
remedies’ for mistreatment before they can sue. They may have as
little as five days to do that; they may not know how, and they
may face retaliation if they complain. If they fail that barrier,
they have waived their rights.”
Without basic constitutional rights, inmates remain at the mercy
of the prison bureaucracy – the very men who oversee and orchestrate
Lords of discipline
They wanted to humiliate us. It was disgusting. They covered
our heads with plastic bags and hit our backs with sharp objects,
which added to our wounds. They then took off all our clothes,
made us stand next to the wall and carried out immoral acts that
I cannot even talk about. Women soldiers took pictures of
naked men and did not care.” – Iraqi former
prisoner Hashim Muhsin, speaking to Al Jazeera
Charles was just filled with the glee of opportunity to go over
there, because he said as we're walking down the corridor, "I
can't wait to go kill some sand niggers." That smile he showed,
he showed best when he was getting some prisoner to lose it, to
snap, to lose his mind and scream at Charles. He loved it. – Former death row inmate Nicholas
Yarris, recalling to CNN his memories
of prison guard Charles Graner, later charged with abusing prisoners
at Abu Ghraib.
Texas prison inmates continue to live in fear. More vulnerable
inmates are raped, beaten, owned, and sold by more powerful ones.
Despite their pleas to prison officials, they are often refused
protection. Instead, they pay for protection, in money, services,
or sex. – Texas Judge William
Wayne Justice, after hearing
lengthy expert and inmate testimony on prison conditions.
The Black clergy did not take the lead in championing the Prison Rape Elimination Act. And it was factors wholly
external to the African American community – the Iraqi prisoner
abuse scandal – that indirectly brought media attention to the
savagery of U.S. prisons, where the Iraq malefactors learned their
psycho-sexual torture skills.
In a May
8 New York Times article, Fox Butterfield drew a
direct line between Abu Ghraib and the American Gulag.
”In Pennsylvania and some other states, inmates
are routinely stripped in front of other inmates before being moved
to a new prison or a new unit within their prison. In Arizona, male
inmates at the Maricopa County jail in Phoenix are made to wear women's
pink underwear as a form of humiliation.
”At Virginia's Wallens Ridge maximum security prison, new inmates have reported
being forced to wear black hoods, in theory to keep them from spitting on guards,
and said they were often beaten and cursed at by guards and made to crawl.
Fellow Timesman Bob Herbert, in a May 31 column, described a 1996
Georgia Department of Corrections raid on inmates' living quarters
at Dooly State Prison:
”Officers opened cell doors and ordered the inmates, all males,
to run outside and strip. With female prison staff members looking
on, and at times laughing, several inmates were subjected to extensive
and wholly unnecessary body cavity searches. The inmates were ordered
to lift their genitals, to squat, to bend over and display themselves,
”One inmate who was suspected of being gay was told that if he
ever said anything about the way he was being treated, he would
be locked up and beaten until he wouldn't ‘want to be gay anymore.’ An
officer who was staring at another naked inmate said, ‘I bet you
can tap dance.’ The inmate was forced to dance, and then had his
body cavities searched. An inmate in a dormitory identified as
J-2 was slapped in the face and ordered to bend over and show himself
to his cellmate. The raiding party apparently found that to be
Scenes of Iraqi torture miraculously gave media credibility to long-ignored
pleas for justice in the U.S. prison system. The Newark Star Ledger
gave space to a letter from Bonnie Kerness, of the Quakers’ Prison
“The children in juvenile detention facilities talk about being
physically and sexually abused. They tell us that children as young
as 12 are placed in isolation, with one youngster noting that ‘the
guards call you names. If they don’t physically abuse you, they
mentally abuse you. One guard was calling me names and I didn’t
even know what they meant.’ Another said, ‘two guards in intake
told me to strip naked and then they watched me.’ Another talked
about being 14 years old when he was placed in the hole where it
was freezing and dirty.’
“We hear from women in prisons testifying about being forced to
engage in sexual acts or as one woman put it, ‘this was not part
of my sentence to engage in oral sex.’ Another woman wrote that ‘the
guards sprayed me with pepper spray because I wouldn’t take my
clothes off in front of five male guards.’ The women report racism,
being beaten and “being gynecologically examined every time I’m
”We hear from men who have been sprayed with pepper
spray and then put out into the sun so the chemical agent continues
to re-activate. One letter from a social worker to us said, ‘John
was directed to leave the strip cell and a urine soaked pillow case
was placed over his head. He was walked, shackled and hooded to a
different cell where he was placed in a device called ‘the chair,’ where
he was kept for over 30 hours resulting in extreme physical and emotional
suffering.’ I am currently working with a number of people who have
been held in sensory deprivation cells in American prisons for over
The plight of Iraqis, who will
one day soon be rid of their racist, exually twisted American
guards, inadvertently invigorated discussion of American prison
practices. It took an international spotlight on Iraq to shed temporary
light on an American story that is older than the nation, itself – as
old as slavery.
Prison teaches “assertiveness”
As Philip Weiss wrote in the June
17 issue of the New York Observer, prison rape is “deeply
ingrained in the culture, and we’re all inured to it. There’s contempt
for prisoners, and it’s also a hugely uncomfortable topic for men
to think about."
More accurately, white society considers Black prisoners
to be animals beyond the reach of civilization. In the popular imagination,
prison rape is what happens to white boys unfortunate enough to wind
up behind bars despite the odds. In reality, since rape is a tool
of coercion, every prisoner is vulnerable – and every inmate is deeply
harmed by his/her experience in such an environment.
The American prison system is a vast enterprise in social engineering – it
turns out damaged people. Arizona prison warden Bill
Gaspar is truly a mad social scientist. The threat of rape has a salutary
effect, in his mind:
"All inmates face a challenge when they come
to prison. They're coming to an environment where they have to learn
how to carry themselves so that they don't present as victims or
in some way call attention to themselves."
The warden thinks prison teaches inmates to “assert themselves.”
Some liberal politicians share
the same worldview as the troglodytes, regarding prison rape. California
Attorney General Bill
to punish Enron’s Ken Lay for bilking the state of billions in
electricity overcharges. "I would love to personally
escort Lay to an 8-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed
dude who says, 'Hi, my name is Spike, honey.'" The state’s
top law enforcement officer approves of nonjudicial punishment
The words “cruel and unusual” do
not exist for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Human Rights
Watch prisons activist Joanne Mariner writes:
“Justice Thomas apparently believes that rape in
prison is inevitable. In his dissent [to a 1994 decision],
he stated that "[p]risons are necessarily dangerous places;
they house society's most antisocial and violent people in close
proximity with one another. Regrettably, some level of brutality
and sexual aggression among [prisoners] is inevitable no matter what
the guards do…unless all prisoners are locked in their cells 24 hours
a day and sedated."
Consumed by prison
Youth are not at fault for the social disarray in Black America.
Young people in all cultures cope with society as it is presented
to them. Black youth – male and female – face a state that is eager
to consume them in its criminalizing, mass Black incarceration machinery.
The only meaningful choice available is to organize as never before
to dismantle the savage machine, so that another generation will
not be irrevocably damaged. Young people by the millions would join
in such a mobilization – to save themselves.
It has been projected that, by 2010, the number of Americans
with experience in prison will rise to 7.7 million, up from 5.6 million
in 2003. About 4 million of them will be African American – unless
we stop the clock through concerted political action.