I read The New Jim Crow some months ago, but put aside my posting on it because it is simply too depressing, but prisons were on my mind again this weekend when I heard a talk by David Rothenberg at our local public library. He is the founder of The Fortune Society, which provides support for ex-offenders who want to reclaim their lives after doing their time – more on that later.
I have commented before (here and here) on the American prison-industrial complex, but this book was extraordinarily powerful: not because it said anything surprising, but for the detailed manner in which it documented the rise of the War on Drugs, the crudely political appeals it employed, the systematic racial bias found in the effects of its policies, and the punitive and devastating impact it has on African-American and Latino populations in the country.
For crimes which rarely result in the incarceration of young white men, young black men are being sent to jail in incredible numbers, and for long periods, and while there, in crowded and often inhumane conditions, they are simply warehoused. Then, eventually, they are sent home. The rising rate of imprisonment, shown below, has not been linked with any reduction in crime, and most of the victims are non-violent offenders. When released, they are subject to a wide array of fines and restrictions that shocked me – new details – in their resemblance to practice in 17th and 18th century Europe: For example, it was news to me that convicted criminals must pay the costs of their trials! (Only in these drug cases.) Not to mention that all their property can be confiscated. A new class of debt-fine-peons has been created that is peopled by men already at a severe handicap for reclaiming their lives through gainful employment.
The two charts following clearly indicate the remarkable position of the USA regarding imprisonment of its own citizens. What is it about the USA that requires that we incarcerate people at nearly seven times the rate of China, France, or Australia? The second chart below indicates the clear racial bias of the War on Drugs: there is ample evidence that drug use and related criminal activity is no higher, it may be lower, among citizens of color than among whites, yet their rate of conviction and imprisonment is many times higher. The problem is obvious, and it is only sustained by a system in which there is money to be made off of the prison system and political hay to be made.
Michelle Alexanders’ book is perhaps most interesting in her history of the political side of the War on Drugs, which got going under Reagan. It was a great Republican theme, Law and Order, that allowed all sorts of coded appeals to racism no longer legitimate with the formal end of segregation and Jim Crow. It worked wonders, and it’s not dead yet. It doesn’t matter that we have an African-American president: he’s not bucking this system much, and he talks about ‘shared sacrifice‘ as he advocates cutting social welfare programs.
I searched for negative commentary on the book out of curiosity regarding the response of conservatives. I found little! Most of the negative reviews were from leftists who felt that the author had not gone far enough in her critique. (She may agree with them, but she clearly stated that she had very specific goals for this book, i.e., to expose the unfairness and destructiveness of the War on Drugs and our incarceration policies.) I did find one review in Forbes, or a business journal like that, and it was generally favorable! The author had clear libertarian leanings, and some of those people are not happy with these policies. Indeed, Alexander points out that many conservatives initially resisted Reagan’s declaration of war on drugs because it would expand Federal power into the arena of state law enforcement.
David Rothenberg’s talk was moderated by former governor of NJ, Jim McGreevey. He spoke of his career in show biz, and he’s a great storyteller.
You can hear him Saturday mornings on WBAI, a local super-left-wing station that I rarely listen to since it’s filled with ranting and absurd propaganda, where he plays Broadway tunes and discusses social issues. His organization is named for a play he produced in the 60s that was one of the first to honestly portray the brutal conditions in prisons: the ensuing discussions of the show, including participation by ex-convicts, inspired him to create the agency that has expanded and is a model today.