Black Prison Gulag and the Police State
by Glen Ford / March 6th, 2008
The United States has passed an historic and symbolic watershed in its unrelenting, two generations-long quest to incarcerate as many Blacks as humanly possible. As of January 1, more than one of every 100 adults is behind bars, about half of them Black. That’s not counting Afro-Latinos and other Hispanics. The U.S. is the unchallenged leader in mass incarceration, with the largest Gulag on the planet, based on raw numbers of inmates – 2,319,258 in federal and state prisons and local jails – and per capita incarceration: 750 inmates for every 100,000 people. Russia, which led the world back in Soviet times, is number two, with 628 inmates per 100,000. The Black and brown U.S. prisoner population, alone, roughly equals that of China’s – a nation with four times the population of the U.S.
Russia’s imprisonment practices grew out of the Tsarist Siberian and later, Stalinist model. America’s model is directly derived from slavery – the virtual imprisonment of an entire people. From the post-Emancipation “Black Codes” through the 1960s, Blacks have always been locked up in vastly disproportionate numbers. Still, white inmates were in the majority until at least 1964. Then, beginning in the early 70s, the prison population exploded, multiplying seven times. By 1996, African Americans comprised 53 percent of all persons admitted to state and federal prisons. One out of nine Black males between the ages of 20 and 34 now resides behind bars, compared to just one of every 30 whites.
The debate over U.S. prison growth and wildly disparate Black incarceration – to the extent there is a debate – usually centers on draconian and racially-engineered drug sentences. That’s descriptive of one modality of prison growth, addressing the “how” of the problem, but doesn’t address the “why” of it, the political intentions of massive imprisonment of African Americans.
Countless studies have shown beyond statistical doubt that the U.S. “justice” system is stacked against African Americans at every stage of the process: hyper-surveillance of Black neighborhoods, leading to disproportionate arrests, a nationwide pattern of prosecutorial fervor to charge Blacks with more serious crimes than white defendants, harsher sentences once convicted, and far fewer opportunities for Blacks to avoid hard time through “diversion” programs that are skewed to allowing far more whites to escape long term stints in prison. Once again, these factors explain how Blacks have become majorities in prison, even in states and localities with relatively small Black populations, but do not address why Black mass incarceration began to accelerate at breakneck speed in the early 70s, and continues no matter whether crime is up or down.
“Mass Black incarceration,” I wrote in February, 2007,” is America’s answer to the Black Freedom Movement of the Sixties and early Seventies.” Just as the “Black Codes” were the white South’s response to Emancipation, and as massive incarceration of Black “loiterers” to prison plantations and chain gangs followed the crushing of Reconstruction, whites got revenge against the Black Freedom Movement of the Sixties by throwing as many as possible African Americans in prison. This “nigger-caging” response was near-uniform across the country – North, South, East and West. It is the Mother of All White Backlashes – no, the Grandmother, showing no signs of diminishing in racist fury after more than 30 years.
“Reform” measures are surely needed, such as elimination of mandatory sentencing, broader application of prison “diversion” programs, abolition of racist crack cocaine super-sentences, a requirement that “racial impact” studies be instituted at all prisons and jails, repeal of state laws depriving convicted felons of the right to vote, and many other proposals. However, if mass Black incarceration, the “engine” of prison growth, is not understood as an ongoing, institutionalized crime whose purpose is wholly racial, the discussion will be limited to reformers who attempt to tinker around the edges of the historical catastrophe and Black clergy who think they can preach successive Black generations out of going to prison.
Read all of it here.