Today, people of color make up thirty-seven percent of the United States population but sixty-seven percent of the prison population.

April 26, 2017

Legalized Slavery in the United States Implemented Through the “Justice” System

by Courtney McGinn, an LLM student at Texas Law, concentrating in Human Rights and Comparative Constitutional Law, and member of the 2016-2017 Working Paper Series Editorial Committee.

The prison system in the United States equates to modern-day slavery due to its targeting of racial and ethnic minorities. There are 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails, which amounts to a 500% increase over the last 40 years. One in seventeen black men, aged between thirty and thirty-four, were in prison in 2015, as were one in forty-two Hispanic males, and one in ninety-one white males in the same age group. Today, people of color make up thirty-seven percent of the United States population but sixty-seven percent of the prison population. African Americans are “more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences.”  Similarly, African American men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men and Hispanic men are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as non-Hispanic white men. One in three African American males are expected to go to prison, while one in seventeen white males are expected to do the same.[i]  In fact, no other country in the world imprisons as many of its racial or ethnic minorities as the United States does, even the highly repressive regimes in Russia, China, and Iran.[ii] Currently, the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its African American population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.[iii]

The increase of the incarcerated population, especially the population of incarcerated minorities, is a result of a series of law enforcement and sentencing policy changes in the “tough on crime” era, not a result of more crimes committed by these individuals.  Since the official beginning of the “War on Drugs” in 1982, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses in the United States drastically increased from 40,900 in 1980 to 469,545 in 2015, with most of those incarcerated being African Americans. The War on Drugs was allegedly in response to the crack cocaine epidemic, but this has been dispute by several civil rights activists. For example, Michelle Alexander, a highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer and the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, points out that President Ronald Reagan officially announced the current drug war in 1982, well before crack even became an issue in the media or a crisis in poor black neighborhoods.[iv] It was actually a few years after the drug war was declared that “crack began to spread rapidly in the poor black neighborhoods of Los Angeles and later emerged in cities across the country.”[v] In Michelle Alexander’s view, shared among others, this drug “epidemic” was created by the United States to continue the oppression of African Americans.[vi] In fact, the CIA admitted that the guerrilla armies it actively supported in Nicaragua were smuggling illegal drugs into the United States – “drugs that were making their way onto the streets of inner-city black neighborhoods in the form of crack cocaine.”[vii] The CIA also admitted that during the War on Drugs era, it blocked law enforcement efforts to investigate illegal drug networks that were helping to fund its covert war in Nicaragua.[viii]

As the War on Drugs continued, law enforcement began focusing on urban areas, on lower-income communities, and on communities of color. Therefore, minorities became a target for incarceration. While crack cocaine was considered an inner-city issue mostly affecting African Americans, whites were directly tied to the use of powder cocaine.[ix]  Since the 1980s, federal penalties for crack were 100 times harsher than those for powder cocaine, with African Americans disproportionately sentenced to much lengthier terms. In 2010, the crack/powder sentencing disparity reduced from 100:1 to 18:1, but the disparity still remains, leaving minorities vulnerable to inequitable treatment by the criminal justice system.

Studies show that people of every color use and sell drugs illegally at substantially similar rates to their white counterparts.[x] Such studies even frequently suggest that whites, particularly white juveniles, are more likely to partake in drug crime than people of color.[xi] Although African Americans comprise only fourteen percent of regular drug users, they account for thirty-seven percent of those arrested for drug offenses. Despite this, minorities, specifically African Americans, are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug law violations than are whites. Today, there are more African Americans behind bars for a drug offense than the number of people who were in prison or jail for any crime in 1980. If current trends continue, one in three young African-American men will serve time in prison.[xii]

Once incarcerated, most “criminals” are required to perform mandatory, essentially unpaid, labor.  While not all prisoners are “forced” to work, most “opt” to because they have no other choice – they need the pay, no matter how low, in order to purchase food, toiletries, and other basic necessities not provided to them. Some individuals experience additional financial strain by having to pay legal fees or support their families. In places like Texas, however, prison work is mandatory and unpaid.  According the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, prisoners start their day with a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call and are served breakfast at 4:30 a.m. All prisoners who are physically able are required to report to their work assignments by 6 a.m. For prisoners who refuse to work, they are placed in solitary confinement. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice states that one of its goals is to reduce operational costs by having prisoners produce their own food, but also admits that the prison system earns revenue from “sales of surplus agricultural production.” This is all too familiar to the slavery practices that occurred years ago – the “slave” works tirelessly with no pay while the “slave master” reaps those benefits.

After incarceration, individuals continue to be marginalized by their status as “criminals.” Once labeled a felon, the older forms of discrimination that were deemed illegal after the collapse of the Jim Crow era become legal again; employment and housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunities, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service. [xiii] Because of these realities, it is hard to view the prison system in the United States as anything but a modern form of slavery. As Michelle Alexander stated, “[w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.[xiv]

 

 

[i] Film: 13th.

[ii] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), 6.

[iii] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), 6.

[iv] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), 5.

[v] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), 5 (citing “The Crack Attack: America’s Latest Drug Scare, 1986-1992,” in Images of Issues: Typifying Contemporary Social Problems (New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1995), 152).

[vi] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), 5.

[vii] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), 6.

[viii] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), 6.

[ix] Film: 13th.

[x] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), 7.

[xi] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), 7.

[xii] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), 9.

[xiii] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), 2.

[xiv] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), 2.

Project & Publications Type: Human Rights Commentary