To end the series on prison, I’d like to end on a discussion about mass incarceration by putting in perspective that there are nearly 80 million Americans who have a criminal record. The trauma, injustice, and constant surveillance by law enforcement doesn’t end when people go home. When the system is designed to inflict maximum pain and dehumanize people as much as possible by stripping them of rights and making them pay to stay on parole, of course there is going to be a high rate of recidivism, and that is exactly what we see. The prison industrial complex was created by the same amendment that freed slaves, creating another legal framework within which the upper class can exploit us in the hierarchies of white supremacism and savage capitalism.
Prison itself is just one of the many ways in which the justice system is able to keep POC oppressed and under constant surveillance. The charts by PPI on the last page are meant to show the rest of what the cold, reaching fingers of the incarceral system touch. We see the number of current inmates as staggering in and of itself; over 2 million people locked up is a humanitarian crisis. However the process of getting arrested and sent to jail is just the first step in a long line of contact that Americans have with the “justice” system. There are over 4.5 million people either on probation or parole right now, double the amount of the incarcerated population.
This amounts to 1 in 55 Americans being actively monitored by law enforcement, and it is disproportionately enforced at that, as departments such as the Pasco Sheriffs send letters to POC and poor residents with any criminal history (even shoplifting) that they will be relentlessly monitored. This has taken the form of sheriffs literally camping outside houses in their squad cars and knocking on doors and windows with their flashlights at random hours to try and catch illegal behavior. (Is this not a violation of our rights?)
African Americans account for over 30% of the demographic under surveillance, while again only representing 17% of the general population. Another alarming statistic; over three quarters of the people on parole or probation are convicted of a nonviolent offense. This means that harsh restrictions and supervision are unnecessarily placed on millions of people, disproportionately within POC communities. (1 in 18 African American men are under restrictions within this system.)
Probation and parole entail the separation of communities by prohibiting people from leaving their houses, going into certain parts of cities, and associating with other convicted felons. As POC are unequally brought into these systems, probation and parole essentially serve as extended means of splitting families apart and stigmatizing whole communities. Parole often serves as a means to burden people with debt as well; it is essentially a hostage bargain where someone has to come up with thousands of dollars for their freedom. There are institutions that predatorily offer loans for parole services, specifically targeting poor families who can’t afford to raise bail. This puts already struggling families into further debt to wealthy individuals.
Perhaps the most important privileges that are restricted when one is labelled a felon and put into the parole or probation system are certain constitutional rights, specifically the ability to vote freely and own weapons. Fortunately there has been progress towards ensuring voting rights are restored to felons, and in 20 states people automatically have the right restored upon release. (in D.C, Vermont and Maine felons are still able to vote while serving sentences, their privileges are never revoked.) However in 17 states felons lose their voting rights while incarcerated or on probation and are required to pay any outstanding fines or restitution before they can participate again, and in 11 states they have indefinitely suspended suffrage that require a governor’s pardon or other high level action to have them restored. For example in Wyoming, Virginia, and Tennessee indefinitely restrict voting rights from felons and only restore suffrage once a pardon or petition for reinstatement is passed. This has led to a mass disenfranchisement of voters within black and other POC communities since law enforcement disproportionately targets and labels these populations as felons, which I will discuss further in the next chapter too.
When people are exiting prison, statistically likely with trauma in tow and little to no money, they are then thrown into the world with little to no resources at their disposal. Over 70% of employers conduct background checks that would exclude or restrict felons in their pool, and over 3,000 different occupational licenses are not available. Only half of all former inmates had any reported earnings after release, and of those only 20% earned above the federal minimum wage. Black women see the highest employment discrimination with 37.2% higher unemployment rates, while white men see the fewest barriers with only a 14% dip. On top of this felons are closely watched by law enforcement who are chomping at the bit to go arrest them again. Recidivism rates are around one third among the population exiting the system, and this is mostly attributed to the notion that they are criminal and subhuman being reinforced so strongly while incarcerated.
Prisons pay next to nothing for the hard labor they put their inmates through, and people are then expected to leave a traumatic, years long experience and be model citizens with what parse resources they have. It is estimated that the cost of lost wages and lifetime lack of opportunity because of incarceration is over $300 billion. Anyone convicted of a drug felony is ineligible for TANF benefits in 37 states, and additionally denied SNAP assistance. All of this has to be managed while cut off from loved ones and other parts of their community that could support them through their reintegration, additionally living with the stigma and restricted rights in some states being a felon entails. The feeling of being disenfranchised without having a voice or control over your situation leads to desperation and quickly back down a path of illegal behavior for some.
The only ones able to live comfortably in our free for all system are those who have been able to build up generational wealth and connections, having the resources to navigate the oppressive justice and economic systems they’ve built to keep themselves in power. We hold others down so that we may elevate our individual positions in this country, and that is the reality. We need to understand that, and realize that while white people may feel guilty about their history for a day or two, black children have grown up being judged, looked at distrustingly, and treated as though they are lesser. White kids don’t face that. We need to collectively do what is best for every community in the country and that includes giving a larger proportion of resources to POC communities because they need it. Of course white people will still benefit from social programs and aid, they just don’t need to rely as heavily on it because they have all the fucking wealth! I will go into this more in the second book as I discuss policy options, but we need to come to terms with the reality of our white privilege in America.
“All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.” – Michelle Alexander, of course. She is my queen and idol when it comes to prison reform.
Billionaires and the politicians who benefit from their riches are strategically supporting oppression by crafting disenfranchising legislation in order to keep making hundreds of millions. The total spending on American criminal justice and incarceration is $300 billion, broken down to $134,000 per person detained. Think about how many restorative practices and social welfare programs we could fund with that money to try and prevent crime from even happening. $150 billion goes to the police, who actively kill and brutalize our citizens with their fancy military grade weapons.
The cost of oppressive systems like criminal justice and the prison industrial complex also disproportionately affects local governments, as they incur over half the costs of operation. Studies have additionally shown that the broader societal costs of the prison industrial complex are $1.2 trillion per year when taking into account lost wages, health effects, and restricted opportunity. The educational loss per year due to these systems is estimated at $30 billion, and over $130 billion when looking at the broader effects of children’s trends for criminality in felon families. We see 10% of children in a family touched by the justice system fail to graduate high school, and even if they do there are further withheld opportunities for educational attainment. The offset cost on families due to our systemized racism is estimated at $26.7 billion, while child welfare costs are around $5.3 billion.
The laws that are written by our politicians serve as reinforcers for the status quo to keep POC without resources and wealth that the rest of America has access to. Almost a quarter of the prison population in the U.S. is due to drug related charges spawned from the infamous Reagan Whitehouse. These policies disproportionately targeted POC communities with policies centered around “superpredators,” crack cocaine and other bullshit racial stereotypes. It cannot be overstated how damaging American law enforcement has been to these communities; tearing families apart, keeping men of multiple generations in prison, and crippling the ability of those families to get out of poverty.
This hasn’t even been due to a raging capitalist private prison system as a lot of liberals like to argue. The issue has been deflected away from the true root which is the deeply embedded racism within American institutions on all levels. Private prisons account for under 11 percent of all incarceration in this country; it was the passage of laws such as Bidenn’s crime bill 30 years ago which created plausible cause for police to go after these communities that caused a spike in arrests. Despite the Democratic party claiming to want social justice, they are just as complicit in sending millions to a modern day system of concentration camps. Senator Tom Cotton and the Heritage Foundation, a corporate backed conservative think tank, pushed a “back the blue” pledge following George Floyd’s murder that was aimed at fiercly keeping the status quo in law enforcement. 205 Legislators signed this. Cotton tweeted shortly after that in his opinion, America doesn’t have enough incarceration and implied that BLM protestors and other “antifa” groups fighting for racial justice should be locked away too. You can probably guess what the meaning behind Cotton’s tweet was, a virtue signal to his white supremacist party and their following that he was going to fight to make sure anyone outside the upper class continued getting oppressed.
Modern day systemic racism looks exactly like this display from Cotton; the government perpetuating and staunchly fighting for policies that will target POC and disenfranchised communities while letting the upper class reign free. I am by no means implying that poor or even lower middle class white people are free from the oppression of the justice system either, as no group beyond rich white folks is. We keep people locked away from society in inhumane conditions, but it doesn’t matter how moldy or toxic the environment in prisons is. It doesn’t matter that two, three, maybe even more generations from the same family spend most of their lives incarcerated, taken away from their loved ones. It doesn’t matter what a criminal did or what conditions they are confined to, because we have such strong binary thought ingrained that we just see the label.
We need to shift the focus of our society to be more collectivist and lift these communities up through restorative practices rather than sending in a (statistically likely) prejudiced bully on a power trip into a situation where they are told their life is always in danger, enforcing a law that shouldn’t even exist. Rather than writing someone off for committing a petty crime we need to ask why did they do this? Is it because they don’t have access to enough resources? Is there mental illness? Desperation? Many people are clouded by their binary thought and don’t consider the why behind an action. There has to be a humane approach to justice and consideration as to why we lock so many people up for crimes that statistically are done by all populations, not just those we have a desire to oppress. Accountability for the justice system and the law enforcement that feeds it is severely lacking within our current societal ethos.
I hope readers enjoyed this series on the prison system! The third will begin shortly and cover the inexorable link between the prison system and us, our favorite boys in blue.
- Hayes, Tara, “Economic costs of the US criminal justice system.” 2020.
- “Felon Voting Rights,” National Conference of State Legislators.
- PEW research Center, “Probation and Parole Systems Marked by High Stakes Missed Opportunities,” 2018.
- New Jim Crow.
- Prison Policy Initiative.