OUR TOTALLY SCREWED UP JUSTICE SYSTEM
Michelle Alexander: “A System of Racial and Social Control”
When you have nothing and you don’t have hope what the hell do you have? – KY Official
How does George W. Bush fit into this narrative? …
I would say the Bush administration carried on with the drug war and helped to institutionalize practices, for example the federal funding, drug interdiction programs by state and local law enforcement agencies, and the support for sweeps of entire communities for drug offenders, communities defined almost entirely by race and class.
So the drug war was born by President Richard Nixon and President Ronald Reagan, but President Bush, both of them, as well as President Clinton, escalated the drug war. And sadly we see today, even with President Obama, the drug war being continued in much the same form that it [was] waged back then.
… Why should we care? Why should we pay attention to this?
I think most Americans have no idea of the scale and scope of mass incarceration in the United States. Unless you’re directly impacted by the system, unless you have a loved one who’s behind bars, unless you’ve done time yourself, unless you have a family member who’s been branded a criminal and felon and can’t get work, can’t find housing, denied even food stamps to survive, unless the system directly touches you, it’s hard to even imagine that something of this scope and scale could even exist.
But the reality is that today there are more African Americans under correctional control in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the civil war began.
More black men are disenfranchised today as a result of felony disenfranchise[ment] laws. They were denied the right to vote in 1870, the year the 15th Amendment was ratified, prohibiting the laws that denied the right to vote on the basis of race.
There are 2.3 million people living in cages today, incarcerated in the United States, and more than 7 million people on correctional control, being monitored daily by probation officers, parole officers, subject to stop, search, seizure without any probable cause or reasonable suspicion.
This is a massive apparatus, and that system of direct control of course doesn’t even speak to the more than 65 million people in the United States who now have criminal records that are subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.
The impact that the system of mass incarceration has on entire communities, virtually decimating them, destroying the economic fabric and the social networks that exist there, destroying families so that children grow up not knowing their fathers and visiting their parents or relatives after standing in a long line waiting to get inside the jail or the prison — the psychological impact, the emotional impact, the level of grief and suffering, it’s beyond description. And yet, because prisons are typically located hundreds or even thousands of miles away, it’s out of sight, out of mind, easy for those of us who aren’t living that reality to imagine that it can’t be real or that it doesn’t really have anything to do with us.
What is it like for someone leaving prison? Talk me through the restrictions, the monitoring, the things they are locked out of for the rest of their lives.
I think most people have a general understanding that when you’re released from prison, life is hard. You have to work hard to get your life back on track, get it together. But I think most people imagine if you really apply yourself, you can do it. It just takes some extra effort. The people who believe that rarely have actually been through the experience of being incarcerated and branded a felon.
When you’re released from prison in most states, if you’re not fortunate enough to have a family who can support you and meet you at the gates and put you up and give you a job, if you’re like most people who are released from prison, returning to an impoverished community, you’re given maybe a bus ticket, maybe $20 in your pocket, and you return to an impoverished, jobless community.
You’re now branded a criminal, a felon, and employment discrimination is now legal against you for the rest of your life. It doesn’t matter how long ago your conviction occurred. It doesn’t matter if it was five weeks, five years ago, 25 years ago. For the rest of your life, you have to check that box on employment applications asking have you ever been convicted of a felony.
Hundreds of professional licenses are off limits to people who are convicted of a felony, and sometimes people will say, well, maybe they can’t get hired, but they can start their own business; they can be an entrepreneur. In some states you can’t even get a license to be a barber if you’re convicted of a felony. Can’t get a job. Can’t find work in a legal economy anywhere.
Housing discrimination is perfectly legal against you for the rest of your life. In fact, you can be denied access to public housing based only on a [reference], not even convictions. Discrimination by private landlords as well as public housing projects and agencies, perfectly legal. You’re just out on the street.
Discrimination in public benefits is perfectly legal. In fact, under federal law, you’re deemed ineligible for food stamps for the rest of your life if you’ve been convicted of a drug felony. Fortunately many states have now opted out of the federal ban on food stamps, but it remains the case that thousands of people can’t even get food stamps, food support to survive, because they were once caught with drugs.
What are people who are released from prison expected to do? … Apparently what we expect people to do is to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees, fines, court costs, accumulated child support, which continues to accrue while you’re in prison. And in a growing number of states, you’re actually expected to pay back the cost of your imprisonment, and paying back all these fees, fines and court costs can actually be a condition of your probation or parole. What do we expect those [people] to do?
When you take a look at the system, when you really step back and take a look at the system, what does the system seem designed to do? It doesn’t seem designed to facilitate people’s re-entry, doesn’t seem designed for people to find work and be stable, productive citizens.
No, if you take a hard look at it, I think the only conclusion that can be reached is that the system as it’s presently designed is designed to send people right back to prison, and that is in fact what happens the vast majority of the time.
Most people who are released from prison return within a few years, and the majority in some states return in a matter of weeks or months, because the challenges associated with mere survival on the outside are so immense.
We’ve been working in Kentucky, where felons have been disenfranchised for life. Tell me about how that works and also what it means, what it signifies.
There is no rational reason to deny someone the right to vote because they once committed a crime. We live in a democracy, of the people by the people, one man, one vote, one person, one woman, one vote. In other Western democracies, prisoners are allowed to vote. There’s actually voting drives that are conducted inside prisons. But here in the United States, it’s not only [that you are] being stripped of the right to vote inside prison, but you can be stripped of the right to vote permanently in some states like Kentucky because you once committed a crime.
“When you take a look at the system, when you really step back and take a look at the system, what does the system seem designed to do? It doesn’t seem designed to facilitate people’s re-entry.”
Many people say: “Well, that’s just not a big deal. So you can’t vote. What’s the problem with that?” Denying someone the right to vote says to them: “You are no longer one of us. You’re not a citizen. Your voice doesn’t count. You’re relegated to a permanent second-class status, do not matter. You’re not a person to us, a person worth counting, a person worth hearing.”
That message is a powerful one, and it’s not lost on the people who are forced to hear it. We say that when people are released from prison we want them to get back on their feet, contribute to society, to be productive citizens, and yet we lock them out at every turn. We don’t allow them to vote, we don’t allow them to serve on juries, so you can’t be part of a democratic process. …
Now, if we adopt this attitude, we can’t pretend then to really care about creating safe communities. We can’t pretend that this system that we devised is really about public safety or serving the interests of those we claim to represent.
This system is about something else as currently designed. It’s more about control, power, the relegation of some of us to a second-class status than it is about trying to build healthy, safe, thriving communities and meaningful multiracial, multiethnic democracy. …