“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 ever 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 these are the people in the United States of America serving life sentences for first-time drug offences, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”
How does the world's lone reigning SuperPower, the land of opportunity if you will, go from a prison population of around 300,000 in 1982 to having over two million of its citizens incarcerated in 2000? (The vast majority for non-violent drug related offenses.)
How does a compassionate Christian nation like the United States of America go from seeing drug usage properly addressed as a public health problem in need of intervention, treatment, and counselling designed and dedicated to the healing of our fellow country- men and women and getting them back into the workforce as contributing citizens as soon as possible to viewing their illnesses as a criminal act worthy of locking them away at taxpayers' expense?
Are there unseen hands behind the scenes manipulating public opinion and the judicial system to mass incarcerate and disenfranchise Americans for a nice tidy profit to their personal purses and as an ends to their diabolical agenda of creating a new caste system that parallels slavery and Jim Crow?
These are but a few of the disturbing questions that concerned Americans should be asking; explosive questions that are answered with clarity and indisputable documentation by Professor Michelle Alexander in her revolutionary eye-opening book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The answers are both shocking and sickening; yet strangely calming and comforting to those of us who've always known but couldn't articulate, let alone prove that there are sinister agents at work to keep these modern day plantations full of black and brown faces.
Enlightening and motivating for a man stuck in bondage for falling victim to racist schemes that were set in place before I uttered my first words, Professor Alexander's creditable voice moved me forward on an intellectual level as George Jackson's Soledad Brothers once did on an emotional level. And, it hit me with the same volatile power to bring about understanding and change within the criminal-punishment system, starting with self.
The New Jim Crow is no great conspiracy theory concocted by some old kook or easily dismissed felon. Here we have a well-respected, educated, college professor who's been a part of the system for most of her adult life; a brilliant compassionate woman who is ironically married to a federal prosecutor, spilling the beans after conducting years of extensive and well-documented research about the devious mechanisms set in place to keep so called "expendable" Americans encaged and ignorant for years, if not decades, only to release them to a pitiful existence of marginalization and neutralization for the remainder of their lives.
Please keep in mind that we aren't talking about mass murderers or even robbers. The vast majority of the over 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in this country are locked up for drug offenses, when treatment would undoubtedly serve them, their families and society at large better.
A thoroughly engrossing read, The New Jim Crow not only explained and gave proof to many of the things I'd long suspected, but it speaks candidly about the embarrassments, harassments, brutalities, and discriminations that I have intimate knowledge of, injustices that seem almost like a birthright, sureties to minorities born in the inner cities.
Professor Alexander patiently walked me from 1982 to today with the names, dates, numbers, and irreconcilable memos and documentation that CLEARLY proves that the war on drugs farce, introduced to us in 1982, was ingeniously engineered to do exactly what it has done for the past three decades: mass incarcerate minorities and poor whites to turn a profit, and as a means of controlling those very same citizens considered "expendable" by the powers that be. This new caste system, a different but all too similar shade of Jim Crow would be modernized for world eyes, expounding racially coded rhetoric, and making room for a nominal amount of Caucasians.
More times than I can count, I had to put down the book to just ponder the implications, digest the truth, and reflect on the multitude of personal experiences which I'd fallen victim to throughout my life that I'd had no true understanding of until the Professor broke it down to me. Suddenly, I had answers for all of the questions that inner city brothers and sisters have been asking for the twenty years that I've spent in this system, and the 20 years before I entered it:
“Why are they always messing with us?" From the onset of the war on drugs farce, we and our communities were targeted with multi-million dollar media campaigns, unbelievably harsh and discriminative new laws and punitive measures, and military-like police units who received millions in incentives and funding to ensure that they were vigilantly always messing with us. (Pgs. 107-108)
"How can Texas force us to work and charge us for medical treatment when they don't pay us one red cent for our labor?" The 13th Amendment of The U.S. Constitution abolished slavery for all but individuals convicted of a crime. The Texas penal system is reminiscent of "The Black Codes" which was another injustice designed to encage and exploit "expendables" for free labor, while effectively controlling and neutralizing them with felony convictions that will hunt them for the rest of their lives. (P. 31)
"I've gotten my G.E.D., two trades, completed the required programs, and remained disciplinary case free, proving my rehabilitation. I had the promise of a job in writing with a dozen support letters from family, friends, and community leaders in my parole package, so why was I still given a three year set-off when I came up for parole?" They, the rich and influential, have a vested interest in keeping you in here for as long as possible. Millions upon millions were invested to build these penitentiaries, laws were enacted and enforced to keep every bed filled. Much like the auction block, prisoners, are now on the stock market! Very greedy and sick people invest in the failing of the young of this nation and reap huge financial gains by shooting down even the most deserving for parole (Pgs. 230-231).
The more I read the more determined I became to make a difference. The more committed I became to opening the eyes of the brothers around me. To fighting the evil powers that be with the only weapon at my disposal: knowledge. For weeks after reading The New Jim Crow I kicked off conversations geared towards educating my fellow offenders and creating a dialogue around the positive actions that we could take. The impassioned discussions went from the dayrooms to the recreational yard, from the chow hall to the showers, as brothers who bonded around shared experiences and new understanding lined up to read what The San Francisco Chronicle called "The bible of a social movement."
I witnessed firsthand how knowledge and understanding could awaken a sleeping beast of untapped potential. I saw the look of determination in those weary eyes of men who have been knocked down, but not knocked out. I heard the words of sincerity and felt the camaraderie as the scales of ignorance fell away and eyes were opened to what has been done...why...and by who?
If The New Jim Crow is a call to action as intellectual, activist, and college Professor Cornel West stated, then we are ready. I understand that we're on the bottom of everyone's list of priorities if we're on there at all. Civil Rights organizations, activists—no one wants to expend their limited resources protesting or rallying around justice for convicted felons. A blind eye has been turned for too long from the millions now incarcerated nationwide. One cannot be turned to the 70,000 returning back to free society every year. I know, they know, that The Righteous Movement for JUSTICE must start with us. And, I want ya'll to know that IT HAS!!!
The New Jim Crow is a must read for anyone who cares about justice or anyone who cares about their country and would like to know how we got saddled with the great shame of having incarceration rates that dwarf every other nation on the planet. In short, it blew my mind and opened my eyes and I in turn blew the mind and opened the eyes of the brothers around me with the knowledge imparted to me by Professor Alexander.
Discussions sometimes got heated with impotent frustration. "Okay, so now we know! What can we do about it?" one brother cried.
First and foremost on my mind was self-accountability. Don't make excuses. Make a difference! Yes, they did allow drugs to be flooded into our communities, but they can't make us buy, sell, or use them. My mantra, often repeated phrase became "Crime is not an option!" It was simple but pure. Not for fortune or fame; not out of anger or desperation—crime is not an option!
I'll admit here that it was disheartening at times to see men who truly wanted to get out and be positive, productive citizens, but some had been so marginalized and neutralized for so long that they honestly didn't know where to begin. With the civil penalties attached to drug convictions they didn't know where they could live or how they'd live. Who would hire them? They couldn't even get food stamps to feed themselves until they got on their feet.
After being warehoused for years, they'd be released with $50, a bus ticket, and a prayer.
What could I tell a brother like Marty, who was on his seventh bid for drug possession? His mother had been a heroin addict. He never knew his father. His uncle was a small time dealer who took him and his two younger siblings in when his mother OD’d so they wouldn't go to a foster home. "You're grown now. I've done my part and kept ya'll out of Kiddie jail," his uncle had told him. "Those two are your responsibility now. Handle your business!"
His uncle gave him 1.5 grams of crack rock and set him loose on the block. Marty was 13 years old. "I didn't have time for no school. I had to feed and clothe three! And, my uncle made it clear he wanted his $50 back for the dope he fronted me," he'd once told me with a chuckle to lighten the telling of the start of his criminal career.
"I don't have all of the answers and don't pretend to brother," I told him. "I know that there are a lot of organization out that that will help you—"
"I know, because I've tried them all," he laughed. "They are usually as underfunded and overcrowded as these prisons."
"You have to first change your thinking, Bro. It's insane to continue to do the same things and expect different results. Crime is not an option!"
"Yeah, I'll remember that when I'm under a bridge hungry," he smiled.
"Or, you can remember it when you're back in here complaining about the food,"
"That's a helluva of choice to have before you ain't it, Bro?"
"Uh, NO! Actually, that's no choice at all for me!"
"Crime is not an option," he finished my thought.
"Crime is not an option!" I reiterated with enough conviction to make him laugh outright.
Before any concrete plans could be laid for positive action, I was shipped from that unit. My fiancé, Tender (since Texas won't even allow us to marry in prison any more) is quick to tell me that I don't know everything. More and more every day, I realize just how right she is. What I do know though is that there are a lot of decent people in prison today who truly want to do good upon their release and never return, but they will never get to be all that they could be, they'll never really be given a second chance due to an adolescent mistake made out of ignorance or desperation.
The saddest part is not that these men and women who've never harmed anyone but themselves through drug usage have had their lives snatched away from them, their potential stolen, and futures mauled. The saddest part of their tale is that this is happening in America, the greatest country in the world...and no one seems to care....
Footnote: Shout out to Marty Johnson, the self-proclaimed "Whiteman who never stood a chance" in America. I hit this new unit with his story and The New Jim Crow. We must keep the dialogue going, until we can turn it into positive action. Don't make excuses. Make a difference!
The Undisputable Fast FACTS: The names, numbers, and dates!
.....In 1981, the prison population nationwide was around 300,000. The prison population was so low that leading respected criminologists and think tanks seriously entertained and predicted a world without prisons, which had proven a dismal failure in preventing crime or rehabilitating criminals. (Pages 6-8)
.....In 1982, when President Ronald Reagan launched his War on Drugs campaign, not only did less than two percent of the American public view drug usage as a serious problem for the nation, but drug crime was actually on the decline. (Page 49)
.....In 1985, to change the American public perception of drug usage and gain funding and support for their diabolical agenda, The Reagan Administration hired a private media staff and spent millions to publicize and give sensational coverage to the emergence of crack cocaine. Playing upon Caucasian fears and prejudices they flooded the nation with graphic images of all of the worse stereotypes of African Americans. Black crack whores, violent black drug dealers, crack babies, and welfare queens of a black persuasion lived in the press, leaving society with the mistaken perception that lingers today that most drug dealers are black or brown, and successfully gaining support for treating the chemically-ill like criminals. (Page 5)
.....Throughout the early 80's, law enforcement officials were given humongous financial rewards and incentives to jump on board with the war on drugs farce. Practically over- night budgets soared. FBI antidrug funding increased from 8 million to $95 million! Department of Defense antidrug allocations increased from 33 million to $1,042 million. By contrast, agencies for drug treatment, prevention, and education—all of which have been proven to detour drug usage and drug crime, had their budgets dramatically reduced. The National Institute on Drug Abuse was reduced from 274 million to only $57 million. The antidrug funds allocations to the Department of Education were cut from an already meager 14 million to a measly $3 million! (Page 49)
.....In 1986, with the media frenzy at full throttle, The House passed legislation that allocated $2 Billion to the antidrug crusade, enacting extraordinary and blatantly discriminatory laws designed to begin the prison explosion that would result in the U.S. incarcerating a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of Apartheid! (Pages 8, 53)
.....In 1988, Congress revisited drug policies and enacted unbelievably harsher measures that extended to "civil penalties" and new mandatory minimums for drug offenses like five years in prison for possession of a simple cocaine base with no proof of intent to sale. Now, a recreational drug user could be placed into prison for a half decade, showing just how serious the new prison-industry was about keeping every bed filled. The severity of this punishment was unprecedented in the federal system, which up until 1988 had never given more than one year of imprisonment for any amount of any drug. (Page 53)
.....In 1989, THE CIA ADMITTED THAT GUERILLA ARMIES THEY ACTIVELY SUPPORT WERE RESPONSIBLE FOR SMUGGLING TONS OF DRUGS INTO THE U.S.! DRUGS THAT WERE MAKING THEIR WAY ONTO THE STREETS OF INNER-CITY BLACK NEIGHBORHOODS IN THE FORM OF CRACK COCAINE!!! THE CIA FURTHER ADMITTED THAT, IN THE MIDST OF THE WAR ON DRUGS FARCE, THEY BLOCKED LAW ENFORCEMENTS' EFFORTS TO INVESTIGATE THESE ILLEGAL DRUG NETWORKS. (Page 6)
.....ln 1991, the popular phrase "The most carefully laid plans will go awry" was proven to be incorrect as The Sentencing Project reported that the number of people behind bars in the U.S. were unprecedented in world history! (Page 56)
.....ln 1994, though studies have repeated shown that the more education provided to an incarcerated person the less likely they are to commit a future crime, President Bill Clinton signed into law provisions ending the practice of providing Pell Grants to the incarcerated seeking to truly rehabilitate and better themselves, effectively killing college programs in most prisons around the country. (Page 5)
.....Throughout his tenure, President Clinton went on to enact some of the harshest, most discriminatory laws and policies of any president, resulting in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history! He further slashed funding for public housing by 17 Billion dollars while increasing corrections by $19 Billion! (A boost of 171 percent) Effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor. (Page 57)
As Professor Alexander asserts, President Bill Clinton has done more than any other president to create the current racial under caste. By 2000, the prison population had more than quadrupled.
.....ln 2005, The Corrections Corporation of America explained in a most telling text to its rich and powerful investors, like Vice President Dick Cheney, who's invested millions in private prison, why their GROWTH and PROFITS were dependent on keeping penitentiaries full, and there being no lessening of the severity of draconian sentencing practices, especially pertaining to drugs and substance abuse cases! (Page 230—A MUST READ TO BELIEVE MEMO)
.....By 2008, Prison population in the United States of America had again broken new records with no end in sight. (Page 231)
...2014, Over two million pleas go out to our Commander-In-Chief:
"Mr. President, no man in the history of the world has given the down but not out, so-called 'expendable,' mostly minority citizens of this country the pride, joyful hearts, and HOPE that you have. Our beautiful First Lady was criticized for saying it, but your election gave us all the first reason we've had to be proud of our country in a long time. You are one of the greatest examples of the power of faith, education, hard work, and perseverance that our generation will ever see—In Living Color!
"We understand that you can't do it all. We know that you can't do it alone. We also know that from the greatest among us the greatest of feats are required. With the mere flip of your wrist and the stroke of your mighty pen, the death knells for the new Jim Crow could be sounded, at the very least starting us along that road to equal justice within the law and a brighter tomorrow for us all. We implore you to make that noise, Mr. President.
"By any definition that matters to US, you will go down in history as a great President. Yet, we, maybe unfairly ask more of you. Be a great man, who did what was right in spite of (you can fill in the blank here). Help us to bury Jim Crow for what we all pray will be the last time. Thank you and God Bless!"
**Special thanks to The Vanilla Angel for turning me on to Professor Michelle Alexander and providing US with a copy of The New Jim Crow.
***And, THANK YOU, Professor Alexander for educating and empowering me to speak my truth with greater conviction, credibility, and courage.
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