Friday, March 06, 2009

Prison Nation

What was the most important news story of the past week? Was it Rihanna and Chris Brown and whether or not they should get back together? Maybe the Rush Limbaugh hullabaloo kept you glued to the news. Or perhaps Michelle Obama's latest ensemble fits the bill for news worthiness. The correct answer is none of the above.

The biggest story of the week was the release of a Pew report which proves once and for all that the United States is the number one prison nation on earth. One in thirty-one Americans are behind bars, sentenced to probation or are on parole. The mass incarceration rate is directly tied to race of course. One in eleven black people are in jail, 1 in 27 Latinos and 1 in 45 whites.

One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections is a sobering study of the pernicious effects of incarceration which costs more than any other government program except medicaid. Incarceration costs states much needed revenue yet it thrives.

It thrives because it is racism perfected. What better way to keep black people in line after the civil rights movement gave us big ideas about being free? No Jim Crow, no problem. Just lock us up.

But black people won't speak up about this awful problem. We don't speak up for one simple reason. We are embarassed. We don't want to be connected with people who have broken the law. I don't defend law breaking, especially violent crime, but no one should be in jail for writing a bad check or failing to pay child support. Sentences for those infractions accomplish only one thing. They make sure that black people are always punished disproportionately and are kept under control.

Yet incarceration is not on the national agenda at all and the ascendancy of Barack Obama has only heightened the propensity for black people to ignore some of their brothers and sisters who are very hard to defend. Very few people are so hopelessly lost that their misbehaviour should only result in time behind bars. Most people can be rehabilitated into leading productive lives, but that has to be seen as a worth while goal.

It isn't seen as being a worthy goal because it would mean an end to racism, a system which is still so useful in maintaining the status quo and in keeping white people in line. White Americans haven't taken to the streets against bank bail outs or endless war because they still have a privileged position, however tenuous it may be.

One in thirty-one. Disgraceful.