Nishi Malhotra

Nishi Malhotra

Writer | Editor

Why Are American Jails Full of Black Prisoners?

When it comes to the United States, no other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens

It was my friend’s brother, Roland, who sparked my interest in doing this story. We had gone to visit him at a State correctional facility in Maryland where he was serving a 20-year sentence. The visiting room of a prison has to be one of the saddest places on earth: little children clinging to parents; wives and husbands facing each other in red plastic chairs under harsh lights in an enormous room decorated, oddly enough, with pictures of sunny landscapes in distant lands; and metal doors, leading off to some unknown innards, clanging open and shutting like the doors in a mortuary.

Roland was in for an armed robbery he committed 20 years ago. Incarcerated as a young boy of 18, he was due to exit soon as an adult past his prime. As my friend sat and talked to her brother, I looked around. Among the 30-odd families in the room, I could spot only two couples who were white.

I came away from the prison puzzled and struggling with two questions. Wasn’t a 20-year term a little too harsh for a robbery? And why was the number of African Americans at the prison so disproportionately high compared to white people? As I started to research the subject, I realized that what I was looking at was only the tip of the iceberg.

These are numbers that defy logic. The United States leads the world in  incarcerating its own citizens — five per cent of the world’s population has 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners. Approximately 2.5 million Americans are behind bars, roughly one in every 100 adults. But this is not all. Combining the number of people in prison and jail with those under parole or probation supervision, one in every 31 adults, or 3.2 per cent of the population, is under some form of correctional control. According to California Prison Focus, “No other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens.”

Only 13 per cent of the American population is black, but more than 60 per cent of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. Nearly one in every three African American males aged 20-29 is under some form of criminal justice supervision, whether imprisoned, on parole or probation. For black males in their 30s, one in every 10 is in prison or jail on any given day. Several studies, including one by the Justice Policy Institute, which advocates alternatives to incarceration, have concluded that, overall, more Black males are in prison than are enrolled in colleges and universities.

The leading cause of incarceration of an African American male is a petty non-violent drug offence. About 14 million whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug. Five times as many whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet, African Americans are sent to prison for drug offences at 10 times the rate of whites. African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offence (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).

Nearly one in every three African American males aged 20-29 is under criminal justice supervision — imprisoned, on parole or probation. For black males in their 30s, one in every 10 is in jail on any given day

Do all of these people deserve to be behind bars? If not, what is it about America that makes it oppress its people so much? Why does the US have the largest prison population of any country in the world? 

The answer is complex. But it would be good to clarify right away that the numbers do not mean that Americans are in any way more ‘criminally-inclined’ than people elsewhere in the world.

The system has three big flaws, say criminologists. First, it puts too many people away for too long. Second, it criminalizes acts that need not be criminalized. Third, it is unpredictable.

Many laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them. New laws have removed from judges much of their discretion to set a sentence that takes full account of the circumstances of the offence. Such laws, mandating minimum sentences, are seldom softened. On the contrary, they tend to get harder. These laws were enacted as a result of pressure from politicians who did not want to be seen as being soft on crime.

Some criminals belong behind bars. When a habitual rapist is locked up, the streets are safer. But the same is not necessarily true of petty drug-dealers whose incarceration creates a vacancy for someone else to fill. The number of drug offenders in federal and state lock-ups has increased 13-fold since 1980. Some are scary thugs; many are not. For instance, in Texas, a person may be sentenced to up to two years’ imprisonment for possessing four ounces of marijuana. In New York, the anti-drug law provides for a mandatory prison sentence of 15 years to life for possession of four ounces of any illegal drug.

The passage in 13 states of the ‘three strikes’ laws (life in prison after being convicted of three felonies) made it necessary to build 20 new federal prisons. One of the most disturbing cases resulting from this measure was that of a prisoner who, for stealing a car and two bicycles, received three 25-year sentences.

A 2010 article in The Economist cited the case of Michelle Collette of Hanover, Massachusetts, who sold Percocet, a prescription painkiller. “I was planning to do it just once,” she says, “but the money was so easy. And I thought: it’s not heroin.” Then she became addicted to her own wares. When Collette and her boyfriend, who also sold drugs, were arrested in a dawn raid, the police found 607 pills and $901 in cash. The boyfriend fought the charges and got 15 years in prison. In a plea bargain, Collette was sentenced to seven years, of which she served six.

“I don’t think this is fair,” said the judge. “I don’t think this is what our laws are meant to do. It’s going to cost upwards of $50,000 a year to have you in state prison. Had I the authority, I would send you to jail for no more than one year…and a (treatment) programme after that.” But mandatory sentencing laws gave him no choice.

Half the states have laws that lock up habitual offenders for life. In some states this applies only to violent criminals, but in others it applies even to petty ones. Some 3,700 people who committed neither violent nor serious crimes are serving life sentences under California’s ‘three strikes and you’re out’ law. In Alabama, a petty thief called Jerald Sanders was given a life term for pinching a bicycle.

Jim Felman, a defence lawyer in Tampa, Florida, says America is conducting “an experiment in imprisoning first-time non-violent offenders for periods of time previously reserved only for those who had killed someone”. One of Felman’s clients, a fraudster called Sholam Weiss, was sentenced to 845 years. “I got it reduced to 835,” sighs Felman.

The targeting of minorities is also brazen. Not only are people of colour stopped more frequently by police (for minor traffic infractions, for example), their communities — particularly with anti-drug efforts — receive far more attention from police. And black men are often charged and prosecuted differently than their white counterparts.

Georgetown law professors Mauer and Cole attempt to dispel the myth that there is a disproportionate number of black people in prison because black people commit more crimes. Both men attribute disparities in incarceration rates in part to the way urban black communities are policed. “Police find drugs where they look for them,” they wrote. “Inner-city, open-air drug markets are easier to bust than those that operate out of suburban basements.”

The prison industry produces 100 per cent of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags and canteens

To focus law enforcement efforts on one or two racial groups while limiting scrutiny and arrests of another is theoretically illegal — a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and the Fifth Amendment’s protection from abuse by government authority. But subjecting communities of colour to differential treatment goes on every day, despite those constitutional protections.

Racial profiling is the starting place for this disparate treatment. Blacks and Latinos are also more likely to be charged, tried and convicted than their White counterparts for the same offences. And for most of them, money is perhaps the crucial factor in determining whether they get adequate legal help.

The prison ‘industry’ in the US tells a dark, diabolical tale. According to the Global Research Centre, a new form of inhuman exploitation is taking place in the US where the prison population of about two million is working for various industries for a pittance. For the tycoons who have invested in the prison industry, it has been like finding a pot of gold. They don’t have to worry about strikes or paying unemployment insurance, vacations or comp time. All of their workers are full-time, and never arrive late, or are absent because of family problems; moreover, if they don’t like the pay of 25 cents an hour and refuse to work, they are locked up in isolation cells.

Most prison facilities are not state-owned anymore but contracted out to private parties. A private prison or for-profit prison, jail, or detention centre is a place in which individuals are physically confined or interned by a third party that is contracted by a government agency. Private prison companies typically enter into contractual agreements with governments that commit prisoners and then pay a per diem or monthly rate for each prisoner confined in the facility. Today, the privatization of prisons refers both to the takeover of existing public facilities by private operators and to the building and operation of new and additional prisons by for-profit prison companies.

The prison privatization boom began in the 1980s under the governments of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush Sr., but reached its height in 1990 under Bill Clinton, when Wall Street stocks were selling like hot cakes. Clinton’s programme for cutting the federal workforce resulted in the justice department’s contracting of private prison corporations for the incarceration of undocumented workers and high-security inmates.

“The private contracting of prisoners for work fosters incentives to lock people up. Prisons depend on this income. Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners’ work lobby for longer sentences, in order to expand their workforce. The system feeds itself,” says a study by the Progressive Labour Party, which accuses the prison industry of being “an imitation of Nazi Germany with respect to forced slave labour and concentration camps”.

Five times as many whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet, African Americans are sent to prison for drug offences at 10 times the rate of whites

The prison industry complex is one of the fastest-growing industries in the US, and its investors are on Wall Street. “This multimillion-dollar industry has its own trade exhibitions, conventions, websites, and mail-order/Internet catalogues. It also has direct advertising campaigns, architecture companies, construction companies, investment houses on Wall Street, plumbing supply companies, food supply companies, armed security, and padded cells in a large variety of colours,” says the study.

According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry produces 100 per cent of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98 per cent of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93 per cent of paints and paintbrushes; 92 per cent of stove assembly; 46 per cent of body armour; 36 per cent of home appliances; 30 per cent of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21 per cent of office furniture. Airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more — prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind people.

For tycoons in the private prison industry, it has been a pot of gold. All their workers are full-time; if they don’t like the pay of 25 cents an hour and refuse to work, they are locked up in isolation cells

Profits are so good that now there is a new business: importing inmates with long sentences, meaning the worst criminals. When a federal judge ruled that overcrowding in Texas prisons was cruel and unusual punishment, the CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) signed contracts with sheriffs in poor counties to build and run new jails and share the profits. According to a December 1998 Atlantic Monthly magazine article, this programme was backed by investors from Merrill-Lynch, Shearson-Lehman, American Express and Allstate, and the operation was scattered all over rural Texas. That state’s governor, Ann Richards, followed the example of Mario Cuomo in New York and built so many state prisons that the market became flooded, cutting into private prison profits.

Many organizations have called for a moratorium on construction of private prisons, or for their outright abolition. Some US states have imposed bans, population limits, and strict operational guidelines on
private prisons.

(This article was first published in Hardnews magazine on October 17, 2013.)

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