Mass incarceration is a civil rights issue of our day

When I was in college, I read Angela Davis’s book Are Prisons Obsolete? That tiny book has influenced a lot of my thinking about what Davis terms the prison industrial complex. She makes the argument that the U.S.’s for-profit prison system encourages incarceration because it profits the companies that make the prisons and the ones contracted to provide services in them. Far from rehabilitating prisoners, they create prisoners and exacerbate problems. Many of Davis’s students were distressed when Jeff Sessions reversed the Obama-era to end federal support of private prisons, a pillar in her industrial complex theory.

Michelle Alexander’s text The New Jim Crow (whose book was banned in New Jersey prisons, but lifted after the ACLU protested) adds to Davis’s argument. Today, more black people are in the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1850 (population has also gone up). Alexander argues that people labeled felons endure discrimination that we previously thought was outlawed in the 1960s. And the disparity of incarceration between black, brown, and white people is so noteworthy that it’s nearly impossible to call it anything but straight-up racism. Alexander argues that today’s incarceration system serves to oppress black people much like slavery did in antebellum slavery. The caste system against black people has been redefined and re-imaged. We see this is unbalanced sentences for “white” and “black” drugs (powder cocaine for the former, crack for the latter), for example. (Although it is noteworthy that the black incarceration rates, while still disproportionately high, are reducing as law enforcement focuses on so-called “white drugs” like meth and opioids.)

As it stands today, black men are seven times more likely to get incarcerated than white men. And a sixth of Latino men will serve for life in person. Black men receive sentences that are 19 percent longer than their white counterparts. The problem is racial, and racism was essential in its foundation. To make matters worse, black people and Latino people are more likely to be shown as criminals on television.

The U.S. spends $81 billion on incarceration, has a fourth of the world’s prison population, and ten percent of them are serving sentences longer than a decade. Nearly half of inmates are diagnosed with at least one mental illness, and two-thirds of them have a substance abuse addiction.

So the problem is epic. It’s important to know its magnitude, but knowing its magnitude can make one feel overwhelmed. You might feel like you can’t do anything about it. There are things we can do, though. For one thing, I’d follow MCC Washington on Twitter—the group of people there is particularly passionate about ending mass incarceration. MCC is hosting an event this Monday concerning mass incarnation too. We are assembling hygiene kits for those who are incarcerated. We’ll also listen to a panel discussion of community leaders and formerly incarcerated individuals as they share their stories and discuss the role of race, poverty, and the law in mass incarceration.

Even if you can’t make it, you can offer your own donations to help the cause. Here’s what we’re looking for:

(NEW items only, in original packaging)

  • 1 bottle of lotion (maximum 3 oz.)
  • 1 bar of soap (minimum 4 oz.)
  • 1 tube of toothpaste (minimum 6 oz.)
  • 1 deodorant (minimum 2.25 oz.)
  • 1 pair of white crew socks*
  • 1 white crewneck undershirt*
  • 1 pair of white underwear (briefs)*

*Note: Clothing items are accepted in three sizes: men’s medium, large and extra-large. Please choose one of these sizes and purchase underwear, socks and undershirts in the same size.

If you think this opportunity would be helpful for others, share it around. I hope that it is an opportunity for both education and empowerment.

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