Raise your hand if you know someone who is currently in prison or has ever been to prison.
Raise your hand if the person and/or people are black or brown.
People of color, specifically black and latinx men, go to prison at higher rates than whites. This information isn’t new, studies have shown that 1 in 3 Black men and 1 in 6 Latinx men will spend time in prison while only 1 in 17 white men will, (The Sentencing Project). The private prison is a way to uphold the white supremacist views of this country.
Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics
Private Prison Industry
Private prisons are big businesses that generate millions of dollars each year. Private prisons became popular in the 1990s because of the overcrowding that was happening in the US. As of 2010, private prisons housed 128,195 inmates. These prisons receive a guaranteed amount of money for each prisoner, independent of what it costs to maintain each one. According to Russell Boraas, a private prison administrator in Virginia, “the secret to low operating costs is having a minimal number of guards for the maximum number of prisoners,” (Global Research).
Incarceration in the US
Since the “War on Drugs” started, incarceration rates in the US have risen dramatically since 1980- the US was trying to create a tough on crime persona. But all that the “War on Drugs” has done is perpetuate white supremacy. The so called “land of the free,” has the highest number of people behind bars, more than any other country. So why is it that the US accounts for 5% of the world’s population but it is responsible for nearly 25% of the world’s prison population, (Washington Post)
Source: The World Prison Brief
There have been a number of people who have dived into the topic of mass incarceration in the US. Take Michelle Alexander’s book published in 2010 , The New Jim Crow- Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander looks at the caste-like system in the US that has resulted in millions of African Americans be put in prison and treated like second class citizens. Many people thought, “hey racism doesn’t exist because we elected Barack Obama-Yay us!” Nope. Wrong. Jim Crow laws may have been stomped out decades ago, but the unfortunate reality is that the US has found other ways to continue the oppression of people of color all while claiming colorblindness and that all people are created equal. More recently, in 2016, Ava DuVernay released their documentary, 13th. The documentary focused on race and mass incarceration. The 13th amendment abolished slavery, but incarceration is just one form of modern day slavery. DuVernay explores how white society imprisons people of color for minor offenses and then also profits off of their bodies by putting them to work. Black and brown bodies are seen as a profit, the more people in these prisons the more money they generate. Which is why it is no surprise that these companies and some politicians don’t want to shut down private prisons, they make too much money.
So how does mass incarceration tie into CRT?
What is critical race theory (CRT) and how did it begin? CRT was born out of critical legal studies, it critically analyzes race and racism and recognizes that racism is engrained in our society. The University of California, Los Angeles- School of Public Affairs, defines CRT as:
“CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color”.
Whiteness as Property
Being white is a valuable asset in our societal structure. It comes with a number of benefits and privileges that are embedded. Being white means, innocent until proven guilty like actually innocent until proven guilty. It means that the law is on your side, you won’t be pulled over because of the color of your skin, you won’t be shot for no reasons and you will get probation instead of jail time for minor offenses.
“American law has recognized a property interest in whiteness that, although unacknowledged, now forms the background against which legal disputes are framed, argued, and adjudicated,” (Harris, 1993).
Colorblindness is the idea that people do not see race, that those who deem themselves colorblind treat everyone equally, without regard to race, ethnicity, or culture. This is a term that many white people really like to use, a way to give themselves a gold star or a pat on the back. However, they are completely missing the point. Race matters, let me say it again, race matters. Why is colorblindness problematic you might ask, especially when talking about mass incarceration. By ignoring race you miss the fact that many bills and policies are specifically aimed at black and brown bodies. Don’t forget 1 in 3 Black men and 1 in 6 Latinx men will spend time in prison while only 1 in 17 white men will. Or the fact that five times as many whites report using drugs, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offense at 10 times the rate as whites, (NAACP).
So now what….
An audit done by the Justice Department showed that private prison facilities have more safety and security problems than those run by the government, (PBS). In August 2016, the Obama administration had planned to gradually phase-out private prisons because of the findings made in the audit. But then, the new administration came in and rescinded Obama’s order. The DOJ has also spoken out, more specifically White House press secretary Sean Spicer, saying that they are planning to, “… step up enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that have voted to legalize its recreational use.” (NPR). These two policies will have detrimental effects on the number of black and brown people who will go to prison. You may be wondering, why are these two policies going to be detrimental to these populations? That is because the arrest rates for marijuana are much higher for people of color. So if you ask me, our country is continuing to oppress people of color and also use their bodies for profit.
Source: National Household Survey on Drug Abuse and Health, 2001-2010
By incarcerating black and brown bodies, we are separating families. This can cause life long lasting effects on family members. This can lead to financial hardships and mental health challenges. Those who have have a record have a more difficult time finding employment and are likely to reenter the prison system. These policies and laws have done far too much damage and it seems like they are going to continue doing so by pushing these racist and white supremacist views and ideals.
Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/
Harris, C. I. (199). Whiteness as Property.
Pelaez, V. (2008, August). The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery? Retrieved from http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-prison-industry-in-the-united-states-big-business-or-a-new-form-of-slavery/8289
Racial Disparity. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.sentencingproject.org/issues/racial-disparity/
Sullivan, E. (2016, August 18). Obama administration to end use of private prisons. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/obama-administration-end-use-private-prisons/