At one point in life I believed that there were good guys and bad guys, and that I could trust the authority figures in my life to give the “good” and “bad” designations to the right people.
That belief led to the belief that bad people are in jail – and that people in jail are bad.
I think most of the people who taught me those ideas still believe themselves. It’s easier to ignore prison conditions when you believe that all the people in there deserve whatever punishment they get.
But that’s just not true.
“Although black people make up just 13 percent of the overall population, they account for 40 percent of US prisoners. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), black males are incarcerated at a rate “more than 6.5 times that of white males and 2.5 that of Hispanic males and “black females are incarcerated at approximately three times the rate of white females and twice that of Hispanic females.”
Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow that more black men “are in prison or jail, on probation or on parole than were enslaved in 1850.” Higher rates of black drug arrests do not reflect higher rates of black drug offenses. In fact, whites and blacks engage in drug offenses, possession and sales at roughly comparable rates.”
Debtor’s prison? Chain gangs? For-profit prisons? Guaranteed capacity in private prisons? How is this even a thing??
“Oil companies have been known to exploit prison labor as well. Following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers and irreparably damaged the Gulf of Mexico for generations to come, BP elected to hire Louisiana prison inmates to clean up its mess. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any state in the nation, 70 percent of which are African-American men. Coastal residents desperate for work, whose livelihoods had been destroyed by BP’s negligence, were outraged at BP’s use of free prison labor.”
Oh good. Finally someone we believe less worthy than Mexicans:
“Private companies have long understood that prison labor can be as profitable as sweatshop workers in third-world countries with the added benefit of staying closer to home. Take Escod Industries, which in in the 1990s abandoned plans to open operations in Mexico and instead “moved to South Carolina, because the wages of American prisoners undercut those of de-unionized Mexican sweatshop workers,” reports Josh Levine in a 1999 article that appeared in Perpective Magazine.”
I never realized just how much people would lose if we reformed prisons and incarcerations. I thought people were lazy or just didn’t care. Now I see the investment so. many. people have in keeping things the way they are, or even increasing the number of inmates across the country. Horrifying.
“Even politicians have been known to tap into prison labor for their own personal use. In 1994, a contractor for GOP congressional candidate Jack Metcalf hired Washington state prisoners to call and remind voters he was pro-death penalty.”
“In an unsettling turn of events lawmakers have begun ditching public employees in favor of free prison labor. The New York Times recently reported that states are “enlisting prison labor to close budget gaps” to offset cuts in “federal financing and dwindling tax revenue.” At a time of record unemployment, inmates are being hired to “paint vehicles, clean courthouses, sweep campsites and perform many other services done before the recession by private contractors or government employees.” In Wisconsin, prisoners are now taking up jobs that were once held by unionized workers, as a result of Governor Scott Walker’s contentious anti-union law.”
I realized as I kept reading that I also have held the belief that people who have been to jail in the past are bad people. It sounds so childish, and for good reason – it’s something I was taught so early on that I never even noticed it was a part of my psyche. But you know what? If they’ve served time, supposedly we believe their debt is paid. So why continue to punish prisoners by not granting them qualifications (electrician, plumber, etc) upon release? By paying them 11% less just because they have prison time in their background? Why are they forced to work 50 hours a week while incarcerated, but can’t find work when they are released? We have to do better.
*Note: this article was published in 2011.
Also read this.