Having lived and breathed the social justice online world for years, I have read and heard of the “prison industrial complex” and seen many people advocate for its outright dismantling and for different systems to be used when dealing with crime. I always thought that people who wanted to eliminate the prison industrial complex, and who talked about how the entire system was rigged were a little extreme, a little too out there. Then, a few weeks ago, I started to read The New Jim Crow and I was blown away by the massive injustice inherent in our incarceration system.
Michelle Alexander makes a very convincing argument that the war on drugs was implemented with the intent of creating a new black under caste, with recreating Jim Crow. Despite the fact that “the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino,” and they are now saddled with a felony that follows them for the rest of their life.
Before reading this book, I confess that I didn’t really know what all could get you a felony; I figured it had to be something pretty bad. Turns out that is not the case; many non-violent drug offences are felonies now. And, not only that, but many people are encouraged to take a plea deal, whether they are guilty or not, to avoid the potential of cruelly lengthy prison sentences. Either way, I learned that once someone has a felony, it is legal to discriminate against them in a thousand different ways. They are denied food stamps, government housing, private housing can deny them, employers can discriminate against them, and so can educational institutions. With all of these handicaps, it is no wonder that within six months approximately 30 percent of released prisoners are re-incarcerated.
The U.S. has created a system of incarceration that is guaranteed to perpetuate itself. First, we created draconian drug laws that were punitive in nature, even though this has not been shown to be an effective way to discourage drug use or to rehabilitate drug users so that they can be productive members of society. Then, we gave police incentives, with almost no oversight, to conduct massive sweeps, and practically eviscerated the 4th amendment (the right to be protected against unreasonable search and seizure). This ensured that racial bias would rear its head almost instantly, so that the majority of people targeted for “random” searches would be black, brown, and/or poor. Then we have filled our jails (and ever growing network of for profit prisons) with these people, who are now branded as criminals and legally discriminated against for the rest of their lives.
Aside from the housing discrimination, felons also lose the right to vote, so they can’t even participate in the system of government that created their situation in the first place.
Does eliminating the prison industrial complex seem so unreasonable now? Not to me.