In the Heart of the Heart of Darkness: A Look at the Prison Pipeline & Minorities

Not too long ago, I attended a conference in which one of the panelists related a story that to me was more horrifying than any slasher movie. A child in kindergarten class was asked to draw a picture showing how he saw himself in the future. It’s an innocent enough exercise, one I am sure is given in kindergarten classes across the nation. The child drew an elaborate diagram. In it he drew his school. From his school, he drew a tunnel that wound its way through a rather sophisticated landscape. That tunnel led to a prison.

Now, the teacher was horrified. She called in her superiors, who called the parents, and so on. When asked why he would draw such a picture, he responded in the typical honesty only children can muster. He said he drew it because it was true.

And he’s right…

The spectacle of conservatives pontificating about morals has become a bad joke. For example, watching that morally-challenged fool, William Bennett, on CNN spinning a report on the US prison population is the height of hypocrisy (or at least it was back then). As a society, we incarcerate more people than any other nation in the world. We have 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population. There are currently 2.3 million men and women behind bars in the USA right now. Add to that the 5 million on probation and parole and you have an epidemic.

The vast majority of those in prison are young people of color. You might say that this is so because people of color are more prone to crime, but you would be wrong. Reams of studies, such as those published by the Sentencing Project, have shown that, all other factors controlled, a black youth is 1.5 times more likely to be sentenced to prison than his white peer — even when the crime and criminal histories are the same.

You might say that, hey, prison is fucked up, but we need to lock up criminals in order to stem the tidal wave of crime. Again, you would be wrong. There is no correlation between incarceration and crime rates. In fact, New York City’s record crime drops occurred during a decade in which the prison population was decreasing.

You might say that the collateral damage inflicted on these individuals is justified if it keeps dangerous criminals off the street and again, you would be wrong. The majority of those currently incarcerated are non-violent, first time offenders — often low level drug dealers with drug histories. Our criminal justice system is so overburdened, that if everyone currently fighting a case would choose to go to trial, the system would implode. As a result, plea-bargaining — giving up the right to a fair trial in exchange for a more lenient sentence — is the norm rather than the exception. In other words, the vast majority or people in prison didn’t even have the benefit of a fair trail.

Finally, you might not give a fuck because you think this doesn’t affect you, but, again you would be wrong. Where do you think our government gets the money to build and maintain these prisons?

They get if from money that would’ve otherwise gone to education, health care, and community revitalization projects that, in the long run, do more to prevent crime than anything else we could think of. The money comes from your child’s school, from your community, from your pockets. In other words, we have transformed ourselves from a nation that envisioned a Great Society, to a prison nation. Our responses to addiction, poverty, lack of opportunity are all rolled into one response: incarceration.

And for what? For an expensive way to destroy a life? Here in NYC, we would rather spend over $70,000 a year to lock up a black youth, than to spend a fraction of that to send him to a decent school.

You also might say, especially if you are a conservative (or one of their black/ brown enablers) that people of color are more criminally inclined, so it follows more of them should be incarcerated. But that too is a lie. Research shows that blacks comprise 62.7 percent and whites 36.7 percent of all drug offenders admitted to state prison, though research clearly demonstrates this racial disparity bears little resemblance to the reality of racial differences in drug offending. There are, for example, five times more white drug users than black. Despite this fact, black men are admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is 13.4 times greater than that of white men. In large part because of the extraordinary racial disparities in incarceration for drug offenses, blacks are incarcerated for all offenses at 8.2 times the rate of whites. One in every 20 black men over the age of 18 in the United States is in state or federal prison, compared to one in 180 white men.

So, considering the above, how wrong was that child at the beginning of this post? Those of us who study such things call it the school-to-prison pipeline. In the coming days, I’m going to tie all this together and putting to rest, once and for all, the notion that we live in a post-racial anything. It’s all connected, folks…



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