I first saw the title six months ago. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (1210). Could it be that the author was comparing our current prison system to the notorious system of segregation that I’d written about, a system that likewise trapped millions of people in blighted lives? While I knew whites warehoused in the prisons, most of those I pictured were black or brown.
When we traveled to California, we drove past a state prison at night. Spot lights from watch towers glowed in the darkness, bathing the barbed- wire-topped fences with yellow. Huddled in the center were cell blocks with no windows. What is it like to be unable to even glimpse the mountains or the stars?
I thought of an African American boy I’d helped care for when he was little. Unlike those trapped in urban ghettos, he grew among mountains, the sun shining and the wind blowing in his face. Once we climbed to a barn high in the foothills, then the clear bright air changed and a summer thunder storm blew in. We cut out holes in plastic garbage bags, put them on, and, laughing, slipped down the mountain.
Within a few years, Peter acted according to community expectations and was caught with drug possession. It started a landslide in his young life. He went to juvenile prison, then prison for adults. He was released with no skills and an attitude, offended again, and was in for good. What must it be like, raised in the hills, to never feel the wind in your face?
Finally, the day I ordered The New Jim Crow, my agent sent me a copy. The author compares the prison system of today to slavery and life under Jim Crow. She says that for black and brown men, as will as many whites and women, mass incarceration is a well-designed system of racialized social control.
She states that: “Most people assume the War on Drugs was launched in response to the crisis caused by crack cocaine in inner-city neighborhoods. This view holds that the racial disparities in drug convictions and sentences, as well as the rapid explosion of the prison population, reflect nothing more than the government’s zealous–but benign–efforts to address rampant drug crime in poor, minority neighborhoods. This view, while understandable, given the sensational media coverage of crack in the 1980s and 1990s, is simply wrong.” (5)
Ronald Reagan announced the War on Drugs in 1982, years before crack became a crisis in the black community. Alexander says that “people of color are actually no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes and many other offences than whites.” (17)
She states that the War on Drugs was launched to appeal to lower-income and middle-class whites, especially those of the South, who had been Democrats and were now being enticed into the Republican Party.
Racially loaded language, such as “welfare recipients” and “criminals” now are code terms for African Americans, and those whites who would be too embarrassed to express racism out loud can now despise the welfare mother or be terrified of criminals without guilt.
Today, Alexander claims, the “American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history. . . In 1972, fewer than 350,000 people were being held in prisons and jails nationwide, compared with more than 2 million people today.” (8) People are trapped in the total systems when little more than children and lose rights of citizens for life.
I visited in a prison once and heard doors clang behind me and locks slam into place. I picture Peter as an exuberant child, sliding down a mountain, now a broken man closed in a cell with no windows.