Commentary: Prisons, Race and Society

What does how we treat our prisoners say about our society?

Posted: 06/06/2011 05:29 AM EDT
Filed Under racism

prison, racism

A couple of months ago, I wrote a commentary entitled Is Slavery Back in Effect? in which I lamented the fact that research data shows that there are more African-American men in the correctional system than there were in slavery just prior to the Civil War. I elaborated on the roll that racism played in this phenomenon. Well, a few of my conservative friends thought that my title was a bit too provocative. They accused me of playing the dreaded “race card,” as if race and racism no longer play a role in American life. Trust me, I as much would like to believe in the myth of a post-racial America where racism both de facto and de jure are a relic of the past, especially in light of the historic election of President Barack Obama. And just as I am about to embrace the myth as a reality, something always comes along to remind me that we are still a long way from fulfilling Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream.

 

Recently, the Supreme Court declared the California State Corrections Department’s prison system overcrowded and ordered the release of over 30,000 inmates. The High Court said that the overcrowded population has created unsafe and unsanitary conditions making it “difficult if not impossible” for the system to function, thus violating the Eight Amendment, which protects prisoners from cruel and unusual punishment. According to statistics, Blacks make up 6.8% of California's population, yet they make up 31.6% of California state prison's population. Latinos make up 25.1% of the population, yet they’re 33.9% of the prison population in California. Whites are 55.6% of the State’s population and comprise 29.6% of the inmate population. Keep in mind that many of these inmates are incarcerated for non-violent offenses.   

 

In addition, the California state prison system has a documented history of practicing racism. Some prisoners of color suffered excessive abuse while serving time in the state pen. One particular prison that stands out is High Desert State Prison in Susanville, California. The Sacramento Bee reported that the prisoners of color were singled out for abuse that included beatings, strip searches in snow covered yards and racial epitaphs. There was one incident where white guards referred to the predominantly Black Behavior Management Unit as the “Black Monkey Unit.” In addition, Black prisoners spoke of guards trying to provoke attacks among inmates and spreading excrement on their cell doors. And when many of the prisoners tried to peacefully protest these cruel conditions, they were met with brute force. This seems to be an unlikely way to reform or rehabilitate anybody. 

 

So what does all of this have to do with racism in general? After all, this is happening in a prison, not the general society where you and I live. Au contraire. Prisons are a microcosm of society. What happens in the microcosm reflects the macrocosm. In other words, what happens in prisons happens to us on a much larger scale. I ask you: Is this the kind of society you wish to live in?  

(Photo: David Silverman/Getty)

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