Commentary: Fighting Against the New Jim Crow

Dream Defenders analyze how mass incarceration affects Black and brown communities.

Posted: 05/19/2014 12:30 PM EDT

Jim Crow is not dead. It has simply changed its face.

A new generation of Black and brown youth are waking up to the reality that our bodies are still criminalized. Whether by shooting down teenagers like Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin or by funneling youth out of schools and into prisons for the profit of private prison corporation CEOs, today’s version of Jim Crow laws threaten America’s future.

It’s no accident Kanye West rapped about private prison company Corrections Corporation of America locking up Black people across the country on Yeezus. This winter, Stanford-educated, Compton-born NFL cornerback Richard Sherman was labeled a “thug” for sparking football rivalry, to which he responded that “thug” is the new “n-word.” In March, Obama announced support for dropping the sentencing length of federal drug offenders in an effort to reduce the country’s painfully bloated prison population. The United States houses 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated individuals — more than China or Russia.

Since its founding, America has depended on a permanent underclass of Black and brown bodies working for little or nothing. In 2014, the disproportionately non-white prison population continues this tradition, making next to nothing (often less than $1 an hour) to create products for mass consumption. Major entities – Victoria’s Secret, Nike, Starbucks, Microsoft, Nintendo, even the U.S. military — have at different points used prison labor to pump out products we all consume. Prisoners are sometimes subjected to heavy metals and toxic chemicals in industries like computer recycling at the expense of their own health.

Our communities contribute unknowingly to this new Jim Crow through our purchases and our taxes, which are used to pay state-contracted, for-profit prison operators. George Zoley, the CEO of for-profit prison company GEO Group, for example, is one of America’s highest paid government “corrections officers,” making $22 million a year. It’s estimated that GEO Group makes 86 percent of its revenue from taxpayers.

When inner-city schools lack funding for books, when the cutting of federal food stamp programs force single mothers to take on more low-wage jobs and less of their child’s education, when programs like stop-and-frisk disproportionately incarcerate Black men and remove them from the household, it’s time to move past the idea that this is an accident. There is a systemic and long-seated set of economic and social conditions entrapping low-income communities and Black communities in an endless pattern of criminalization, incarceration and poverty. There is a glass ceiling holding down Black and brown youth on the ladder of American opportunity.

In 1984, the Corrections Corporation of America revolutionized how U.S. prisons operate. The company took over a prison in Tennessee, and it was the first time a for-profit company was contracted to run a local jail. The corporation struck gold and pioneered a new industry — between 1990 and 2010 the number of private prisons in the U.S. increased 1,600 percent. This has outpaced both the growth of public prison facilities and even the U.S. population, creating an actual demand for prisoners. These new and thriving prison corporations —  with names like CCA, G4S, Youth Services International (YSI) and GEO Group — maximize profits by making sure that the highest number of possible beds are filled in their facilities.

Many of us have heard the economic theory of “supply and demand” – that where there is a need, the dollars aren’t far behind. So, with an increasing demand for prisoner bodies to fill the growing number of for-profit jail beds, the country’s criminal justice system finds itself on a slippery slope. Government jails, judges and politicians are now in a unique position to imprison their local populations for profit. Check out the Pennsylvania “Kids For Cash” scandal, where local judges accepted money from the builder of two for-profit juvenile facilities in the area in return for offering contracts and imposing unreasonably harsh sentences on youth in their courts.

For-profit prison companies are also incentivized to cut costs and maximize profit. This translates into unsanitary conditions, low-quality or inedible prison food, insufficient and underpaid security, etc. These conditions are not rare or new. Incarcerated individuals have protested them all over America, but because of their “criminal” status, an entire population of new slaves is silenced. In Florida’s YSI facilities, there are reports of juveniles even being prevented by prison guards from calling abuse and complaint hotlines for incarcerated youth.

The Dream Defenders, an organization led by Black and brown youth in Florida, are in this fight for the long haul. Our generation is confronted with a challenge: How do we end the cycle of poverty, criminalization and incarceration in Black and brown communities? In the next several years, we hope to campaign for large-scale divestment from companies that invest in private prison corporations or labor. With our vote, our generation can make it unacceptable for politicians to accept campaign donations from private prison companies or CEOs.

The “dream” that our generation would live in a nation where they are not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, has become more aggressive in its elusiveness. It is up to us to create the world we wish to see, and the world our children will inherit.

Sandra Khalifa is Co-Director of Communications for Dream Defenders, an organization of Black and brown youth fighting for equal rights in Florida.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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