What Will It Take to Really Get Rid of Mass Incarceration?
February 8, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
Mass incarceration is a defining feature of America. The raw edge of this is the more than two million people behind bars. Then there’s the many millions deeply affected—family, friends, children. The millions now out of prison facing life-ruining discrimination in employment, housing, loans, and more. The millions on parole or probation, tightly controlled by the state. And in all of this, the numbers of Black and Latino people hugely disproportionate to their population. There is no other country on earth that locks up and punishes its people like this.
So what happened when Obama—who some argue had the power to actually do something about mass incarceration—tried to do something about this?
Obama implemented policies aimed at reducing the prison population, like getting rid of some of the harsh minimum sentencing policies implemented during the war on drugs.
In 2009, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said it would change the law “to eliminate the disparity” between sentences for crack convictions and those for powder cocaine; the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act reduced the disparity in those numbers from a ratio of a 100 to 1 to 18 to 1; then in 2011, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to apply those standards retroactively, which made the cases of 12,000 prisoners eligible for review and possible sentence reduction.
This has led to the shortening of sentences and/or the early release of thousands of prisoners. This year, Obama commuted the sentences of and released more than 800 federal prisoners. And Obama’s DOJ introduced an initiative that could give perhaps 10,000 prisoners a chance for clemency.
Some have applauded Obama for all this, saying this is going in the right direction. But seriously, are people fucking kidding?
This is a thimble full in an ocean of blood—affecting perhaps 20,000, or even 30,000 prisoners in a state and federal prison population of more than 1.5 million.
In 2014 and 2015 the number of state and federal prisoners went down by only ONE PERCENT.
The war on drugs has fed mass incarceration. Obama now says drug addiction should be seen not “through the lens of the criminal justice system” but treated as a medical problem. But meanwhile, in 2012 alone, 750,000 people were arrested for marijuana-related offenses. And still, about a fifth of the total of 2.2 million people in prison, about 470,000, are behind bars for drug offenses. Which means that even if all prisoners on drug-related charges were released, there would still be something like 1.7 million people in prison/jail.
Consider this: If the current trend of reducing the prison population were to continue—and this is a big IF, with Trump coming into office—it would take 80-90 years (!) to get to where the prison population was in 1980.
A Brutal and Racist Prison System
There is the MASS part of mass incarceration. Then there’s the utter and horrific brutality and racist nature of prisons and jails in the USA.
Take the August 2014 murder of Rocrast Mack Jr., a 24-year-old Black prisoner in Alabama, who was serving a 20-year sentence for selling $10 worth of crack cocaine to an undercover officer. Read this next paragraph and remember, this is NOT an aberration. This kind of thing happens ALL the time—and is part of what defines mass incarceration in the USA.
A female prison guard begins hitting Rocrast Mack after she accuses him of looking at her inappropriately. Five other officers arrive on the scene. Mack obeys their orders to get on his knees, but they began to beat him with batons and fists, striking his head, face, and body. He is beaten in the dorm and then in the prison yard until his bloodied body goes limp. Even after Mack seemed to be unconscious, guards continue to hit, kick, and punch him. Then they take him to an office where they slam his head into a wall and close the door. By the time Mack is taken to the hospital he is brain dead.
Report after report has been issued. Evidence collected, testimony taken, showing Black and Latino prisoners face the most and harshest brutality; how mentally ill prisoners are abused; how people are tortured in solitary confinement. Some guards, like at the Rikers Island jail in New York City, have been found guilty of brutalizing prisoners. But this horror show continues.
Bestial brutality—which prison officials call “disciplining inmates”—and racism are built into America’s prisons, top to bottom.
Take the example of New York where Black people make up only 14 percent of the population but almost half of its prisoners. The New York Times studied New York State prisons, reviewing 60,000 disciplinary cases against inmates in 2015, hundreds of pages of internal reports and three years of parole decisions. It found that “racial disparities were embedded in the prison experience in New York.” In most prisons, Blacks and Latinos were disciplined at higher rates than whites—in some cases twice as often. They were also sent to solitary confinement more frequently and for longer durations. (See “The Scourge of Racial Bias in New York State’s Prisons,” New York Times, December 3, 2016.)
There were reports of guards calling Black prisoners porch monkeys, spear chuckers, and worse; guards ripping out dreadlocks. One prisoner said a guard jumped on him and threatened to “serve up some black mashed potatoes with tomato sauce.” Another Black prisoner, beaten by white guards, said, “They took me out there and beat me like I got caught drinking at the whites-only fountain.”
Black prisoners were 65 percent more likely to be sent to solitary confinement—conditions that constitute TORTURE, that can literally drive people insane, many times for no reasons at all:
One prisoner was stopped for taking “a loaf of stale bread” back to his cell; when he refused to “surrender the bread” he was punched in the face and sent to solitary for 166 days. Another prisoner was challenged for “attempting to conceal contraband,” and “the inmate produced a stack of waffles.” The prisoner was accused of grabbing the guard’s arm and given a 180-day lockup. Another prisoner was carrying a bowl of hot water from the microwave for coffee; when he refused an order to put it down, the prisoner and guard got into a shouting match and bumped shoulders; the guard claimed he was punched in the face, which the prisoner denied—and the prisoner got 270 days in isolation. (see NYT article, December 3, 2016.)
How can anything LESS than revolution get rid of this whole nightmare of mass incarceration? This system NEEDS to lock up hundreds of thousands of people, especially poor Black and Latino people, for whom this system has no jobs, no future—and fears as a volatile and potentially revolutionary force in society.
In a new revolutionary society, those prisoners who are freed will be able to be integrated into the new society and contribute in many ways to the continuing revolution, and further transform themselves in the process. As the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America says:
[I]n addition to a significant number of people who were discovered to have been wrongfully prosecuted and imprisoned under the old system, and were therefore immediately released and provided with the means to become actively involved in the new society and its revolutionary transformation, literally millions of men and women—who had been denied a decent life in the old society; who had become involved in criminal activity, owing to their often desperate conditions and in many cases to the influence of the prevailing outlook and values in that old society, which constantly encouraged and in many ways rewarded advancing one’s interests at the expense of and through the domination of others; and who had been written off as subhuman, and confined in subhuman conditions, by the guardians and enforcers of the old order—have regained and reasserted their humanity through active involvement in the new, revolutionary society, with many of them having joined the front ranks of revolution to remake the whole world in the interests of humanity. (see sidebar for longer quote from CNSRA on prisoners)
In THIS society, what would it mean even if a million people were released from prison and jail? It would mean a million people thrown out into a society with no prospects of jobs, treated by the system like pariahs and discriminated from getting all kinds of social services—perhaps being forced into the very same things that got them into prison before.
Mass Incarceration Under Trump
Under the fascist “law and order” regime of Donald Trump, many more, not fewer, people will most likely go to prison, be murdered and brutalized by cops and prison guards. Trump has called for a return to stop and frisk—to be implemented as a national policy, even though it was found to be unconstitutional. He has appointed Jeff Sessions as attorney general, a known racist who vigorously prosecuted drug cases as Alabama’s U.S. attorney in the 1980s. Trump wants state and local pigs to be unimpeded, in no danger of federal scrutiny, saying, “National attention [to police abuse] does not mean national involvement of the federal government.”
Trump has said, “Lethal injection [for convicted criminals] is too comfortable of a way to go.” Senator Tom Cotton, who some say was on Trump’s list of potential secretary of defense picks, has argued that the problem is “under-incarceration.” Sessions has been active in blocking drug-sentencing reform, saying it would release “violent felons”—echoing Trump who criticized Obama for commuting sentences, saying, “Some of these people are bad dudes... And these are people who are out, they’re walking the streets.”
The sadistic prison guards really are comparable to Nazi concentration camp guards. And just like the pigs howling when even one cop is arrested for wantonly murdering someone, these prison guards scream when any one has even questioned their right to beat and kill prisoners at will. Now under Trump, these animalistic guards will feel like they have a new lease on life to do whatever they want without any scrutiny.
Think about what this will mean for the hundreds of thousands of prisoners who will now face an even worse living hell.
All this is yet another reason to say:
NO! In the Name of Humanity, We REFUSE to Accept a Fascist America!
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