Jailing of a Generation,
By Michael Slate
Revolutionary Worker #1040, January 30, 2000
The Unbound Project is a new CD that will be released soon on the Realized label. A part of the money generated by this CD will be donated to political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal's legal defense fund. And many of the cuts on the CD speak to Mumia's case. Overall, the project aims to focus attention on and raise awareness of the true nature of the criminal justice system in the U.S. and especially how this system impacts on the hip-hop generation. Many Spoken Word and hip-hop artists came together to make this CD the best project possible. The CD includes the Mumia 911 posse cut as well as new works and beats by Mike Ladd, MuMs, Ursula Rucker, Saul Williams, Jerry Quickley, Medina Green, Aceyalone, Blackalicious, J Rocc, Poor Righteous Teachers and others. This essay details some of the ways this system tries to grind up and destroy the young. It is my contribution to this project and will be included in the CD booklet. The producer of the CD welcomes the opportunity to bring this essay to the readers of the RW. This is the second part of the essay. Part 1 appeared in RW #1039.
It really says something about the society when so many of its people--and especially so many young and poor people--are living in the lockdown. AmeriKKKa imprisons more people than any other country in the world today--about a half a million more than China. There were approximately 1.8 million people locked up in the U.S. in 1999--100,000 in federal prisons, 1.1 million in state prisons and 600,000 in local jails--and most of them are in prison for nonviolent crimes. At least 3 million people are in other forms of state custody like probation and parole. Billions of dollars have been given to states to build prisons--$7.9 billion was allocated by the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Prisons in this country have approximately 523,000 full-time employees, that's more than any Fortune 500 company except for General Motors.
In the last 20 years more than 1,000 prisons have been built across the country and yet the prisons are even more overcrowded than they were 20 years ago. Every state but Kansas is operating their prisons above capacity. Still, the incarceration rate doubled in the 1980s and doubled again in the 1990s to 445 people per 100,000.
The national prison population increases by 50,000 to 80,000 people each year; that's about a thousand or more people a week being thrown into jail. California, which had 22,500 prisoners in 1980 and has 161,000 today, has the largest prison system in the Western industrialized world and has more prisoners than France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, Singapore and the Netherlands combined. Approximately 45,000 new prisoners enter California's jails each year.
To get a clear idea of how enormous this whole thing is, just think of the entire combined populations of Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Des Moines and Miami being locked up.
In 1985 there were about 500,000 prisoners in the U.S. This figure doubled in 1990 and hit 1.8 million by 1999, with predictions that there will be approximately 2 million or more prisoners in this country by sometime in 2000.
The people in prison tell the story of the country outside the prison. The cages are filled with those who live on the bottom of the society, those who get crushed by the rules and those who refuse to play or die by the rules. The prison population is mainly Black, Latino and other oppressed nationalities and it's born of systematic oppression, racism, discrimination, and enforced white supremacy. More than half of the prisoners in the U.S. are Black. One in 14 Black men are in jail and one of every four Black men are likely to spend some time in prison at some point in their life. On any given day, 40% of the Black men in the major cities of this country are in some form of custody or entanglement with the law.
In 1991, in Los Angeles, one-third of all young Black men spent some time in jail. In California, Black people are 36% of all felony arrests and they are especially hard hit by the 3 strikes law. Black people are 50% of all those who get increased prison sentences for a second strike conviction and 67% of those sentenced to 25 to life for a third strike offense. The incarceration rate for Black women increased an incredible 828% between 1986 and 1991. Latinos are 10% of the population in California, but 35% of the prison population and 40% of the Latinos in jail are foreign born.
The system is stacked against oppressed nationalities from the first time they inhale until the last breath they exhale. Many studies have been done showing how the criminal justice system is used to take oppressed nationalities off the street. It has been shown time and time again that people arrested for crack--usually poor and Black or Latino--are convicted more often and do much more time than those arrested for powder cocaine use--usually better-off white people.
In New Orleans, Black people are arrested 19 times more than whites. While the numbers of Black men and white men using drugs is about the same, Black men are 5 times more likely to be arrested for drugs than white men. Black people are 13% of the national population but represent 35% of all drug arrests in the country, 55% of all drug convictions and 74% of all those imprisoned on drug convictions.
Drug arrests and convictions are the biggest single factor contributing to the overflowing prisons. The number of prisoners in jail for possession or sale of drugs is greater that the number of people in jail for all violent crimes put together. Convictions for drug possession rose by 863% between 1980 and 1996. Most drug busts in the U.S. are for marijuana, and 80% of those arrests are for possession.
Drugs are flooded into the Black and Latino communities--oftentimes with the direct and indirect involvement of the police, including the now well-known role of the CIA in bringing the crack epidemic into the ghettos. And not only are the drugs used to keep the people down but at the same time, the police, courts and anti-drug laws intentionally written to back up the normal discrimination people already face are used to arrest and jail tens of thousands each year on drug charges.
If anyone still thinks the criminalization of a generation is hype, check the stats on the prison population. The number of people under 18 arrested across the country has doubled since 1980. And the number of these folks sitting in jail or in some other type of custody has also doubled. Estimates are that by 2010 the number of people under 18 who are in jail will be three times what it is now.
Straight up--Black, Latino and other oppressed nationality youth are a special target of this. Since 1980 tens of thousands of youth have been thrown into prison and 75% of them are Black, Latino and other oppressed nationalities. According to the Sentencing Project, almost one-third of all Black men between 20 and 29 are under some kind of criminal supervision on any given day. And 8.3% of all Black men between 25 and 29 years old are in jail--which means that for every 11 Black men on the streets there is one in jail.
The imprisonment rate for youth from the oppressed nationalities has risen 80% between 1987 and 1997, while the rate for white youth has remained the same. Sixty-eight percent of the youth under 18 in this country are white but 63% of people younger than 18 in jail are from oppressed nationalities. Seventy-five percent of all the teenagers arrested for murder in this country are Black, Latino, Asian or Native people.
In California, 80% of the teenagers arrested for violent crimes are from these nationalities. Oppressed nationalities are 86% of the people locked up in the California Youth Authority. California arrests Black and Latino youth at a rate seven times higher than that of white youth. In 1991 Black people were 15% of the people between 10 and 17 years old but were 26% of all people in that age group arrested, 49% of the juveniles arrested for felonies and 52% of the juvenile cases sent to adult courts. Between January 1, 1994 and December 31, 1994, 25% of Blacks, 15% of Latinos and 6% of whites and Asians between 18 and 19 years old were arrested on felony charges. In California curfew arrests increased by 400% in the 1990s.
Some people argue that these statistics simply reflect the fact that Black and other oppressed nationality youth commit more crimes. This just isn't true. Despite what "everybody says," the crime rate for youth in this country has dropped like a rock off a tower. The biggest crime rate increase isn't for young people from oppressed nationalities but for white adults over 30, a 148% increase in violent crime and a 138% increase for all felonies between 1980 and 1997.
The crime rate for oppressed nationality youth has steadily dropped except for a brief and relatively small increase in the early 1990s. This is true even though there was a horrible plague of drug-related murders and shootings in the Black and Latino communities during the late 1980s and 1990s. Young people in AmeriKKKa are six times more likely to be killed by their parents than the other way around. Two-thirds of all the youth killed in this country are killed by adults and 92% of the killers of adults are also adults.
The fact is: it is the capitalist system, with white supremacy built into its very core, that has led to the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Black, Latino and other youth from oppressed nationalities. On the one hand, people are forced into ghettos and barrios where there is high unemployment, inadequate education, and all-round lack of opportunity. It is a situation of grinding poverty, hopelessness, and of a desperate struggle for survival--conditions that push many into crime. On the other hand, the same system that denies opportunity also practices unequal enforcement of laws and racial profiling and unleashes police terror that systematically target those youth whom this system has no future for. And intensifying national oppression has meant higher unemployment, deeper poverty, and more cutbacks in social services. So there is a deadly combination here of the "normal workings" of capitalist money-making and deliberate moves to apply and enforce discrimination and segregation that victimizes Black, Latino and other oppressed nationalities.
The Logic Behind the Madness
So what kind of conclusions do you draw from all this? No one can tell you what to think, but once you know the facts you got to make up your mind. Imagine for a minute that you were someone coming to this time and place from the future or from another planet. What the hell would you think of this?
You've got to look hard to see the real. If you watch TV, listen to the "experts" and read their newspapers, what could you think? They tell us day in and day out that young men, especially Black and Latino, are savage killers, crack heads who will do anything at all for a rock or for the money that comes from selling it. They call them "super-predators" who deserve to be locked up for life or have their life snuffed out by the death penalty. Look beneath the lies to find what's true.
Check the numbers. In 1994 only 29% of all prison admissions were for violent crimes, and the rest were for drug offenses, property offenses, crimes against public order and technical offenses like violating parole. Today, 95% of all youth arrested in this country are arrested for nonviolent crimes. Drug arrests are one of the biggest reasons and, as was pointed out earlier, most of that is for marijuana and most of it is for possession.
If you're Black, Latino or Asian and somewhere between 13 and 30, you walk out the front door a suspect. Black and Latino youth in any city in this country can tell you how common it is to get stopped, harassed, ticketed and even arrested because of their look. In the first days of the so-called War on Drugs, federal and local courts routinely upheld cops stopping, searching and arresting people because they "fit a profile." Today, cities all over the country are being exposed for using "racial profiling" as a "crime-fighting tool".
We all know about the standard "Driving While Black" laws and the "what's a n*gger like you doing all dressed up--now lay face down in the dirt" laws, "resembling a criminal" laws and "you're in the wrong neighborhood" laws. Some, like the drug profile laws that have been used to routinely stop hundreds of Black and Latino people driving up Interstate 95 on the East Coast because they just might be carrying drugs, are written down. Many are just common law--"gut instinct" by racist cops backed up by the practice and tradition of the entire legal system.
These profiling laws have been used against Wesley Snipes and other Black actors and musicians, computer engineers, and athletes, as well as against teenagers going to the prom or just out for fun on a weekend night. The latest example of this in Los Angeles was a Black Virginia state judge, her husband and a friend who were pulled over and badly harassed for a minor irregularity involving their car. In Jacksonville, Florida, they have an official "resistance without violence" law that cops use to bust anybody who even asks why they are being stopped and harassed. And this is the most common charge used to lock up Black men in Jacksonville.
So why are they doing this? If it weren't so savage and systematic, it would be crazy. But this is some of the stuff that will make the people of the future look back on this time period as the dark ages of humanity. Some people argue that the whole process is part of a "prison-industrial complex," similar to what people used to call the military-industrial complex. The idea here is that there is a mutually beneficial working arrangement between multi-national corporations and the federal and state prison systems that is driven first and foremost by profitability, especially for the corporate interests. Different features of the lockdown are usually used to support this view.
One argument is that prison construction and operations are profitable for the developers and often help revitalize areas that have been hard hit by the changes in the U.S. economy over the last 20 years. Another is that profitability is giving birth to a privately run prison industry.
There is some truth in both of these arguments but not nearly enough to explain the cause of the gigantic imprisonment rate in this country. Christian Parenti, author of the book Lockdown America, forcefully argues that both of these features of the U.S. prison system are relatively insignificant factors in the lockdown. Whatever economic boom is brought about in towns where prisons are built is usually very small, localized and distorted. And while the use of privately owned "for profit" prisons has increased over the last 20 years, they still only account for 100,000 prisoners--or just about 5% of the U.S. prison population.
In addition, both government-run prisons and privately owned prisons oftentimes bring on a negative counterforce to whatever benefits they may seem to offer to the towns they are built in--including putting a strain on the local infrastructure of roads, sewers,etc. and eating up a lot of the local tax money while schools and hospitals get shut down. Recent studies by the General Accounting Office have shown that it costs the government just as much to maintain a prisoner in a privately owned prison as it does in a government-owned prison. And savings that are generated by private prisons are not passed on to local, state or federal governments but to the corporations that own the prisons as profit.
The biggest argument used to explain the criminalization and imprisonment of a generation is that prisons are a scheme to use prisoners as cheap labor and a source of mega-profit. Some of that does happen--some prison labor does get contracted out to the government and to private corporations. Prison labor is used to take reservations for TWA; to package everything from computer software to Starbucks products and JanSport gear for a company called Exmark. Corporations like Eddie Bauer and Victoria's Secret also use prison labor. A number of other corporations also use prison labor for telemarketing and data entry. The largest employer of prisoners is the Federal Prison Industries--also known as Unicor--which uses 18,000 prisoners to make 150 products including safety goggles, body armor for the Border Patrol, road signs, and wiring for Air Force fighter jets. This is a government-run corporation that can only sell to other federal agencies.
There are also some joint ventures--companies owned by both the government and private corporations--operating in the prisons. But, as Parenti points out, even if you add up all of the prisoners currently doing work in prison it totals out to be 72,000 prisoners or less than 5% of the prison population. And while the number of prisoners working today has increased overall, it is proportionally less than what it was in 1980. In other words, the increase in prison laborers doesn't at all reflect the huge increase in the imprisonment rate over the last 20 years.
Parenti points to a couple of factors to explain why prison industries aren't the wave of the future or the motive behind the massive lockdown today. For one thing, prison industries are inefficient, unprofitable and often require huge government subsidies to keep functioning. And, like slaves in the pre-Civil War South, prisoners don't make very good workers. They definitely have no incentive to do a "good job." What does it mean to get a promotion or do well at work inside a prison? Who wants to be the overseer's right hand man on the plantation?
Most prisoners are paid pennies an hour--sometimes literally pennies--and while a few may officially get paid minimum wage, most of that wage gets taken by the state for fines, living costs, victim restitution and a whole slew of other "costs" for which the prisoner is supposedly responsible. And, like the slaves who broke the hoes and picks, prisoners often find the ways to resist on the prison workshop floor--from purposely breaking tools and machines, to work slowdowns and strikes.
The "prison-industrial complex" and the drive for profit alone cannot explain what can only be described as the largest government-enforced lockdown campaign since Hitler and his "final solution" in Nazi Germany. Prisons aren't mainly about business and profit. Prisons are about control and punishment and, in a society that's built on the kind of hatred, suffering and oppression that this one is, control and punishment is a high priority.
What is it that they seek to control and punish? There are voices they want to silence and courageous spirits they need to break. Mumia Abu-Jamal in an example of this. Part of the funds generated by this CD are going to support the legal defense fund of Mumia Abu-Jamal. And all of the artists who contributed to this Unbound Project CD did so in the spirit of standing with and supporting Mumia, while exposing the current state of the Criminal Justice System and how it applies to the hip hop generation.
Mumia is not sitting on death row because of a prison-industrial complex and the state is not rushing to kill him because he poses a threat to their prisons-for-profit plan. They want to execute Mumia because he is a Black revolutionary. His life--including his life on death row--is a call and a model for all those who refuse to silently drag their chains behind them and bow their heads in obedience to those who run the world today. This is why they want to kill Mumia. And, if they succeed, they hope to create an atmosphere in which this insane and obscene society and all of its horrors--including the massive lockdown--can flourish. And this is why we need to Free Mumia.
A few years back, in the wake of the L.A. Rebellion, I spent some time in the projects in Watts talking to youth about their lives and their hopes about the future. Daniel, a brother in his early 20s who grew up in the Jordan Downs projects, has a story that captures the experience of many others in his generation.
"I got hatred for this system cuz I know what it's all about. It's trying to keep me right here in this spot and I'm steady trying to get over here. I'm a high school graduate and I ain't never had no job making over $5 a hour. I'm not stupid. I'm physically able. But I can't find a job. Can't go here, can't go there, can't do this, can't do that. Damn! What am I doing here? What we supposed to do? How people supposed to live without going to knocking somebody upside the head and taking something and going and selling it and getting some money. That's the way people got to eat and put clothes on their kid's back. But ain't this a trip--you can go in somebody's house when they ain't home, take something, go sell it and come back with more money than you ever make doing some job. I done looked at this system like this--I done scratched out everything. The system is blanked out of me; I ain't dealing with it no more. Whatever I got to do, I do. I got nowhere to turn.
"I want a regular life, I don't want nothing fancy. But I can't even get a regular life! Everybody should have that. But the system won't let everybody have that. Man, they got people downtown on skid row and everything, sleeping under boxes. Some of them smart people too. The system just throw people out. We got some smart people out here. But all that smartness just sitting there, just itching to do something. That smartness just sitting there and can't do nothing.
"Some people turn to drugs to deal with it, so they can just go into other worlds. This due to stress from not having nothing to do. That's just like me. I started drinking cuz I didn't have nothing to do. I think I might as well have some fun while I'm doing nothing so I drink a beer. But all along the beer is killing me, eating up my liver, shortening my life. That all it do is shorten my life. That's what all that shit--crack and all--do, just shorten our lives. But that's all they give us.
"The only thing I ask for, the type of world I ask for, is where everybody has--everybody that is willing to work and able to work, let them work. That's how people come together. The only way you can bring people together is to have them work together. I want a world that is equal and fair, everybody living fair. I want everybody living together. If it was like that then, you know what, racism would be a lawbreak. I would make racism a crime. I'd make a law that if you were prejudiced or something then you would be investigated and you would be breaking the law. You broke the law and I'd charge five years on that. That's the type of thing to charge the years on. The system is dirty, man, I know--I've looked at it and I know. Now I ain't gonna let nobody put me down or try to keep me down cuz I been there and I already know."
There is an old saying that oppression gives birth to resistance. There is a beauty and wisdom that has grown up in the youth who have made their way through the last 10 or 15 years in this country. There is a powerful desire to fight and an actual fight. And this stands up against all the ugliness that is the heart of AmeriKKKa. These two things can't exist together for long. There is a tension between the dreams and hopes of the oppressed and the reals of what the system gives out. And in this tension rests the cradle for resistance and knowledge, truth and the need to act on that truth. Each one of us comes to a decision on this. The truth produces a revolutionary pulse in society. It also produces a revolutionary impulse in many of us.
When the artists contributing to this CD were first approached they were simply asked to create a piece on the criminal justice system. And, as you can hear on the CD, many of them came back with a powerful piece of art built around some kind of resistance and calls for a fundamental and basic change in society.
How many of us, once we see the truth about the criminal justice system and the criminalization of an entire generation, will come to similar conclusions? There is a scene in the film Sankofa where Africans are being marched from the prison of a slave castle into the slave ships. Thousands of Africans held as slaves walk into those ships--the lines never end. And the camera focuses on the eyes of those African people. Their eyes ask the question: now that you know what happened, what will you do? This is the same question we each face today. Once we see the truth, we have no choice but to act in one way or another, to accept or reject, to surrender or rebel.
"I'm 18. I'm not in school and I'm not working. I'm in the streets doing the best I can to stay alive. One time the cops tried to kill me after they chased me across Watts and finally caught me up here in my hood. I got out my car and they come up and kicked me down. They kicked me hard in the stomach a few times. They kicked me so hard it loosened up my bowels. They hit me with the billy club and they start kicking me in the kidneys. They really tried to kill me. And then after they beat the shit out of me, they throw me up in some jail where I got nothing but enemies. I think what they really want to do is take our clothes off and whip us, beat us up and then hang us. That's what they really want to do. But we ain't gonna let them, not in these parts."
Trick from the Nickerson Gardens
projects in Watts.
Resources used in writing this essay include:
Lockdown America, Christian Parenti, Verso Books, 1999
Framing Youth--10 myths about the Next Generation, Mike Males, Common Courage Press, 1999
Scapegoat Generation, Mike Males, Common Courage Press, 1996
Black Youth and the Criminalization of a Generation, Revolutionary Worker pamphlet, RCP Publications, 1998
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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