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Mass incarcerations — the American prison industrial complex

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The quest to form a more perfect union “acknowledges our imperfections, acknowledges that we’re not perfect,”  Secretary of State Antony Blinken vouchsafes in presage of a Chinese retort of hypocrisy when confronting his Chinese counterparts regarding human rights abuses in China. Similarly, Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield pronounces that the government of China has committed genocide and crimes against humanity. With a captivating rhapsody, Thomas-Greenfield first preemptively declares “… I survived racism. … We have flaws. Deep, serious flaws. But we talk about them. We work to address them. … This is the American way.” 

These top American diplomats rhetorically bespeak the crisis of human rights at home and abroad, with an optimistic meta-cognition that requires us to fundamentally interrogate our actions and acknowledge that much work remains to be done for the realization of upholding human dignity. And yet, the American prison industrial complex occupies a similar position as the disrobing of rights and dignity. 

In 1947, U.S. President Harry S. Truman declared full freedom from fear and want for all Americans, based on the freedom of all citizens to enjoy basic rights and to be guaranteed equal opportunity. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, the spouse of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, represented the United States in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in 1948 enshrined the ideal of universal freedom. Like our constitution, these documents and orations espouse powerful ideas of human freedom and dignity.

Despite lofty ideals, bondage and confinement are interwoven into the fabric of our society. Thomas-Greenfield highlights that mass incarceration is a continuum of America’s original sins of chattel slavery and racism, which festered ideas of white supremacy and Black inferiority. Economic gain was the fundamental underpinning of slavery. In many ways, the contemporary prison industrial complex has similarly become an economic venture, with the emergence of private prisons in many states. 

The U.S. continues to lead the world in per capita incarceration of its citizenry. In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, 6,344,000 persons were supervised by U.S. adult correctional systems. In the U.S., there are more people in the criminal justice system (1.9 percent) than there are people who identify as American Indian and Alaska Native (1.3 percent). The reach of the criminal justice system on American society is vast, as 70 million Americans, representing one in three adults, have a criminal record.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have been sentenced to life in prison, some for crimes such as petty robbery. Particularly egregious is that approximately 7,000 Americans are serving life sentences for crimes committed as minors; some were as young as 13 or 14 years old when these crimes were committed. In many instances, the death penalty continues to flourish, both at the federal and state levels and especially in southern states. Many of those in bondage today can trace their heritage back in time, to more than 400 years ago when their forebears encountered similar, albeit more menacing fates. 

Wrongful convictions are not just atypical but could be argued as even systematic in some communities. The New York Central Park Five convictions were largely characterized by poverty, gender stereotype and racial discrimination. In the said case, the legal system is reminiscent of the old days when Black men were lynched based on false accusations of raping white women. 

Despite evidence that the adolescent brain is still developing and that youth offenders are likely to have experienced intergenerational poverty and other socioeconomic disadvantages which put them at a high risk of engaging in destructive behaviors, many state laws intentionally charge youth as adults to ensure severe and maximum punishment, and hence to deny them the freedom so often orated about and celebrated by some. Mass and protracted incarceration suggest an inability to rectify or rehabilitate due to some inherent attribute, deeply associated with the concentration of the melanin in a person’s skin.

High incarceration rates in the U.S. often result from nonviolent offenses, probation violations, the inability to afford bail, suboptimal legal representation, and in some instances, for persons with intellectual and cognitive challenges and for persons with language barriers and low educational attainment who may not fully understand their rights. President Nixon’s war on drugs further exacerbated the disproportionate incarceration of Black and other marginalized people.

Mass incarceration is deeply rooted in a colonial-institutional socioeconomic system that discriminates against groups of people and places them at a disadvantage in attaining resources and opportunities to meet basic life necessities. It costs the American public billions of dollars annually. As the costs of the prison industrial complex escalate, there is a corresponding inverse public disinvestment in housing, education and health care. The freedom from the fear of want becomes even more elusive. 

Socioeconomic disenfranchisement persists long after those who have restituted society are released from prison cells. The mass incarceration system intertwines with the economy so that ex-offenders have few economic prospects. A felony conviction at any age makes it practically impossible to secure stable housing and employment and to participate in the democratic process of voting, even after restitution has been paid. Such draconian measures prevent our fellow citizens from engagement in economic and civil activities and essentially bar them from the opportunity of a good life. These acts have a multiplier effect on minority groups and tears down society. Everyone will suffer, even if at different gradients. 

Former secretary-general of the United Nations Kofi Annan observes, “nobody has a monopoly on human rights virtue.” American diplomats Blinken and Thomas-Greenfield’s self-reflections superficially critique profound issues of injustice in the U.S., while they condemn foreign adversaries. Their magniloquence shares a common logic: America is back in the aftermath of former President Trump’s unmasked and ruinous presidency. As such, we will play the Trump card of moral supremacy on the international stage, while at home window dressing or incremental change will be our modus operandi.

Danielle Taana Smith is a professor in the Department of African American Studies and director of the Renee Crown University Honors Program at Syracuse University.

Tags Antony Blinken Donald Trump Incarceration rates Inequality Linda Thomas-Greenfield mass incarceration Prison reform prisons private prisons Racism

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