Viewpoints: Prison edict backlash reveals race bias

Special to The Sacramento Bee

Published Sunday, Jun. 05, 2011

The fearmongering responses to the U.S. Supreme Court declaring California’s prison system “cruel and unusual” in violation of the Eighth Amendment were predictable. The court ordered the population thinned so medical services can be effectively delivered to the state’s wards, a necessity given the uncontested fact that “an inmate in California’s prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days.” Some justices, politicians, law enforcement and pundits insist on a coming tsunami of crime and havoc.

Any student of anti-racist civil rights struggles – against slavery, Chinese exclusion, Jim Crow, race-based immigration controls – finds in the historical record similar reactions to decisions perceived to benefit poor people of color. The prognosis is always perpetual disorder. We’d like to set the current record straight with two simple points.

First: Nearly everyone sentenced to prison leaves. The average California prison term is about 54 months; time served in jail awaiting trial makes the typical period in state custody about 43 months. California sends people back inside on parole technicalities at twice the national rate, and certainly parole reform is among administrative tools California will use to achieve reductions. As a matter of fact, the court’s narrow ruling essentially restated the key recommendation of a 2004 commission led by former Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, architect of the state’s 1980s prison boom. Deukmejian offered hundreds of administrative and legislative ways cumulatively to shrink a prison population of 163,500 to 111,000.

Thus, what’s been ballyhooed as “early release” is actually a weak tweak in a system that’s spiraled out of control because Democrats and Republicans have marched to a “get tough” beat that has little to do with preventing crime or addressing its community consequences. Poor people – a majority of whom are people of color – have become locked up, locked out, demonized and disposable. Once released, they are legally discriminated against for the rest of their lives in employment, housing and public benefits. They are relegated to permanent, second-class status.

This brings us to our next point.

Second: The modestly educated men and women released every day go back to urban and rural communities to restart lives. How to make return to the free world successful is not rocket science; it doesn’t require more police and jails, and it isn’t expensive.

For nearly two decades, researchers of various ideologies and problem-solving methods have studied what people should do when they come home and how to reduce crime in the first place. From the Rand Corp. to the Economic Roundtable to Californians United for a Responsible Budget, conclusions are the same: meet basic needs and lower barriers to reintegration. And now there’s evidence: results theorized by researchers actually work in practice.

Formerly incarcerated people are leading real-world experts. Examples: CNN hero Susan Burton who had been doing “life on the installment plan” founded “A New Way of Life.” ANWOL ensures returning women’s basic needs: a sober living place, identification papers, job training and placement, education, family reunification and eventual independence. Projects like ANWOL can be reproduced throughout communities devastated by mass incarceration, as Kim Carter’s San Bernardino-based Time For Change Foundation demonstrates. Los Angeles Community Action Network organizes on skid row, whose 6,000 homeless include many formerly incarcerated people suffering mental illness. The network knows how skid row’s problems can be cost-effectively solved, by redirecting county and city resources from policing and jails to housing and human services.

These projects do not discriminate based on conviction; they point the way to efforts being made that strive to assure basic human rights are being met for all. Discrimination of people released from prison denies them work, housing and food. Contrary even to voter preferences, California has increased prison budgets while disinvesting in places where small improvements in resources make huge improvements in general well-being.

What underlies the refusal to cheaply and effectively reverse organized abandonment? If it’s not money, it must be race. Nearly everyone in the United States – whatever their race, ethnicity, religion or party – thinks “black” when they hear “prison” or “crime.” To call the mass incarceration of poor people “unintended” is to ignore the teachings of philosopher-police chief William Bratton. He unabashedly told Los Angeles organizers that when Jim Crow was found unconstitutional, legislators wrote new laws using different criteria to get similar outcomes. And just as poll taxes disenfranchised poor white people, these new laws ensnare them.

The vitriol spawned by the Supreme Court’s decision compels us to declare mass incarceration not only destructive public policy but also as morally indefensible as any system of racial domination and social exclusion. We follow the path of Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker and Cesar Chavez, and join freedom fighters around the world by invoking human rights to basic protections and opportunities. Human rights are fundamental principles in the growing movement against both mass incarceration and the organized abandonment of vulnerable communities.

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Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” is the former director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project in California and currently a law professor at Ohio State University. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, author of “Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California,” is a professor of Geography at CUNY Graduate Center, and previously taught at UC Berkeley and USC.

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