OPPRESSION FOR PROFIT?
Panelists kick around the prison-industrial complex
by Victor A. Patton
"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." —Article 13, U.S. Constitution
Nearly 1 million African Americans are incarcerated in prisons and jails in the United States, according to recent Justice Department statistics. Tukufu Kalonji considers that an emergency—although, he concedes, few others do.
"As you can see by the turnout here today, there are not a whole lot of people worried about us," said Kalonji, referring to the rows of empty chairs at an Aug. 9 forum at the Malcolm X library in Encanto. "Many people don't believe they can do anything about it. Other people don't know or just don't care."
The forum, titled "The Black Community and the Prison Industrial Complex: Critical Issues and Struggles for Strategies," questioned the growing number of African Americans locked up, as well as the ever-expanding corporate interest in seeking prison labor as an alternative workforce.
The panel of 10 African Americans from various professions agreed that what they call the "prison-industrial complex" emphasizes incarceration, then exploits inmates for profit—inmates who are paid a few cents per hour, without any meaningful effort toward rehabilitation. That a majority of those incarcerated are poor, African American and Latino leads some to believe the system strongly resembles chattel slavery.
"At the same time while these corporations say that they are investing in education, they are also heavily in the incarceration of [Blacks], Latinos, poor Whites and anyone else who falls victim to this trap," said panelist Jaja Malik Atenra of the Sirius Research Group.
While the panelists agreed on the dire need for organized confrontation of a worsening incarceration/exploitation prison system, their solutions were wide and varied, ranging from grassroots activism to more eccentric approaches. One participant suggested asking the United Nations to level charges against the U.S. for crimes against humanity. Another even suggested that African Americans own and operate their own prisons.
Other panelists, such as Minister Masada of the organization My Brothers Keeper, suggested action at the legislative level, amending California's three-strikes law to include language requiring a third-strike crime to be, at a minimum, a violent felony. "No one should be spending life in prison for stealing a beer," said Masada, who also advocated for a nationwide boycott of companies who benefit from prison labor. "America has more prisoners than any other country, and California even has more prisoners than some countries," said Masada. "We need to have a national organization for prisoners, and we need to build relationships with lawyers and young people in law school."
Many of the businesses that profit from prison construction and inmate labor were identified by name during the discussion, some names very familiar. According to Kalonji, the two main private prison industries are Correctional Corporations of America (CCA) and Wackenhut Corporation. "Fifty-one percent of [CCA's] founding monies [was from] Kentucky Fried Chicken," said Kalonji, who also fingered K-mart, Dell Computer, Starbuck's Coffee, Victoria's Secret, Microsoft and JC Penny as corporations who use inmate labor for products and industries.
While education, health and social programs all suffered deep cutbacks in this year's state budget, California's prison industry, said one panelist, continues to grow. "There have been no cuts to the prison system—they're spending more, while cutting health and education," said Dr. Richard Butcher of Caregivers Medical group, adding that fewer dollars for education today will surely mean more African Americans in prison in the future.
According to Department of Justice statistics, 2,033,331 people nationwide were incarcerated in federal and state prisons and county jails in 2002. Of those incarcerated, about 887,700 were African American (818,900 men, 68,800 women). In California, a total of 159,390 people are currently incarcerated. Of that number, Hispanics, Blacks and Whites each comprise about a third of the total prison population, according to the California Department of Corrections.
While some African American pundits have expressed concern about the disproportionately high numbers of incarcerated Blacks, with the exception of UC Santa Cruz professor Angela Davis, none have mounted any sizable opposition to the issues of systemic bias or corporate exploitation of inmate labor. Most conservatives—including African Americans—believe that increasing the number of prisons in the nation is necessary and that it's responsible for a decade-long decline of crime rates.
"[The high number of Blacks in prison] is generally interpreted as evidence that African American people are arrested out of proportion to their numbers in society, since they constitute only 13 percent of the population," wrote conservative John McWhorter, an African American UC Berkeley professor in his book Losing the Race: Self Sabotage in African American America. "However, the figures must be seen in light of the fact that as sad as it is, nationwide African Americans commit not 13 percent, but 42 percent of the violent crimes in the country. In other words, contrary to the idea that African Americans are arrested disproportionately, their proportion of the prison population neatly reflects the rate at which they commit crimes," writes McWhorter.
Angela Davis, however, sees prisons more as a modern-day plantation, where expanding corporate interests vie for control, playing on a society that ignores the actual socio-economic conditions responsible for why people commit crimes.
"Prisons thus perform a feat of magic. Or rather the people who continually vote in new prison bonds and tacitly assent to a proliferating network of prisons and jails have been tricked into believing in the magic of imprisonment," Davis wrote in a Colorlines Magazine article. "But prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings. And the practice of disappearing vast numbers of people from poor, immigrant, and racially marginalized communities has literally become big business."
"There's a legacy going back to slavery," said panelist Atenra, who argued that large numbers of African Americans in prison can be traced back to being disenfranchised as an ethnic group, beginning with slavery and continuing today. He also pointed out that convict leasing agreements between private entrepreneurs and states first appeared with the abolition of legal slavery. Subsequently, Southern states passed the notorious "black codes," which placed severe restrictions on freed slaves and effectively guaranteed a steady flow of inmate labor to exploit.
"When you have dominated a group of people... controlled them psychologically and physically, and then all of a sudden you set them free, they're not in the mindset, or have the means, to fend for themselves, to do for themselves. This is what we're seeing from the end of slavery after the Civil War, all the way up to 1954 with Brown vs. the Board of Education…. There was institutional racism, policies that kept us in that place, [along with] poor education or no education," he added.
While most of the panelists viewed the incarceration problem through a socio-historical lens, others in the audience viewed the issue specifically as one of economics, the political pathos of poverty in America.
"I know race is a big deal, but it is about class…it's poor people that are in prison—people with no economic or political voice," said Modesta Brown of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. "We need to identify [the prison-industrial complex] as the money maker that it is. Right now, they are building prisons before they even have the prisoners to fill them. If we can identify it as being a dysfunctional system, then we can do something about it."
Even though Kalonji said that he was somewhat disappointed with Saturday's relatively meager turnout of about 37 people, he aims to create a larger organization to address the prison-industrial complex, among other criminal justice-related issues. He offered one more possible solution:
"I don't believe that we can't make change. The established order operates as it does, in terms of unethical and inequitable treatment of us, because we allow it. We need to take responsibility and demand better treatment."
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