I am not exaggerating when I say reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness was a total mind melt. Maybe you were like me and got the idea that the police targeted some people more than others, or that there were some inadequacies with the ways prisoners are treated, but when I read this book, I learned that the vast, systematic denial of justice and human rights to people who experience incarceration and life after prison is way beyond what my Reagan-loving family and upbringing would have led me to believe.
Mallory and I had the opportunity to travel up to Tulsa last week to hear Michelle Alexander speak about her book and the hard truths within it. She’s an incredibly effective and engaging speaker; I remember looking at the clock and noticing 45 minutes had gone by during her talk in what felt like 5. She gave a sketch of her book, which argues that the War on Drugs has created a new sort of way to lock up, stigmatize, and economically and socially destroy large groups of people of color. She says those who are targeted by racist law enforcement in stop and frisks and searches, prosecuted on flimsy evidence by over zealous prosecutors, and dealt harsh sentences by judges using mandatory minimums and sentence enhancements are effectively locked away for large portions of their life for largely nonviolent drug offenses. To give you an idea of how much prisons have expanded over the last 40 years, you’d have to release 4 out of every 5 prisoners to return to incarceration rates of the 1970s. That’s unbelievable.
She lays out that evidence in her book in detail, but you can also listen to this podcast to bring you up to speed (thanks to Pearl for this link!).
Michelle Alexander gives insight into the harsh life awaiting people after their release or plea bargain that brands them felons; in many states, folks with felony records are barred from voting, public housing, federal education loans, safety net programs, professional licensure, and even food stamps. Coupled with the fact that employers can freely discriminate against people with felony records in hiring (you’ve seen the “check here if you’ve ever been convicted of a felony” box on applications, right?), unemployment and gutted safety nets leave folks stranded, treated like second-class citizens.
Here in Oklahoma, Representatives Sean Roberts (R) and Gary Stanislawski (R) are seeking to do just that; they would require our state, with HB 2014, to prevent people with felony records from accessing SNAP benefits (food stamps). Given that Oklahoma is #4 in incarceration of people in men’s prisons and #1 in incarceration of people in women’s prisons in the world, that leaves huge numbers of people, mostly people of color, from receiving any help after serving their time. This is inexcusable, and inhumane. Condemning the system that breaks apart families and denies their ability in and out of prison to lead a livable life is part of fighting for reproductive justice. Not only are pregnant people experiencing more and more attempts to criminalize decision-making in termination, care, and birth, but recognizing the pervasiveness of this issue connects the targeting of folks for incarceration in battles over immigration as well. Michelle Alexander offered in her talk in an answer to the question that many are left vulnerable by this system, and we have to take active steps to dismantle it.
Something you can do in the meantime is to spread information and awareness about these issues, stay in contact with folks in prison to let them know they are not isolated or alone, and check out groups working on these issues, like The Advancement Project or The Real Cost of Prisons Project. Give us links and information about groups in the comments, too!
Seriously, read The New Jim Crow. At the very least, listen to the podcast. You will definitely feel the impact of the powerful work Michelle Alexander is doing on behalf of human rights and prison abolition.
Jen is going to New York City for a week, where NYPD used stop and frisk practices on almost exclusively black or Latino men nearly 700,00 times in 2011.