Week 16 post — Sophia Belletti

Chapter 9: African American Males and the Incarceration Problem


Jails exist to fill three primary functions. Jails hold inmates who (a) are awaiting trial and either cannot make bail or have been denied bail; (b) are required to make a court appearance for any reason — this is because jails are connected to courthouses, whereas prisons generally are not; and (c)  are serving sentences of 364 days (1 year) or less. Jails are administered at the county level. Prisons on the other hand, are administered at both the state and federal level. State prisons hold inmates who (a) are convicted of state crimes in that state; (b) have sentences of more than 1 year; and (c) are of all custody levels: minimum, medium, maximum and death row (if the state has the death penalty). Some facilities hold all custody levels in the same facility. Federal prisons hold inmates who are convicted of federal crimes. Inmates may be housed in any state that has an appropriate federal prison. Private prisons are administered by corporations. The largest, Corrections Association of America (CAA), trades on the New York Stock Exchange. In 2005, CAA’s total revenues were $1.2 billion. Erving Goffman coined the concept of “total institution,” which means, “Their encompassing or total character is symbolised by the barrier to social intercourse with the outside and to departure that is often built right into the physical plant, such as locked doors, high walls, barbed wire, cliffs, water, forests, or moors.”


The War on Drugs officially heated up under the administration of President Ronald Reagan, who added the position of “Drug Czar” to the President’s Executive Office. Currently, 450,000 of the more than 2 million inmates (45%) in state and federal prison are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses. Whites, implicitly or explicitly, benefit from the sending of hundreds of thousands of African American men to prison. One big advantage that can be measured empirically is that these high levels of incarceration effectively remove these men from the competitive labor force, and upon release, they are disenfranchised in the political system. Thus, whites can hoard jobs and political power for themselves. Second, advantages can accrue to communities. For example, the prison boom, in terms of both the number of prison, as well as the locating of prisons in deindustrialized communities and rural communities is an economic advantage that accrues to whites in the form of jobs — as prison staff — and in terms of building contracts and other services that are necessary when a town builds a prison. These advantages by and large do not accrue to African American communities.


Depending on the type of facility, women constitute 6%-10% of the prison population, or of the 2.6 million Americans who are incarcerated, 150,000 or so are women. The probability that a woman will be incarcerated in her lifetime is 11/1,000 or 1.1%. Gender differences in incarceration are primarily related to reproductive health, childbearing and childrearing. 285 out of every 1,000 (28.5%) African American men will be incarcerated in their lifetime.


There are several stereotypes that tend to justify the high rate of incarceration for African Americans. The first is “African Americans commit more crime.” African Americans do commit certain crimes more often than whites. However, when one examines the range of crime statistics one finds that just as African Americans are disproportionately likely to commit certain crimes (homicide), whites are disproportionately like to commit others. The second is “racial profiling.” Over the past decade or so, significant attention has been paid to the catch-all category of “racial profiling.” Typically, racial profiling refers to the targeting of African Americans; Hispanics; and, since the tragedy of September 11, Middle Easterners, in “pulling over” a person for no apparent reason, searching private property such as a car or home and arrest.  The third is “sentencing disparities.” Along with differences in traffic stops and arrest, there is also substantial evidence to support the argument that African Americans receive stiffer sentences than their white counterparts who commit the same crime. Among persons convicted of drug felonies in state courts, whites were less likely than African Americans to be sent to prison. Another stereotype is “the relationship between ideology and incarceration.” Those who defend racial profiling note that if African Americans are more likely to commit crime, then it makes sense for law enforcement agents to target African Americans with surveillance, police presence and traffic stops.  The last stereotypes that tend to justify the high rate of incarceration for African American is “African American mothers are crackheads.”

Thousands of African American men were accused of rapping white women, but they were lynched by mobs long before they were ever tried in court. The power of this accusations without the requirement of evidentiary support provided the justification for the vast majority of lynchings of 10,000 African American men during the period from 1880 to 1930.


“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”

Today it is legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once one is labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination — employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service — are suddenly legal. As a criminal, one has scarcely more rights and arguably less respect, than a Black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.  The author’s claim is “I thought my job as a civil rights lawyer was to join with the allies of racial progress to resist attacks on affirmative action and to eliminate the vestiges of Jim Crow segregation, including out still separate and unequal system of education. I understand the problems plaguing poor communities of color, including problems associated with crime and rising incarceration rates, to be a function of poverty and lack to access to quality education — the continuing legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Never did I seriously consider the possibility that a new racial caste system was operating in this country. The new system had been developed and implemented swiftly, and it was largely invisible, even to be people, like me, who spend most of their walking hours fighting for justice.”

Race wise, Blacks are more likely to see drugs. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its Black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington D.C. it is estimated three out of four young Black men can expect to serve time in prison and similar rates can be found in Black communities across America. The American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history. And while the size of the system alone might suggest that it would touch the lives of most Americans, the primary targets of its control can be defined largely by race. The growing consensus among experts was perhaps best reflected by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, which issued a recommendation in 1973 that “no new institutions for adults should be built and existing institutions for juveniles should be closed.” This recommendations was based on their finding that “the prison, the reformatory and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of failure. These is overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it.”

The author called racial segregation during the Jim Crow segregation era in the 1940s a form of social control. She claims Civil Rights advocates have been focusing on dismantling this new racial caste system. Mass incarceration — not attacks on affirmative action or lax civil rights enforcement — is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. More than half of the young Black men in many large American cities are currently under the control of the criminal justice system. The current system of control permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy. The system operates through our criminal justice institutions, but it functions more like a caste system than a system of crime control. Viewed from this perspective, the so called underclass is better understood as an undercaste — a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society.

The recent decisions by some state legislatures, most notably New York’s to repeal or reduce mandatory drug sentencing laws have led some to believe that the system of racial control described in this book is already fading away. Many of the states that have reconsidered their harsh sentencing schemes have done so for bursting state budgets in a  time of economic recession. Changing economic conditions or rising crime rates could easily result in reversal of fortunes for those who commit drug crimes, particularly if the drug criminals are perceived to be black or brown.

The purpose of this book is to stimulate a much-needed conversation about the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy in the United States.

One thought on “Week 16 post — Sophia Belletti”

  1. Good job.

    You stated that blacks are more prone to sell drugs, which is incorrect. Studies show that there really is no difference between whites selling drugs and the rates of blacks selling drugs.

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