You are a young, black male just released from a U.S. prison and your home is in the inner city. The day should be a happy one for you. However, according to Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the United States is a country that has officially and legally identified you as a criminal. You are a criminal who possesses fewer rights than a black male resident in the State of Alabama at the height of the infamous Jim Crow era. “Once you are labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination…denial of educational opportunities” [become your everyday existence].
Ms. Alexander opens our eyes to a reprehensible and disgraceful reality that engulfs our inner- city communities. The prison gates have opened, and you are now free to get a job and get an apartment and become a productive member of society. However, there are buts. You now wear your former status of an incarcerated criminal on your sleeve wherever you go. The actual bars that locked you in that tiny cell have vanished, but there are invisible bars nevertheless. The obvious question on the mind of a released prisoner is where they will sleep on their first night of freedom and the dilemma with that job application with that box that asks if they have ever committed a crime.
“The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. The NYC Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have established a policy whereby tenants are screened to see if they have criminal records. Public housing throughout our great nation is free to deny eligibility to those with just the slightest blemish of a criminal background…. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial minorities. The U.S. imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.” That statistic is a distinction the United States should be ashamed of having.
Upon being handed their meager possessions, they are relegated to that of second-class citizenry as doors are slammed in their faces everywhere. Why are the prisons populated by this massive number of black youths? The government initiative we labeled the War on Drugs is accountable since according to Ms. Alexander, ”vast numbers of people are swept into the criminal justice system by police who conduct massive drug operations primarily in poor communities of color.” Let me ask you a question. When did you read articles in our dailies of men in blue invading white communities rounding up its white residents? You certainly cannot visualize that scenario because reporters never cover these stories.
“The laws operate…to ensure that the vast majority of convicted offenders will never integrate with mainstream white society.” The purpose of prison as we understand its modus operandi is not just to temporarily remove criminals from the street but is rehabilitative. How can rehabilitation take place if they face discrimination upon their release?
Blacks are first targeted by the police who target their inner-city neighborhoods in the War on Drugs, resulting in their mass incarceration, hence the subtitle of this book. The courts deliberate and impose their prison sentences for a specially designated period. When the defendant stands in the courtroom alongside his attorney and hears those dreaded words that tell him how many months or years he will be imprisoned, he assumes one day he will be free not realizing what faces him in the future.
“It is worthwhile to get a couple of myths out of the way. [The War on Drugs] is aimed at ridding the nation of drug ‘kingpins’ or big-time dealers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of those arrested are not charged with serious offenses.” Lengthy sentences for minor drug offenses are the norm.
“Once a person is labeled a felon he or she is ushered into a parallel universe in which discrimination, stigma, and exclusion are perfectly legal…it is the badge of inferiority–the felony record–that relegates people for their entire lives to second-class status….No wonder that most people labeled felons find their way back into prison.”
You are fortunate enough to be released from prison on parole or probation but for the slightest reason your next forwarding address will again be that prison cell “if you fail to get a job…or if you get depressed and miss an appointment with your parole officer (or if you cannot afford the bus fare to take you there). It is shocking that for these reasons you are sent back. Who wouldn’t be depressed?
The author cites the City of Chicago where “like the rest of the country the War on Drugs is the engine of mass incarceration as well as the primary cause of the gross racial disparity in the criminal justice system….whites are…more likely to avoid prison…even when they are repeat offenders…black offenders, by contrast, are routinely labeled felons and released into a permanent racial underclass… In Chicago as in other cities across the U.S. young black men are more likely to go to prison than to college.” Young people should be filling out college admissions applications with their parents instead of saying goodbye to them as they go to prison, but since police are invading only inner-city neighborhoods and arresting en masse young black men for minor drug infractions, and they become members of an underclass, prison is their destination and not college.
Marilyn Silverman is a writer, assistant editor of Caribbean American Weekly, host of Writers Cafe Radio Show, and Panelist (How to market and promote your book: Inaugural Black Book Expo, New York).