Prisons, Racism and a New Project from an NYU Student with The Prison Policy Initiative
There are more than seven-million people incarcerated in the United States. Most are there for drug offenses. Most drug offenses are for marijuana, which is legal or decriminalized, at least for medicinal purposes, in a growing number of states. Plus, conservatively speaking, about 20,000 prisoners — some on death row, some certainly in solitary — are locked up for crimes they did NOT commit.
The incarceration rate in the United States is the highest in the world. While US citizens only represent 5% of the world’s population, 25% of the world’s inmates are incarcerated in the Land of the Brave, Home of the FREE. Approximately 1 in every 32 Americans is currently held by the (in)justice system.
And people who do not have enough money for quality legal representation or are simply not Caucasian, get arrested, sentenced and imprisoned at an alarmingly disproportionate rate.
For example, as reported by The Wall Street Journal:
A new analysis of the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk tactics found that officers performed more searches on young black men last year than the total number of young black men living in the city…
The findings, said NYCLU’s Donna Lieberman, “paints the most vivid and damning picture yet” of the stop-and-frisk policy.
That’s up 14% from 2010… In New York City in 2011, there were 168,000 stop-and-frisk searches of black men between the ages of 14 and 24; but, there are only 158,000 black men living in the city. And Latinos did not fare much better. Together, black and Latino men in the 14-24 age group account for 4.7% of my home city’s total population but a staggering 41.6% of the police stops last year.
Need more facts?…
- Blacks comprise 13% of the U.S. population and 14% of monthly drug users; however, they represent 37% of those arrested for drug offenses (Congressional Testimony, Marc Mauer, The Sentencing Project, May 2009)
- Blacks are arrested for drug offenses at rates 2 to 11 times higher than the rate for Whites (Report on Disparity in Drug Arrests, Human Rights Watch, May 2009)
- Once arrested, Blacks are more likely to remain in prison (i.e., get denied bail) awaiting trial than Whites — one study of New York in the mid-90s showed a 33% greater likelihood (Review of Disparities in Processing Felony Arrests, The New York State Division of Criminal Justice)
- The American Bar Association reviewed the U.S. public defender system in 2004 and itself concluded: “All too often, defendants plead guilty, even if they are innocent, without really understanding their legal rights or what is occurring…The fundamental right to a lawyer that America assumes applies to everyone accused of criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for countless people across the U.S.”
- Blacks are frequently illegally excluded from criminal jury service — in Houston County, Alabama, 8 out of 10 Black Americans qualified for jury service are struck by prosecutors from serving on death penalty cases (The Equal Justice Initiative, June 2010)
- In the Federal system, Black offenders receive sentences 10% longer than White offenders for the same crimes (The U.S. Sentencing Commission, March 2010)
- Blacks are 21% more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences than White defendants and 20% more like to be sentenced to prison than White drug defendants (Marc Mauer, The Sentencing Project)
- Two-thirds of the people in the U.S. with life sentences are non-White. In New York, the number is nearing 85% (The Sentencing Project, July 2009)
- Blacks, who are only 13% of the U.S. population and 14% of drug users, represent 37% of the people arrested for drugs and 56% of the people in state prisons for drug offenses (Congressional Testimony, Marc Mauer, The Sentencing Project, May 2009)
- The chance of a Black male born in 2001 of going to jail is approximately one in three, or 33%; Latino males have a 17% chance; and White males have a 6% chance — thus, Black boys are five times (and Latino boys nearly three times) as likely as White boys to go to jail (The U.S Bureau of Justice Statistics)
- While Black juvenile youth make up only 16% of the population, they represent 28% of juvenile arrests, 37% of the youth in juvenile jails and 58% of the youth sent to adult prisons (Criminal Justice Primer, The Sentencing Project, 2009)
- After imprisonment, significant racial disparities remain in opportunities and treatment — a study by Professor Devah Pager of the University of Wisconsin found that, while 17% of White job applicants with criminal records received call backs from employers, only 5% of the Black applicants received a call; in fact, race was so prominent in the results of this study that whites with criminal records actually received better treatment than blacks who did not have criminal records at all
This issue is important because it is a human rights issue and it represents Modern Day Slavery. While predominantly people of color rot away in cells, big business are profiting, whether its a hotel company providing the food slopped on inmates’ trays or something newer and even more alarming: the privatization of entire prisons.
This is NOT — I repeat, NOT — a post-racial America. It is an AmeriKKKa with institutionalized racism (and classism) that steadfastly remains on the path set by the foremothers and forefathers who brought slaves here with them or had them shipped like chained cattle.
AWKWORD In Prison
I’ve been an anti-racist and prison-reform activist my whole life, inspired by my mother (RIP), who was an incredibly successful environmental, anti-war and women’s rights activist. I believe some of my experiences further illustrate the state of the System.
- In 2000, I worked at a Connecticut city probation office, mainly charged with menial tasks. But I was there to watch, listen and learn. I saw how differently certain ex-cons were treated compared to others, how older White men were respected while younger people of color were talked down to and threatened. I also saw a few of my friends — emcees, b-boys — waiting outside to meet their probations officers. Hip Hop has always been targeted.
In 2000, I began a multi-year ‘field work’ ‘exercise’ at Green Haven Prison, a maximum security state prison in Stormville, New York, meeting with, teaching and learning from inmates working toward their potential parole and transition to society. I’m pretty sure I learned more from the inmates than they learned from me. I also learned from the guards, and from my travels across the prison, through the miles and miles of concrete, metal doors and bars.
Although we are told by our President, our members of Congress, the media, etc., that ‘we’ are doing EVERYTHING we can to prevent another 9/11, security is TIGHTER at Green Haven Prison than any airport to or from which I have ever traveled (including JFK and La Guardia in New York and Newark in New Jersey). I have metal rods/plates/pins/etc. in my left ankle, left arm and right pinky finger — and I set the metal detector off every time at Green Haven, but I have never set off an alarm at an airport. Evidently, it is more important to prevent me from smuggling cigarettes in or letters out than it is to keep a suicide bomber off your or my plane.
While walking through the dark, dingy corridors of Green Haven, I got head nods and even pounds from prisoners. They often moved to the side so I could pass. Meanwhile, the guards mean-mugged me and, to waste my time, locked doors in front of me and gave me bad directions.
The inmates shared their stories with me. They were heartbreaking, endearing, inspirational, frightening. One man, confined for life to a wheelchair, Terrence Stevens was locked away in Green Haven for a crime he really did not commit. He was put in a car that had drugs in it, the car was searched and he was sent away. Fortunately, he is one of the few whose wrongful conviction has been reversed, and he now runs In Arms Reach, a nonprofit organization serving the children of incarcerated parents. (Click here.)
In 2001 or 2002, I co-founded the Vassar College Prison Reform Group, with whom I joined hundreds of others in attempting to lobby New York State Congress for the repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the racist, classist drug laws (e.g., mandatory minimums sentences; disparities in powder cocaine v. crack sentencing) adopted in 1973 by Nelson Rockefeller, laws that helped lead the charge sweeping the nation of imprisoning anyone who, well, could be considered ‘the other’.
A few other activists and I were able to get into the office of one Congressman, a real tight-ass. He even used the cliched “they should pick themselves up from the bootstraps, like my father did.” And, to better set the stage, we were in his lavish State office, he, of course, sitting back behind his mahogany desk and we, also fittingly, in our ripped jeans, Punk Rock and Activist Hip Hop t-shirts and ratty beards and haircuts… But, it went decently, because, in some small way, with our help, the Rockefeller Drug Laws WERE repealed, at least to a degree.
In April 2009, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were revised to remove mandatory minimum sentences. This change allows judges to sentence individuals convicted of drug offences to treatment or short sentences. Also, the sentencing was made retroactive, allowing prisoners to apply to a court for re-sentencing and possibly release (Dave Canfield, “Drug Law Reforms in Place”, The Record, Troy, New York), October 8, 2009).
- In 2002, I received a fellowship grant to work in Poughkeepsie, New York, with young people at an alternative-to-incarceration center — most, recently out of prison; all, on probation. It was my responsibility to prepare a ‘class’ of about 10 for the GED exam but, though I was never disrespected, I don’t think I taught them a single thing in that setting. Occasionally, when the full-time staff didn’t have the program participants playing basketball, smoking cigarettes outside against the side of the building (shared with a church) or watching Scarface, I was able to connect with a few of the kids — most not much older than me, but with far fewer opportunities growing up. During these one-on-one sessions, I focused on what I do best: writing. I related it to rap. It worked, well. And it felt good. Until the director of the program brought me into his office and told me that I was no longer working there because I had “gotten too close to them”. As it turned out, he would have rather I did what the rest of his staff did: pretty-much nothing, unless I was piss testing a pain-in-the-ass Black or brown person.
- In 2003, I completed my Sociology senior thesis, Arm the Homeless: Homelessness & the Politics of Public Space, which spoke specifically to the criminality of homelessness and the inequality and injustice that predominantly causes it.
What does the geography of incarceration in the United States look like?
A good question, and one that I never even considered until I saw this posted on twitter… And I knew I had to return to the topic and pay particular attention to this new project from a young man studying and living in New York City (my hometown, where 88% of those stopped by police are are innocent, 87% are Black or Latino, and 51% were between the ages of 14 and 24)…
Prison Map is not a map — it’s a snapshot of the earth’s surface, taken at various points throughout the United States. It was made by Josh Begley, a graduate student studying Interactive Telecommunications at New York University.
The United States is the prison capital of the world. This is not news to most people. When discussing the idea of mass incarceration, we often trot out numbers and dates and charts to explain the growth of imprisonment as both a historical phenomenon and a present-day reality.
But what does the geography of incarceration in the US actually look like? Prison Map is my attempt to answer that question.
The project came about in a Data Representation class with Jer Thorp at NYU. It begins from the premise that mapping the contours of the carceral state is important. A number of people and organizations have done excellent work in this regard. Among them are the Prison Policy Initiative and Prisoners of the Census. Over the past few years, they have culled together a database of seemingly mundane but hard-to-locate information: the latitude and longitude of every carceral facility in the United States (currently with the exception of WA, WV, WI, and WY). Their locator tool, which aims to identify correctional facilities counted in the 2010 census for the purposes of accuracy and redistricting, is the first database I know of to include state and federal prisons alongside local jails, detention centers, and privately-run facilities…
When using the tool, however, it was hard for me to get a sense of volume — what does it mean to have 5,000 or 6,000 people locked up in the same place? What do these carceral spaces look like? How do they transform (or get transformed by) the landscape around them?
In order to begin answering some of these questions, I started playing with satellite imagery. The Google Maps API allows you to pass any latitude and longitude into its Static Maps service, specifying parameters such as format and zoom level, and it will spit back an image of that particular location. With Jer’s help, I wrote a simple Processing sketch that would grab image tiles at various lat/lons, save them as a .jpg file, and cycle through all 4,916 facilities…
For the sake of user-friendliness, Mr. Begley includes only about 14% (700) of the photos; however, if you want to see the entire data set, you can do so here.
If you have questions or comments for Mr. Begley, e-mail him — I did, about Green Haven, and he sent me the screen shot of the google maps aerial image:
I then zoomed in on the prison entrance, where the mail comes in and gets searched, and where friends, family and people like me enter through the (aforementioned sensitive) metal detector.
In AmeriKKKA, there’s no JUSTICE, there’s just JUST-US.
A lot needs to change about our criminal (in)justice system. And I can only hope that making music (new song coming soon!) and reporting the truth helps lead us in that direction.
Peace to everyone at Green Haven, especially my homies; and, everybody locked up on some trumped-up or otherwise bullshit charges, hold ya head. We tryna get yall out.
[Van Gogh, The Exercise Yard]
NO. MORE. PRISONS.