By Spencer Kingman

Many Latter-Day Saints, while believing racism to be a great evil and a sin, assume that violent racism and racism as government policy are things of the past. In this article, and others forthcoming, I will explore the U.S. prison system, the practice of torture, and the wall at the nation’s southern border as three particular projects that bely such an assumption. I intend to show that, far from fading away or becoming superficial, racism remains a vicious and violent a force in this country.

It is appropriate to start with the prison system. Though less controversial than torture or the border wall, the prisons lay the foundation for these projects. In practice and in language, they provide a laboratory for what happened at Abu Ghraib, a blueprint for the deadly architecture of our border zones, and a business model for “Homeland Security.”

In our lifetimes, the prison system has exploded in size and scope, swallowing up people, homes, and whole sections of our cities. This rapid growth has little to do with crime, and a lot to do with economics, racism, and social control. Unable to address and alleviate its savage inequalities, the United States has instead found a way,through imprisonment, to make them into a perverted junk-growth industry. As a country, we are feeding on our own dysfunction, relying on human misery as a profit center, and stripping for parts those people for which we find no other use. How can one talk of public safety when huge chunks of that public are being absorbed into such a dangerous and violent system? How can “criminal justice” have any meaning when the nation is so invested in criminality?

Many are unaware of the rapacious growth of the prison system since the early 1970s, and it is difficult to fathom. The number of Americans who are currently in jail or prison is over 2.2 million people, one fourth of the prison population of the entire world. This population has expanded from just 300,000 in 1972 and 1,000,000 in 1990. The United States also incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other nation (with the possible exception of North Korea). Increases for youth and females are even more dramatic. 1 There has been no corresponding increase in crime over these boom years. Many of the incarcerations fueling the rise of the prison industry result from either drug offenses or mandatory minimum sentence requirements legislated in the context of the “wars” on drugs and crime.

Both of these so-called wars have ravaged communities of color, especially Black communities. In some cities, over one half of young Black men are under some criminal supervision, be it parole, probation, or incarceration.2 Approximately 44% of all prisoners are Black, though they comprise only 12% of the U.S. population.3

The ease with which we ignore this cataclysm is remarkable. It is commonly believed that the system works well, that we see high rates of Blacks and Latinos in the criminal justice system because Blacks and Latinos commit most of the crimes in the United States. In some cases this is factually wrong, for instance when it comes to drugs. Drug use is equally common among Blacks, Latinos, and Whites. Blacks constitute 13% of all monthly drug users, but 35% of arrests for drug possession, 53% of convictions, and 58% of prison sentences, and these drug convictions comprise a very large part of all prisoners.4 In fact, more Blacks are sent to state prison for drug offenses than for crimes of violence.5

The assumption that people of color commit more crimes than Whites is sometimes factually correct, but this phenomenon is impossible to understand outside the context of persistent and widening discrimination, economic exclusion, or the predations of police.

For people who have already been locked up, the barriers to re-entering civil society after their prison terms are so numerous and extreme that many return to crime. With some variation from state to state, the average person convicted of a felony will likely find themselves barred from politics and voting, barred from gun ownership, have their drivers license suspended, prohibited by law from several occupations, and refused employment in most others. Additionally they are “permanently barred from receiving public assistance such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income,” as well as federal financial aid for education. They are permanently barred from admittance to public housing and Section 8. The list goes on and on, including just about anything a person might need to get back on their feet. A shocking 6% of Americans have felony records.6

Needless to say, incarceration also rips apart families and psyches, and the cumulative effect is crushing. In California, which imprisons more people than any other state, the recidivism rate is 70 percent; for children in the juvenile system it is 90 percent (recidivism is a word to describe the return to prison or criminality of an inmate who has ‘served their time’ and been released). 7

Crime rates generally have dropped since the beginning of the prison boom, but the meaning of this fact is contested. During the 1990s crime rates declined less dramatically in states with high incarceration rates. A detailed 2005 study by The Sentencing Project suggested that only about 25% of the drop in crime rates should be attributed to increased incarceration, with the other 75% perhaps resulting from a growing economy, changing drug markets, community policing models, and other community responses to crime. Also, a decrease in the crime rate concurrent with mass imprisonment says little about what couldhave been achieved with non-violent approaches. Numerous studies have shown drug treatment, interventions with at-risk families, and school completion programs are far more effective at reducing crime than incarceration, and of course, far less costly.8

However, the high costs of imprisonment mean large profits for some. They represent a grotesque development opportunity for states and small towns, and the jobs they create are well-paying. The average salary for a member of the California Correctional Peace Officers Union is $73,000 dollars per year, far higher than, for instance, a teacher’s salary. 9 Private prisons, of which there are currently about 300 nation wide, are often payed directly from tax revenue on a per-inmate, per-day basis. States or private prisons can generate large amounts of revenue by contracting with large corporations to provide prison labor, usually at sweatshop wages. All of these various strategem for generating wealth have one thing in common: an absolute reliance on the maintenance of high levels of incarceration and a steady stream of inmates.

In the case of prison labor, the continuities with slavery are chilling. At the end of the U.S. Civil War, the 13th amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” In the post-Reconstruction South this loophole was used to reassert White supremacy and exploitation of Black agricultural labor through the chain gang.10 The largest prison in the United States, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, resides on 18,000 acres of antebellum plantation land purchased by the state in 1905. It was called Angola because most of the ex-slaves in that area came from that African Country. Still today, the inmates, 75 percent of whom are Black, perform the same labor as slaves did 200 years ago: harvesting cotton and sugar cane. It is estimated that 85 percent of the inmates at Angola now will die there.11

In the post-Civil Rights Era, convict labor has reached full industrial blossom. All over the United States, inmates are assembling air conditioning parts, computer motherboards, and clothing for companies like Microsoft, J.C. Penny, Eddie Bauer, Victoria’s Secret, and Honda. They are answering telephones for TWA and Best Western.12 In the summer of 2007, Colorado started sending female inmates to harvest onions, corn, and melons on farms.13 For many years, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has provided inmate labor to the Army, but in 2005 a new regulation authorized the Army to create prison labor camps within military installations. 14 Needless to say the wages for prisoners are deplorable. The average hourly rate at a prison camp in Nevada is a mere $0.13 cents an hour. The pay rates for federal prisoners are between $0.23 and $1.15 per hour.15 In Angola Prison in 1997, inmates were reportedly de-boning chickens for $0.04 cents an hour.16

The prison system is becoming a primary mechanism for maintaining de facto segregation and mass exploitation of Black people in the U.S., performing the same functions as the ghetto, Jim Crow, and slavery before it. Globalization and technological change have wiped out millions of jobs that used to be somewhat available to Black people living in the cities. The prisons provide a way for the state to control these unemployed or “surplus” people and exploit them in a way that is competitive with overseas sweatshops. It also provides a way for the country to absorb the Post World-War II/Civil Rights activism without really upending the racial caste system. Just as Jim Crow undermined political rights granted after the Civil War, the “felonization” of Black America undermines the civil rights victories of the 1960’s (and not without effect, as seen in Florida during the 2000 Presidential Election).

The racialization of incarceration is not simply a reflection of a racism planted in some other arena of society. On the contrary, the prisons, like racist institutions before them, insidiously create and disseminate ideas about what it means to be “Black” and “White” in the U.S. White supremacy has long required that Blackness be associated with criminality and violence, but the mass incarceration of Black people (a recent phenomenon) solidifies this association and lends it the appearance of social fact. In the words of Randall Kennedy it supplies a powerful common-sense warrant for “using color as a proxy for dangerousness.” Hence “driving while Black” 17 or simply hanging-out with other Blacks in public provokes regular harassment by police. As Black people are shut in to prisons and ghettos, they are shut out of politics and jobs. Incarceration helps do the symbolic work of mixing up cause and effect here, hardening racist myths about the suburban world of hard-work, self-control, and political responsibility as well as myths about its counterpart: a ghetto/prison world of indolence, addiction, parasitism, and cruelty.

  1. International Centre For Prison Studies at King’s College London. Prison Brief – Highest to Lowest Rates. (10 January 2008); Rose M. Brewer and Nancy A. Heitzeg, “The Racialization of Crime and Punishment: Criminal Justice, Colorblind Racism, and the Political Economy of the Prison-Industrial Complex,” American Behavioral Scientist 51 (2008); 628.
  2. David Matlin, PRISONS: Inside the New America, (Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2005), p. xxix.
  3. Human Rights Watch. (2003). Incarcerated America. (10 January 2008)
  4. he Sentencing Project. (2001). Drug Policy and the Criminal Justice System. (13 January 2008)
  5. Human Rights Watch. (April 2003). Incarcerated America. (13 January 2008).
  6. Ibid.
  7. David Matlin, PRISONS: Inside the New America, (Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2005), pp. xxiii, xxviii.
  8. The Sentencing Project. (2005). Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship. (13 January 2008)
  9. David Matlin, PRISONS: Inside the New America, (Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2005). p. xxii.
  10. David M. Oshinsky. Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1996)
  11. Free the Angola 3 (2000) Lockdown at Angola: A History of the Angola 3 Case. (13 January 2008)
  12. Kelly Patricia O’Meara, “Prison Labor is a Growth Industry,” Insight on the News. Washington: May 24, 1999. Vol. 15, Iss. 19; pg. 14, 2 pgs
  13. Nicole Hill, “U.S. Farmers Using Prison Labor,” Christian Science Monitor, August 22, 2007. pg. 14.
  14. U.S. Army. (14 February 2005). Army Regulation 210-35: Civilian Inmate Labor Program. (13 January 2008).
  15. Peter Wagner. (2003) The Prison Index: Taking the Pulse of the Crime Control Industries. (13 January 2008).
  16. Peter Gilmore, “Made in the USA… by Convicts.” Labor Party Press, July 1997, Vol. 2, Num. 4.
  17. Loüc Wacquant, “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration,” New Left Review, 13, January 2002.