This is the best primer on the prison system out there right now.
Title: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Author: Michelle Alexander
Rating (of 5): ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Year published: 2010
The book begins with a troubling anecdote about a man named Jarvious Cotton. Alexander tells us: “Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. … Cotton’s great-great-great grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.”
From there, Alexander launches into a detailed and informed history of racial social controls in America. In the second chapter, she talks about the structure of mass incarceration and how the War on Drugs creates a permanent undercaste in society. Chapter 3 delves into the role of race in the criminal justice system and how ostensibly race-neutral policies have been enforced in a racially biased manner. Although some may believe that more minorities are imprisoned for using and selling drugs because more of them are drug users and sellers, Alexander explains that this is not the case. The next chapter explains how the caste system works with ex-cons, with inmates who have been released. She talks about the stigma of a criminal background. Finally, in Chapter 5 Alexander delves into the parallels between mass incarceration and Jim Crow. The last chapter discusses what the realizations about the existence of the New Jim Crow mean for activists and advocates today.
This book is an excellent introduction to the issues surrounding the justice system today. If you’re already really into prison reform, it may not seem earth-shattering because some of the arguments and points will seem very familiar. The most shocking facts are things that many prison reformers already know. In some cases, there are other books out there that cover the same ground. However, this is written in an accessible manner and it ties together a number of different problems, each of which would probably be worthy of its own book. It was not my favorite prison reform book that I read in the past year, but had it been the first prison reform book I’d read, then it probably would have been. (As it was, I think that Worse Than Slavery by David Oshinsky was my favorite.)
“The notion that a vast gulf exists between ‘criminals’ and those of us who have never served time in prison is a fiction created by the racial ideology that birthed mass incarceration, namely that there is something fundamentally wrong and morally inferior about ‘them.’ The reality, though, is that all of us have done wrong. As noted earlier, studies suggest that most Americans violate drugs laws in their lifetime. Indeed, most of use break the law not once but repeatedly throughout our lives. Yet only some of us will be arrested, charged, convicted of a crime, branded a criminal or felon, and ushered into a permanent undercaste. Who becomes a social pariah and excommunicated from civil society and who trots off to college bears scant relationship to the morality of crimes committed. Who is more blameworthy: the young black kid who hustles on the street corner, selling weed to help his momma pay the rent? Or the college kid who deals drugs out of his dorm room so that he’ll have cash to finance his spring break? Who should we fear? The kid in the ‘hood who joined a gang and now carries a gun for security, because his neighborhood is frightening and unsafe? Or the suburban high school student who has a drinking problem but keeps getting behind the wheel? Our racially biased system of mass incarceration exploits the fact that all people break the law and make mistakes at various points in their lives and with varying degrees of justification. Screwing up — failing to live by one’s highest ideals and values — is part of what makes us human.” (page 216)