Poverty and Prison in the United States

Prision People are thrown into poverty and kept in that condition by being criminalized. Economic inequality and rates of incarceration are the outcome of intentional policies. The prison population constitutes a whole parallel society distinguished by economic disadvantage and compounded by racial stereotypes. Obama has distanced himself from the concerns that affect disproportionately the African American population. Victor Wallis. December.2013. LatinOpen

Poverty and Prison in the United States

“American exceptionalism,” so commonly invoked as a term of praise, has increasingly shown its negative dimensions in recent years.

It is by now widely known that the United States surpasses European countries in economic inequality and in rates of incarceration. Less widely known are the links between these two phenomena, and also the fact that they are the outcome of intentional policies. These policies include on the one hand tax-cuts for the rich and, on the other, cuts in social services, welfare payments, and food-subsidies for the poor, together with “mandatory minimum” prison sentences for drug-related offenses. All these measures have placed a particular burden on minority ethnic or “racial” communities within the working class.

The elevation to the presidency of a man of African descent served to persuade much of the public, especially in Europe, that a new page was opening in US history. It has been nothing of the kind. Inequality has markedly increased during Obama’s presidency, as have also the level of surveillance, the incidence of drone attacks, the prosecution of whistle-blowers, and the numbers of deportations. Obama has from the beginning distanced himself from the concerns that affect disproportionately the African American population.

The link between poverty and incarceration goes far beyond the common-sense observation that when people are desperate they may sometimes resort to stealing. The dynamic also operates in the reverse direction. People are thrown into poverty and/or kept in that condition by being criminalized.

This general pattern was sharply exposed in 2004 in a study by the French sociologist Loïc Wacquant (published in English in 2009 under the title, Punishing the Poor). Its link to the “war on drugs” was analyzed in depth by Michelle Alexander in her 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

It is a relatively little-known fact that only about 10% of criminal prosecutions in the US lead to a trial. Far more common is the “plea-bargain,” whereby a deal is struck between the prosecution and the accused person. The state saves the expense of a trial by threatening the accused with a long “mandatory minimum” sentence in the event of a conviction, but offering a shorter term or even no prison-time at all if the accused pleads guilty. But the accused person then has a criminal record.

You can thus be legally classified as a “felon” even if you have committed no offense. It requires only that the police accuse you of an offense and that the prosecutors then threaten you with a severe penalty if you are convicted in court. You may avoid immediate punishment by accepting the plea-bargain, but from that moment on, you are permanently stigmatized when you seek housing, a job, financial assistance for college, and, in most of the states, the exercise of your right to vote.

The impact of “mandatory minimum” laws is illustrated in a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union, which found that 3,200 US prisoners whose offenses involved no act or threat of violence are currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.

The prison “boom” dates from the late 1970s, coinciding with all the cutbacks in social services. The indirect impact of this development is reflected not only in the current prison population of about 2.3 million, but also in the roughly 6 million who are no longer incarcerated but are barred from voting. Moreover, according to the National Employment Law Project, an estimated 65 million people (28% of the adult population) “have an arrest or conviction that shows up in a routine criminal background check” (http://yubanet.com/usa/65-Million-Americans-With-Criminal-Records-Face-Unprecedented-Barriers-to-Employment.php#.Uo4Y0LOZh_U).

The prison population in effect constitutes a whole parallel society, distinguished from so-called law-abiding citizens not so much by any common psychological traits as by economic disadvantage, compounded by racial stereotyping on the part of police.

Within the prisons, the official punitive philosophy now assumes that incarceration by itself is not sufficient punishment; further hardship must be imposed, especially on prisoners who are politically active. This typically takes the form of long-term solitary confinement. The number of US prisoners currently subject to this extreme regimen – which is recognized by international agencies as psychological torture – is estimated at 80,000. Those in solitary are kept in their cells 23 hours a day. Even during the 1 hour in which they are (on most days) allowed out of their cells, they are still denied social contact with fellow prisoners.

A recent hunger strike in California prisons called widespread attention to this practice, but without yet bringing any change. Nationally, however, there has been a growing awareness of the strategic role of the prison system in the larger ruling-class agenda of maintaining control over the “dangerous” classes. This is exemplified in the writings of Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, a 42-year-old self-educated revolutionary who, after two decades in Virginia prisons (most of that time in solitary), was moved first to Oregon and then, 16 months later, to Texas, which has among the highest per capita prison populations in the country and is notorious for the brutality and impunity of its guards. Rashid’s reports – available at http://rashidmod.com — illuminate both the pattern of abuse and its systemic underpinnings.

The extremes of inequality and the extremes of repression are mutually reinforcing. They operate behind a protective mask of invisibility, reflecting the racism of the dominant media.

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