Most of us can agree that it is bad for a society to have too many people behind bars. And it is a sad fact that the United States is the worst culprit. We have the largest prison population in world history.
What we may not be able to agree on is how it came to be this way. I have a basic theory. I call it: “build it and they will come.”
My theory holds that if you have a country with two million prison cells, you will inevitably have two million prisoners. It’s pretty much as simple as that.
The makers of the acclaimed documentary “13th” have a very different theory.
The title references the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. It forever outlawed involuntary servitude… “except as punishment for a crime.”
The film taught me about the period just after the Civil War when States arrested black men for petty crimes and used them as free prison labor – essentially as slaves owned by the government.
And then the film argues that the 13th Amendment and the racism of the Reconstruction Era led directly to the situation we have today: where there are 2.2 million people behind bars – mostly people of color.
I vehemently oppose the Prison Industrial Complex and I certainly agree that the United States always has been oppressive to black people.
However, I don’t agree with documentarian Ava Duvernay’s theory. Her understandable anger about racism and her less understandable hatred of Republicans clouds her judgement.
If the 13th Amendment and systemic racism naturally led to overflowing prisons, then it would have happened a lot earlier. In 1970, the American prison population was around 300,000 – pretty much in line with the UK and Australia.
It wasn’t hatred of black men that turned the US into a prison state – it was love of money.
The law of supply and demand is terrific when the product is life-saving medicine or tasty beer. The law of supply and demand is a calamity when the product is incarceration. As soon as prisons became profitable for big companies, big problems were certain to follow.
The unholy union of money and prison began with vendors like the food-service giant Aramark earning lucrative contracts. It got worse when corporations like JC Penny and Victoria’s Secret began exploiting dirt cheap prison labor to make their clothing.
The final nail in the coffin of freedom, dignity, and common sense was hammered in 1983, when Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was founded. The privatization of prisons ensured that the number of prison cells would skyrocket.
And, as my theory goes, if there are more profitable prison cells, it is a certainty that the system will create prisoners.
President Clinton (The First) signed the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1994. The heinous bill allotted $billions for new prisons and ensured that they got filled by enacting mandatory minimum sentences for many drug crimes and the “three strikes and you’re out” rule for repeat offenders.
Before long there were two million profitable prison cells filled with two million human beings who were conveniently labeled as criminals. That is the situation we face today.
And just who fills those cells? “13th” argues that it is people of color. I argue that it is the weakest and most vulnerable members of society: poor young men. It is certainly true that most prisoners are non-white. But that is more because of their inability to obtain a good lawyer than the color of their skin.
OJ got away with murder while Zeke from West Virginia got 20 years for selling meth. Sadly, most non-white men have way less money than OJ.
Racism is a problem. The fact that most black boys grow up without a father or a decent chance of finding a solid job is a bigger problem.
One thing that “13th” and I agree on is that it is difficult and dangerous to be a young black man in our society. I don’t claim to have the perfect solution. But I do know step one: close the prisons.