Thursday, October 14, 2010

It’s Utterly Inhumane

A number of people have taken up the sisters’ cause, including Ben Jealous, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., who is trying to help secure a pardon from Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi. “It makes you sick to think that this sort of thing can happen,” he said. “That these women should be kept in prison until they die — well, that’s just so utterly inhumane.” Bob Herbert - New York Times

This quote is about a case in Mississippi were two young women were sentenced to life in prison for allegedly being involved in a robbery that involved $11.00 and no one was injured. Only in Mississippi could this happen according to the article and while I can sympathize with the plight of these two young women, one of whom has lost the function of her kidneys. There is an even greater inhumanity taking place in every state in this country.

The inhumanity that I am speaking of involves the systematic disenfranchising of young black and minority men. It takes place when these young men are arrested for oftentimes minor drug offenses and given felony convictions. These convictions then condemn these young men many of them before the age of 20 to a life of poverty. Think about that; for the next 40 to 50 years these young men will be discriminated against in employment, education, and housing. You see the only group in America that you can discriminate against with impunity is the convicted felon population.

You see we now have laws that prevent convicted felons regardless of the offense from receiving student loans and grants, housing assistance, and any other government assistance that they desperately need to change their lives and become reconnected to their community and our society. As if that were not enough most employers refuse to hire ex-offenders as a matter of policy except for menial low wage positions. No one challenges an employer for doing so, because we have the canard that most businesses have money and property on hand and the ex-offender cannot be trusted to be an honest person. After all, they are convicted felons. So we prevent them from receiving the support to change their lives and we won’t give them jobs to improve their lives, many of them for nothing more than having a bag of weed.

By condemning these young men to this fate of hardship we are also condemning the neighborhoods they live in to a future of violence and apathy. Once you remove the hope and the future of the young people in a community you suck the rejuvenating life blood out of that community. These young men now exist outside the system and the economy. They have been made invisible by a system designed to marginalize them and prevent them from competing successfully for their share of the American dream. These young men now have no reason to become involved in the improvement of their communities and often times their own lives. Many are not allowed or don’t vote. Many are unemployed. Many are not fathers to their own children and so the cycle continues.

What I think fails to get mentioned enough is that we are not only condemning these young men but entire communities to suffering. We set in motion the demolition of the underpinnings of these communities. Throughout history the fortunes of a culture or a community is driven by the fortunes of its young men and if you are able to somehow undermine those young men you in fact commence the destruction of that culture or community. You show me a vibrant community and I will show you one where the young men are intricately involved in the fabric of that community. Our community cannot afford to allow this destruction of our young men to go on unabated.

Just one galling statistic of many: in some states African Americans comprise 90 percent of the total drug prisoners and are 57 times more likely to be incarcerated for a drug offense than whites, even though whites use five times the amount of drugs as African Americans. - Michelle Alexander

The time has come for us to stand up and demand an end to this systematic destruction of our young men. We must begin to change a criminal justice system that routinely and selectively gives our young men felony convictions while at the same time giving whites diversion and other less punitive measures. We must begin to teach and train our young men to not participate in their own destruction. The training of our young men into responsible men is not being advocated and promoted as it should be in our community. There is this false assumption that boys just naturally grow into men, nothing could be further from the truth.

There will be racist elements who will seek to keep this pipeline in place. But in addition there will also be economic forces to contend with. Prisons now employ over 400,000 people throughout the country. Because many prisons are located in rural areas they have replaced other forms of employment such as manufacturing and farming. This source of jobs has kept many small towns afloat following the shrinking manufacturing and unskilled labor base. We now have a prison-industrial complex second only to the military in its size and scope. In order for prisons to be profitable they have to be filled. As a result of these policies we are pitting the employment and future of rural folks against the freedom and future of the urban folks.

As a society we cannot continue to operate on this level. The results of our inaction will be a permanent underclass in urban areas and a permanent siege mentality for those living there. It will also continue to foster and promote racial and geographical prejudice within our society. With two million of our fellow citizens incarcerated or on paper many for non-violent offences we must begin to seek and to promote alternative methods to incarceration and felony records. We should also support an atmosphere of support for second chances for these unfortunate people caught up in this “war” mentality. Businesses respond to customers and if customers were more receptive to second chances so would the business community. I ask you to begin speaking out in your communities for these young men. Become a part of the reentry movement where you live. You see condemning people before they are even 20 for a non-violent drug offense to a life of poverty is not just unfair or inhumane, it is immoral.

“Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo-obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to each other.” - Angela Davis

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