The Sentencing Project released a report in February about the racial dynamics of women’s incarceration in the U.S. One of the main findings was that the gap between black women’s incarceration rates and white women’s shrank in the past decade. Specifically:
In 2000 black women were incarcerated in state and federal prisons at six times the rate of white women. By 2009 that ratio had declined by 53%, to 2.8:1. This shift was a result of both declining incarceration of African American women and rising incarceration of white women.
This news was greeted with some joy in certain quarters and it’s true that a declining rate of incarceration for black women is a good thing. However, it’s also true that most women who are currently locked up are black and that black women are still more likely to be incarcerated than white women. This is a cause for continued concern and renewed activism.
I thought about this report again when I heard the news of Lauryn Hill’s three-month prison sentence for tax evasion. It will come as a surprise to no one that I think imprisoning Ms. Hill is wrongheaded and actually destructive. Like most women who are incarcerated, Lauryn Hill has children. She will now have to be separated from them for several months. Some will suggest that she has the financial resources to make sure that her children are cared for in her absence. My response is that children need their primary caregiver’s presence as much as they do financial resources. Locking Lauryn Hill up will deter no one from cheating on their taxes. If we want her to be accountable for transgressing our social norms, then I can think of hundreds of other ways that don’t involve prison time. Does anyone doubt that had Miley Cyrus been convicted of tax evasion, she would have been sentenced to community service? The question is a rhetorical one.
I find it difficult to write about Lauryn Hill because I have a great deal of affection and admiration for her. I don’t know her personally but that doesn’t matter. She is familiar to me. Being born a brilliantly talented black girl in the U.S. is to be subjected to attack, abuse, and to develop a thick skin at an early age. Lauryn feels familiar to me because we are of the same generation though she is a few years younger than me. I’ve imagined what her life might have been if she had been born in a different era. Ironically, if she had been born a generation earlier, I can imagine her walking into a jail cell under completely circumstances.
The Guantanamo Bay prison camp has been in the news lately because of prisoners’on-going hunger strike there. In fact, just this week, the U.S. government has ordered medical reinforcements to the prison in order to assist with the force-feeding of Guantanamo hunger strikers. The hunger strike began in early February with a couple of dozen people and has spread to over 100 men now. The New York Times editorial page characterized the strike as “a collective act of despair.” The prisoners are being held, some innocent and many without charges, at Guantanamo indefinitely.
I was recently brought to tears in reading an op-ed in the New York Times written by Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel. al Hasan Moqbel has been a prisoner at Guantanamo for over 11 years and is one of the hunger strikers. He wrote:
“I’ve been on a hunger strike since Feb. 10 and have lost well over 30 pounds. I will not eat until they restore my dignity.
I’ve been detained at Guantánamo for 11 years and three months. I have never been charged with any crime. I have never received a trial.”
From the Huffington Post:
More than half of federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug crimes in 2010,according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and that number has only just dipped below 50 percent in 2011. Despite more relaxed attitudes among the public at large toward non-violent offenses like marijuana use, the number of people in federal prison for drug offenses spiked from 74,276 in 2000 to 97,472 in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The punishment falls disproportionately on people of color. Blacks make up 50 percent of the state and local prisoners incarcerated for drug crimes. Black kids are 10 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes than white ones — even though white kids are more likely to abuse drugs.
On Sunday, I awoke to the news that some parents of Walter Payton Prep High School students refused to allow their children to play a night game on the campus of Gwendolyn Brooks Prep High.
You have to live in Chicago to fully appreciate this drama. Payton and Brooks are both selective enrollment public high schools in the city. Both are considered “good” schools. Payton is on the Northside of Chicago while Brooks is located on the Southside. Rich white parents use their clout to get their children admitted to Payton but not to Brooks. In case you didn’t know, Chicago is still the most segregated city in the United States. This also extends to our schools, of course.
One can hardly blame the parents of Payton students who were afraid that their children might succumb to violence on the dreaded “Southside.” Over the past three to four years, media accounts have portrayed Chicago as the wild, wild, West. Scarcely a day goes by that there isn’t another account of rampant “senseless” violence in the city.
It’s gotten so bad that the former police superintendent, Jody Weis, felt the need to proclaim during a news conference in 2010: “We are not Chi-raq. We are Chicago.”
This brings me to the main issue that I wanted to address today.
The Gregory Brothers strike again with this very good music video documenting the fact that the war on drugs is a failure.
The Huffington Post did a good job yesterday reporting on the costs of the so-called “war on drugs:”
Despite an increased emphasis on treatment and prevention programs in recent years, the Obama administration in its 2013 budget still requested $25.6 billion in federal spending on the drug war. Of that, $15 billion would go to law enforcement, interdiction and international efforts.
The pro-reform Drug Policy Alliance estimates that when you combine state and local spending on everything from drug-related arrests to prison, the total cost adds up to at least $51 billion per year. Over four decades, the group says, American taxpayers have dished out $1 trillion on the drug war.
The wonderfully generous and talented artist Ariel Springfield contributed three pieces of art work to our Black and Blue: Art on Policing, Violence & Resistance exhibition. I share her contributions below: