Michelle Alexander: America’s Prisons & Human RightsJanuary 16, 2012
A few months ago, we had the opportunity to talk to Michelle Alexander at length about the prison system in America. In line with our post “Occupy The Dream: The Mathematics of Racism,” we decided to take a look back at this important conversation.
Could it be that one of the biggest human rights issues in the world is right here at home, in America’s prisons?
Consider these facts: we have an extraordinarily large number of people in prison, many of which are minorities that are in jail for an offense they are no more likely to commit than a white person; that is non-violent; that is the possession of small amounts of marijuana or other drugs. Many are being incarcerated and then stripped of their voting rights, their employment rights, their basic opportunity to be an equivalent citizen to any other American citizen because of, at one point or another, being incarcerated.
Michelle Alexander, associate professor of law at Ohio State University, sees this moment as an opportunity to reform our prison system. “We’ve got to… really build a movement, a grassroots movement, for the kind of reform that will dismantle the system of mass incarceration as a whole,” she says.
Dramatic changes would need to happen, though. “Because we could easily downsize our prison population somewhat and still have a rate of incarceration that is three or four times greater than we had in the 1980s and still far beyond the rate of incarceration of other countries in the world. So we can’t settle for minor reforms, and we have to use this moment as an opportunity to really build public support for a larger scale restructuring of our criminal justice system,” says Michelle.
She continues, “I think the reality is that this entire system rests on a single belief which is that some folks, poor folks and poor folks of color especially, are disposable. They’re just not worthy of our care, compassion and concern. When we challenge that core belief, this whole system will fall like dominoes.”
Michelle Alexander is Associate Professor of Law at Ohio State University, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Visit Michelle’s website at NewJimCrow.com.
DYLAN: Welcome to Episode 59 of Radio Free Dylan. Our guest today, Professor Michelle Alexander, an Associate Professor of Law at Ohio State University; author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. And I want to get straight into this conversation, Professor. We'll weave all the statistics in here, but there is an opportunity for real prison reform debate right now, not because we've been awakened to realize that putting more people in jail than we educate or spending more money on prison than we do education is a bad idea. I don’t know that awakening has actually happened, but we are facing a budget crisis and prisons are expensive.
MICHELLE: That's exactly right. Now that former "get tough 2" believers have found that it is impossible to maintain a massive prison state that's been constructed without raising taxes on middle class folks, particularly the middle class white folks, the so-called wide swing voters. Now that they found that this prison system has become too expensive in a time of economic crisis, there is a call for prison downsizing. But I firmly believe that this moment of opportunity will not result in large scale reform unless there is some kind of grassroots mobilization, a real uprising, given how deeply rooted this prison system has become in our social, political and economic structure.
DYLAN: Now, let's be very clear, it is that passive, largely white, middle class community that is on the hook at this point to bank roll a prison that largely keeps poor black people in jail. Is that fair?
MICHELLE: That's very fair. Absolutely. And for a long while it seemed that voters as well as politicians of every political stripe were willing to go along with it and were willing to fund incarceration rather than education or economic investment in poor communities. But now with this budget crunch, it's become just too expensive. But this is a moment of opportunity. I don’t think it's one that will last that long, but it is an important moment of opportunity. But I think it's important for people to bear in mind that if we were to return to the rates of incarceration that we had in the 1970s before the war on drugs and before the "get tough" movement kicked off, we would have to release four out of five people who are behind bars today, four out of five. A million people employed by the criminal justice system could lose their jobs.
DYLAN: So it would be bad for jobs?
MICHELLE: Well, yeah. And also most new prison construction has occurred in predominantly white rule communities that themselves are quite economically vulnerable. And many of these communities have been sold on prison as an answer to the economic woes and many of those promises did not come through as many had hoped. But nonetheless, many of these communities now view prisons as their economic face.
DYLAN: Yeah. That was definitely the case by the way. I grew up in upstate New York about an hour south of Canada, a town called Saranac Lake. And I can remember a big pro-prison period of time where it was going to create good paying jobs in upstate New York which was economically weak and the sell was, for those who are fearful of having prisoners in the community, is it will largely be non-violent drug offenders --
MICHELLE: Yes, yes. And interestingly enough because --
DYLAN: -- which makes it a minimum security good job. You just got to keep track of the black kids from the city who had pot and everything will be fine.
MICHELLE: Yes, that's right. I mean the overwhelming majority of the increase in imprisonment has been non-violent and drug offenders, overwhelmingly poor folks of color.
DYLAN: But seriously, what percentage is just marijuana possession? Forget everything else. At some ridiculous -- I'm not talking about dealing. I'm not talking about cocaine. I'm not talking about heroin. Simply marijuana possession. Do you have any idea how much that accounts for the explosion in incarceration?
MICHELLE: Oh, it's enormous. I mean I think about 40% of all drug arrests in the United States today are for marijuana possession. And in fact during the 1990s, a period of the greatest escalation of the drug war, nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrest were for marijuana possession. A drug less harmful than alcohol, less addictive than tobacco, and at least, if not more, prevalent in middle class white communities on college campuses as it is in the hood. But the drug war has been waged almost exclusively in the hood. In fact, in some states 80% to 90% of all drug offenders sent to prison have been African-American even though studies have shown for decades that people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites.
DYLAN: And that is the other key point because if you'll say, "Oh, well, there's more black people in prison for drug offenses because drugs are more prevalent in the ghetto.” And as a result --
MICHELLE: That's not true.
DYLAN: And that's also false.
MICHELLE: It's absolutely false. In fact, the studies have shown that consistently. This has been a consistent finding for decades that people of color aren’t any more likely to use or sell illegal drugs. In fact, where significant differences in the data can be found on occasion frequently suggests that white youths are more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than black youths. And that defies our basic stereotypes about who a drug dealer is. But of course, a rural kid in New York or rural kid in Kansas or a kid in the suburbs doesn’t drive to the hood to get his marijuana or his meth or --
DYLAN: I didn’t.
MICHELLE: -- his cocaine. Right. You'd get it most likely from someone of your own race --
MICHELLE: -- down the road.
DYLAN: Yeah. Some white guy up on the hill.
MICHELLE: Right. Right.
DYLAN: Or whatever it is. So what then is the explanation as to why -- let's just connect the dots for a second. So we have the criminalization of possession of marijuana and then other drugs. We then have the uniform application of that possession across all races for white, black, blue, green, but we have a disproportionate --
MICHELLE: Well, the laws are on the face race neutral, but they are enforced in a great discriminate manner.
DYLAN: That's my question. We have a disproportionate percentage of the black or minority youth being incarcerated even though they are no more likely -- all the things that you just said. Why is that?
MICHELLE: Why is it enforced in such a grossly discriminatory manner?
MICHELLE: Well, it's because from the outset the war on drugs had very little to do with actual concern about drug abuse or drug addiction and nearly everything to do with politics particularly racial politics.
DYLAN: How so?
MICHELLE: Numerous historians now and political scientists have documented that the war on drugs was part of a grand political strategy adopted by the Republican Party known as the southern strategy of using racially coded get tough appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor and working class whites, particularly in the south, who are anxious about --
DYLAN: That they are threatened and fearful in some way.
MICHELLE: Yes. Well, they're actually resentful of many of the gains of African-Americans in the civil rights movement in this kind of coded get tough rhetoric promising to get tough on a group of people not so subtly defined as black and brown in the media, and political discourse was enormously successful in persuading those folks to defect from the Democratic New Deal Coalition and join the Republican Party in droves. So when Ronald Reagan declared his drug war in 1982, he was making good on campaign promises to get tough on a group of people.
DYLAN: And who doesn’t love a tough guy.
DYLAN: Good politics.
MICHELLE: Who has been defined by race. Once crack hits the streets -- and I think it's important to emphasize that crack emerged after not before the drug war was declared. And many people in the African-American communities thought it was a little bit too much of a coincidence that crack would show up after rather than before a drug war was declared. But coincidence or not, once crack showed up, it made it possible to define the enemy in the war as black and brown with a mitigating clarity and once the enemy was defined as black and brown that wave of punitiveness took over.
DYLAN: So let's just make an assessment of the objects on the table as they appear to be. We have an extraordinarily large number of people in prison. We have an extraordinarily large percentage of people that are minorities. We have an extraordinarily large percentage of people that are minorities that are in jail for an offense they are no more likely to commit than a white person; that is non-violent; that is the possession of small amounts of marijuana or other drugs.
DYLAN: All of those things are facts. That's not a -- you can argue why these things are. I'm going to layer one more thing in there. We know that the murder rate and the absolute annihilation and destruction in Mexico right now is beyond anybody's comprehension. We know that 60% to 70% of all the drugs that come out of Mexico is marijuana.
DYLAN: So getting to the Gary Johnson and Ron Paul, these guys want to legalize marijuana.
MICHELLE: People are dying over marijuana.
DYLAN: Sorry, go ahead.
MICHELLE: People are literally dying by the tens of thousands over the marijuana trade.
DYLAN: And they are being incarcerated and then stripped of their voting rights, their employment rights, their basic opportunity to be an equivalent citizen to any other American citizen all around this whole revolving thing. We accept that. We may not be able to change that. We may not like that, but let's just accept that as something that exists. At the same time we have this crazy budget debate where they're like, "Oh, we'll just stop feeding the poor people" or "Oh, we'll just stop giving healthcare to the old people," all these idiotic solutions, right?
DYLAN: At the same time, and this is your point, and it's your point when you came on the TV show, it's your point now. We have an opportunity to exploit this budget debate to do something good which is to address the underlying racism and destruction of generations of minorities particularly in our big cities at the hands of all sorts of misguided and/or maliciously intended systems.
MICHELLE: Yes, that's exactly right. And one thing I think it's important for people who care deeply about racial justice and criminal justice reform, one thing I think is important now is for us not to just play the politics of the moment, not just to go along with the kind of reforms that Republicans are willing to make anyway with our without us.
DYLAN: Or either we get two bad choices. The Democrats only look good because Republicans look so bad.
MICHELLE: Exactly. We've got to use this moment of opportunity to really build a movement, a grassroots movement, for the kind of reform that will dismantle the system of mass incarceration as a whole. Because we could easily downsize our prison population somewhat and still have a rate of incarceration that is three or four times greater than we had in the 1980s and still far beyond the rate of incarceration of other countries in the world. So we can't settle for minor reforms, and we have to use this moment as an opportunity to really build public support for a larger scale restructuring of our criminal justice system.
DYLAN: So I suspect certainly anybody who watches my show or listens to this podcast or listens to somebody who listens to somebody who listens to somebody who listens to one of these things in the sort of meta universe in the way information travels, fundamentally agrees largely with what you're saying or what I'm saying or whatever it is to a certain extent. But here's where people run into trouble. They can listen to Professor Alexander and say "yes, yes, yes." They can listen to me, "Ah, yeah, it's great, Dylan. That's fine." It does not give people something to do, and at the end of the day it's so disempowering to get the deep minute detail of just how screwed up something is --
MICHELLE: Without knowing what to do.
DYLAN: -- without being able to feel like you can do something about it. You'd almost rather not know.
MICHELLE: Well, I have to say I hope people will actually read my book all the way to the end, The New Jim Crow, because the last chapter of the book is devoted to what we as citizens and residents, people who care about this country can do to end the system of mass incarceration. And I identify a long list of major reforms that need to take place and that can happen on a local state and national level. Everything from mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, ending three strikes laws, ending drug forfeiture laws which give law enforcement a direct pecuniary interest and the profitability of the drug market itself, and ending all these forms of legal discrimination against people; unemployment, housing, access to education and public benefits once you've been branded a criminal which virtually guarantees that you're going to be locked out of the legal job market and cycle in in/out of the prison system.
And while that list may sound daunting and overwhelming, I think the reality is that this entire system rests on a single belief which is that some folks, poor folks and poor folks of color especially, are disposable. They're just not worthy of our care, compassion and concern. When we challenge that core belief, this whole system will fall like dominoes. Once we begin to really cultivate a sense of care, compassion and concern and build kind of a human rights consciousness that all people no matter who you are, what color you are, how rich or poor you may be, what your background is, you have basic human rights, not to be disposed of and relegated to a permanent second class status because you're once caught with a small amount of drugs.
DYLAN: Is it me, Professor, or are we as a country more keen to protect a bond holder’s rights than we are human rights?
MICHELLE: Oh, absolutely. I mean the highest crime neighborhood in America is Wall Street today.
DYLAN: No, it's true.
MICHELLE: But we don’t see people there being subjected to the kind of intensive scrutiny that kids in the hood get just walking to school. So yes, we've really got to awaken a consciousness I believe among ordinary folks about who really ought to be scrutinized as causing the most harm to our communities, and it's not the kid wearing baggy pants with some marijuana in his pocket.
DYLAN: No, it's not. No, that's a nice distraction from the guy in the pin stripes who just took a few billion out of the back of the entire school system. If you were to look -- and again, I say this from my perspective. I'm 39 years old and sort of in this political discourse right now, and there are so many thing, energy, healthcare, we just talked about the banking system in Wall Street, where clearly there is a quantum leap that is available to us in our energy resource management, in the way we deal with healthcare, in the way we deal with banking and finance.
Am I wrong to look at this as truly a generational responsibility that much the same as I believe we have a generational responsibility to make the quantum shift in energy from below the surface to above the surface sourcing; the same way that we have the generational responsibility to reject the two party politics of one bad decision or another bad decision when there a thousand good decisions that could be made but never get brought up; that this strikes me as something that is in that exact thematic of that sort of mindless fear-based legacy of the generations above us who have used that for power and all the rest of it, sometimes with good intentions, sometimes with good intentions gone bad, and sometimes with bad intentions. But that this now is our generational responsibility.
MICHELLE: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more, and I think many people fail to recognize how generations have already been decimated by the drug war and mass incarceration. A black child born today has less of a chance of being raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. This is due in large part to mass incarceration of black men which takes more of the dating pool, but worse branding them criminals and felons renders them permanently unemployable in a legal job market for the most part.
DYLAN: And a less desirable partner I would imagine in the dating pool still.
MICHELLE: Well, absolutely. This doesn’t affect some small sliver of the African-American community. And some major urban areas like Chicago, for example, more than half of working age African-American men have criminal records and are thus subject to legalize discrimination for the rest of their lives. I mean this system really has decimated entire communities, breaking up families, making jobs and opportunity in the legal job market nothing more than a pipedream and really creating a cycle of hopelessness that was just completely unnecessary and was driven by political opportunism rather than any genuine concern about crime in these communities, drug abuse or drug addiction or any of the other pretext that were offered for the war.
DYLAN: One more statistic for everybody, 753 out of every hundred thousand Americans are currently incarcerated. That's 753 out of every hundred thousand which is three and a half times more than any other industrialized nation, which is just stunning when you think about that.
MICHELLE: Yes. We incarcerate a greater percentage of the African-American community than apartheid did, than South Africa did it the heart of apartheid. No other country in the world incarcerates such a large percentage of its racial and ethnic minorities.
DYLAN: Was it racial and ethnic minorities or is it African-Americans?
MICHELLE: Well, increasingly Latinos have been subject to the war on drugs and many of the target, you know, many of the tactics that were once employed primarily against African-Americans. And in California and in places in the Southwest, Latinos have become a number one target in the drug war, and their rates of incarceration, the drug war have leapt dramatically. And I think much of the animosity that has been generated in the anti-immigration movement that has been directed towards the Latino community has contributed to the kind of get tough approach to poor Mexican-Americans in areas where the politics surrounding immigration are quite hostile.
DYLAN: The TV show, The Wire, I guess his name is David Simon, they did a whole campaign in which basically they come out and said, "If you like our show, if you like what we're doing, if you like who we are, et cetera, et cetera, then I want you as a juror when you are on a jury to refuse to convict for a non-violent drug possession charge." Jury nullification they call it.
MICHELLE: Absolutely. And I think there's a law professor, Paul Butler, who's made that same argument, and he got a lot of flack. He's actually a former prosecutor who had spent his career locking up poor folks of color for minor drug offenses. And then when he himself was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and had to kind of sit in the chair and see police lying on him, and how the system worked, he came to his senses and now argues that you should do everything in your power to get selected for a jury and once on that jury vote to acquit if it's a non-violent drug offense.
DYLAN: Well, I wish you all the best in raising the temperature and the volume on this subject. I will do everything in my power to assist you in that matter. I do think it's important to connect the dots, not just as you have, but to connect them into our neighbor, to the south, that is Mexico an incredible suffering in that country as they grow hundreds of millions of dollars worth of this crop marijuana -- the vast majority of which are sold to Americans, the vast majority which is sold to white Americans because there's a lot of white Americans that are buying pot, and yet it is the black Americans and minority Americans and the Mexicans who are dealing with the vast majority of the violence and the suffering associated with that industry. And it is tragic to behold, and at the same time I put it on the list of things that our generation can fix.
MICHELLE: Yes, absolutely. And much of the violence that's going on in Mexico and in the United States associated with the drug trade of marijuana -- that would end if marijuana was legalized. People think of drugs as causing violence, but in fact it's drug prohibition that causes violence just as the enormous amount of mob and gang related activity surrounding alcohol prohibition evaporated when alcohol was made legal. The tens of thousands of people dying in Mexico over the trade of marijuana could be avoided if we had a more sensible drug policy.
DYLAN: The only place I disagree with you I guess is that alcohol, even though it is legal, does create a lot of violence.
MICHELLE: Oh, it does.
DYLAN: Much more than, for instance, marijuana.
MICHELLE: Oh, yes, but I mean when people think of drug-related violence --
DYLAN: Beating their wives, beating their children when they're drunk, all that.
MICHELLE: Yes, yes, absolutely. But I don’t think we would be better off by prohibiting alcohol and sending people to jail. And when people talk about drug-related violence, I think they typically imagine the violence associated with the drug trade, and that type of violence would certainly end if marijuana was made legal.
DYLAN: Yeah. Listen, thank you for the education. Congratulations on the book, and let's just keep after it.
MICHELLE: Well, thank you. Thank you so much.
DYLAN: All right. Professor Michelle Alexander, Ohio State, the book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and that's going to do it for this episode of Radio Free Dylan.