The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow was hugely popular when it came out a couple of years ago. It took me a while to get to it, as I knew it was going to be depressing, but I finally read it. It wasn’t exactly eye-opening for me–I knew a fair amount of this information already–but from the buzz around the book, it seems like a lot of people weren’t aware. Today I’ve teamed up with my husband to ask him about his thoughts on some of the things I found interesting from The New Jim Crow. Although he hasn’t read the book, he spent a year working as a correctional officer, and his insights on life in prison are helpful in light of the contents of this book. I’ve chosen a few of my favorite quotes and takeaways from the book, and he has responded to several of them. (My own notes are in italics.)
Prisons “create crime rather than prevent it” — What a lot of people don’t realize is that prison has this tendency to teach people to do what they can get away with in order to make their lives even a little easier, largely because the system isn’t designed to be worked within. For instance, the facility that I worked at had housing units with one central HVAC system that had a thermostat that only the maintenance personnel had access to (even I, as the unit officer, couldn’t access it to make it more comfortable for myself). Often the inmates who were really cold at night would block their vents with cardboard to make it warmer, even if it was against policy. During morning inspection, on a regular basis, I would hear inmates get caught with blocked vents, and they were told that they would get written up. Many of the non security personnel or lower ranked command staff would say something along the lines of, “Do what you need to do to be comfortable at night, but make sure it’s down by inspection so I don’t have to write you up.” That attitude doesn’t exactly teach or reward people for working within the system, rather the opposite, and it was just one of many things that I saw day to day that showed how counterintuitive the American idea of rehabilitation is.
“Many offenders are tracked for prison at early ages, labeled as criminals in their teen years, and then shuttled from their decrepit, underfunded inner city schools to brand-new, high-tech prisons.”  —  I began working as a correctional officer right after graduating college, around the age of 23. A surprising amount of inmates in my general population unit were my age or younger, and they often told me about how they were shuffled from extended families to juvenile detention to the foster care system, until they found themselves in prison. It always showed itself as a socioeconomic thing. I rarely heard a story of how someone had an upbringing of affluence and advantage and ended up in prison. (The New Jim Crow states that, ironically, the poor and black citizens of our country “find it increasingly difficult to obtain education, especially now that funding for public education has been hard hit, due to exploding prison budgets.” If you want to learn more about how socioeconomic status, race, and school zoning are interconnected in ways that make it hard or impossible for students of color to get ahead, you must read The Shame of the Nation, which covers this topic in depth.)
Charges associated with parole, probation, etc. can’t be paid by felons who can’t get a job, so they often end up back in prison, where almost all their wages go toward room and board in the prison.  —  As a housing unit officer, I was directly in charge of two housing units that held 54 inmates apiece, so I was in direct contact with 108 convicted felons on a daily basis. I would estimate that at least half of those inmates were up for parole or release within five years. The lucky ones would talk about living with a cousin or their parents for a while. One guy talked about how a family member had a used car lot in Knoxville, so he’d give selling cars a try instead of cocaine. A lot of them simply talked about how their family was either dead or wanted nothing to do with them, and most their friends were either dead or in prison as well. These people usually said they were trying to get into a halfway house that might let them stay for a couple months, but had nothing in the way of job prospects or contacts. Our facility didn’t have much in the way of job training. They closed down the HVAC school while I was there, the culinary program was really small and usually only populated by inmates on good behavior (i.e. those who were often down for long sentences), and the GED program was usually run by people who couldn’t cut it teaching in a real school (like so many non-security positions in our facility). For inmates without a support system after getting out, all I saw was desperation and apprehension. I’m not surprised at all that the recidivism rate is so high in America.
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The main thing I took away from this book is how flawed our entire justice system is. From the policies our representatives make (so many policies, like the five year time limit on TANF, requiring an ID for voting, etc. seem legitimate until you look at how they affect the disenfranchised) to the police who enforce them (did you know that police can confiscate property whether or not you are eventually charged with a crime?) and the judges who sentence them (it’s amazing how much lawyers and the Supreme Court rely on upholding former cases and laws, even if they are clearly flawed), every step on the path to prison is filled with issues that need to be solved.

And these issues disproportionately affect black people, which is, of course, why the author calls mass incarceration “the new Jim Crow.” If you need stats, these are the ones that I found most shocking:

  • “In less than thirty years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase.”
  • The United States currently imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.
  • “The mass incarceration of people of color is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.”

If mass incarceration and racial disparity in our judicial system are topics that you want to know more about, this book will inform you and outrage you. Definitely recommended.

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