America stands on three pillars: slavery, segregation, and hyperincarceration (incorrectly referred to as “mass incarceration”). These “pillars” implicate and impact mostly Black people, but also all people living in America or dreaming about coming to America. In fact, the U.S. Constitution and its Amendments, as well as major U.S. Supreme Court decisions, revolve around the first two pillars. The third, hyperincarceration, has not yet been addressed by the High Court in a meaningful way.
Whenever anyone attempts to relegate “Black History” to one month, think about the above three pillars. The Black experience, and not just the pain and the agony, is woven through the American tapestry. Indeed, the very soil of America has been fertilized by Black bodies, and watered with Black blood.
In honor of Women’s History Month, I will uplift not only women writers, but also women who are phenomenal, and otherwise. I’ll begin with Angela Davis, with a book recommendation that addresses these three pillars upon which America stands.
Are Prisons Obsolete? is a short, provocative polemic. I used it as a primary text in a course, “The Psychological Impact of Prison on Society and Families,” I taught at York College.
President Calvin Coolidge, during the “Roaring Twenties,” said, in a 1925 speech to newspaper editors, “The business of America is business.” Jessica Mitford, in her 1974 book, Kind & Usual Punishment: The Prison Business, could very well have said, “The business of America is imprisonment.”
For the last twenty years, the U.S. has held the dubious distinction of imprisoning more people than any other nation in the world, and of holding people in prison longer than any other nation in the world. And the stats go on and on. . .
I was first introduced to Angela Davis through George Jackson’s prison letters in Soledad Brother. Jackson was serving an indeterminate sentence of one year to life for a $70 gas station robbery. Ten years later he was dead, shot and killed by guards during an alleged attempted escape from prison.
Angela Davis looks at prisons and asks us are they really necessary? I would add, are prisons necessary at the scale we have built them?
At one time Americans could not imagine a society without slavery. Granted, it took a bloody Civil War that lasted a little more than four years to put an end to that peculiar institution. Sharecropping and segregation immediately replaced slavery, with the stamp of approval of the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1896 decision, Plessy v. Ferguson. It took the High Court 58 years – “the law’s delay” – to revisit and overturn this ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Segregation, of course, did not end with this landmark decision in 1954.
In his inaugural speech as Governor of Alabama, on January 14, 1963, George Corley Wallace said, and it’s worth quoting in full:
Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history. Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say . . . segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever.— Governor George Corley Wallace
Let’s just state, for the sake of argument, that segregation ended under Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Immediately thereafter, in 1968, Richard Nixon ran a successful campaign for president against the Great Society, declaring that it was “lawless.” Here, I’ve argued, is the beginning of the modern War on Crime, and the erection of the third pillar upon which America stands: mass incarceration (read hyperincarceration).
From this point on, peaking in the 1980’s, even in New York under a “liberal” Governor, Mario Cuomo (the Master Prison Builder), prisons become the business of America. But Angela Davis argues, those first two pillars, slavery and segregation, people thought were “forever.” Why not prisons?
There’s a movement to “decarcerate” the nation, and there are also prison abolitionists, who have a harder sell. I read somewhere, from an FBI profiler, that if we wanted to imprison people as punishment, not for punishment, then it wouldn’t be “mass imprisonment,” but there would be a focus on the “truly dangerous.” He reckoned this at less than 10% of the population currently imprisoned. Imagine decarcerating by 90%!
The fundamental problem with the prison business is that it doesn’t address crime causation. It doesn’t even attempt to “prevent” crimes. It is reactionary, which doesn’t enhance public safety, because the “deed” has been done. And imprisonment doesn’t deter those not yet arrested because, for the most part, people who commit crimes do not leave their homes and say, “Today, I’m going to commit a crime and get caught.” But that’s another conversation. The business of locking people up as our first response to crime hasn’t worked. I would like to believe that the architects of prisons and the people who think that “more police, more prisons, and longer prisons sentences” know better, that we cannot solve historical social problems that stem not only from gross inequality, but slavery and segregation. And we certainly should not use prisons as a means of social control of young Black and Brown men. (Read Charles E. Silberman’s Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice on this point.)
If Americans are willing to not simply parrot those self-evident truths about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness from the Declaration of Independence, but to actively promote them, then prisons will become obsolete.