Glen Ford, Black Agenda Report
The truth about race in America is most clearly evident, not in the unexpected election of a non-white man to the U.S. presidency – a singular and temporary phenomenon – but in the steady march of statistics from the criminal justice system. A new report from the Sentencing Project shows that two-thirds of the prisoners serving life sentences are Black or Latino. More Americans are under life sentence than ever before – more than 140,000, compared to only 34,000 25 years ago.
The racist nature of the system is seen in the ever-increasing proportion of non-whites condemned to spend the rest of their years behind bars. In New York State, whites make up only 16 percent of inmates serving life terms, although whites are 60 percent of the population. Such gross racial disparities obtain everywhere in the United States. The inexorable growth in life sentences guarantees that the grotesquely distorted racial outcomes of the U.S. criminal justice system will continue to grow deep into the future, as today’s young inmates become tomorrow’s sick, caged old men and women.
Nationally, one out of every ten prisoners is a lifer; in California, one out of five. In Alabama, Massachusetts, Nevada and New York, at least one out of every six inmates is doing life. Seven states and the federal prison system have done away with parole, altogether. That means, in Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania and South Dakota, the actuarial tables of life and death ensure the prisons will be filled by an ever more geriatric – and ever Blacker and browner – cohort of captive men and women, grandmothers and grandfathers. Already, more than 20 percent of prison inmates are over 50 years old.
The states have a constitutional obligation to care for the health needs of this aging population – but of course, they do not live up to this obligation. California’s prison health care apparatus is so inadequate, it’s been ruled unconstitutional, but the state is crying broke. Prisoners over 50 cost California between $98,000 and $138,000 a year, but despite its poverty, the state remains determined to throw as many Black and brown people in prison for life as possible.
The sheer irrationality of U.S. prison policies points to race hysteria as the engine of incarceration. How else could we have arrived at a situation in which one out of every three Black males is under some form of criminal justice custody. These numbers reflect much more than bad laws; they reveal white society’s general intentions for Black people: to remove as many as possible from circulation, by any means necessary, with no possibility of return. When compared to the enormity of America’s prison Gulag, housing a million Black inmates, the presence of one Black male in the White House amounts to a mere diversion, especially when that Black president offers virtually no hope to ameliorate the conditions for, or lessen the numbers of, the one million locked inside.
America’s draconian prison policies are motivated by race, not rational concerns about safety. Otherwise, the penitentiaries would not be rapidly filling up with old Black and brown men – and an increasing number of older women – who are less and less dangerous, but more and more costly, by the year.