Category: economics

Is mass incarceration history?

Neal Peirce

By Alan Bean

Over at, Neil Peirce has a balanced, informative and succinct report on the growing trend to re-think mass incarceration.  What’s driving this reappraisal of  lock-em-up policies?  Declining tax revenues. 

The states, which fund the bulk of our prisons, were hit by a breathtaking revenue decline of 30 percent in 2009 alone. It’s become ever-tougher for law-and-order politicos to justify ever-expanding prison rolls and costs.

What’s likely to frustrate a serious re-evaluation of prison policy?  Too many people are dependent on the prison boom and its poisonous fruit.

Rural legislators across the country have pressed for prisons as job opportunities for their residents. Will they agree to shutdowns, even in these toughest of economic times for state budgets ever?  It’s hard to believe.

Michelle Alexander doubts that tough times will make much of a dent in the drug war, and I fear she’s right.  We may see a year or two of minor decline in the prison population, but when happy days are here again politicians will start banging the “tough-on-crime” drum. (more…)

Sex and the single black woman: how the mass incarceration of black men hurts black women

The simplest way to help the black family would be to lock up fewer black men for non-violent offences.”

Michelle Alexander recommended this disturbing article in the Economist when she spoke in Dallas last Thursday.

Consider this:

Some 70% of black babies are born out of wedlock. The collapse of the traditional family has made black Americans far poorer and lonelier than they would otherwise have been. The least-educated black women suffer the most. In 2007 only 11% of US-born black women aged 30-44 without a high school diploma had a working spouse, according to the Pew Research Centre. Their college-educated sisters fare better, but are still affected by the sex imbalance. Because most seek husbands of the same race—96% of married black women are married to black men—they are ultimately fishing in the same pool.

Georgia prisoners strike for human rights

By Alan Bean

On December 9, prisoners at six Georgia state prisons launched a coordinated strike.  The silence from the mainstream media has been thundering.

Across America, prison labor remains a vestige of the old convict leasing system that Robert Perkinson describes in great detail in Texas Tough.  Some inmates receive nominal wages–ranging from a dollar a day to a princely forty cents an hour; others, like the striking inmates in Georgia, work for nothing.

When discussing prison labor, it is important to avoid vague generalities.  Every state has its own laws and practices vary widely.  Sloppy references to the “prison industrial complex” can conjure images of multinational corporations earning massive profits from unreimbursed prison labor.  This happens, to be sure, but more prison labor involves chores related to prison life: preparing meals, doing laundry, cleaning floors, landscaping, gardening and, in some prisons, large-scale agriculture.  In most cases, private corporations aren’t involved, but there are plenty of exceptions.

It has been estimated that 80,000 inmates in America work directly for corporate interests, which suggests that only one-in-twenty-eight American inmates fall into this category.  Most inmate labor mitigates the cost of incarceration–one reason why, since the days of convict leasing, it has been so popular. (more…)

When schizophrenia became a black man’s disease

In the late 1960s, schizophrenia became a black man’s disease. 

In late 1963, Malcolm X was asked to comment on the assassination of president John Kennedy.  He called it a case of “America’s chickens coming home to roost.”  Outraged by this comment, the Nation of Islam prohibited their rising star from speaking publicly for 90 days.  When that period expired, Malcolm announced that he was severing ties with the nation.

 In August of 1965, rioting broke out in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts.  Before order was restored, 34 people were dead, 1,032 were injured, and 3,438 had been arrested.

At a civil rights rally in Greenwood, Mississippi on June 17, 1966, Stokely Carmichael the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), introduced the term “black power” into the American lexicon.  

Four months later, Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton organized the Black Panthers in Oakland. 

The mainstream civil rights movement, though seemingly triumphant, hadn’t addressed the economic misery and building anger within the black urban ghetto.  Martin Luther King achieved unparalleled success by adapting his protest language around the perceptions of middle class white moderates.  The Black Power movement got up in the face of white America, demanding radical and immediate change.

How did white folks respond to this challenge?   Not well.  Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 on the strength of a “law and order” message.  Everybody knew what the Republican candidate was talking about.  (more…)

Michelle Alexander: hard times won’t end the drug war

With America wrapped in the coils of a budget crunch, can we afford a drug war?  Shouldn’t the appalling cost of mass incarceration be giving us a terminal case of sticker shock? 

Many pundits are looking for modest cutbacks in prison populations and narcotics task forces in the years ahead.  No need to worry, they suggest, the new Jim Crow will soon collapse under its own weight.  It might be a slow process; but change is inevitable.

Michelle Alexander isn’t convinced.  Her article, “Obama’s drug war,” will appear in the December 27th edition of  The Nation along with several shorter pieces written by notable drug war critics like Bruce Western and Marc Mauer

Most of the articles in this series advance common sense public policy arguments construing the war on drugs as a misguided attempt at crime control.  Most of the writers know it ain’t that simple, but when you’re writing for the Nation you reach for arguments that click with white liberals.

Michelle Alexander comes bearing bad news.  The war on drugs and mass incarceration cannot be scaled back, she says, “in the absence of a large-scale movement—one that seeks to dismantle not only the system of mass incarceration and the drug war apparatus but also the habits of mind that allow us to view poor people of color trapped in ghettos as ‘others,’ unworthy of our collective care and concern.” (more…)

Marriage study leaps to wrong conclusions

By Alan Bean

A new study by the Institute for American values and the The National Marriage Project finds that support for marriage is rising among the most highly educated sectors of America and falling among the less well educated.

There is this:

Percentage of 25–44-year-olds Agreeing That Marriage Has Not Worked Out for Most People They Know, by Education

Percentage of 25-44-year-olds Agreeing That Marriage Has Not Worked Out for Most People They Know, by Education (more…)

Challenging the new Jim Crow, part 2

This is the second excerpt from a speech recently delivered at the Campaign to End the Death Penalty conference on the campus of the University of Chicago.  The introduction can be found here. AGB

The new Jim Crow comes to Tulia, Texas

By Alan Bean

Sheriff Larry P. Stewart

To understand how radically our society has changed it is helpful to trace the life stories of the folks running the new Jim Crow machinery in small southern towns. The stories you are about to hear are taken from cases investigated by Friends of Justice, but they are symptomatic of a national disease.

I started talking about the new Jim Crow in Tulia, Texas when I realized that a drug bust that swept up half the adult black males in town was standard operating procedure.

There is a picture of Larry Stewart in an old copy of the Tulia Herald. It was Cowboy Day at the Tulia High School, circa 1960, and Larry came dressed as an old-time Texas Sheriff, badge and all. But Larry wasn’t supposed to grow up to be a lawman; like most local boys he wanted to farm like his daddy did before him. (more…)

Challenging the New Jim Crow, part 1

By Alan Bean

This post is the introduction to a keynote address I delivered at a Campaign to End the Death Penalty conference held recently on the campus of the University of Chicago.  Subsequent posts can be found here:

Sheriff Larry Stewart (Tulia, Texas)
DA J. Reed Walters (Jena, Louisiana)
 DA Doug Evans (Winona, Mississippi)

Challenging the New Jim Crow  

I come bearing bad news.  Since the early 1980s, the fundamental structure of the American criminal justice system has changed.   It is less and less about preventing and punishing crime, and more and more about managing and controlling the surplus population.  Consider a few statistics:

  • The Texas prison population soared from 39,000 in 1988 to 151,000 in 1998—an increase of 387%.  Between 1980 and 2004, the prison population increased almost six-fold. 
  • Spending on corrections during this period increased by 1600 percent. 
  • Between 1980 and 2000, Texas spent seven times more on its prison system than on higher education.
  • In 1950 there was a 3% chance that an African American male born in Texas would do prison time; by 1996 there was a 29% chance. (more…)

Bob Herbert brings us down to earth

By Alan Bean

Let’s face it folks, William Wordsworth was right:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

How many of us understand what’s going on out there?  Does anyone comprehend the economic crisis raging around us?  Really? 

We listen to the pundits mutual-contradictions and say (if we are honest), “You might be right, but what do I know?  More to the point, what do you know, and how do you know it?”

This being the case, it is refreshing to find an opinion piece that limits itself to the obvious facts about which there can be little controversy.  Consider this:

“People traveling in the real world understand that the federal budget deficits are sky high because of the Bush-era tax cuts, the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the spending that was needed to keep the Great Recession from spiraling into another Great Depression.” 

Bob Herbert could have added the huge welfare program known as mass incarceration to the list, but he’s essentially on target.  How many Americans understand these obvious facts?  Judging by the recent election, not many.  (more…)