by Jayden Wallace
This country could be great, like the president says it could be, but one of the main issues he refuses to resolve is how the prison system works. Incarceration purports to put dangerous people behind bars for the good of the community, but this is not how it works. Modern policing and incarceration grew from slavery. Slave patrols made sure that enslavers had maximum control over the enslaved workers incarcerated on plantations. In Louisiana, enslavers created convict leasing to increase their wealth alongside slavery, and continued the practice after emancipation. Louisiana’s Angola Prison, stupidly nicknamed “the farm,” is basically a massive plantation and a legacy of this system. Then, as now, policing and incarceration target people of color to the benefit of white officers and officials. The continued operation of this system deprives Black people of equal justice under the law and is, in short, simply unacceptable.
One of the major problems with the system is that prison and policing are profitable industries. During 2012, this country spent $80 billion locking up its own citizens, money that could have been spent building communities up rather than tearing them apart. Police officers are paid to arrest the members of uneducated and vulnerable communities. These victims are easy prey because they have less money to fight their charges and frequently hail from groups that have faced significant discrimination.
Often, suspects are held for years without bail while waiting for trial despite little evidence of their conviction. And in fact, poor and indigent defendants fund the criminal justice system. Police, judges, and district attorneys profit from each arrest.
The amount of taxes going to prisons and incarceration has increased over time as well. In fact, Louisiana spends more imprisoning its citizens than it does educating them at its universities. Police are encouraged to buy into and exploit stereotypes of low-income people, disproportionately people of color, because policing these communities pays their salaries. Their work uses existing ideas about Black people — that we’re out there selling drugs and DVDs illegally — to lock people up, adding to the stereotypes. Police dependence on arrests for profit undermines their credibility, making the good officers in the force look just as evil as those they claim to protect us from.
Incarceration contributes to higher death and poverty rates in communities that are already suffering from both. Healthcare access in prisons is notoriously bad, leading to chronic health conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, which shorten prisoners’ lives. Incarceration puts obvious emotional strain on families while making them poorer because prisoners have to pay legal fees and are unable to work. Maybe this is why many prisoners, confined to a cell for years or even the rest of their lives, can’t find the will to continue and attempt suicide. On average, about 4,400 inmates die in prisons and jails per year, many by suicide.
The U.S. has an incarceration addiction. In fact, it imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world. In 2018, Oklahoma beat out Louisiana for the highest incarceration rate in the world with 1,079 imprisoned per 100,000. To put that into perspective: Oklahoma and Louisiana put more people in prison than the worst dictators in the world. North Korea’s highly-oppressive leader Kim Jong Un, for example, incarcerates 600-800 people per 100,000 of its citizens. Louisiana locks up 1,052.
Even though people don’t believe this is true, incarceration does NOT solve the crime issue. Some inmates can be taken to jail for years and continue a life of crime, often because it is difficult to get a job once you have been in jail. And because of the way that stereotyping and profit shapes policing, people in communities of color are already treated like suspects. As the long history of police brutality in Baton Rouge indicates, Black people do not need to be doing anything wrong to become suspects.
The incarceration rate in Louisiana increased substantially between 2006 and 2012, when its prison population reached almost 40,000. If incarceration made us safer, crime would have dropped during that period. Instead, both nationally and here at home, the violent crime and murder rates have remained high. Actually, Louisiana has the worst murder rate in the country, a spot it has held for twenty-eight straight years. Prison hasn’t helped.
Incarceration is, for the most part, an issue for poor people, especially people of color. Even though people want to deny it, segregation is still an issue in this country. Communities of color are the main targets for police to patrol. And remember, they make money by sending people to jail. Police target these communities of color—neighborhoods with high Black, Latino, and Indigenous populations.
Although Black people have come a long way from emancipation and the end of slavery, as well as the civil rights movement, we still have a long way to go if we want to make a change to this country. We cannot be free under a system in which police, lawyers, judges, and the prison industry profit from our unfreedom. We cannot be free living under this legacy of slavery.
Jayden Wallace is a high school student living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He likes playing video games at home and reading about astronomy. He is a student of existence and especially enjoys learning about objects outside of our world.
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