Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of reading an essay written by one of my heroes, Frederick Douglas. The essay was titled “The Convict Lease System” and was perhaps the most rewarding piece of literature I have come across since “All things censored” by Mumia Abu Jamal, or my favorite book, “Soledad Brother” written by revolutionary Black Panther George Jackson. All three of these works focus on the prison system within the United States of America and harshly critique not just our prison system, but more largely, our justice system as a whole. Perhaps most enlightening about Douglas’s work, was that it gave me a historical context I had so desperately been looking for.
In it, Douglas breaks down the red-headed step-child of American reconstruction, the Convict Lease System. This system, as Douglas describes was a bi-product of the end of slavery, essentially created to provide a justification for prisoners to be leased by several states to private industries for cheap labor. Their argument? The states did not have enough capital to afford keeping inmates within the confines of prison facilities. So they were outsourced to do work for railway contractors, mining companies, and large plantations in need of cheap hands for farming. Sound familiar? If it does, I am proud of you. It is happening today, across the country.
In fact, it may not sound all too familiar to many of you. If you are unaware of what is going on within America’s prison system, I do not blame you. Until my own cousin was incarcerated back in 2009, I knew very little about the workings of our prison industrial complex. In fact, even as a young black man (a group in which 1 in every 3 is predicted to head to prison in their lifetime) I remained ignorant to one of the greatest threats to my community’s functionality. Yet the more I reflected on my upbringing, the more things started to click. With the help of the aforementioned texts, I have developed a context for the mass-absence of fathers in my friend’s lives as a kid. I realize, perhaps political disenfranchisement is correlative to political apathy. The hatred I once felt for myself, for my own people and the criminality I stigmatized African-Americans with, was perhaps indicative of a systemically perpetuated ideology.
“But Kad, black people do commit crimes more than all other groups. It is a fact,” I would often hear from my friends, in the years following my disillusionment. No, it is not a fact. Black people are convicted of crimes at a higher rate than any other ethnic group in America. Committing a crime and being convicted of one, in our justice system, are most certainly not the same. If you think so, ask yourself how many of the criminals who were directly responsible for the entire countries economic collapse in 2008, are behind bars? How many wall-street elites who constantly break SEC laws are openly regarded as “good for nothing thugs” and “criminal-scum”?
But let me be clear, the increased reliance on a for-profit prison system is not exclusively a “black problem.” Oh no, while African Americans have felt the majority of the brute impact of this injustice thus far, if our increase in for-profit prisons continues at the trajectory it has over the last 20 years, we can expect prisons to recruit a new inmate population, across racial lines and moreso on the basis of class. It already has begun. Look at the effect of the war on drugs in Middle America, where methamphetamines have grown rampant in lower-class white communities, incarceration rates have increased significantly as well. I predict this trajectory will continue and those future inmates will be characterized as the apart of the infamous “47%”.
So what are we to do? That is the million-dollar question. That is the question that countless inmates who have been inappropriately sentenced, wrongly persecuted, and grossly abused within prisons are waiting for us to ask. We can continue to think of it as somebody else’s problem, until it is your cousin or your uncle sitting behind bars for a crime they did not commit or sentenced absurdly inappropriately to fortify the necessary numbers for prisons which require expansion as a part of their existence. Once you have had the privilege to learn of this injustice, you subsequently have the responsibility to act. In whatever way you deem feasible, I think it is fair to say in this situation, most actions will be better than inaction.
Kad Smith is a senior politics major.