Bruce Dixon’s “Jena: Baby Steps Towards a New Mass Movement” in the Black Agenda Report is highly recommended reading for civil rights strategists and “serious policy wonks” (according to Friends for Justice). Dixon writes:
… the Jena case and the mobilization around it clearly shows that the next Black mass movement, when it gets underway, will focus on the policies of racially selective policing, racially selective prosecution, and racially selective mass imprisonment of African Americans…
Dixon refers to the works of sociologist Loïc Wacquant to show the growing trend in penal incarceration, going back to 1975 when the incarcerated population in the United States stood at 380,000 inmates; and how, since then, it has quadrupled to over two million, with a disproportionate number being black.
There are many reasons for the dramatic spike. Some say the population growth coincides with a national movement to “get tough” on crime, which led to harsher penalties for minor drug offenses. TRUE.
But Dixon goes deeper, tracing the “carceral state” back to its beginning and the evolution of those “peculiar institutions” that were erected as a means of defining, confining, and controlling African-Americans.
First, there was the institution of chattel slavery, under which blacks had no rights that white people were required to respect- not even the right to life. The movement of the time was the Abolitionist Movement, which first had to establish the fact that people of African descent were, in fact, human, as defined by the Constitution. Once the foundation was established, the movement proceeded on the grounds of humanitarianism, which was a rising ideology of the day.
The movement sputtered after the Civil War, not because abolitionists had achieved their objective of freeing the slave, but because of the unrealistic expectation that blacks would settle elsewhere (Liberia and Sierra Leone). Instead, African-Americans were enfranchised with voting rights and rights to own property.
Second, a new system of laws was established to control the movement and freedom of blacks. Originally known as “black codes”, these laws were codified into what became know as Jim Crow laws. What made this institution so “peculiar” was the fact that the laws needed not be written, but were understood and adhered to by tradition. In essence, Jim Crow laws were made up along the way. Such laws included “reckless eyeballing” (a black man looking lustfully at a white woman) and “insolent stares” (looking a white man in the eye with uppity arrogance). All of these laws were subjectively interpreted to suit the mores of the white dominant population.
Between slavery and Jim Crowism, there was security laws designed specifically to placate white fears. Such laws forbade blacks from congregation in large numbers except in church. Political organizing was illegal. Therefore, organizing of any sort was done primarily in the black church, which became the principal alternative institutions for blacks. White persecution against the black church was usually disguised by alleged rumors of slave revolts and conspiracies to riot. Under these false pretexts, many African-American freedmen were summarily prosecuted, convicted, and lynched- most notably the case of freedman and black businessman Denmark Vesey who, along with most of the free and literate black population of Charleston, South Carolina, were tried, convicted, and hanged as a results of unfounded rumors of a slave revolt.
The third “peculiar” institution, asserted by Dixon, is the ghetto urbanization of blacks after the mass migration of plantation-bound sharecroppers during the post-World War I ear. Segregated housing pattern led to the concentration of pockets of poverty in inner-city urban communities and a Gestapo reign over blacks similar to the Nazi’s policy for containing the Jewish population in Europe.
Finally, Dixon comes full circle in connecting the dots to the “carceral state”, the mass removal of black inner-city youth through the criminal justice system and a mangling of the rule of law. This institution began to rise in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, when black leaders such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Elijah Muhammad began to threaten the fabric of white rule and government war policies.
A key component in the rise of the carceral state was the design and use of repressive techniques, including spying, sabotaging, assassinations, and mind control experimentation. The movement toward full enfranchisement of African-Americans was perceived as a threat to social order, and hence viewed by government officials as a terrorist movement.
The media of the day collaborated in exacerbating white fears during the Civil Rights Movement, in the same manner that Senator Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover created the Great Red Scare, which led to the wholesale annihilation of civil liberties and rights under the Constitution.
What is missing in the dissertation of Loïc Wacquant and, subsequently, Dixon’s Black Agenda Report, is the financial incentive behind mass incarceration. Society still labors under the illusion the American penology is guided by the Three-R Principal: Restraint, Rehabilitation, and Restitution. Thus, the purpose of incarceration is thought to be summed up this way: Remove the lawbreaker from society; incarcerate him or her, and exact enough punishment from the wrongdoer to pay for his or her crime.
Previous debates in penology centered on the dilemma between punishment and rehabilitation, but nowhere is the mention of the billions of dollars spent through the Prison-Industrial Complex. When President Dwight D. Einsenhower first made mention the dangers of the Military-Industrial Complex, he exposed the threat of the Industrial Complex guiding US policies in foreign affairs, leading to war. Likewise, today, the Industrial Complex has a guiding hand behind the rate and level of incarceration throughout the United States.
As proof, the Texas Prison System recently terminated the contract of the GEO Group, which advertises itself as a world leader in the delivery of correctional, detention, and residential treatment services to federal, state, and local government agencies around the globe. GEO offers a turnkey approach that includes design, construction, financing, and operations. GEO represents government clients in the United States, Australia, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. This private corporation (NYSE:GEO), not only operates prison facilities around the world, part of its business comes from designing and constructing prison facilities.
In a recent press release after GEO’s contract at the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center facility in Texas was terminated, the company published this information to its shareholders:
…regarding future events and future performance of GEO that involve risks and uncertainties that could materially affect actual results, including statements regarding estimated earnings, revenues and costs and our ability to maintain growth and strengthen contract relationships... Factors that could cause actual results to vary from current expectations… include, but are not limited to: (1) GEO’s ability to successfully pursue further growth and continue to enhance shareholder value; (2) GEO’s ability to access the capital markets in the future on satisfactory terms or at all; (3) risks associated with GEO’s ability to control operating costs associated with contract start-ups; (4) GEO’s ability to timely open facilities as planned, profitably manage such facilities and successfully integrate such facilities into GEO’s operations without substantial costs; (5) GEO’s ability to win management contracts for which it has submitted proposals and to retain existing management contracts; (6) GEO’s ability to obtain future financing on acceptable terms; (7) GEO’s ability to sustain company-wide occupancy rates at its facilities; and (8) other factors contained in GEO’s Securities and Exchange Commission filings, including the forms 10-K, 10-Q and 8-K reports.
GEO has favorable access to capital markets as long as the prison population keeps growing. It can control operating cost by under-paying its prison staff and maintaining a high prisoner-to-guard ratio- which can only be done through brutal suppression. The “ability to timely open facilities” depends on the certainty of more incarceration. But more importantly is “GEO’s ability to sustain company-wide occupancy rates at its facilities”.
Instead of moving toward de-populating prison facilities, here is a company with a vested interest in keep prison populations growing. Its stockholders have a vested interest in keeping the revolving doors on incarceration swinging. If there is a solution to the crime problem, it is not in the best interest of this company.
In a recent position paper date August 9, 2007, entitled “Public School – Criminal Justice Railroad & The Prison – Industrial Complex”, I noted:
A small Texas prison town becomes the center of a world-wide scandal when an investigation revealed that prison officials were sexually abusing children in the custody of their care. The corruption and abuse of powers and sexual enslavement was so widespread Governor Rick Perry had to literally Fire Everybody, from the top of the Texas Youth Commission’s board of directors, executive officers, and much of the rank and file, down the line.
The Legislators also mandate the release of 473 youthful inmates who had been held beyond their punishment sentence- some as sex slaves for a warden and his deputy.
When the Texas Legislature passed the TYC reform package, it called for mass releases from incarceration and closing down some of the juvenile facilities.
The small Texas prison town cried to their legislators about the number of jobs that would be lost. Local merchants would lose the inflow of commercial traffic from urban visitors. The local economy would lose its pro rata share of tax dollars based on population census. Plain and simply, the local citizens in the small prison town needed the prison in order for it to survive. But in order to keep the prison, they need “offenders” to populate them. [Some parts of rural Texas need prisoners like plantations need slaves.]
Architects, engineers, and constructors who design and build prisons oppose any leniency for juvenile offenders. Their desire seems to be in keeping the prison population growing, and to keep building more lucrative prisons.
The district attorneys and their association even challenged some of the 473 inmates to be released. And, some tries to create mass hysteria by prophesying an increase in crime. At issue is Self-Justification.
This is the overwhelming lesson of the Jena 6, Shaquanda Cotton, Genarlow Wilson, and other black youth who find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system. The exaggerated charges are no accident, and district attorneys use all their discretion and power to put black children away for as long as they can. Although these children have not yet reached the age of consent, there are prison planners, constructors, and a waiting rural white labor pool waiting for their mishap with the law. They depend on it. They expect it.