Black Prison Population Approaches One Million

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By JOSEPH RYAN

A recent analysis of Justice Department statistics has confirmed what most African Americans have known to be true for years:

The U.S. criminal justice system, the courts, and the police have had a long-standing policy of arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning Blacks-especially young Black men-at a rate out of all proportion to their percentage of the general population.

A March 8, 1999, syndicated Boston Globe article by Louise D. Palmer reported on a study by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives that stated that by the year 2000, over one million Black American adults will be in prison for the first time ever.

As we enter the next millennium, the article states, one in 10 African Americans will be behind bars, an eight-fold increase from three decades ago, when there were 133,226 Black Americans in prison.

Since the 1950s, the study reported, the ratio of Black prisoners to white prisoners has been completely reversed.

In 1950, whites represented 65 percent of the prison population, while Blacks represented 35 percent. Today, the opposite is true, with whites composing 35 percent of those imprisoned and Blacks, who are just over 13 percent of the general population, accounting for nearly 65 percent of those in prison.

A study of the changing racial composition of prisoners over the last 70 years reveals a deliberate government policy of focusing the repressive apparatus of local, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies specifically against the Black community.

In 1926, for example, Black Americans comprised barely 21 percent of the prison population. But in each subsequent decade, with almost clock-work precision, the percentage has increased by an average of five percent.

By far, however, the largest jump in the African American prison population occurred over the last decade. According to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based prison reform organization, between 1986 and 1991 the number of incarcerated Black Americans jumped 465 percent!

Indeed, when it comes to arresting and imprisoning working-class Americans, the police and courts have implemented an aggressive “affirmative action” program for Blacks!

Today, the number of incarcerated Americans is 1.8 million-the highest in history and second only to Russia in terms of ratio to the general population. The major factor responsible for this dramatic increase in those who have lost their freedom is the number of arrests and convictions for drug possession, a victimless crime.

But from the beginning, the “War on Drugs” campaign initiated in the early 1980s was a war against the Black community.

Both in terms of numbers of arrests and length of sentences, African Americans receive “special” treatment. For example, the mandatory sentences for crack cocaine offenses are roughly 100 times more severe than sentences for powdered cocaine offenses. And more Blacks than whites have been convicted of crack cocaine offenses, although the majority of cocaine users are white.

In general, no matter what the offense, Blacks usually serve six more months in prison than whites for the same conviction.

One example of the priority that the police, prosecutors, and courts give to zealously enforcing drug laws in the Black community was the dramatic increase in the arrests of Black youths in the Baltimore area.

In 1980, a total of 86 Black juveniles were arrested for drug sales in Baltimore. By 1990, with the “drug war” in full swing, 1304 Black youth were being arrested on that charge annually.

At the same time, the arrests of white youth declined as police arrested Black juveniles at 100 times the rate of their white counterparts.

Moreover, Black Americans are not only losing their physical freedom in record numbers. According to the Sentencing Project, record numbers of Black men have lost their voting rights. A whole generation of Black Americans are being disenfranchised because “convicted felons” lose their voting rights for life.

In some states, the Sentencing Project says, 30 to 40 percent of the next generation of Black men will be ineligible to vote, thereby effectively weakening the ability of the Black community to advance its interests at the polls. Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP bureau in Washington, D.C., states in the Boston Globe article that this massive loss of voting power calls into question the whole notion of democracy in America.

For Black Americans, however, the whole “notion” of democracy has always been and always will be in question as long as capitalism exists in America. For revolutionary Marxists, institutions like the police and courts are no more than the armed, legal enforcers for the ruling rich, the only class that enjoys true democracy-at the expense of the democratic rights of Black Americans and, ultimately all working people.

Furthermore, as the prison statistics indicate-and unfortunately, this is not pointed out by any prison reform organizations-the dramatic increase in the Black prison population and the prison population in general is the result of a campaign of repression against working people that was carried out without skipping a beat through both Democratic Party and Republican Party administrations.

Malcolm X once said that the only way to defeat a force with power was to organize a force that has more power.

The only way to defeat the power of the government, the police, and the courts to victimize the most vulnerable sections of the working class-Blacks and Hispanics-is for the victims to turn the tables on the victimizer through independent political action, self-organization, and massive protests.

The only master that the police, courts, and Democratic and Republican Party politicians “Protect and Serve” is the capitalist class.

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