Sunday, January 19, 2020

Prison sentencing: African Americans, other folks and the unfairness of the judicial system

Lady Justice wears a blindfold, the scale of justice in one hand, a sword in the other. The blindfold renders her blind to race and skin color. But the justice system operates on a different plane with all eyes open; with mouths willing and ready to sentence and judge defendants based on the color of their skin. They are denied the right to fair judgement. They are denied the right to fair trials as dictated by a one-sided judicial system in which the scale of justice is perpetually off balance. The same system uses the sword to slice and dice African American lives until nothing is left but more societal rejection, more crime, and a lifetime of imprisonment. dorothy charles banks, 2020


Race and ethnicity of life sentenced individuals





“It is widely established that racial ethnic minorities are more likely to enter the criminal justice system, and that racial ethnic difference became more pronounced at the deeper stages of the system. In 2009 African Americans and Latino comprised over 60% of people in prison, and Black males were incarcerated in state and federal prison at 6.4 times the rate of White and non-Hispanic males.

“Racial disparities are evident among those serving life as well. Nationally almost half (47%) of life sentenced inmates are African Americans, though the Black population of lifers reach was much higher. In states such as Maryland (77.4%); Georgia (72%), and Mississippi (71.5%). In the federal system 62.3% of the life sentenced population is often African Americans. Nonwhites constitute nearly two-thirds of the total pollution serving life sentences”. (Sentencing Project)

Two days after presidential candidate Joe Biden said he would propose terminating the federal death penalty, Donald Trump, president of the U.S., has a different idea about the federal death penalty. After Biden stated his intention, Trump’s Justice Department announced plans to resurrect the death penalty in federal prisons, where a number of inmates were set to be executed in December 2019 and January 2020.

“At the direction of Attorney General William Barr, the federal Bureau of Prisons has scheduled the executions of inmates being held on death row at USP Terre Haute, a high security penitentiary in Indiana”. (U.S. News, July 25, 2019). The crimes committed by these inmates were brutal and sadistic.

In 2016 President Barack Obama became the first president to tour and talk with six inmates at the El Reno Federal Penitentiary in El Reno, Oklahoma. He held a listen and learn roundtable discussion with the inmates, who confessed that they had committed drug offenses, and were willing to do their time. But they also wondered what their lives might have been had society reached out to help them in their younger years, helping them to stay out of trouble. 

He was the first president to oversee a substantial reduction in prison populations in a half century. He issued clemencies for almost 1,000 inmates since his eight years as president. That number is larger than his three predecessors: Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George Bush.

President Obama noted it is not normal for so many young people to end up in the justice system. “What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things. What is normal is young people who make mistakes. And we’ve got to be able to distinguish between dangerous individuals, who need to be incapacitated and incarcerated, versus young people who are in an environment in which they are adapting, but if given different opportunities, a different of life, they could thrive”. (ABC News, 2015)

Through the Department of Justice and executive orders, President Obama pushed past a reluctant Congress to reduce the use of solitary confinement, phasing out private prisons, scaling back federal drug sentences. The White House wrote a list of solutions, “including the use of confinement and lowering or eliminating mandatory minimums for softer crimes”. (ABC News) The President was aware that he would have to use executive orders to accomplish his goals. Unfortunately, the next president can erase all of his efforts, which is exactly what Donald Trump and Republicans are doing.

November 14, 2018 Donald Trump, Obama’s successor, signed House Bill 5682, the First Step Act, created to lead to prison reform. The new law retroactively applies changes Congress made to drug sentencing laws in 2010. First Step Act will allow between 4,000 and 6,000 current prisoners to immediately qualify for supervised release programs.

“Qualifying inmates—mostly people who have committed low-level drug offenses—can earn credits to be released from prison early and serve the remainder of their sentences in home confinement or halfway houses if they participate in the plan’s anti-recidivism programs such as job training, education and faith-based classes”. (Impact 2020, McClatchy News)

NAACP facts on racial disparities in incarceration

A) In 2014 African Americans constituted 2.3% million or 34% of the total 6.8 million correctional population;

B) African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of Whites;

C) The imprisonment of African American women is twice that of White women;

D) Nationwide African American children represent 32% of children who are arrested; 42% of children who are detained, 52% whose cases are judicially waived to criminal court;

E) Though Africa Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32% of the U.S. population they comprised 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015;

F) If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as Whites prisons and jails populations would decline by almost 40%.

Between 1980 and 2015 the number of people incarcerated in America increased from roughly 500,000 to over 2.2 million. Today the U. S. makes up five percent of the world’s population, but has 21% of the world’s prisons.

Below is an editorial written by Julia Coaxum regarding the U.S. prison and jail systems acting like long-term holding cells for African Americans and Hispanics. The editorial is followed by an analysis written by Lonnie Ray Dawes, who appears to be imprisoned. Although these are voices and observations from 42 years ago, both observations still apply to African Americans and Latino men, women and children in 2020.

From America’s Gulag

By Julia L. Coaxum, managing editor
Black Forum Magazine, © 1978-79

The high percentage of non-white prisoners in this country warrants open communication from those who are incarcerated. Youth crime is increasing and Blacks cannot afford to disassociate themselves from involvement in the in the upgrading of the penal system. We are at a point in time when juvenile crime is not punishable by long term state and federal jail sentences. However, with the upward spiraling of juvenile delinquency, it is a serious mistake to believe that the controlling populace will not change this law. The reality of this serious social problem extends itself to the prison, and its responsibility to those who pass through its doors.

The penal system has failed in its responsibility to rehabilitate, and there is an urgent need to “get in touch” with the operations and maintenance of an institution that so freely opens its door to non-whites. Millions of dollars have been spent on prison research, and it seems impossible that these studies have failed to expose the number of returning ex-convicts. If the spirit for life can decrease in an institution originally conceived to rehabilitate, then isn’t it time to question the efficiency of that institution?

Our prison system has come under attack from all sides of the fence, and the question is still unanswered and unchanged. How can an institution rehabilitate when the controlling forces have allowed the same crimes that take place on the streets to take place, on a lower level, within these institutions.

Nothing has changed. The idea of capturing as many “niggas” as possible is still alive. The only thing that’s changed is the name—to include us all.

There are funds by they are used to study rather to implement any idea or program that will bring about a new attitude of self-determination; and unless we become involved on a functional level, support any program to rehabilitate, insist on regularly inspected prison facilities, separate facilities or juveniles . . . we can expect nothing less than a high rate of suicidal incidents from juvenile offenders.

The Ex-Convicts

By Lonnie Ray Dawes
Black Forum 1978

In America today the concept of prison and prisoners are many and varied. Behind the walls and fences you will find the rich, middle class, the poor, the intelligent, the ignorant, the physically well and the handicapped. Also, there are a few that should be in a mental hospital, as they are not only dangerous to themselves but harmful to the general population as well. You would be unable to distinguish a convicted felon from a guard, banker, or the sentencing judge. But convicts have one thing in common: they have committed or were judged to have committed a crime, and justice though right or wrong, must be served.

Who are the men and women that make up these “unwanted communities”? They could very well be the kids next door. Now locked up and tagged criminals, their needs, attitudes and ideas have been forgotten. What about the fear and adjustment to prison life they ow face? Does the punishment really fit the crime? Was there another alternative? These are questions that the public must address itself to—prison life and numbers are not that easy to erase.

Any man or woman now serving time in any of the many prisons across the land could write book, maybe boos, on prison life, stating nothing but facts on things they’ve seen going on behind locked doors. Of course, these facts will be denied, but nobody from the men on the street, the D.A. to the judges, or the administrating officials can tell me that the rapes, forced paying of protection, or guards doing favors for pay do not exist. This brings us to a point. Maybe, just maybe our prisons reflect the type of community or society from which the convict comes. Is it possible that we are a country of hypocrites

Mr. and Mrs. America are the first to complain about the steadily rising crime rate that is sweeping our nation. But what are they, with the most to lose, doing about it? I can tell you in one word, NOTHING! Because for years they have mistakenly relied on a system that, after hundreds of years, has now been proven a failure. How often have you picked up a newspaper, or heard on the radio, or TV that a person, young or old, was robbed or beaten on the street in broad daylight, while people just stood there watching, and most likely thinking to themselves, “Thank God it wasn’t me this time”. 

The average person just does not have the time to involve himself with his fellow man, let alone get  involved in something that might tie him up in court for a few days. Instead, personal  involvement only comes into play when the crime affects us, or our loved ones. Then Mr. and Mrs. America complains louder and longer, demanding stiffer penalties.

According to Webster (dictionary), I am a criminal. I don’t blame society for my being here. I accept the responsibility for my wrong doing. What I do blame society for is what happens to a person after incarceration, and the attitude of the public toward an “ex-con” after his release. You hear about prison reform, but due to the high rate of crime, the public is against reform. There must be something drastically wrong with our penal system if you stop to look at the number of parolees returning to prison.

I am the first to agree that you can’t reach all the inmates, but what about the many who can be helped to lead more productive lives? As the system now stands, there are far too many being left standing by the wayside, and for these men and women the eventual return to a cell is all the future holds in store for them. Today’s laws hold stiffer penalties than ever before, and in some states such as Louisiana, they are served without the benefit of pardon or parole.

What does such a sentence, say of 99 years, hold in the way of hope or incentive for a man? All he can look forward to is the next 50 years behind bars. I don’t say a convicted
felon should be slapped on hand or given a fine. What I do say is let’s take a closer look at the individual before handing out such a sentence. The U.S. government has just spent over a million-and-a-half dollars on a study of our prisons and found that after a man served five years, the imprisonment has taken whatever effect, negative or positive, it is going to take. If prison is the answer, then let’s do something with the man while he is incarcerated.

A good example of what I mean: John Doe is a 17 year old male who comes from a poor family, can’t read or write, and was sentenced to two years for burglary. While in prison he is assigned to a job as yard orderly. So for the months following he does his job, and is a model prisoner. After release, he spends months on the streets, still without any skills, and his education is no better than before. He finds himself back in court, this time to be sentenced to four-and-a-half years for a similar offense.  Once again it’s the same routine. This goes on until he has been in and out of prison three or four times. He’s now 30 years old, yet he is still where he was at the age of 17. 

Agreed, rehabilitation starts with the individual, but some people have to be led in order to take advantage of the limited courses offered within the prison institutions. It is as good as any place to start his education. But today’s prisons are ready to let an inmate slip quietly through his time without doing a thing to help himself as long as he doesn’t cause any problems.

It costs much more in taxes alone to house such a man. This isn’t counting the cost or hardship placed on the victim. Then again, there is always the chance that on the next attempt to rob or steal, someone may be killed. So if the man had been given, or taken the opportunity of learning a skill, he would have been better able to face the free world. It’s looking better, but still the average citizen looks at an ex-convict as a “rock busting, hardcore criminal” who is planning another crime instead of a man who has made a mistake. Most would like nothing better to drop the hard, cold shell they’ve been living in, in order to survive.

Survival can be a big problem to many of the youngsters who enter a prison for the first time. This is slowly being recognized in some states. It is possible that this is the reason why many states are now adopting the new “male-rape” law. In Florida, such a crime carries up to 30 years. Some prisons offer much more protection for first offenders, and the weaker inmates than others. Some concern should be shown for a man who was thrown to the mercy of men who have morals, pity or regard for human life. 

This man’s attitude becomes one of ate and revenge. Should some of this responsibility fall back on the state? After all, he was sent to prison for “rehabilitation” as well as punishment. In any prison “fear” is a mighty weapon. Violence is a part of prison life, and the fights, stabbings, and sometimes, even the murders are over such things as a candy bar or changing the TV station. You will always have conflicts when men are confined in close quarters, but the knifings could be held to a minimum with more and better trained security guards.

Filth is also a demoralizing factor in prisons. It’s bad enough to have to live next to a man who refuses to bathe without mentioning the unusual fact of watching mice run across the floor or roaches crawl around on your bunk. The “bug” problem is getting better with the newer and more modern buildings; however, there are many cases where it still exists.

Prison life would not be complete without the mention of food. It’s not what you would place on your own table. In all honesty, I would have to say that the preparation, and amount you are served is the biggest complaint. Then again, what can you do with “beans and rice”? Some of the fault must be placed on the inmate cooks, but they can’t be blamed when there is only enough food to feed 500 instead of the 700 plus as was intended. They can’t be blamed either for watering down the milk in order to make it go around. Of course the food will vary from state to state. 

Even in a prison with more than one mess hall, the food will change, but men eating good in another part of the prison doesn’t keep me from going to bed hungry! If you feel I’ve leaned toward the side of all inmates, it’s not so! I have only written the facts as they exist from day to day. Once again, this will vary. Some places being better, others worse. The idea is not excuse a man tried and convicted by our judicial system, but to get someone to open his eyes to what and possibly why he crime rate is such as it is.

My father-in-law, who has had a little, it any dealings with criminals or laws--outside of myself—has a tendency to doubt some of the experiences I have related to him. I exchange letters with a young lady in another part of the country. No one seemed to mind that I was in prison or somewhat older. The only objective that came up was the point of a convict having her address. This should prove that the public has the wrong idea about a convict, and that they aren’t informed as to what is happening in our jails and prisons. I don’t have the answers and don’t think anyone else does. The men and women running the Department of Corrections in each state are getting better, and showing much more concern, but due to the lack of money, and bad public opinion, their hands are tied.

Without trial and error and some sacrifice, we may never find the answer or best possible solution. How long must this cry for help go unnoticed? The American people can help bring about the needed changes. How? By getting involved in the groups that visit our jails and prisons (both federal and state), by attending civic meetings on crime; and last, but not least, by any means, getting to know or help a person who has been released.

President Obama observed that mass incarceration makes “our country worse off and we need to do something about it”.



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