Introduction to Prison Industrial Complex and The New Jim Crow

Posted by

Ch. 1 Notables

“With the protection of federal troops, African Americans began to vote in large numbers and seize control, in some areas, of the local political apparatus. Literacy rates climbed, and educated blacks began to populate legislatures, open schools, and initiate successful businesses. In 1867, at the dawn of the Reconstruction Era, no black man held political office in the South, yet three years later, at least 15 percent of all Southern elected officials were black. This is particularly extraordinary in light of the fact that fifteen years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965—the high water mark of the Civil Rights Movement—fewer than 8 percent of all Southern elected officials were black.”

Cited in Ch. 1 of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow as: James McPherson, “Comparing the Two Reconstructions,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, Feb. 26, 1979, 17.

“Segregation laws were proposed as part of a deliberate effort to drive a wedge between poor whites and African Americans. These discriminatory barriers were designed to encourage lower-class whites to retain a sense of superiority over blacks, making it far less likely that they would sustain interracial political alliances aimed at toppling the white elite. The laws were, in effect, another racial bribe.”

“Race had become, yet again, a powerful wedge, breaking up what had been a solid liberal coalition based on economic interests of the poor and the working and lower-middle classes. In the 1968 election, race eclipsed class as the organizing principle of American politics, and by 1972, attitudes on racial issues rather than socioeconomic status were the primary determinant of voters’ political self-identification.”

The birth of mass incarceration

“The new manufacturing jobs that opened during this time period were generally located in the suburbs. The growing spatial mismatch of jobs had a profound impact on African Americans trapped in ghettos.”

Clinton did not stop there. Determined to prove how “tough” he could be on “them,” Clinton also made it easier for federally-assisted public housing projects to exclude anyone with a criminal history—an extraordinarily harsh step in the midst of a drug war aimed at racial and ethnic minorities.

Chapter 2 Notables

Huge cash grants were made to those law enforcement agencies that were willing to make drug-law enforcement a top priority. The new system of control is traceable, to a significant degree, to a massive bribe offered to state and local law enforcement by the federal government.

It Pays to Play, 72

Drug raids conducted by SWAT teams are not polite encounters. In countless situations in which police could easily have arrested someone or conducted a search without a military-style raid, police blast into people’s homes, typically in the middle of the night, throwing grenades, shouting, and pointing guns and rifl es at anyone inside, often including young children. In recent years, dozens of people have been killed by police in the course of these raids, including elderly grandparents and those who are completely innocent of any crime.

Waging War, 74

Once arrested, one’s chances of ever being truly free of the system of control are slim, often to the vanishing point. Defendants are typically denied meaningful legal representation, pressured by the threat of a lengthy sentence into a plea bargain, and then placed under formal control—in prison or jail, on probation or parole.

Legal Misrepresentation, 83

Even Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has condemned the harsh mandatory minimum sentences imposed on drug offenders. He told attorneys gathered for the American Bar Association’s 2003 annual conference: “Our [prison] resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too loaded.” He then added, “I can accept neither the necessity nor the wisdom of federal mandatory minimum sentences. In all too many cases, mandatory minimum sentences are unjust.”

Time Served, 92

Chapter 3 Notables

Viewed as a whole, the relevant research by cognitive and social psychologists to date suggests that racial bias in the drug war was inevitable, once a public consensus was constructed by political and media elites that drug crime is black and brown. Once blackness and crime, especially drug crime, became conflated in the public consciousness, the “criminalblackman,” as termed by legal scholar Kathryn Russell, would inevitably become the primary target of law enforcement. Some discrimination would be conscious and deliberate, as many honestly and consciously would believe that black men deserve extra scrutiny and harsher treatment. Much racial bias, though, would operate unconsciously and automatically—even among law enforcement officials genuinely committed to equal treatment under the law.

Picking and Choosing

There is good reason to believe that, despite appearances, the McCleskey decision was not really about the death penalty at all; rather, the Court’s opinion was driven by a desire to immunize the entire criminal justice system from claims of racial bias. The best evidence in support of this view can be found at the end of the majority opinion where the Court states that discretion plays a neccessary role in the implementation of the criminal justice system, and that discrimination is an inevitable by-product of discretion. Racial discrimination, the Court seemed to suggest, was something that simply must be tolerated in the criminal justice system, provided no one admits to racial bias.

Closing the Courthouse Doors — McCleskey v. Kemp

Immunizing prosecutors from claims of racial bias and failing to impose any meaningful check on the exercise of their discretion in charging, plea bargaining, transferring cases, and sentencing has created an environment in which conscious and unconscious biases are allowed to flourish. Numerous studies have shown that prosecutors interpret and respond to identical criminal activity differently based on the race of the offender. One widely cited study was conducted by the San Jose Mercury News. The study reviewed 700,000 criminal cases that were matched by crime and criminal history of the defendant. The analysis revealed that similarly situated whites were far more successful than African Americans and Latinos in the plea bargaining process; in fact, “at virtually every stage of pretrial negotiation, whites are more successful than nonwhites.”

Charging Ahead — Armstrong v. United States

The facts were as follows: Seattle residents were far more likely to report suspected narcotics activities in residences—not outdoors—but police devoted their resources to open-air drug markets and to the one precinct that was least likely to be identified as the site of suspected drug activity in citizen complaints. In fact, although hundreds of outdoor drug transactions were recorded in predominantly white areas of Seattle, police concentrated their drug enforcement efforts in one downtown drug market where the frequency of drug transactions was much lower. In racially mixed open-air drug markets, black dealers were far more likely to be arrested than whites, even though white dealers were present and visible. And the department focused overwhelmingly on crack—the one drug in Seattle more likely to be sold by African Americans—despite the fact that local hospital records indicated that overdose deaths involving heroin were more numerous than all overdose deaths for crack and powder cocaine combined. Local police acknowledged that no significant level of violence was associated with crack in Seattle and that other drugs were causing more hospitalizations, but steadfastly maintained that their deployment decisions were nondiscriminatory.

Unconvential Wisdom

Questions & Notes:

What was unbelievable to you?

  • Epiphanic moment – the series in chapter 3 starting with McClesky v Kemp. The decision that there has to be clear intent to discriminate to justify any conviction based on discrimination. Fits very closely with the theme of the era of colorblindedness.
  • Reconstruction Era success & applying it to how much of the enlightenment happening currently is going to recede after a few years.
  • “Evolution is nonlinear”
  • “Approximately half a million people are in jail for a minor or drug-offense today,” increased by 1000% from 1980
  • Kindergarten teacher in poor public schools; children making offhanded remarks consistently about domestic violence or parental imprisonment. It’s disturbing how people can be desensitized to things that are disturbing and actively involved in environments.
  • It’s also immensely surprising how 50 years ago the U.S. was NOT a carceral state. It’s a trip to realize that the police state is incredibly recent for U.S. politics.
  • Surprised at how recent all of this development of justice and prison systems.

Why is there an internalized racism against Black people even among Black people?

  • “The size of the disbursements was linked to the number of city or county drug arrests. Each arrest, in theory, would net a given city or county about $153 in state and federal funding. Non-drug-related policing brought no federal dollars, even for violent crime. As a result, when Jackson County, Wisconsin, quadrupled its drug arrests between 1999 and 2000, the county’s federal subsidy quadrupled too.”
  • Clinton – the first black president – but also actively followed through with the war on drugs (war on Black communities)
  • Whitewashing in minorities – How do you get accepted by a culture, and how do you gain social capital / climb the social ladder? Often through internalized bias against Black people.
  • A lot of these difficulties can be thought of as survival mechanisms and not just internalized prejudices.
  • The idea of Afropessimism / pragmatism
  • The divide between poor White americans & Black americans is often spoken about in the People’s History
  • Recently read about the Tulsa massacre. Vibrant community that accumulated wealth but was almost totally Black. In theory, a great opportunity – a fountain of opportunity and wealth for Black people. White people were so Fed up they destroyed it. – Is a Black city actually a good thing?
  • There are cities with majority black populations, but distribution of wealth is never there.
  • Is there a value in homogenizing that authentically retains culture?


Introduction to the group

  • There should be direct ties to both social groups, and personal lives. How does an issue affect a personal life? And how could it if circumstances were different?
  • Could be useful to have both short and long-term actionable goals. For example, Bike brigade directing cars for Seattle protests.
  • A lot of short-term actionables have the biggest impact through creating connections and sharing ideas + information. Bike Brigade also shares opportunities for involvement and action.
  • At some point would be nice to go over what is ‘shocking’ / surprising / alarming in the book?