The Implications of the Prison Industrial Complex on Black America: Part II PDF Print E-mail
Written by Malik Russell   
Monday, 22 September 2008 06:44

Part II: From Plantations to Projects to the Penitentiary

No one will argue that the manipulation of the law and criminal codes with military and policing support was utilized to maintain slavery in the United States. As the nation moved legally from indentured servitude towards race-based slavery, certain accompanying codes were enacted as a policy to maintain the separation of the races and perpetually create a Black underclass whether in the North, South or Free or enslaved.

During the period of Reconstruction where the presence of Northern Troops in the South secured freedoms beforehand denied to Blacks, hundreds of Blacks were elected to state, local, and Congress from former confederate states. The period of Reconstruction was no panacea or utopia, Whites resented the franchise and citizenship being awarded to Blacks and fought pitched battles politically, legally, and militarily against northern troops and newly freed Blacks.

Ironically, with the ending of the Civil War and passage of the 13th Amendment, slavery in the United States was abolished in all areas except regarding prisons.

With the Compromise of 1877 which allowed the North the presidency in return for removal of northern troops from the South, Southern whites utilized the courts, and the legal system to begin to pull back freedoms momentarily enjoyed by Blacks.

The key way in which this was done was through numerous "Constitutional Conventions" held in southern states that rewrote the state constitution to impose laws and penalties that would in effect take away the right to vote from Blacks and return them to second class citizenship. This was not a covert but clear attempt as documented by their records.

In 1898 convention held in Louisiana, Thomas J. Semmes, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee of the Convention and the former president of the American Bar Association (ABA) noted forcefully "We (meet) here to establish the supremacy of the white race, and the white race constitutes the Democratic Party of this State. The Convention of 1898 ‘interpreted its mandate from the ‘people’ to be, to disenfranchise as many Negroes and as few whites as possible."

This same process occurred in many other southern states whereby which "criminal" acts generally attributed to Blacks were targeted to result in disenfranchisement and those "criminal" generally committed by whites would not result in losing the vote.

As Andrew L. Shapiro points out in his Yale Law Journal article Challenging Criminal Disenfranchisement Under the Voting Rights Act: A New Strategy (1993), Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 became the model for other states as the state "replaced an 1869 constitutional provision disenfranchising citizens convicted of ‘any crime’ with a narrower section disenfranchising only those convicted of certain crimes, which blacks were supposedly more likely than whites to commit."

To the Mississippi Supreme Court which reviewed the law change six years later-racially discriminatory purpose was clear. The law removed the vote from those convicted of such "furtive offenses" as burglary, theft, arson, obtaining money under false pretenses, but the "robust crimes of whites," which included robbery and murder or "crimes in which violence was the principal ingredient, were not."

Today similar practices remain, as crimes which the poor and racial minorities tend to commit or have access to, are targeted, penalized and prosecuted more by disenfranchisement and prison sentences of a harsher nature than say white collar crimes.

The result of these constitutional conventions which once again legalized Black Codes was that in states like Mississippi the number of eligible Black voters registered dropped from 70% in 1867 to less than 6% in 1892. In Louisiana Blacks made up over 44% of the electorate after the Civil War, but less than 1% after 1920. The impact continues today as over 5 million individuals, including 2 million Blacks are affected by felon disenfranchisement.

Slavery in itself served as a system of mass control for the enslaved Africans seeking the same freedoms and rights inherent to any individual when born. As slavery demised, the system of control which included policing of the enslaved, the use of the courts to reinforce the right of slaver owners to treat the enslaved as chattel morphed into other forms of control with the use of policing and the criminal justice system as key vehicles for maintaining control.

The ongoing struggle for Black liberation continued throughout the 20th Century as unrest in urban areas and the South resulted in the Civil Rights movement, public disobedience, and armed struggle against troops and national guards in numerous cities including Detroit, Newark, Los Angeles, and too many others to mention.

Up until the period of the civil rights movement, the previous mechanisms of social control had done a good enough job in maintaining social order. Then seemingly without warning, the prison system began exploding in 1970 and over the next thirty years would mushroom into the largest prison state in the world with over 2.5 million incarcerated and over 7 million involved with the system. The total costs for incarcerating one of every 100 adults in the U.S. is almost $50 billion a year for state governments and an additional $5 billion annually for federal prisoners.

Ironically, according to data from Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota and Jeff Manza of Northwestern University "from a 50-year period, from the 1920’s to the early 1970’s, the United States incarceration rates fluctuated within a narrow band of approximately 110 prisoners per 100,000."

Today, the United States incarcerates over 762 individuals per 100,000 the most in the world and well past most European nations who incarcerate an average of 110 per 100,000. This expansion in prisons, policing and incarceration just didn’t happen because people suddenly became more criminal-it is tied directly into attempts to controls the masses of disenfranchised, unemployed, and active Blacks which fueled the emergence of the civil rights and black power movements by removing them from the streets.

As Bruce Western of Harvard University and Princeton’s Christopher Wildeman argue in The Black Family and Mass Incarceration there is a connection between the expansion of incarceration and the civil rights movements. They argue that the Republican campaign of 1964 "linked the problem of street crime to civil rights protest and the growing unease among whites about racial violence."

"What’s more, by treating civil rights protest as a strain of social disorder, veiled connections were drawn between the crime problems on the one hand, and black social protest on the other. The social problem of crime became a reality as rates of murder and other violence escalated in the decade following the 1964 election. Through the 1960s, urban riots in Los Angeles, New York, Newark, Detroit and dozens of other cities provided a socially ambiguous mixture of disorder and politics."

What better way to reduce the likelihood of activism and revolutionary movement in the Black Community than by removing from the community Black males at their most active ages to ensure that any potential social movement lacks the necessary foot-soldiers to recreate Black led mass protests that pushed through social change in this nation in a way more efficiently and faster than any system-based or foundation sponsored initiative.

My assertion is that Prison Industrial Complex remains an extension of the mechanism of the ruling class’s social control and the rise of mass incarceration with its disparate impact on young black men is no coincidence. It serves the purpose that it was created for.

Part III in this series will address the function of the police, the impact of mass incarceration on the black family, and the need to challenge the utilization of incarceration as a means of social control.

From September 26-30th, Critical Resistance will convene CR10, its 10th annual conference in Oakland, California to bring together, advocates, activists, families, scholars, and others to discuss alternatives to incarceration and the ways of dismantling the Prison Industrial Complex.

For more information visit

Last Updated on Saturday, 18 October 2008 09:12