Filed Under:  OpEd, Opinion

The business of incarceration

4th June 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Tonyaa Weathersbee
Guest Columnist

If racists were ever looking for a strategy to enslave Black people again, they need only look to Loui­siana.

According to the Times-Picayune, the Bayou State now imprisons more of its people — one in 86 adults — than anywhere else in the world. Among Black men from New Orleans, one in 14 is incarcerated, while one in seven is either in prison or on probation or parole.

This is happening because a long time ago, the state learned that it could make money by sending inmates to privatized prisons. It learned that by giving people who commit minor crimes, like bouncing checks, 10 years instead of 10 months, it could keep those prison beds filled and rural redneck sheriffs, who tend the run the facilities, flush with cash.

It decided there was no money in investing in education and in jobs, or in people’s success, but rather, in their failures.

And the fact that it can get away with this ought to be a screeching wakeup call to Black men who can’t shake the idea of incarceration being an inevitability in their lives — because Louisiana, while certainly the worse, isn’t the only place where lawmakers and other assorted exploiters have figured out that they can build new plantations largely off Black men screwing up.

This has been in the works for some time now.

I saw this taking shape in Folkston, Ga., back in 1998, when town officials held a resplendent, ribbon-cutting ceremony for a private prison that was to be built there. They saw it as an opportunity to create jobs; I saw it as an opportunity for them to capitalize on the troubles of Black people who likely had little to no opportunities in their lives.

I saw it a couple of years ago when Corrections Corporation of America — the nation’s largest for-profit prison chain — lobbied the Arizona legislature to pass a law allowing police to stop Latinos and question them about their citizenship. That was so they could build a private prison to house women and children of illegal immigrants.

I’ve seen it through stock offerings for private prisons, all of which means that Louisiana was bound to happen and other states are bound to follow — and Black incarceration is bound to worsen.

And we still have two enemies to fight.

One enemy is the mentality that has deluded far too many Black men for far too long. It’s the one fed by rappers — who are abetting the racists in filling the pockets of these prison profiteers — that says that doing things that lead to incarceration is about keeping it real and not about making bad choices.

It’s a mentality fed by videos and songs in which violence and prison life is either glorified or shrugged at; where it’s accepted as part of our culture instead of an aberration of it.

The other more formidable enemy is the one we’re seeing in Louisiana; a system where white lawmakers, along with prison lobbyists, have found value in the devaluing of Black men.

What’s happening there isn’t just the New Jim Crow, as Michelle Alexander documents so vividly in her book of that name.

It’s the new slavery.

Except that instead of relying on Black people, and Black males especially, to support its economy by picking cotton and laboring on plantations for free, states of the former Confederacy like Louisiana are relying on enough of them to come to prison to provide jobs largely for rural white people; people who, 400 years ago, would have been their overseers.

This ought to anger all of us. But we can fight this, though.

First, there must be a full-court press against mandatory minimums and other attempts to criminalize minor infractions for the sake of trying to fill a prison or jail.

Then ministers, mentors or counselors to Black males — especially to those who are bent on stealing, or selling drugs, or hurting someone over a slight insult — ought to be telling them about Louisiana.

They need to be told that if they shoot someone over $10, there are people waiting to make $20,000 on them once they get locked up — and more than that when they wind up locked up again when they get out and can’t find a job.

Hopefully, they’ll make the right decision — because incarceration is no longer about being on the inside or the outside. It’s about slavery and freedom.


This article was originally published in the June 4, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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