Two weeks ago, I posted a response to lawmakers and citizens who think that prisoners shouldn’t be given the chance to further their education while they serve time in jail. These people seem to think that prisoners do not deserve such opportunities to rehabilitate themselves at the expense of the taxpayer, using the label “criminals” as if it speaks to an inherent character trait of prisoners and ex-cons. This argument struck a nerve with me because it highlights one of the fundamental problems with America’s system of mass incarceration: It creates a class of people—predominantly nonwhite and working class—who are seen as tainted and inferior by the rest of society. Such discrimination extends to the idea that former prisoners are unworthy of basic equal treatment under the law. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding their incarceration, ex-felons in many states lose basic civil rights forever, such as voting for the government that is supposed to represent them. Even those who serve time for misdemeanors, or who are simply arrested but never jailed, are unable to shake the stigma thanks to public databases accessible to employers and others. Because former prisoners are overwhelmingly low-income minorities, this just feeds back into the cycle of economic and social deprivation that contributes to the prison system in the first place.
In 2012, civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander wrote a book, “The New Jim Crow,” exploring the roots and implications of what she aptly calls, “this new caste system.” In an interview with Democracy Now, she states, “Today we see millions of poor people and folks of color who are trapped, yet again, in a criminal justice system which is treating them like commodities, like people who are easily disposable.” Alexander explains how poor people of color are more frequently targeted for arrests, and often can’t pay the associated fine, leading to more arrests. Even if this kind of treatment doesn’t lead to jail time, legal discrimination based on arrest records can destroy employment opportunities and candidacy for housing assistance. Comparing this system to the oppression caused first by black slavery, and then by racist Jim Crow laws, Alexander says, “People find themselves trapped in a permanent second-class status, and struggling to survive.”
Outsized punishments for drug-related offenses are also a key factor in the cycle that keeps underserved minority communities from being able to move forward. The “war on drugs” has turned out to just be a systematic war on poor communities of color, where people are branded with criminal sentences, and then legally discriminated against for the rest of their lives.
Alexander speaks to the stigma against prisoners in general, and the idea that they invariably, universally “deserve” this punishing fate, regardless of any other factors. “Those who are targeted and who find themselves behind bars are blamed, and said, ‘Well, it’s your fault. You brought all of this on yourself.”‘ This social mindset is coupled with a pervasive belief in the moral high-standing of law enforcement, despite the outrageous amount of corruption being uncovered in police departments.
Clearly, turning our justice system from an ineffective, punitive establishment into a fair, redemptive, useful system is going to take a deep examination of our national psychology. Because right now, whether consciously or not, we delegate humanity as if it’s a privilege, granting less of it to poor people of color, especially those with a criminal record.
P.S. Earlier this month, Virginia followed the example of several other states by making it illegal for state government employers to ask job applicants about their criminal history. It’s not much, but it’s an example of the kinds of things we need to do across the board.