by Bernice McCann
Have you ever heard a young child say, “Gee, I want to be a prisoner when I grow up”?
I didn’t think so. But for far too many people in the United States today, especially people of color, that is the fate that likely awaits them unless we as a society are willing to act.
Mass incarceration in the United States has reached catastrophic proportions, and it is drawn along shockingly racialized lines. Prisons and jails are overflowing with black Americans — who comprise about 40 percent of inmates, although blacks only comprise 14 percent of the total U.S. population. African Americans go prison for drug offenses 10 times more than whites, even though five times as many whites use illegal drugs. All told, the United States imprisons more of its people than any other country in the world.
This is a crime against humanity. Its cause lies in a conflagration of systems which have been designed through history to favor white and wealthy Americans that goes back to before the founding of the country. Today this continues through negative, inaccurate, rampant distortion of the news and the media, perpetuating the myths that money equals power, that clothes are the measure of a person, that fine dining defines a rich and meaningful conversation, that looking good is equal to good intent, that good education equals entitlement, that a just wage isn’t a right that all workers deserve. We have not come as far from the system that once permitted slavery than we like to think.
The Latino population suffers from the consequences of this system in profound ways as well. While the debate about immigration continues in Congress, we hear very little about the role of mass incarceration in immigration enforcement. Figures from the 2012 United States Sentencing Commission report show that 94.6 percent of non-citizens in prison were convicted of immigration violations. Privatized immigration prisons — whose owners lobby governments to maintain a steady stream of inmates — divide families while keeping human beings in a state of legal limbo, out of sight and out of mind. Around the country we continue to harden our hearts about illegal immigration, enacting laws which have provided legal sanction for arresting innocent people whose only crime is trying to escape crippling poverty and violence in Latin American countries. We have stopped asking how the trade policies we promote and profit from are helping to keep those countries in poverty in the first place, or how our war on drugs spills southward with escalating brutality.
After the abolition of slavery, Southern lawmakers devised the Black Codes in order to ensure the continuation of white supremacy, both politically and economically. These laws governed freed slaves in such a way that would maintain them as a pool of cheap labor. This was followed by the creation of vagrancy statutes, laws that were in place in some states up until the 1970s, which allowed police to charge people who were merely suspected of criminal activity. The “Jim Crow” laws enacted between 1876 and 1965 continued to provide economic advantages to Southern whites at the expense of blacks. While the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s finally ended this regime, the widening gap in wealth inequality is doing an even better job of keeping many black Americans in crushing poverty. Today, too, there are more black men in prison than were enslaved at the start of the Civil War. The recent “Stop and Frisk” policy in New York City continues the legacy.
Make no mistake about it; we are all culpable for maintaining this deeply discriminatory society, often unwittingly. But ignorance is no excuse. Catholic social teaching calls us to concern ourselves in a particular way with the poor and disenfranchised. Our faith demands that we push ourselves toward embracing all people in a society where we can all actualize our love for both family and community. Today, that calling faces no greater challenge in our country than mass incarceration.
To live in a poor, largely minority neighborhood in the United States is to be guilty until proven innocent. It is only continual patience, compassion and love that enables good people in these communities to survive watching their youth swallowed up by predatory policing, dismal schools, environmental hazards and incarceration — often for drug-related offenses that would go unpunished in affluent suburbs — while being excluded from society’s greatest benefits. Families struggle with lack of access to proper day care, substandard health care and mental health services, the need to work overtime to meet their basic needs, inadequate housing, and a poor diet, which is all they feel they can afford.
The problem in the United States is not a lack of knowledge or tools to address these problems. We lack, tragically, the willpower to improve the lives of those who are trapped within a broken system. The problem is not that these people don’t work hard; they have to work much harder than more affluent neighbors just to eek out a living in a system stacked against them.
Ending mass incarceration must address the power structure as a whole. This means not only ending the failed war on drugs’ cruel sentencing laws, or reversing the privatization of prisons and inhumane immigration laws; it also means building affordable housing and developing school and community centers, organizing parents and community groups to demand solutions to failing schools, assuring a fair and just wage for all, enabling kids to attend summer camps, providing college-access programs, making computer and technical training available in every community, ensuring for adequate playground space, establishing youth clubs and tutoring programs, providing after-school programs and affordable day care centers. We know these things are necessary, and yet we are not securing them for too many of our children.
On the first day of last year’s “Fortnight for Freedom” called for by the U.S. Catholic bishops to oppose the Obama administration’s health care policies, I and other members of Occupy Catholics gathered on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to have our own open discussion about what we deemed the greatest threats to freedom to be in our city, in light of our faith. At the top of the list, we decided, is the threat that the New York Police Department’s Stop and Frisk policy, which disproportionately impacts racial minorities, poses to the freedom from discrimination that all people should enjoy. Since then our small group has been determined to raise our voices, as Catholics, against the evil of mass incarceration.
Lately, we have found ourselves interfacing with other groups that are trying to take on the challenge of mass incarceration. We have found that although there are thousands of people working in this struggle, we are not yet united. Not long ago, I stood on a corner of 215th Street in the Bronx soap-boxing at a rally against police violence, and the organizers were grateful to have a Catholic standing with them. I wondered why there weren’t more.
As a grandmother, I wondered, where were all the other grandmothers were who have been able to share the extraordinary delights of raising and loving their grandchildren? Where are those who strive to imitate Christ’s compassion for the poor and disenfranchised? Catholics must resist laws which continue to perpetuate this broken system. Our faith means nothing without action.
It is time to stand together, to nonviolently urge our society to change. The statistics about mass incarceration tell the story plainly: Our criminal justice system has lost sight of justice and is being used as a system of social control. Let us mobilize our churches, temples and mosques, as well as working with righteous people of no particular faith, to help cut out this blight from U.S. history for good.