Black Americans will eventually look back on the 20th and early 21st centuries with a kind of uncomprehending horror and ask ourselves how, after centuries of slavery, we subsequently submitted to over a century of increasing incarceration that was just as bad as slavery?
In the last two-and-a-half decades, the prison population has undergone what the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics director Jan Chaiken last year called "literally incredible" expansion. Chaiken reported a quadrupling of the U.S. incarceration rate since 1975.
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On any given day, Chaiken reported, 30 percent of African-American males ages 20 to 29 are "under correctional supervision" ‹either in jail or prison or on probation or parole.
Especially chilling is a statistical model used by the Bureau of Justice Statistics to determine the lifetime chances of incarceration for individuals in different racial and ethnic groups. Based on current rates, it predicts that a young Black man age 16 in 1996 faces a 29 percent chance of spending time in prison during his life. The corresponding statistic for white men in the same age group is 4 percent. According to Thomas K. Lowenstein, director of the Electronic Policy Network, 7 percent of Black children- nearly 9 times more than white children- have an incarcerated parent.
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Researchers and advocates tracking the impact of mass incarceration find a number of devastating consequences in high-poverty Black communities. The most well known form of this so-called "collateral damage in the war on drugs" is the widespread political disenfranchisement of felons and ex-felons. Ten states deny voting rights for life to ex-felons. According to the Sentencing Project, 46 states prohibit inmates from voting while serving a felony sentence, 32 states deny the vote to felons on parole, and 29 states disenfranchise felony probationers. Thanks to these rules, 13 percent of all Black men in the U.S. have lost their electoral rights- "a bitter aftermath," notes British sociologist David Ladipo, "to the expansion of voting rights secured, at such cost, by the freedom marches of the fifties and sixties."
To ensure that whites' consciences will be free of guilt and that Blacks will submit in the belief that we deserve our fate, we are told that Blacks are inherently criminal, just as we were once assured that Black slaves were inherently Godless, animal, inhuman and inferior.
As an American nation, we endlessly ponder the "reasons" (rationalizations and excuses) for Black mass incarceration, without ever simply declaring that it is wrong and cannot be allowed to continue another day, which is the position that the most courageous abolitionists declared and tirelessly argued and insisted upon with respect to the enslavement of themselves and others in their time.