Mass Incarceration and Rape: The Savaging of Black America, The Black Commentator, June 17, 2004.
Mass incarceration is by far the greatest crisis facing
Black America, ultimately eclipsing all others. It is an overarching
reality that colors and distorts every aspect of African American political,
economic and cultural life, smothering the human - and humane - aspirations
of the community. Even the boundless creativity of youth cannot escape
the chains that stretch from the Gulag into virtually every Black social
space. We hear prison, talk prison, wear prison and - to a horrific
degree - have become inured to the all-enveloping presence of prison
in virtually every Black neighborhood and extended family.
After more than three decades of mass Black incarceration as national
policy, Black America teeters at the edge of an abyss, unable to muster
more than a small fraction of its collective energies to advance its
agenda in housing, employment and education. The community has been
poisoned by massive, ever increasing infusions of the prison experience
- a debasement that now permeates much of the fabric of Black life.
Yet mass Black incarceration is not a political priority for much of
what passes for Black leadership. A deep and historical current in Black
America feels far more shame than anger at the ever lengthening line
of march through the prison gates. For others, the incremental blending
of community and prison through the constant human traffic between the
two, seems like a natural state of affairs. BC Associate Editor Bruce
A. Dixon writes:
"Much as black Americans of two and three generations
ago adjusted to pervasive segregation as a 'normal' condition of life,
many in our communities have learned to treat the phenomenon of mass
incarceration like we do the weather. It's hot in the summer, cold in
the winter, and a third of the black males between 18 and 30 are in
jails and prisons, on parole or probation. It's life. Get over it."
When Black anger does erupt, it is too often directed only at those
who are already paying for having been caught up in the induction mechanisms
of the Prison Nation. Although it is true that few inmates are "political
prisoners" in the narrow sense of the term, America's rise as the world's
prison superpower was certainly the result of calculated political decision-making.
"Mass incarceration was the national response to the Civil Rights and
Black Power Movements, a white societal reaction to Black intrusions
onto white 'space,'" wrote BC March 18. "White society clearly approves
of the results: massively disproportionate Black and Latino incarceration."
Since 1971, U.S. prisons and jails have grown ten-fold - from less then
200,000 inmates to 2.1 million - while whites have dwindled to only
30 percent of the prison population. With only five percent of the world's
people, the U.S. accounts for 25 percent of the planet's prisoners -
fully half of them Black. One out of eight prisoners on Earth is African
American. That's race politics with a vengeance.
The U.S. broke with historical patterns of incarceration - a little
over 100 prisoners per 100,000 population - in the mid-Seventies. Then,
with roughly equal fervor, Presidents Reagan, Bush, Sr. and Clinton
and each of the states methodically assembled the world's largest Gulag.
As the Justice Policy Institute reported in 2001, the Black prison population
"From 1980 to 1992, the African American incarceration rate
increased by an average of 138.4 per 100,000 per year. Still, despite
a more than doubling of the African American incarceration rate in the
12 years prior to President Clinton's term in office, the African American
incarceration rate continued to increase by an average rate of 100.4
per 100,000 per year. In total, between 1980 and 1999, the incarceration
rate for African Americans more than tripled from 1156 per 100,000 to
3,620 per 100,000."
The Institute notes that, "In 1986 and 1988, two
federal sentencing laws were enacted that made the punishment for distributing
crack cocaine 100 times greater than the punishment for powder cocaine."
No, Black crack dealers and users are not "political prisoners" - but
they are imprisoned for long stretches and in huge numbers for what
are clearly political reasons.
Unless there exists a Black "prison gene,"
politics is the reason that 12 percent of African-American men ages
20 to 34 are in jail or prison. The evidence is irrefutable: mass incarceration
of African Americans is national policy.
Last month the U.S. Justice Department announced that the U.S. incarceration rate had risen to 715
per 100,000 - up from 703 the previous year, and seven-times the levels
that existed before mass incarceration of Blacks became national policy.
Crime rates remain historically low - a disconnect that Attorney General
John Ashcroft rationalized, this way: "It is no accident that violent
crime is at a 30-year low while prison population is up. Violent and
recidivist criminals are getting tough sentences while law-abiding Americans
are enjoying unprecedented safety."
Thus, the engines of mass Black
incarceration keep turning, faster and faster every year, whether crime
is up or down. The only constant: more Blacks in prison.
National policies are far more powerful than conspiracies, which tend
to die with the men who hatch them. The U.S. policy to imprison ever
higher proportions of the Black population, is open-ended - there appears
to be no limit. Yet, as the incarceration machinery grinds away at Black
society, internal voices full of hatred for other Black people join
the racists in turning reality on its head, blaming African American
"culture" for the relentless warehousing of Black men, women and juveniles.
Clearly, the reverse is true: prison has worked its corrosive effects
on Black culture.
African American culture has been profoundly victimized
by three decades of mass incarceration. This is largely the fault of
those Blacks who failed (or refused) for all these years to mount sufficient
political resistance to the prison body-snatchers. It is both cruel
and redundant to heap more scorn on people who are, quite literally,
besieged by a hostile state.
By the mid-Eighties, only a (culturally)
blind person could have failed to see that the prison experience had
reached critical mass among Black youth in America's big cities. The
ill-fitting pants without belts, the unlaced or lace-less footgear -
that was the culturally shared prison experience, manifesting. The hip
hop "sensibility" cannot be separated from the pervasiveness of prison
- its presence in ghetto life. It is the now-inescapable influence -
the logical cultural product of objective facts.
Many of the same Black
opinion-molders who ignored (or even encouraged) the state's criminalization
of entire neighborhoods, in favor of celebrating the escape of people
like themselves from these neighborhoods, now express shock at the crudity,
violence and raw aggression of some hip hop performers' on- and off-stage
behavior. Lyrical misogyny is blamed on failures of "parenting" and
other deviations from traditional Black culture. Preaching and moralizing
is prescribed, rather than a race-wide mobilization against a state
policy of mass Black incarceration, the primary vector of Black street
There is much more horror in the prison pipeline, which empties
directly into the reservoir of Black life. Self-righteous howls of indignation
at the warping of Black culture are irrelevant to the millions of African
Americans who have been made witness, victim or perpetrator of rape
- a near-universal experience in the Black American Gulag. In such a
world, everything and everyone is a "bitch."
Prison rape pervasive
At least 90% of assaults are not even reported
to staff. The units with the younger offenders seem to carry by far
the higher rates of sexual assaults. - Texas inmate R.B. to Human Rights
I have seen or heard
of rapes on a weekly basis at the least. Mostly it is a daily occurrence.
Rapes are a very common occurrence due to the fact of coercion being
"played" on ignorant first timers. Once someone is violated sexually
and there is no consequences on the perpetrators, that person who was
violated then becomes a mark or marked. That means he's fair game. -
Indiana inmate M.B.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of young Black
men and boys (and record numbers of women and girls) are immersed in
the most intensely coercive environment imaginable. Older inmates and
ex-prisoners uniformly report that prison rape has become exponentially
more prevalent, with gangs dominating the closed world behind the bars.
Human Rights Watch activist and lawyer Joanne Mariner, writing in FindLaw,
reported extraordinary levels of sexual assault.
"In December 2000, the Prison Journal published a study of inmates in
seven men's prison facilities in four states. It found that 21 percent
of the inmates had experienced at least one episode of pressured or
forced sexual contact since being incarcerated, and nearly one out of
ten had been raped.
"An earlier study of the Nebraska prison system produced similar findings,
with 22 percent of male inmates reporting that they had been pressured
or forced to have sexual contact against their will while incarcerated.
Of these, over 50 percent had submitted to forced anal sex at least
Mariner spent three years soliciting over a thousand letters
about rape from prison inmates, which she compiled in a book, No Escape:
Male Rape in U.S. Prisons. Human Rights Watch and Stop Prison Rape found
allies in strange places - among white Southern Baptists, born again
Watergate convict Charles Colson, and the rightwing Hudson Institute.
In the end, a coalition of 32 groups, ranging from the NAACP to the
National Council of La Raza and the National Association of Evangelicals,
won congressional passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, signed
into law by President Bush last September.
Pat Nolan, Vice President
of former Nixon aide Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship, wrote:
too long prison rape has been accepted as a normal part of prison life,
subjecting inmates, many of them nonviolent offenders, to brutal and
repeated rapes that not only scar them physically and emotionally for
life but in many cases expose them to AIDS, with a resulting death sentence.
No crime, no matter how terrible, carries a sentence of rape."
provides $40 million in grants for rape prevention - the bulk of which
are likely to be awarded to religious groups associated with the bill's
conservative supporters - authorizes a Department of Justice panel to
subpoena officials at prisons with high sexual assault rates, and creates
an independent, nine-person commission on prison rape. The Department
of Justice in March released a report on its preliminary discussions
for implementing the legislation.
For all its good intentions, however,
the bill is ill-equipped to deal with the prison rape horror.
congressional conservatives who embraced the Prison Rape Elimination
Act in 2003, were also responsible for passage in the Nineties of legislation
that effectively denied prison inmates access to the federal courts.
"They can be abused, tortured, raped without effective recourse to law,"
said Anthony Lewis, in an April, 2001 column:
"One statute bars poverty
lawyers who get federal funds from representing prisoners. Another sets
the fees so low for private lawyers who sue successfully that few can
afford to take on prison cases.
"Harshest of all is the Prison Litigation
Reform Act of 1996, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President
Clinton. Among other things it requires prisoners to exhaust a prison's
'administrative remedies' for mistreatment before they can sue. They
may have as little as five days to do that; they may not know how, and
they may face retaliation if they complain. If they fail that barrier,
they have waived their rights."
Without basic constitutional rights,
inmates remain at the mercy of the prison bureaucracy - the very men
who oversee and orchestrate the barbarity.
Lords of discipline
wanted to humiliate us. It was disgusting. They covered our heads with
plastic bags and hit our backs with sharp objects, which added to our
wounds. They then took off all our clothes, made us stand next to the
wall and carried out immoral acts that I cannot even talk about. Women
soldiers took pictures of naked men and did not care. - Iraqi former
prisoner Hashim Muhsin, speaking to Al Jazeera
Charles was just filled
with the glee of opportunity to go over there, because he said as we're
walking down the corridor, "I can't wait to go kill some sand niggers."
That smile he showed, he showed best when he was getting some prisoner
to lose it, to snap, to lose his mind and scream at Charles. He loved
it. - Former death row inmate Nicholas Yarris, recalling to CNN his
memories of prison guard Charles Graner, later charged with abusing
prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
Texas prison inmates continue to live in fear.
More vulnerable inmates are raped, beaten, owned, and sold by more powerful
ones. Despite their pleas to prison officials, they are often refused
protection. Instead, they pay for protection, in money, services, or
sex. - Texas Judge William Wayne Justice, after hearing lengthy expert
and inmate testimony on prison conditions.
The Black clergy did not
take the lead in championing the Prison Rape Elimination Act. And it
was factors wholly external to the African American community - the
Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal - that indirectly brought media attention
to the savagery of U.S. prisons, where the Iraq malefactors learned
their psycho-sexual torture skills.
In a May 8 New York Times article,
Fox Butterfield drew a direct line between Abu Ghraib and the American
"In Pennsylvania and some other states, inmates are routinely
stripped in front of other inmates before being moved to a new prison
or a new unit within their prison. In Arizona, male inmates at the Maricopa
County jail in Phoenix are made to wear women's pink underwear as a
form of humiliation.
"At Virginia's Wallens Ridge maximum security prison,
new inmates have reported being forced to wear black hoods, in theory
to keep them from spitting on guards, and said they were often beaten
and cursed at by guards and made to crawl."
Fellow Timesman Bob Herbert,
in a May 31 column, described a 1996 Georgia Department of Corrections
raid on inmates' living quarters at Dooly State Prison:
cell doors and ordered the inmates, all males, to run outside and strip.
With female prison staff members looking on, and at times laughing,
several inmates were subjected to extensive and wholly unnecessary body
cavity searches. The inmates were ordered to lift their genitals, to
squat, to bend over and display themselves, etc.
"One inmate who was
suspected of being gay was told that if he ever said anything about
the way he was being treated, he would be locked up and beaten until
he wouldn't 'want to be gay anymore.' An officer who was staring at
another naked inmate said, 'I bet you can tap dance.' The inmate was
forced to dance, and then had his body cavities searched. An inmate
in a dormitory identified as J-2 was slapped in the face and ordered
to bend over and show himself to his cellmate. The raiding party apparently
found that to be hilarious."
Scenes of Iraqi torture miraculously gave
media credibility to long-ignored pleas for justice in the U.S. prison
system. The Newark Star Ledger gave space to a letter from Bonnie Kerness,
of the Quakers' Prison Watch Project:
"The children in juvenile detention
facilities talk about being physically and sexually abused. They tell
us that children as young as 12 are placed in isolation, with one youngster
noting that 'the guards call you names. If they don't physically abuse
you, they mentally abuse you. One guard was calling me names and I didn't
even know what they meant.' Another said, 'two guards in intake told
me to strip naked and then they watched me.' Another talked about being
14 years old when he was placed in the hole where it was freezing and
"We hear from women in prisons testifying about being forced
to engage in sexual acts or as one woman put it, 'this was not part
of my sentence to engage in oral sex.' Another woman wrote that 'the
guards sprayed me with pepper spray because I wouldn't take my clothes
off in front of five male guards.' The women report racism, being beaten
and "being gynecologically examined every time I'm searched.'
from men who have been sprayed with pepper spray and then put out into
the sun so the chemical agent continues to re-activate. One letter from
a social worker to us said, 'John was directed to leave the strip cell
and a urine soaked pillow case was placed over his head. He was walked,
shackled and hooded to a different cell where he was placed in a device
called 'the chair,' where he was kept for over 30 hours resulting in
extreme physical and emotional suffering.' I am currently working with
a number of people who have been held in sensory deprivation cells in
American prisons for over 20 years!"
The plight of Iraqis, who will
one day soon be rid of their racist, exually twisted American guards,
inadvertently invigorated discussion of American prison practices. It
took an international spotlight on Iraq to shed temporary light on an
American story that is older than the nation, itself - as old as slavery.
Prison teaches "assertiveness"
As Philip Weiss wrote in the June 17
issue of the New York Observer, prison rape is "deeply ingrained in
the culture, and we're all inured to it. There's contempt for prisoners,
and it's also a hugely uncomfortable topic for men to think about."
More accurately, white society considers Black prisoners to be animals
beyond the reach of civilization. In the popular imagination, prison
rape is what happens to white boys unfortunate enough to wind up behind
bars despite the odds. In reality, since rape is a tool of coercion,
every prisoner is vulnerable - and every inmate is deeply harmed by
his/her experience in such an environment.
The American prison system
is a vast enterprise in social engineering - it turns out damaged people.
Arizona prison warden Bill Gaspar is truly a mad social scientist. The
threat of rape has a salutary effect, in his mind:
"All inmates face
a challenge when they come to prison. They're coming to an environment
where they have to learn how to carry themselves so that they don't
present as victims or in some way call attention to themselves."
The warden thinks prison teaches inmates to "assert themselves."
politicians share the same worldview as the troglodytes, regarding prison
rape. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer wants to punish Enron's
Ken Lay for bilking the state of billions in electricity overcharges.
"I would love to personally escort Lay to an 8-by-10 cell that he could
share with a tattooed dude who says, 'Hi, my name is Spike, honey.'"
The state's top law enforcement officer approves of nonjudicial punishment
The words "cruel and unusual" do not exist for Supreme Court
Justice Clarence Thomas. Human Rights Watch prisons activist Joanne
"Justice Thomas apparently believes that rape in prison
is inevitable. In his dissent [to a 1994 decision], he stated that "[p]risons
are necessarily dangerous places; they house society's most antisocial
and violent people in close proximity with one another. Regrettably,
some level of brutality and sexual aggression among [prisoners] is inevitable
no matter what the guards do.unless all prisoners are locked in their
cells 24 hours a day and sedated."
Consumed by prison
Youth are not
at fault for the social disarray in Black America. Young people in all
cultures cope with society as it is presented to them. Black youth -
male and female - face a state that is eager to consume them in its
criminalizing, mass Black incarceration machinery. The only meaningful
choice available is to organize as never before to dismantle the savage
machine, so that another generation will not be irrevocably damaged.
Young people by the millions would join in such a mobilization - to
It has been projected that, by 2010, the number of
Americans with experience in prison will rise to 7.7 million, up from
5.6 million in 2003. About 4 million of them will be African American
- unless we stop the clock through concerted political action.