b&b51 From Slavery to Prisons: A History | The PIC Series, Part 2
Last week, Dyalekt summed up the prison industrial complex in one word: Slavery. 2.3 million Americans are in prison today and 60% of them are people of color.
This week, we have special guest Stephanie Damon-Moore, a law student at NYU who has dedicated her studies to abolishing the prison system, join us on the show to tell us exactly how close the ties to slavery really are. We go through the damaging stereotypes that were never addressed when slavery was abolished, the wins and losses in the Civil Rights Movements, and where we are today.
Catch her on the regular at abolishprisons.org.
Stephanie: The US has something like 13 times the national average per capita of people in prison. The way that we do prisons is unlike the way that anybody else does prisons.
Stephanie: One of the choices that we made in the US was to keep people in slavery and keep future generations in slavery for ever, right? There was no aging out of slavery, there was no idea that, “Well, at least your children will be born free.” That’s actually not how most communities, most cultures, did slavery. Slavery in most places was indentured servitude, or at the very least your children were not going to be born into slavery.
Stephanie: Back in the day, in the south especially, prisoners could be leased out in groups to plantations or to businesses, and this is actually worse, in many ways, than slavery. Because, during slavery, slave owners had an incentive, an economic incentive, to keep slaves healthy. During the convict leasing system, they had no such incentive. They basically got groups of 20 or 30 people, and if somebody died they just got another one. Nothing would happen to them. …and you have all the Jim Crow laws, so these are not people, for the most part, who have committed serious crimes. For the most part, Black people who committed serious crimes were killed for them. So these are, generally speaking, people who were charged with loitering, or trespassing, or maybe petty theft or something like that, and they’re literally getting worked to death. And this happened all the time.
Stephanie: The whole concept of “tough on crime” was born out of the Civil Rights movement, and the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement. During the Civil Rights movement, a lot of southern politicians and a lot of southern leadership, White southern leadership, pushed this idea of civil rights activists being out of line with law and order. Or being criminals, breaking the law.
Stephanie: There had been a couple of very high-profile studies coming out about how rehabilitation in prisons was not effective, was not a thing. So there was a general policy in the 50s and 60s that prison was there to get people better, so to speak, and get them out. And there are a lot of countries around the world that view prison that way. But we had a few prominent social scientists coming out and saying, “Nah, this doesn’t work. There’s no sign that this is effective.” Now, regardless of how true that is or is not, there are two ways that you could respond and there are two ways that people did respond. One was to say we should just not have prisons. Right? ‘Cause if they’re not working, then lets find something that does. Lets get people in drug treatment programs, or lets get people welfare so they’re economically stable, or lets find jobs for people so that they have something to occupy their time with. …The other way that you could respond is to say that, well, okay, if they’re not getting rehabilitated they’re career criminals. They’re bad people. Warehouse them. Pam: Warehouse them. Warehouse people.
Stephanie: Tough on crime…doesn’t mean tough on criminals.
Stephanie: For politicians, having new crimes and having harsher punishments is a free way to get political power. So, if some atrocious thing happens and they’re a public outcry about this. A child gets abducted. A 13 year old girl gets raped. Something really tragic. There are complicated, messy, difficult, expensive ways to respond, or you can just name a law after them. You can increase the sentence for it. “We’re gonna get serious about this.”
Stephanie: When your emphasis is all on why non-violent offenders shouldn’t be in prison or why non-violent offenders should get their voting rights back or what have you, you really are emphasizing the idea of a dangerous class. A group of people who shouldn’t get these rights. Who shouldn’t be released. And you’re further entrenching the idea that there is a group of people for whom the system is right.
Stephanie: We don’t have a prison system. We have a system of mass incarceration.
Stephanie: We also impose far longer sentences than any of the countries we would call our peers, and sentencing is, I think, the single biggest numerical reason why we have such a big prison population today.
Stephanie: We more than doubled the sentence we give for murder between 1965 and 1975.
Stephanie: In 1972, we had a prison population of around 300,000 people, and today it’s about 2,300,000.
Stephanie: There’s no conclusive belief that [the incarceration rate] has had a significant impact on reducing crime, and I think, if you look at the long-term impact of prisons, you would probably see the opposite.
Stephanie: Other countries have done that. With the same crime rate, they’ve decided to incarcerate fewer people, and they’ve seen the crime rate go down. And in the states, in New Jersey and New York and California, the prison populations have been slashes 25-30% in the last five years, and the crime rates in all of those states have gone down.