Are We Beginning to Chip Away at Mass Incarceration? An Example from New York State

Last week, our class discussed mass incarceration, the system by which a vastly disproportionate amount of people of color are imprisoned for the use or distribution of illegal drugs. The situation is quite bleak; the system has been escalating for the past few decades and has wreaked havoc among communities of lower class people of color.

Nevertheless, there may in fact be a ray of light at the end of the tunnel. Throughout the country, some states are decriminalizing, and two are even legalizing, marijuana. Somewhat differently, in my home state, New York, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced a plan to provide college classes to inmates in New York prisons. The idea is that the education these inmates receive will help them get jobs when they leave prison, reducing the likelihood that they will return. One aspect of the mass incarceration system involves the frequent rate of return to prison, which results from the difficulty of getting a job while having a criminal record, as well as from the general lack of education among prisoners. It seems as though this proposal may address one part of the mass incarceration system.

When I was thinking about this proposal, I first wondered about the justification for this policy. Cuomo’s statement begins by discussing the economic benefits of providing college classes to inmates. He argues that it will save the state money in the long term; providing education is cheaper than paying for incarceration for returning inmates. Later on in the statement, Cuomo’s press release mentions race, saying, “Since the majority of inmates in New York are minorities, this is an issue that disproportionately affects unemployment in minority communities.” While I was pleased to see a mention of the impact mass incarceration has on people of color, I was also concerned to see a lack of context. One could easily read this statement and think that people of color commit more crimes, and that is why they are incarcerated more. In reality, people of color use drugs at the same rates as white people, yet their communities are targeted by the police and the criminal justice system at large.

The press release does include a quote from Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell saying the prison system has a “discriminatory and disproportionate impact…on minority communities.” This is getting closer to the root causes and effects of mass incarceration, but I’m still concerned that it gets lost in the larger statement. The entire press release has one word, “discriminatory,” to describe how the criminal justice system targets people of color. I’m not convinced that this kind of attention is sufficient to give to such an important issue.

In the end, it appears that there may be some signs of hope, however small, in addressing this large system of mass incarceration. Still, I am concerned that challenging the racial mass incarceration system, which has been called the “New Jim Crow” by some, with an emphasis on fiscal responsibility instead of race is problematic. This kind of approach can reinforce the stereotype that people of color use more drugs and commit more crimes. It also maintains the color-blind racial ideology that permeates America; it will allow the nation to think of itself as post-racial, despite the many ways race plays a role in American life beyond mass incarceration. Still, perhaps it is good to slowly break down this system no matter what, since it has done so much harm to so many Americans. What do you think?

That is where I was going to end my blog post. The last few days, I was thinking about Cuomo’s proposal and mass incarceration and was pretty excited about it, even if it could potentially be problematic. I was searching for a press release from his website when I stumbled upon an article in the New York Times saying the proposal had been dropped. Why? The proposal generated heated criticism. The opposition especially came from the heavily-Republican upstate New York, which Cuomo is trying to appeal to for his re-election bid later this year. In addition, the State Senate, controlled by Republicans and breakaway Democrats, included a provision in their budget banning such funding of education in prisons. Seeing this opposition, Cuomo withdrew his proposal.

This does not mean all hope is lost. The growing trend for decriminalization and legalization of marijuana potentially provides a promising outlook for the future. What this defeat does signal, however, is the incredible difficulty of dismantling the system of mass incarceration. In this example, a powerful governor sought to address one aspect of the prison system. He didn’t even cause New Yorkers to fully grapple with the racial problems of the prison system; he mainly used fiscal arguments and merely made a reference to racially disparate outcomes. Still, there was political opposition. It appears that many people are more concerned with punishing “bad” people for “bad” behavior than with addressing social injustices. Consequently, politicians are more concerned with being “tough on crime.” Perhaps more dangerously, many people are not willing to spend money on a population that is largely made up of people of color, unless that money is meant to punish and isolate them from the rest of society.

At the same time, the article notes that 53 percent of New Yorkers actually supported the plan. Perhaps the opposition is just louder. Perhaps the opposition is aligned with strong institutional powers. It’s hard to tell.

So after I’ve added to what I was originally going to write, I’ll ask again – what do you think? Could we be beginning to see an unraveling of the mass incarceration system? Is it a problem if this unraveling is justified by reasons (like cost of incarceration) other than race? Why might people object strongly to a proposal for education for inmates? What does it mean for mass incarceration and for lower-class people of color that proposals that could help them can’t be passed because of political concerns? And, probably the hardest question, do you see hope?

3 thoughts on “Are We Beginning to Chip Away at Mass Incarceration? An Example from New York State

  1. So I decided to pull-up some statistics, I was going to look at incarceration for drug crimes in Pennsylvania and make a point about marijuana use at Muhlenberg, but something more horrifying and insidious came up. I found a page provided by the PA DOC on statistics but the page is titled “corrections statistics”. I think its absurd that we are still claiming the prison system as “correcting.” I guess we are correcting Black Americans being free in the United States by locking them up?

    Anyway, my larger point was going to be the class and race privilege Muhlenberg students are afforded if they choose to smoke marijuana on this campus. If campus safety really wanted to be tough on drugs here, they could be – it is often done out in the open in public outdoor spaces on campus. I often wonder if Muhlenberg students are being given the benefit of the doubt because of class and race in regards to smoking. I wonder how many Allentown residents of color are arrested for the same exact thing that Muhlenberg students are basically free to do.

  2. Hi Chris, I thought this was a really great post that really left me thinking. I liked how you addressed the was on crime, and mentioned the quote, “Since the majority of inmates in New York are minorities, this is an issue that disproportionately affects unemployment in minority communities.” I agree with your comment, that it is good that minority groups were mentioned, but this could have easily been taken the wrong way. This could lead people to believe that people of color commit more crimes, and that is why they are incarcerated more. But when you think about it, white people do just as many drugs, but they may not be trading and dealing on the street as much. In terms of crack cocaine, or powder cocaine, crack cocaine is often sold more on the streets because it is cheaper, and those people are getting busted for selling a weaker version of a drug. It is the white upper class business men that do powder cocaine, and we never hear about them getting busted.

    I do think this is a step in the right direction, but it is really a shame that the proposal had been dropped. I feel like Governor Andrew Cuomo had the right idea, but when he only had 53% following his plan, he had to drop it for campaign reasons. I feel like it always comes back to what will get you elected, and i wish more people saw the benefit of these plans instead of focusing on the association of blacks with crime. Most of the black or minority groups in prison were persecuted or given a harsher sentence because of there race. And I wish people could see that.

  3. This is a really interesting follow up to our conversation in class. I was upset to see that proposal had been dropped. I think you raise an interesting point, saying that 53% of New Yorkers actually supported the plan, then why was it so quickly dropped without even putting up a fight? I think it shows the fear of getting involved with the mass incarceration system. It is a complicated topic filled with many controversial issues. A major flaw of the system is the disproportionate amount of black people who are incarcerated compared to white people. It is known that this system can’t be broken without the conversation of race being brought up. Maybe this is partially why a small amount of backlash could make the proposal drop so quickly. People can blame the complexity of the system and the need for “bad” people to be kept away, but this just seems like a giant coverup for talking about race.

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