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?