As prison populations grow, activists charge racism

( – In its annual report, which was issued April 25, the United States Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics said that nationally, 61 percent of prison and jail inmates were of “racial or ethnic minorities.” The study noted that 1,000 new individuals are incarcerated each week, although the nation’s crime rate continues to fall. According to the Justice Department, violent crime in the U.S. fell by over 33 percent from 1994 to 2003, and property crime fell by 23 percent.

The official study found the nation’s prison and jail population at 2,131,180 in 2004, an increase of 2.3 percent over 2003. The report said women remain the fastest growing segment of the prison population, with over 103,000, a 2.9 percent increase in 2004. The U.S. in 1980 incarcerated 12,000 women. There was also an increase registered in the federal penal system, where the number of admissions in 2004 exceeded releases by more than 8,000 prisoners.


“Unless alternatives to prison become a priority, the U.S. will continue to lead the world in imprisonment,” argues Malcolm Young of the Washington-based Sentencing Project. Mr. Young blames laws–which go back as much as 30 years old–that call for punishment and prison as the primary response to crime. “The prison population continues to grow because of these ‘get tough on crime policies’ that have subjected hundreds of thousands of non-violent drug and property offenders to long mandatory sentences,” he said.

In New York, the Real Reform New York Coalition held their Mother’s Day press conference on the steps of City Hall on May 6, urging state legislators in Albany to enact “real” Rockefeller Drug Law reform. Although New York Governor George Pataki announced in December 2004 that there would be changes in the 30-year-old laws, activists at the press conference charged that the new reforms were watered down and had very little impact on the majority of people behind bars in the state’s prisons.

Observers claim that the current changes affect only 400 prisoners, leaving more than 16,000 behind bars. “The majority of people behind bars because of the Rockefeller Drug Laws are still there, separated from their families,” said Michael Blair, director of public policy for the Drug Policy Alliance. Analysts claim that 93 percent of those behind bars in New York State because of drug-related, non-violent offenses are Black and Latino.

Law and order?

These grave statistics are reflected nationally. One of the most alarming figures in the new Justice Department study pertains to the number of Black males in their late twenties, which stands at 12.6 percent. The percentage for Latino males behind bars is 3.6 percent and 1.7 percent for White males in the same age group.

Observers say that the U.S. incarcerates seven to 10 times as many prisoners as most democracies. According to the Justice Department, the incarceration rate is 726 per 100,000 people in the population. The prison population rate in England is 142 per 100,000; France 91 and Japan 58 per 100,000.

Malik Russell, a spokesman for the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute, a think-tank that studies prison issues, argues that racism fuels the spike in the nation’s prison population totals.

“I am frustrated by the numbers,” said Mr. Russell, adding that in a city such as Baltimore, Md., one out of every five Black males is incarcerated. Analysts report that 90 percent of all persons in prison in Maryland for drug offenses are Black.

“How can society dismiss racism and the issue of White supremacy from this issue?” he asked. This is a crisis-type situation, he added. “Society cannot sit by and say that this is acceptable,” Mr. Russell said.

“The U.S. incarcerates Blacks at a higher rate than the former South African apartheid regimes,” offered Eric Sterling of the Washington-based Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. Nationwide, Blacks are imprisoned for drug offenses at more than eight times the rate for Whites, Mr. Sterling added.

Mr. Sterling argues that it is almost impossible to separate former president Richard Nixon’s call for “law and order” in 1968 from the conservative pitch to continue “White privilege” as the era of racial segregation was coming to an end.

“Racial segregation was outlawed by the end of the 1960s, and the ‘war on drugs’ became the legal tool that maintained White privilege,” Mr. Sterling stressed. “For drug offenses, Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately stopped, searched, arrested, tried, convicted, imprisoned and penalized.”

Posters for bad policy

Karen Garrison, a Washington, D.C. mother of twins Lamont and Lawrence (now 32 years old), agreed with those who say that racism is the root cause for so many Black males going to prison for non-violent drug charges.

“My boys graduated from Howard University, and within months of their graduation in 1998, they were facing drug-related charges, and neither of them had been in trouble with the law prior to that,” she recalled.

Since the boys were both working to pay off their student loans, the family could not afford high-profile attorneys. So, they used the court-appointed lawyers.

“To add to the problem, they changed the venue to Virginia, where Blacks have very little power,” Ms. Garrison further charged.

According to the Washington-based organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), Lawrence received 15 years and his brother Lamont 19 years for possession and distribution of cocaine powder and crack cocaine. The FAMM website,, states that there were no drugs, drug paraphernalia, or other evidence of drugs found on the Garrison twins or in their home.

“There was never any record of them selling drugs,” according to Monica Pratt, a spokesperson for FAMM. “The Garrison twins are poster candidates for all that is wrong with America’s war on drugs.”

“We cannot escape the issue of racism. All you have to do is study the statistics in New Jersey,” maintains Gale Muhammad, community outreach coordinator for FAMM in New Jersey. Blacks and Latinos constitute 27 percent of New Jersey’s population and 81 percent of the state’s prison population. “Black males are 66 percent of the 81 percent,” she pointed out.

Related news:

Invisible punishments, rights and wrongs (FCN, 12-15-2005)

Justice Dept. reports alarming incarceration rates: Blacks tripled, Latinos grew tenfold 1974-2001 (FCN, 09-03-2003)