During my sophomore year at Brandeis, I took a class with Professor Mischler called “A Global History of Prisons” that examined the historical link between slavery and mass incarceration we see today. As part of my work with Partners for Justice, I often visit the prisons in Delaware to meet with our clients facing issues with mental health treatment, re-entry services, or case outcomes. As I speak with our clients and observe the prison floors with hundreds of inmates dressed in all white, it is clear that the majority of those in prison are people of color, have mental health issues and/or come from a low socioeconomic background.
It is imperative that we understand and recognize the true nature of our nation’s history of crime and punishment of people of color and low-income people because the parallels today are disturbingly apparent. Through a misguided war on drugs that disproportionately targets people of color, we have increased criminality as a means of oppression and enslaving people of color behind bars. According to Michelle Alexander, more black men are behind bars or under the supervision of the criminal justice system than there were enslaved in 1850. She writes that, “…denying African Americans citizenship was deemed essential to the formation of the original union. Hundreds of years later, America is still not an egalitarian democracy.” Whether through convict labour or mass incarceration, under the guise of crime prevention, we have continued for almost two hundred years to rationalize the bondage of poor black men and women. The evidence is so clear and the damage so deep, yet we have not mustered up the will to acknowledge and change our criminal justice practices. History continues to repeat itself.
When thinking about this history, it is easier to contextualize how mass incarceration plagues this nation today and how organizations like Partners for Justice must respond to these injustices. Principles of due process forbid us from physically shackling prisoners to walls, but solitary confinement and other penal practices allow us to metaphorically shackle prisoners inside their own minds. This devolution reflects America’s shortsighted and reactionary penal policy, as well as a general disregard for the welfare of the people (disproportionately men of color, many of whom suffer from intellectual and psychiatric disabilities) who populate our prisons. This is why organizations like Partners for Justice and the Delaware Public Defenders advocate for systemic change in the criminal justice system.
As I think about my internship, I try to consider the historical influences which has made today’s legal system so oppressive. Following the end of chattel slavery, Southern states looked towards incarceration as a mechanism of bondage and suppression. In order to incarcerate large numbers of newly freed black people, Southern states had to increase criminality through the use of black codes. As part of these black codes, vagrancy laws were enacted to increase criminality among black populations. Of course, these laws that increased criminality were justified as a war on crime. Vagrancy laws and convict labour were not only economically beneficial, but an extension of the bondage aimed at preventing any rise in black political power. As Michelle Alexander notes in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, convict labour and vagrancy laws were used to “…protect their economic, political, and social interests in a world without slavery.” We see a similar system of oppression and exploitation in our criminal legal system today. It is up to groups like Partners for Justice and Public Defender Offices across the country to fight for an end to increased criminality and unjust punishment.